Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" by Neil Postman

This review is based on the 1st edition of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is a 20th Anniversary Edition with an introduction by Professor Postman's son.

Professor Postman's book claims that electronic media, characterized by immediacy, compels our discourse to be decontextualized and trivial, i.e. entertaining. Even worse, their dominance has shaped consumers' expectations of all other media so that they must also become decontextualized and trivial to gain acceptance.

Man, this guy is a buzzkill!

The weakest part of the book, in my opinion, is his nostalgia for the print age in the North American British colonies which became the United States. He claims that the "typographic mind" in the British Colonies and the first century of the United States
put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. [p 51]
The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind, submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. [p 63]
This period of North American history was too brutal for me to miss any feature of it. Nevertheless, I accept Postman's idea that the telegraph and photograph and later their more powerful synthesis, broadcast television, impact how we communicate. While I am concerned about how we communicate today, I remain unconvinced that it is any better or worse than communication in the past.

Electronic media introduce "on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence." Irrelevance means that the information "need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity."  [p 65] Postman claims this causes "diminished social and political potency" because people can't do anything about the "news" they hear about far off places. [pp 68-9] Incoherence is demonstrated by the independence of each piece of electronic news from any other. There's no need to collect them. You can burn after reading (or listening or watching.) [pp 69-70]

Discussing the first visual electronic medium, the photograph, Postman says that it "documents and celebrates the particularities of the infinite variety," in contrast to language, which presents "the world as idea" and "makes [the particularities] comprehensible." [p 72] The photograph "offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable." [p 73]

Here, to me, is another example of Postman selling electronic media short. Pictures and other visual arts can convey powerful messages.

So even if "images replace [language] as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality," [p 74] might there still be ways to communicate productively?

Postman also acts as if Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Hemingway were the last American authors to write any worthwhile literature. [p 77]

The book gains considerable momentum when Postman begins to discuss the specifics of the medium of television.
Television gave the epistemological biases of the telegraph and the photograph their most potent expression, raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection. ... Twenty years ago, the question, Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? held considerable interest for many scholars and social critics. The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. [pp 78-9, emphasis in original] 
It is my object in the rest of thiis book to make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing; that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase "serious television" is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice--the voice of entertainment. Beyond that, I will try to demonstrate that to enter the great television conversation, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago. [p 80]
Part II of the book consists of four chapters and a conclusion. These chapters are devoted to television's impact on news, religion, politics and education, in that sequence. Readers of this blog may take great interest in the chapter on religion. In the chapter on education, Postman launches a broadside against Sesame Street! This guy likes nothing.

In the conclusion, Postman offers no comforting words, although he tried to do so in the second of two interviews he did about this book on Open Mind with Richard Heffner. (Here's part one.) He refocuses the reader on Aldous Huxley's fears for liberal societies.