Amusing Ourselves to Death
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK / New York and Other Cities: Penguin, 1985.
On-line publisher's blurb (as of Dec. 2022):
Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs — it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals.
From Wikipedia entry (also Dec. 2022):
The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content", that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for this reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and "news of the day" becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasizes the quality of information in favor of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
What Postman says about television is (of course) relevant for the interactive descendent of TV, the internet, especially social media and all forms of electronic media where any words must compete with images and intentional distractions. See
for Postman's seeing A. Huxley's Brave New World as more relevant for the late 20th c. than Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four;
for Postman's excellent summary and application of Lewis Mumford on clocks, in Technics and Civilization (Postman pp. 11-12; I.1, "The Medium Is the Metaphor").
++++++++++++++++ PART I
Ch. 3, "Typographic America," Ch.4, "The Typographic Mind": See for Postman's praise of literate English-speaking America, from the colonial period through the 19th c. Note especially Postman on of literary polish of higher-end theological debate in America, and of their preaching, prior to our times.
CAUTION: When Postman discusses literacy and the love of books and learning and "book learning" in early America, he's correct for New England, New York, and the areas to the west that Yankees and such colonized; this is less true for Virginia, Appalachia, and the Deep South (see, among other works, Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America). Note also the whole issue of slavery — that Postman doesn't deal with — and the brutal suppression of literacy among the enslaved. Such repression is a kind of tribute to the power of reading and writing, but a fraught one.
Ch. 5, "The Peek-a-Boo World": Changes with the telegraph and photography. (Note a somewhat odd silence: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five appeared in 1969 and announces itself on the title page as "a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from." Postman doesn't deal in this chapter, or at all, with Vonnegut's novel.)
++++++++++++++++ PART II
Ch. 6, "The Age of Show Business": Television as "a technology of images," of brief duration — 3.5 seconds for average shot — that is not only entertaining but "has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. [...] Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television" (pp. 86-87). • Includes a somewhat churlish but effective critique of TV at its most serious: the showing and (non)discussion of the 20 November 1983 broadcast of The Day After on nuclear war comes to Kansas, among other places (pp. 88-91). • Among other notable quotations: "The single most important thing about television is that people watch it [...]. And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures — millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; this is to say, to accommodate the values of show business" (p. 92). Cf. and somewhat contrast the 21st-c. internet as a provider of eyes (and some ears) for advertising.
Ch. 7, "'Now ... This'": TV is not responsible for the "Now ... This" movement from subject to subject, which Postman has "tried to show [...] is the offspring of the intercourse between telegraphy and photography" (p. 100). Misses Monty Python's "And now for something completely different" (from before 1971), but gets and discusses in detail television's presentation of especially the news in fragments. "[...] embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason sequence[,] and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory os Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville" (p. 105).
Important discussion of credibility in terms of performance (and of old ideas — our word — of ethos, our willingness to accept the word of the source): Television "provides a new (or possibly restores an old) definition of truth: The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. 'Credibility' here does not refer to at the past record of the teller from making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability[,] or attractiveness [...] conveyed by the actor/reporter" a test for verisimilitude, not verity or veracity (pp. 101-02).
Presents TV news as a form of disinformation "using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing someone but which in fact leads one away from knowing. [...] when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result" (p. 107). On public acceptance of Ronald Reagan's misstatements and more generally accepting contradictions, defined as "mutually exclusive assertions than cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true" — with the crucial issue of television news and "news of the day" omits the context (p. 109), and the demand or even just desire for continuity (p. 110).
Penultimate point on radio being "well suited to transmission of rational, complex language" — but that was not the way it was going in the mid-1980s (pp. 112-13).
Ch. 8, "Shuffle off to Bethlehem": Religion on television not the reasoned, long-form discourse of Jonathan Edwards et al. More significant: usual issues of medium and message, with the additional problem of sacralizing TV space (pp. 118 f.) and conveying something noncommercial on an aggressively commercial medium.
Ch. 9, "Reach Out and Elect Someone" (playing on the line in the AT&T/Bell Systems commercial for long-distance calling, "Reach out and touch someone"). Includes the arresting line — note for The Space Merchants — that in the 1950s television commercials "made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions" (pp. 127-28). Also relevant for Space Merchants: advertising and psychology, "that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas" (p. 128). Very brief dramas: Postman notes that commercials are measured in seconds, with a full minute a very long effort, for making that "pseudo-therapy" also "instant therapy (p. 130) and contributing to the fragmentation of reality (see Kurt Vonnegut's short short-story "Harrison Bergeron" and mostly successful governmental high-tech efforts to prevent consecutive thought). A key idea, important beyond the theme of this wiki:
Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. By "accommodate," I mean that we accept them as a normal and plausible form of discourse. By "philosophy," I mean that the television commercial has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of communication that run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word. For one thing, the commercial insists on an unprecedented brevity of expression. (p. 130) * * *
What I am saying is that just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political subtend for the same reason,
It follow from this that history can play no significant role in image politics ["The Selling of the President" et al.]. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past that which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. [...] A book is all history. [...T]he book promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. [...]
But television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium. Its grammar [...] permits no access to the past. Everything presented in moving pictures is experienced as happening now [...]. [L]ike its forefather, the telegraph, television needs to move fragments of information, not collect and organize them. (p. 136).
So see for Fahrenheit 451 and the suppression of books, and, Postman's favoring Brave New World over Nineteen Eighty-Four notwithstanding, Nineteen Eighty-Four for the past, and for its analysis of totalitarian epistemology (which Postman oddly underrates).
Ch. 10, "Teaching as an Amusing Activity": Early on brings in John Dewey's "observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning"; more important is what (we will note) in the 1960s was called "The Hidden Curriculum": how the lessons and school experience is structured (Postman 144). Crucially NP argues "that reading books and watching television differ entirely in what they imply about learning" and that this point "is the primary educational issue in America today" (pp. 144-45). Postman asks us to consider three revolutions: "moving from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture," for which see Plato; moving into increasing literacy and Europe's undergoing "a radical transformation as a result of the printing press," for which see John Locke; and the current "electronic revolution, particularly the invention of television," for which "we must read Marshall McLuhan" (p. 145). // Postman offers a series of "commandments" for TV/teaching; a summarizing one is "Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context" (p. 148).
Ch. 11, "The Huxleyan Warning": Nods to Orwell, and reiterates basics on Huxley's Brave New World. "In America, Orwell's prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley's are well under way toward being realized" (p. 156). A key general principle: "To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple" (p. 157).
RDE, finishing, 8Dec22