Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Businessby Published 27 Dec 2005
|Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.pdf|
Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show business demands of the television age, we must recognize the ways in which the media shape our lives and the ways we can, in turn, shape them to serve out highest goals.
"Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" Reviews
If someone held a gun to my head and asked for a precise and concise definition of irony (it could happen!), I would say only this: Neil Postman died two days before Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor -thus narrowly missing out on the single best example of what he was screaming about all those years ago. This book was foundational for me. Postman delivers a passioned polemic about the entertain-at-any-cost ethos of our current culture, and how the irrestible siren song of triviality is more dangerous to our democracy than any demagogue's propaganda. Here he is in an interview describing television as the great destroyer of context:
“Television is a medium which lacks a because. What I mean by this is that language has embedded in it all these becauses. This happened because that happened. Television doesn’t have a because. How many people, when seeing a newscast about, say, a serious earthquake or an airplane crash, will actually start to cry or grow silent at the tragedies of life? Most of us don’t, because right after the story about the airplane crash, there’s going to be a thing for Burger King or, if not that, a story about the World Series or some other event that would basically imply, ‘don’t take this story about the airplane crash too seriously, it’s just something to amuse you for the moment.’ So I think that goes a long way toward promoting the idea that there is no order anyplace not only in the universe, not on the planet, not on your continent, not even in your home or your town.”
"This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right." - Neil Postman
In 1854 Stephen A. Douglas presented a three-hour speech against Abraham Lincoln's ideas, and in return, on that same night, Lincoln responded with a three-hour argument of his own. The surprise? People actually stayed long enough to hear both men out.
Contrast that with the Republican debate that happened last night: 8 candidates were forced to answer leading, disjointed questions in 30 seconds or less. And they were given little if no time to respond directly to another candidate. Plus, there was this: "Sorry, but we have to cut you short to go to a commercial break."
Postman's point in Amusing Ourselves to Death is that the TV has turned public discourse into little more than entertainment. Politics, news, and religion all turn into mere amusement when they're on the TV. Postman's point might be summed up best by Ronald Reagan: "Politics is just like show business."
If anything, everything Postman critiqued about American society in 1985 has been amplified in 2011. We are more disjointed and fragmented than ever. Political TV is more like entertainment than ever. Every time I see a clip from FOX News there's a banner across the bottom blaring ALERT ALERT ALERT—not to mention all the other flotsam streaming across the screen. That stuff is there to make the news feel like an action movie, and it's reason enough to turn that channel off.
Postman argues that all this fast-paced, disjointed news makes us think only of the now. We think we're informed when in reality we know just enough to have an emotion about who "won" last night's debate. The talking heads don't wrestle with history and substantial ideas (you can't do that if you're constantly interrupted by commercials); the talking heads just hack at hackneyed phrases and parroted arguments. After all, wrestling with real ideas requires real thinking, and the point of the TV is to help you stop thinking and be amused.
To this quote and many others from the book, I say, True enough:
"How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? . . .
"What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them."
The solution? Read more. In a book there are no commercial breaks. You can wrestle deep with an idea for three hours at a time and come away with real knowledge.
Orwell believed the government would hide the truth, ban books, and in essence dominate people. Huxley believed people would have access to so much information they would not know what truth is and there would be so much entertainment no one would read.
Huxley was right.
Postman's work is an extended analysis of television. It is a bit dated since he writes at the onset of computers. Much of what he said holds true, but it would be interesting to get his take on how smartphones have changed things. On one hand, we are addicted to smartphones and can get entertainment always and anywhere (Huxley's soma). On the other hand, podcasts have made available much learning and there are good podcasts that go quite deep and are popular (History of Rome, Hardcore History, just to name a few). I suspect Postman might say that even here, entertainment taints it. Or, the people who read are the ones who use their smartphones to learn while those who do not read focus only on the memes.
If anyone has any contemporary books that bring Postman (and Ellul, who I am surprised was not referenced) up to date, that would be great. For now, this book is a valuable read.
‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.'
