Amusing Ourselves To Death
In Chapter 1 of the novel, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, the concept of the “media metaphor” is introduced. Postman presents the idea that every civilization’s “conversation” is hindered by the jaundice of the media it utilizes. He uses the term “conversation” in reference to the exchange of information and the ways in which it is exchanged. The forms of conversation affect what is convenient to express, therefore, what’s conveniently expressed becomes the content of culture. To further demonstrate this concept, Postman presents the example of the unappealing image of overweight man running for president. If a man with an ugly body were to run for president, he would not be elected because he does not fit the ideal television image. His image has nothing to do with his political ideas, but in a time run by television, visual image reigns. Thus, the form of TV is inconvenienced by philosophy, therefore, political philosophy and television can not be mixed.
Towards the end of the chapter, Postman begins to discuss the creation of tools such as the clock, the alphabet, and eyeglasses. The concept being that a new tool has an idea that goes beyond the tool itself. For example, the clock; before the invention of the clock, time was simply an occurrence in nature measured by the sun and the seasons. After the clock, time became an occurrence measured by machines in seconds, minutes, and hours, changing humans into “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.”The overall idea being that we no longer see nature as itself, we see it as the media presents it to us.
In Chapter 2 of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman describes the idea that American public discourse was once coherent and rational and is now “dangerous nonsense.” He suggests that the media employed by a civilization will determine the way it defines the truth. The belief is that there is no universal way to determine what is the truth and what isn’t but that the different forms of communication existing within a civilization, will contribute to identifying the truth. Postman then goes on to explain that every medium has a resonance, using the examples of a strictly oral African tribe, a paradox between spoken and written word in terms of a doctoral commentary, and the trial of Socrates.
Each example stems from different cultures and different eras, therefore the mediums and technologies in which they receive the truth differ. Postman describes truth as a bias for each culture and then gives examples of our own biases such as our reliance on numbers to detect truth. Our reliance on numbers is such that we often think it the only way to determine economic truth. We rely too much on numbers for truth just as the ancients were too reliant on proverbs.
Postman is not saying that all means of defining truth are the same but that the media we use is imperative towards determining how we define it. Image is the primary medium for determining truth in modern times, such that we don’t realize how image can be distorted. Society’s cultural exchange is based primarily on image and we are limited in carrying and communicating it. In each of the cultures Postman described thus far, intelligence was defined in a different way. The strictly oral culture defined intelligence by the ability to memorize proverbs and the print culture defines intelligence through the ability to see past the shapes of the letters and words on the page in order to give them meaning and see logic in the argument. The principle concept of the chapter is that the medium civilization utilizes affects the means in which it obtains truth.
“…until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of… As Richard Hofstader reminds us, America was founded by intellectuals, a rare occurrence in the history of modern nations” (41). The passage from Chapter 3 of the novel, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, demonstrates Postman’s argument that nineteenth century America was primarily focused on political writings rather than books. Postman cites figures that demonstrate unusually high literacy rates in Colonial America and commends the fact that the highly religious colonists did not restrict themselves to solely reading religious texts.
This passage stood out because it basically summarized the chapter without the use of statistics or a philosophical quote, it simply states how valuable the printed word was in nineteenth century America. The figures and opinions of professionals blurs the overall message of the passage because its an abundance of information that could quite simply be summed up in a few sentences. America relied on print for information the way modern-day society relies on television and music for entertainment, thus proving that America was truly founded by intellectual minds and has transformed into a society concerned only with appearance and entertainment.
“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 towards 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.” (61) This passage from Chapter 4 of the novel explains that understanding in a complex and necessary method of learning. Postman values the “Age of Exposition” because of the ideals it presented to the minds of the Americans; the intellectual capability society had to possess in order to comprehend much of the printed and spoken word during that time astonished him. The passage was distinct in that it so clearly presented the complexity of language at that time and how it was so necessary and, in a way, captivating. I use the word “captivating” in the context that many were drawn to such events as the famous debates of Lincoln and Douglass during the nineteenth century, society was so intrigued by language used as a means of an elaborate argument. The passage supports Postman’s theory that the minds of the American people during the “Age of Exposition” were indeed, typographic.
