Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

This book belongs to a genre which once enthralled me, but now seems to be simple-minded, naive, and doomed to impotence. The genre is that of the prophet of American Democracy. The prophet sees (imagines?) that there are principles of our American political and cultural landscape that every real American, if they put their thinking cap on, should agree with. The prophet then identifies modern threats to this grand old system, and exhorts us the people to get angry/concerned and act- to repent, go vote, take up their trumpets and march around the city walls, or whatever the case may be.

Postman’s prophetic warning comes straight out of the Gospel of Marshall McLuhan. His thesis is that:

1) A la McLuhan, the medium is the message;

2) When a medium becomes dominant enough, it becomes the central metaphor through which we perceive the world

3) Television has become our meta-medium; because it appeals to emotion much more powerfully than to reason, our public discourse is nuked

Like any good prophet, he sees that our sin will lead us to a dystopian future. He notes that while Orwell envisioned the telescreen as a way for a totalitarian government to control the masses, this is not the dystopia that has come to pass in the Western world; it is in fact more like Huxley’s Brave New World, where we entertain and stimulate ourselves until we reach a realm beyond reason.

But did his 1986 assessment turn out to be correct? In his analysis of how television changes the way we think, the answer is largely yes. But his prediction that television would remain the dominant medium turned out to be very wrong. First came some biting satire of television through the medium of television- think Simpsons. Then came the diversity of cable, breaking the oligopoly of broadcasters. Then came, most importantly, the internet. Postman repeatedly states that the potential of computers is “vastly overestimated”, but history has proven him very wrong. The internet has led to a stunning revival of print culture. While it certainly has problems of its own as a meta-medium and as a center for public discourse, I would argue that it is far more conducive to the spread of facts, rationality, context, and individuality that is television.

Great anecdotes:

We don’t need “serious television.” Television is good at making entertaining, comforting junk; let it do what it’s good at. A serious message will only be distorted and perverted by the medium of television.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates bore little resemblance to the debates of today, even to the form of debate that inherited its name. Why? The participants and the audience had the intelligence and the fortitude to engage in a 7-hour debate!

Postmodern writing done right: On the surface, Postman’s style of prose seems to resemble that of postmodernists; he uses difficult language and is continually quoting or referring to the vast body of literature, philosophy, and humanity that came before. But while the means resemble those of postmodernists, the end is completely different- for he doesn’t write this way in order to obfuscate the issue, to make himself seem smarter than the reader, or to render himself immune to being disproven. The references are relevant and comprehensible- a well-educated reader should know nearly all of them, and the layman is able to research them without spending more time in that pursuit than in reading the book itself. It’s almost as if Postman is using his writing style in order to better communicate his thesis- imagine that!

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Written by James Bailey

August 3, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Posted in James' Bookshelf

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