The modern era is an age of endless information and entertainment. Media looks to the public for what they want, and then sells it back to them wrapped up in the most irresistible packaging they can create, and we eat it up. However, if entertainment is what we desire most, and if everything we receive must compete for our attention, what happens to the so called serious information we need? Does religion, education, politics, and any other form of society get turned into entertainment as well? Like the deadly cartridge in Infinite Jest, are we letting ourselves be destroyed by what entertains us, what gives us pleasure? Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death takes a look at our infatuation with television and technology and examines how the changes in the ways we receive our information affects our public discourse and society. ‘Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us,’ Postman writes, ‘Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley was right.’ Through an analyzation of historic American society juxtaposed with modern examples of politics, education, religion and general society, Postman examines alterations in American culture through our shift from print based media to visual based media.
’It is my intention to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense….[W]e do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.’Postman alters Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism ‘The media is the message’ to his often repeated ‘the media is the metaphor’ idea, simply meaning that the media offers us a metaphor of our own reality and that everything we see through it pulls with it a large array of implied context and framing of information that is controlled by those who deliver it. Everything we view has been spun, even if unintentionally, to reflect some believed context of our culture. Postman argues that ‘in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself,’ and the unspoken content of media is captured in our minds and grows into our culture through our actions. It has resonance in our culture. ‘Definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.’ For example, we see a character on television that we like and we try and be like that character in our own lives ¹. All news information is somehow framed in a certain light, as is anything we receive through television and broadcast companies. ‘The weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication.’
Postman compares the modern era with the times when all information was print based. ‘To exist was to exist in print.’ This section was extremely interesting, especially for any lover of books and the written word, as it emphasizes the power of print in an era where the author and the philosopher were rock stars. Postman, relying heavily on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, shows staggering statistics of literacy rates (‘between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for males in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, quite possible the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time’), emphasis on the importance of education, and a look at how heady works such as Paine’s Common Sense were top sellers and widely read (‘Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies by March of the same year. In 1985, a book would have to sell eight million copies [in two months] to match the proportion of the population Paine’s book attracted’). He shows how people would sit through eight hour political debates and how the language in political discussions was written at a much higher education level than those of today yet still understood by most literate Americans. In short, Postman attempts to show that the average person in the 1700’s had a better grasp of language and utilized it for more sophisticated purposes than people of today.
Through his idea that a change in media creates a change in culture, Postman tackles several different subjects through the course of the second half of his book. Politics, religion and education are shown as having succumbed to the temptation of being made into entertainment. Postman argues that visual media makes the image more important to its receiver than the actual message, and that television is a passive activity instead of an activity like reading that requires some work and thought by the reader. His look at politics argues that a print-based mind, when asked to think about a politician, would focus on his words and political beliefs/platform, whereas a visual-media mind would focus on the person’s appearance and charisma. He supports this with a reflection on the Nixon/Kennedy debates where those who listened to the debate on the radio fingered Nixon as the clear winner, but television viewers placed Kennedy as the clear winner. Kennedy was young, handsome and charismatic while Nixon’s image, having been recovering for an illness and opposed to the idea of wearing any make-up, made him seem haggard and unfriendly. ‘As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men always make their gods in their own image. But to this, television politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.’ For religion, Postman argues that televised evangelicals bastardize religious beliefs: they remove all the spiritual transcendence, theology and ritual and place the preacher as the focus. ‘God comes out as second banana.’ As I have just completed an extensive presentation and essay on this chapter, I will spare you most of the details, but it highlights that religion of television is more aimed at the wallet than the soul, more focused on celebrity status of preachers and guests than holiness, and gives people what they want instead of what religion is about: what people need.
Essentially, Postman argues that television gives messages that are trivial, and these shows get high ratings. ‘Or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.’ Even shows bent on education ultimately teach children that they love television, not that they love learning (most want to cuddle Elmo, not letters and numbers), as well as offer a flawed attempt at education (focusing on reading as sounding out letters instead of reading being the understanding of words and their order to form a sentence that purveys a message). What makes shows work is the ‘stickiness factor’ (this is more from another book we are discussing for this class, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference), focusing on the characters, music and sounds that catch attention and make us remember. Postman also shows how news broadcasts, in order to compete, must offer a level of entertainment and become nothing beyond flashy visuals, effects, sounds, music and beautiful talking mouths that spin us a story.