“Photography went well with the telegraph’s “news from nowhere”: provided an illusion of context for the unknown names and places.” (75) In Chapter 5 of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, he explains how the “Age of Exposition” was overrun by the “Age of Show Business.” Printed word was outshone by the inventions of photography and the telegraph. Postman theorized that the the telegraph altered information in a way that it became “essentially incoherent” and explains that the photograph is not, in fact, a form of language because it requires no context in the way a word does. This passage sums up Postman’s argument that the “Age of Show Business” was the beginning of the obsession with visual image. Essentially, the photograph and telegraph became tools that broadcasted news that was irrelevant to many people’s daily lives. Postman argues that a “peek-a-boo” world had developed, a world where an event materializes for a moment and then disappears without an attempt at coherence. Although amusing, we are neither allowed nor permitted to act upon the information presented to us.
“The single most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called “television.” 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 contents of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.” (92) In Chapter 6, Postman presents the idea that media will impose its epistemology on a culture. He then goes on to explain what television specifically needs to force an epistemology of entertainment. Everything presented under the screen will struggle against the demands of the medium. The passage stood out among others because Postman stated that it was called “teleVISION” because its all about visual image-people watch it.
“But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions.” (pg 107) This passage demonstrates the “now… this” idea that Postman presents in Chapter 7.
The overall idea being that television has transformed news into an entertainment business rather than it being about information. The “now… this” theory is quite simply, the transitioning of a majority of newscasts today; each story has an allotted amount of air time before the transition to another, completely unrelated topic, all in the spirit of keeping viewers entertained. The obsession with entertainment blinds people from the important, possibly boring, information so that they focus on the headline and the person presenting the information, not absorbing the background of the event. This passage stood out because it’s a rather bold statement calling society out on their obsession with entertainment and image.
“…quite willing to go ‘head to head’ with secular programs because they believe they can put on a more appealing show.” (120) In Chapter 8, Postman discusses religion on television. Essentially, the media-metaphor of television has transformed religion into a form of entertainment. The passage, in essence, states that everything on television is available for entertainment, including religion. The statement sums up a majority of the novel in that television is all about image and entertainment regardless of the topic. Postman theorizes that television’s desire to endlessly entertain has degraded certain aspects of religion in an attempt to make such a strict and serious topic, amusing and fun.
“It is difficult to say exactly when politicians begun to put themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement… By the 1970’s, the public had started to become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to be taken as part of the world of show business.” (132) In Chapter 9, Postman explains the potential problem of politicians focusing too much on image and fame rather than their political standpoint. He describes political candidates as portraying themselves not as they are, but as the public wants them to be. This quote does an impressive job of summarizing the key idea of they chapter- politicians are being molded to express the views society wants them to have rather than the views they really possess. Personally, this is one of my favorite quotes from the book because I feel that it truly relates to the political figures of modern-day America.
“Mainly, they will have learned that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to.” (154) Postman voices his concern about education becoming yet another form of entertainment. Early in the novel he mentions that teachers aren’t good teachers unless they are entertaining their classes. Postman also expresses his dislike of children’s educational shows such as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” for the fact that the teachings undermine traditional education. Children cannot ask questions of what television shows present to them, there is more visual learning rather than oral, and there is no possible way for the children to learn social skills that they would learn interacting with children their age in a classroom. This quote stood out among the chapter because it basically stated what I was thinking; teaching is becoming the job of entertainers rather than educated officials.
“ When a population becomes distracted by trivia, 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) In the final chapter of this novel, Postman concludes his argument that television and the entertainment industry is destructive to the discourse of society. He states that we did not account for the harmful nature of television and that there is no excuse for the destruction we let it create. Essentially, television defines our culture and in order to fix the problem, we have to recognize is as a part of our culture. Postman believes that society has yet to discover television as a medium and therefore, we have not conversed enough about it. This passage very well sums up the novel in such a forceful manner, plainly describing how entertainment and television has, in a sense, dumbed down our society. This quote alone wins the argument.