Newsletters from the Athenian Way

After reading Technopoly last month, I went looking for more Neil Postman material. I got Amusing Ourselves to Death from the library — and then sent it back unread, because I just wasn’t going to get to it (another time, I hope). But there are some articles of his available online and I was very much struck by a short piece entitled “My Graduation Speech”. Here is its introduction:

Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches, I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. One reason, of course, is that the speakers are chosen for their eminence in some field, and not because they are either competent speakers or gifted writers. Another reason is that the audience is eager to be done with all ceremony so that it can proceed to some serious reveling. Thus any speech longer than, say, fifteen minutes will seem tedious, if not entirely pointless. There are other reasons as well, including the difficulty of saying something inspirational without being banal. Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.

If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.

Now, I don’t expect to be speaking at any convocations anytime soon! But I commend the speech to you. Go read it — it’s only 85 sentences and will not take long. Postman’s argument is that there are, essentially, two types of people in the world: Athenians and Visigoths — or rather, spiritual heirs of either the one or the other. He gets a little more specific in his examples, but a broad way of understanding it is that, in interacting with culture, people who are functioning in the Athenian spirit build up, while those who function in the Visigoth (Visigothian?) spirit tear down.

This is something that I’ve been slowly thinking over in the past few weeks. Are there spaces in my life where I’m functioning more as a Visigoth than an Athenian? Am I feeding my Athenian side with what I do, what I read, what I look at, what I think about? How am I directing my children’s steps towards one or the other?

And of course, because I’ve also been thinking a lot this year about technology, social media, etc., I’ve been pondering the way that those things interact with the Athenian and Visigoth ways. I don’t know whether social media makes people more likely to turn Visigoth, or if it just makes more visible what was there all along, but I don’t think many people need convincing that an awful lot of public-internet-spaces are being quite overrun by Visigoths. But being overrun is not the same as wholly conquered; there are many pockets of the internet where the Athenian spirit burns bright. I’ve been seeking some of them out, lately, and what I’ve found is… newsletters. Seriously.

I mean, blogging is dead, right? Everyone knows blogging is dead (she wrote on her blog). But newsletters — something’s happening with newsletters. Newsletters interest me. I’ve been signing up for newsletters with abandon; I don’t even know who most of these people are, but they got linked to in other newsletters that I already read. It’s some sort of newsletter causal chain, and I am following to see where it goes. (This is the part of the post where I drop a lot of links.)

In no particular order, some newsletters for your consideration:

  1. Snakes and Ladders by Alan Jacobs: for me, this is where it all began. Alan Jacobs is one of my favourite living writers/thinkers right now, and his was the first newsletter I subscribed to. Just look what that started.
  2. Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek. Just what it says on the box: notes and interesting bits and bobs about running a small publishing business.
  3. Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis. Ellis writes comic books and novels and things, and this engaging weekly(ish) bulletin.
  4. Year of the Meteor by Robin Sloan. Another of my favourite living writers. Also he has an olive oil business.
  5. The Public Domain Review newsletter. The two best things about the public domain are that 1) it’s full of weird, interesting stuff and 2) it’s constantly expanding. The PDR newsletter is a nice curation.
  6. All My Stars by Joanne McNeil. Mostly about technology, also art, music, books, etc.
  7. Restricted Frequency by Ganzeer. Art, social commentary, storytelling,
  8. Mark Athitakis Newsletter by Mark Athitakis. There’s something that tickles me about just straight-up naming your newsletter after yourself. You go, Mark Athitakis.
  9. The Tourist by Philip Christman. Christianity, culture, reading, writing.
  10. Roden Explorers by Craig Mod. Reading, writing, long walks in the woods (and other places).

These newsletters reflect my particular interests, of course (though I hope they are also working to expand my interests). But I take them as an encouraging token of Athenianism. It’s not all dust and ashes yet… not even on the internet.

7 thoughts on “Newsletters from the Athenian Way

    • I don’t — for a while I was listening to quite a few podcasts, but I’ve fallen out of the habit. We’ve got a road trip coming up, though, so that looks like a good one to load up on. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  1. How interesting!!! I’ve been finding myself signing up for lots of email newsletter-y things in the last six months, mostly from OTs and moms with sensory processing kids. They are mostly trying to sell things, and I mostly don’t read them. Ann Voskamp would be the exception, sort of. I suppose it’s like a blog but with a different atmosphere, being sent to private inboxes instead of blasted to the public? You ask a great question, which side am I feeding!

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  2. Having read the speech, my inner cultural relativist has a serious itch. I don’t think I could deliver a speech like that to the graduating class at the Arctic College. Inuit culture has no poetry, and their language appears crude to those who want to describe western ideas and have no interest in the complexities of hunting life. Their way of life has been cut down in the name of forcing their children to have a western education. I am very thankful for my own university education, but I guess I have not fully reconciled it with what I find at the outer edges of the world. (Also, how were the Hebrews not literate?!)

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    • That’s an interesting critique. If I’ve understood Postman’s thinking — and perhaps I haven’t — I think the concern is more with the attitude towards culture (appreciative/constructive vs. destructive) than with the particular cultural products themselves. So having an Athenian spirit in your cultural context maybe means things like preserving Inuktitut as a language, passing on traditional knowledge (hunting & other skills needed on the land, sewing with furs and skins, etc. as well as things like, I don’t know, throat singing, drumming, Inuit wrestling games, etc.). Cutting down the Inuit culture in the name of Western culture… well, that’s Visigothdom for you. Not that Western culture doesn’t have anything to offer in its own merits; but at its best, that happens in areas of true cultural exchange (as among equals), not at the expense of other ways of life. Am I on the right track?

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