Postman shows how televised media creates what he calls the ‘peek-a-boo world’.
’A world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained…also endlessly entertaining.’We are bombarded by information at all times in a three prong attack on the epistemology of our time: Irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. Information may be cathartic, but usually most of what we hear doesn’t really relate to our personal lives other than something to talk about, we can’t do much of anything about the information, and has no context to our lives. To further discussion on context, Postman cites Susan Sontag’s work On Photography, where she writes ‘the point of photography is to isolate the image from context, so as to make them visible in a different way… all borders seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated…all that is nessesary is to fram the subject differently.’ Television, as discussed earlier, frames everything in some manner and gives us only a pseudo-context, or a doctored context to make us think a certain way. Television focuses us on the image more so than the information.
This book, read for class, is an interesting investigation into our obsession with entertainment and the effects of television in our world. While it was written in 1985, Postman’s message is still poignant today. It must be taken with a grain of salt, however, and while it is well written, Postman’s insistence on ‘this is what I want to say/not say’ is a bit unnecessary and seems as if he is unsure of the reader’s ability to follow along. Also, he does occasionally imply causation when what really exists is correlation, but, if anything has been learned through this book, the reader already recognizes that any information received has been fixed towards reinforcing the message desired by the deliverer. Some of the material is rather outdated however, and it should be noted that this reflects Postman's 1985 and our modern day is a bit different, better in some ways and worse in others. I wish Postman would have gone more into society outside of television as well and how that has changed, such as how products like even books and music are geared more towards the easy message and pure entertainment as opposed to higher artistic standards. There could have been a great chapter examining how this stems from television, or perhaps this is all stemming from a human desire to do what is quick, easy and painless, and Postman's television arguments are actually an extension of that. Who knows. There's a book for someone to write in there somewhere. All that said, Amusing Ourselves to Death is a very thought provoking book that will make the reader hyper-aware of television and its effects in their lives. This is a must for any fans of David Foster Wallace as well. The book is best served alongside other media/culture criticisms, especially Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and having studied it for a course made it all the more interesting. ‘For in the end, [Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.’
¹ In the class for which this book was assigned, we discussed how shows like Friends and Seinfeld were different from most previous shows as they focused on a circle of friends instead of a family, and instead of family morals much of the plot focuses on the characters moving through sexual partners, which would then imply to impressionable viewers that this is the type of behavior that makes one ‘cool’ like a person on tv. This is a terribly juvenile and seemingly old-person ornery and prude example, now that I see it written down, but you get the general idea. For a more interesting example of, think of how that classic Claymation Santa Claus is Coming to Town hides pro-hippy (it was 1970), anti-establishment (and potentially pro communist?) sentiments in a children’s film.
'Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.'
There is an excellent interview with Postman discussing the ideas in this book here
Or, a wonderful PBS documentary we watched in class highlighting Postman’s ideas: Literacy Lost
Well, yes, Mr Postman. You're undoubtedly right in much of your analysis. And I suppose it was prescient of you to be so right way back in 1985 when you wrote this book.
But having said that, I'm not sure what else to add. Here we are in 2009. Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of the state I live in. But the republic hasn't fallen. The barbarians are just an annoyance, not a threat. Newspapers may be undergoing a steep decline, but it would be premature to declare this a complete tragedy. I read books. All of my friends read books. Hell, I've even co-authored a scholarly monograph.
But guess what? I also have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. I was stricken at the death of Max, George Clooney's potbellied pig (and probably the living creature who spent most time in bed with George, when you think about it). My favorite television show last year was "America's Most Smartest Top Model". I have a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics. I love "The Tool Academy".
I guess what I'm saying is that, even though your analysis may have been spot on, it still left me with one major question unanswered.