Amusing Ourselves To Death
– Neil Postman
‘Amusing Ourselves To Death’- the masterpiece of Neil Postman was penned down in 1985. It is rightly referred to as a scripture for modern society guiding mankind to a respectable life. A chance delivery of a talk to Frankfurt book sellers’ convention- 1984 and the participation in a panel on Orwell’s ‘1984 and The Contemporary world’ flashed his mind with the basic idea for the book. Postman incorporated the points of view of modern Orwell (1984) and old Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). In the ‘Foreword’ itself, he clearly spells the objective of the book. Quoting Orwell and Huxley frequently Postman reveals the differences in reasons but the similarity of the fear of the two authors. According to Orwell, modern society will acquire ‘captive culture’ because of the deprivation of information and books as well as of a ‘big brother’. On the other hand Huxley fears that society will become ‘trivial’ because of the absence of the desire to read and to get informed as well as of self oppression. Orwell fears pain will kill us, something what we hate will ruin us while Huxley long back prophesied that pleasure will kill us and something that we love would ruin us.
Postman clearly supports Huxley’s apprehension when he exposes the danger T.V. culture poses to the modern society. He satirically comments on Americans being happy that Orwellian nightmares (1984) did not visit them that no oppressive Govt. was there to suppress them. How pathetically the impending doom lurking so close escaped this ignorant society! How sad! They are too absorbed in visual images of modern media to visualize its ultimate impacts. Actually Postman negatively comments on the modern means of communication. He tells us the limitations of T.V. Postman asserts that T.V. as a means of entertainment is fine but he questions its worth as a means of communication. T.V. is purely commercial working on the basis of ratings; it should not be and rather can not be the medium of education, philosophy, politics, religion and other sensitive areas. It is not, at all, capable of involving intellectually demanding, interactive and dialectical topics where the efficacy of the books can not be challenged.
It is not only in the exposition of his philosophy but also in its explanation that every move of Postman is none less than perfect- cautious and meticulous. Along with the title, the sub-title ‘Public Discourse in the Age of Show’ is also self-explanatory and supports the former as well as lays bare the very satire of too much of entertainment. Both together bring to our mind the dangers of overpowering T.V. culture which is the main theme of the book. Moreover, Postman divides his book into different chapters under captive and meaningful headings beautifully and lucidly defining step by step his thesis with a simplicity next to perfection and hence embodying profound thoughts in easy terminology and style, the hallmark of greatness.
The whole of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ is replete with the examples of writers, philosophers, politicians and religious preachers. Postman even exploits some symbols. He asserts that as serious messages can not be conveyed through ‘smoke signals’ ( ch.1-The Medium Is The Metaphor ), T.V. is also not an appropriate medium for communicating serious discourse. Its ‘form excludes the content’ ( P.6) and it ‘can not accommodate some ideas’ ( P.8). Rather he hints at its dangers a little later when he writes ‘Television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high’ ( P.16-17, Ch.2-Media as Epistemology).
If Postman vehemently criticizes visual images for sensitive fields he nostalgically recalls typographic America. Here he spends a lot of time covering America’s golden history when complex political debates and rhetoric Sunday Sermons were nothing unusual. Intelligence and active participation was in the air. People not only understood and appreciated but were carried away by the emotional language. He misses the age of reason which was at its glorious heights during 18th and 19th centuries. Postman quotes various examples to open our eyes to the shocking degeneration. How strange! The ‘federalist papers’ which were written for commoners ( at that time) including farmers, bakers, merchants etc. pose the most difficult reading for today’s aspiring barristers. While missing the political debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas Postman nearly cries in the words ‘ who were those people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to several hours of oratory’ (P.44) and then the astonishing gap leaves him shattered as ‘people of a T.V. culture need plain language’ (P.50). Postman laments that the age of exposition has been replaced by the age of show business.
Postman also traces the journey of development starting from the development of alphabet to the invention of printing press leading to the progress of telegraph and finally collapsing in the creation of T.V. Throughout the book he seems to convey that oral and written methods are of high prestige while those of the visual ones deserve a lower place.
‘Now…this’ the most popular phrase of T.V. News channels could not escape Postman’s sharp sarcasm. ‘T.V. News show is a theory of anti-communication’ (P.92-93) and the indifferent way in which news readers with expressionless faces convey the sad news items of earthquakes or mass killings is really something strange. He further strengthens his point of view in the words ‘the exiting music,…, the attractive commercials…suggest that what we have seen is no cause for weeping. A news show,..for entertainment, not for education, reflection and catharsis’. Media is shrinking the world and unpleasantly shrinking our sensitivity too, that is why news readers can smilingly shift to next news saying ‘now..this’. How strongly Postman supports it when he writes ‘On T.V. screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. Americans do not exchange ideas; they exchange images’! Grdually the phrase became so popular that Larry Gonick concludes his ‘Cartoon guide to (non) communication’ with this.
Moreover, Postman exposes the unlimited inclusion of technology in education. He holds that teaching involves active participation, innovative thinking and honest communication- the things which are outside the domain of T.V. It can only provide ready-to-use entertaining guides which are fundamentally against the process of learning. In the chapter ‘The Peek-Boo World’, Postman writes that we have become insensitive to all this. The hissing sound of T.V. fails to shudder us and its flickering grey lights don’t frighten us. So, We find the bizarre world shown through media look natural and we feel comfortable in this only. The profound depths of his aching spirit, the wide extent of his hopelessness and the very essence of his message take their way straight into our hearts when we read ‘To whom do we complain, and when and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles?’ (P.156).
The vast range of the audience of ‘Amusing…’ includes not only scholars, authors, commentators and high profile officials but common people too; which accounts for its utmost success. The fact that the songs of Walter Roger’s album ‘Amused to Death’ sing the philosophy embodied in the book speaks volumes of its readership and influence. Postman’s style, throughout the book, remains quite engaging and the presentation of the thesis as well as the examples is simply perfect- reasonable and thorough. Though Postman mentions American society time and again but what he comments on is equally true about any other society too. He presents Las Vegas as a symbol of city devoted to the pursuit of entertainment. Hence, ‘Amusing…’ becomes remarkably universal in its appeal. Universality is essential for a literary work before it can be recognized as extra-ordinary. To sum up, we can safely say that ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ is an excellent book and Postman brings home his thesis beyond any doubt communicating it even to a common man with a slight touch of philosophy. The famous book reviewer, John, writes about it ‘I think everyone should read this book’. After such a complement from a reviewer of such repute, ‘Amusing..’ is not, at all, at the mercy of any other recommendation.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death; Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin USA, 1985. ISBN 0-670-80454-1.