Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is one of those books I would come across everywhere, but never read because I felt like I would probably agree with everything in it.
After yet another strong recommendation, I decided to finally read it.
A few things struck me about this:
- It would be hard to believe that David Foster Wallace did not find this a really important book. Lots of the themes show up in E unibus pluram and Infinite Jest. I kind of prefer DFW on all of this stuff, becomes he comes off a little less curmudgeonly, more appreciative of the complex failure modes of (post) modern capitalist society, and a bit less like his solution is “we just need to go back to the good old days where long form print was dominant.”
- As with E unibus pluram, all of the commentary on TV culture is perhaps even more true of internet culture. For example, the commentary on condensing every idea into the 30s TV commercial form factor sounds a lot like critical commentary about Twitter.
- I happened to read the 1986 Bryn Mawr Commencement Address by Ursula Le Guin right before reading Postman, and I would love to see a dialog between her and Postman on objectivity and the mother tongue. Postman is a really strong proponent of the value of context, coherence, logic, and a shared objective reality, and I think Le Guin might push him on the importance of accommodating a plurality of “tongues” a bit.
Here are some of my favorite bits…
“seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing”:
That the image and the word have different functions, work at different levels of abstraction, and require different modes of response will not come as a new idea to anyone. Painting is at least three times as old as writing, and the place of imagery in the repertoire of communication instruments was quite well understood in the nineteenth century. What was new in the mid-nineteenth century was the sudden and massive intrusion of the photograph and other iconographs into the symbolic environment. This event is what Daniel Boorstin in his pioneering book The Image calls “the graphic revolution.” By this phrase, Boorstin means to call attention to the fierce assault on language made by forms of mechanically reproduced imagery that spread unchecked throughout American culture—photographs, prints, posters, drawings, advertisements. I choose the word “assault” deliberately here, to amplify the point implied in Boorstin’s “graphic revolution.” The new imagery, with photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a supplement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. What Boorstin implies about the graphic revolution, I wish to make explicit here: The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself. First in billboards, posters, and advertisements, and later in such “news” magazines and papers as Life, Look, the New York Daily Mirror and Daily News, the picture forced exposition into the background, and in some instances obliterated it altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, advertisers and newspapermen had discovered that a picture was not only worth a thousand words, but, where sales were concerned, was better. For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing.
“What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?”
In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to the unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that “the news” had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the “news of the day.” And the “news of the day” created a context for the photograph.
But the sense of context created by the partnership of photograph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory. You may get a better sense of what I mean here if you imagine a stranger’s informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of vermiformplant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the island of Aldononjes. And if you wonder aloud, “Yes, but what has that to do with anything?” imagine that your informant replies, “But here is a photograph I want you to see,” and hands you a picture labeled Illyx on Aldononjes. “Ah, yes,” you might murmur, “now I see.” It is true enough that the photograph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photograph, and you may even believe for a day or so that you have learned something. But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have “learned” nothing (except perhaps to avoid strangers with photographs), and the illyx will fade from your mental landscape as though it had never been. At best you are left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving a crossword puzzle, but nothing more.
It may be of some interest to note, in this connection, that the crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in America at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact. This coincidence suggests that the new technologies had turned the age-old problem of information on its head: Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.” In one form or another, each of these supplies an answer to the question, “What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game? In The Image, Boorstin calls the major creation of the graphic revolution the “pseudo-event,” by which he means an event specifically staged to be reported—like the press conference, say. I mean to suggest here that a more significant legacy of the telegraph and the photograph may be the pseudo-context. A pseudo-context is a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. But the use the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem-solving, or change. It is the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives. And that, of course, is to amuse. The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.
Postman’s remarks on the television 30s television commercial / how this medium alters the message, sounds a lot like modern discourse about social media (tweets):
But what virtues attach to politics if Ronald Reagan is right? Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. In Joe McGinnis’ book about Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968, The Selling of the President, he said much of what needs to be said about politics and advertising, both in his title and in the book. But not quite all. For though the selling of a President is an astonishing and degrading thing, it is only part of a larger point: In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial.
The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug. An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives. We may safely assume, therefore, that the television commercial has profoundly influenced American habits of thought. Certainly, there is no difficulty in demonstrating that it has become an important paradigm for the structure of every type of public discourse. My major purpose here is to show how it has devastated political discourse. But there may be some value in my pointing, first, to its effect on commerce itself.
By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business—music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity—the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver. The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, as, for example, those which prohibit children from making contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.
Of course, the practice of capitalism has its contradictions. Cartels and monopolies, for example, undermine the theory. But television commercials make hash of it. To take the simplest example: To be rationally considered, any claim—commercial or otherwise—must be made in language. More precisely, it must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of discourse from which such words as “true” and “false” come. If that universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of empirical tests, logical analysis or any of the other instruments of reason are impotent.