Amusing Ourselves to Death
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Penguin Books, 1985, 2005, 163 pp. 0-14-303653-X
Postman taught at New York University for 38 years and died at the age of 73. He wrote 20 books, including The Disappearance of Childhood. On the 20th anniversary of its publication, the book was reissued, perhaps more pertinent in the emerging internet age that it was at the peak of television.
Some of the following themes seem familiar (and perhaps overly negative) now, but they represented fresh thinking in 1985.
In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World people come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. They are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance and that we would become a trivial culture. (Foreword)
Las Vegas is the symbol of our national character and aspiration where all public discourse takes the form of entertainment. (3)
Introducing a technique such as the clock into a culture transforms his way of thinking. The invention of the clock took men’s eyes from eternity to current events. (13)
“Our metaphors create the content of our culture. Our media are our metaphors.” (16)
“The content of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.” "…Under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd." (16) The best things on TV are its junk. TV is trivial when it tries to be serious. Our ideas are given form by TV, not print. (17)
"As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it." (24)
"The Americans among whom Franklin lived were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived. …it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas and social life were embedded in the medium of typography." (31) "The press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience." (43) The audience had an extraordinary attention span and capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. (46) "The use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena." (47)
Printed works deal with ideas -- a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. Public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. Reading encourages rationality. (49-1) The print age was the Age of Exposition. It was replaced by the Age of Show Business. (63)
It introduced irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence -- context-free -- information reduced to novelty, interest, and curiosity. News became sensational events. Information moved quickly but it had little to do with those who received it. "In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use." (67) How often does the morning news alter your plans for the day? It has no significance to you! “The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing….” (69) The telegraph moved information but it did not analyze or make sense of it. (69)
The photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea. The photograph documents and celebrates the particularities of this infinite variety. Language makes them comprehensible." (72) The sudden and massive intrusion of photographs, the "graphic revolution" took place in the 19th century. It replaced language as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. "For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing." (74) This new language "denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. …that played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America." (77) All public understanding is shaped by the biases of television.
“A myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded…that it is invisible.” “Television has gradually become our culture.” “The peek-a-boo world it has constructed around us no longer seems even strange.” (79) “We have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.” (80)
Television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing. Television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality. Television speaks in only one persistent voice--the voice of entertainment. "Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business." (80)
The average network shot is 3.5 seconds. There is always something new to see, devoted entirely to entertainment. It is now the natural format of all experience and all subject matter is entertaining. The news is not to be taken seriously. Several minutes of news should give us many sleepless nights – but newscasters don’t even blink. Neither do we. (86-7)
“Thinking does not play well on TV.” There’s not much to see in it. TV always aims for applause, not reflection. TV must suppress content to accommodate visual interest. TV sets the format for all discourse. Americans exchange images, not ideas, argue with good looks and celebrities, not propositions. (90-93)
Any murder can be erased from our minds by, “Now this….” (99)
Newscasters are a “cast of talking hair-dos.” (100)
"Credibility" refers only to the impression of sincerity. Nixon was dishonored not because he lied on TV but because he looked like a liar on TV. (102)
TV does not suggest a story has implications, for then people might think about it and miss the next TV story! “Pictures have little difficulty in overwhelming words and short-circuiting introspection.” (103)
TV news is vaudeville – no logic, reason, sequence, or consistency. (105)
Americans are the best entertained and least informed people in the West! (106)
We have emotions, not opinions. We are disinformed via misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, superficial. “We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.” (107)
“Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?” (108)
All coherence has vanished and therefore all contradictions have disappeared. The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference. (110)
“Whereas television taught the magazines that news is nothing but entertainment, the magazines have taught television that nothing but entertainment is news.” (112) "And so, we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit." (113)
Religion is presented as entertainment. The preacher is tops, even above God. This has more to do with TV than the preachers. We succumb to the weaknesses of the medium. The media affects the meaning. (116)
You will wait a long time to hear a TV preacher preach on how difficult it is for a rich man to get into heaven! They get the audience by offering what people want. "I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether." A close-up TV face in color is close to idolatry. (121-23)
If politics is like show business, then the important thing is to appear honest, clear, excellent, that is good advertising. (126) "In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial." (126)
"The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of product…their fears, fancies and dreams… Commercials tell us all problems are solvable, fast, through technology. The television commercial…has now become pseudo-therapy." Instant therapy. (128-30)
On TV the politician offers an image of the audience, not himself. We are not permitted to know who would be the best President but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent. Image politics is a form of therapy. (134-35)
We are being rendered unfit to remember. Know all today. You don’t need history. (137)
TV doesn’t ban books: it just displaces them. Amusement pacifies the masses. (141)
The last chapter deals with teaching "as an amusing activity." Sesame Street undermines the traditional idea of schooling as a place of social interaction and the development of language, where children ask questions and learn to behave themselves. (143) Television by nature is hostile to book learning and school-learning. "Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television." (144) Television teaches that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. It undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself. Nothing has to be remembered, studied, applied, or, worst of all, endured. (147) Contentment, not growth is paramount. It avoids arguments, hypotheses, discussion, reasons, refutations, or reasoned discourse. It always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music -- in short, it is entertainment. (148)
"There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first--the Orwellian--culture becomes a prison. In the second--the Huxleyan--culture becomes a burlesque." "What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huyxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours." "When…cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility." (155-56)
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