Jun
26

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” Book Review

By

clip_image002Book Information: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Neil Postman. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 184 pages.

Neil Postman is a cultural observer and critic, educator, and communications critic at New York University. His well-known book Amusing Ourselves to Death gives us a chilling reminder of how much the media we use on a regular basis affect our thought patterns. In particular, Postman’s main concern is the effect of television on public discourse. It is not the entertainment value of television that concerns him so much as the elevation of television as a primary conveyor of what is considered “the truth.” He was keenly aware of the power of the media to influence at a basic level how people think and feel about the world around them. Considering how much we as libertarians criticize the mainstream media for capitulating to the State at every turn – whether the left or the right – Postman helps us get behind the medium itself to understand the epistemology. We can then see that while Orwell’s 1984 is still of great concern, perhaps the even greater danger is the Huxleyan vision from Brave New World.

“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

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. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

The Medium is the Metaphor

Part 1 of the book is a fascinating exposition of epistemology – how we come to know what we know. The media we use is an integral part of the equation. Media helps build the structures of thought, and thus thought communication. Postman writes:

“When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor. Nature itself does not speak. Neither do our minds or our bodies or, more to the point of this book, our bodies politic. Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as ‘it’ but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”

The “bias” of a medium upon a culture is unseen yet deeply felt. Nowhere is the difference more clearly seen than between typography and television. In a culture characterized by print, thought processes will tend to organize themselves into a similar linear and logical order that is seen on the pages of books. Proper use and expression of words becomes the norm. This was the state of America during the founding era and lasted, for all intents and purposes, until the late 20th century. It was the culture enriched by the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Paine, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain. Postman explains how widely available print media constructed the culture of America.

“And Now . . . This”

Television, as a different medium, changes the metaphor. Postman says, “Television has achieved the status of ‘meta-medium’ – an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.” It is no longer a pseudo-mystery but is in the background of everywhere we go and everything we see.

And thus, we come to Postman’s primary criticism of how television is used and what it affects negatively: in religion, in education, and in news and politics. Most of the Christians I routinely interact with understand his criticism of religion distinctly well. The so-called “televangelist” movement certainly diminishes the depth of theological discourse throughout Christendom. It is presented primarily as entertainment, losing what makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity. Instead of spiritual transcendence, the preacher is tops. “God comes out as second banana.” (Given, this is not universally the case but it is certainly the right characterization.)

The educationists can be heard praising the television medium as “the future of education” just as often today as when Postman wrote initially in 1985. “We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image.” Postman’s harshest criticism is reserved for those who would dumb us down in deference to the lowest common denominator.

I know of no libertarian that does not clearly see the vacuous nature of television news programs. Moreover, this flows straight into the political arena. There was once a time when the President of the United States could walk down the street without people recognizing him, simply because no one knew what the president looked like. Now, however, “looking presidential” is just as important, perhaps more important, as knowing the Constitution or having good ideology. This is the power of television: to put the superficial and unimportant into the forefront.

Culture is Dead! Long Live Culture!

Neil Postman can almost come off as a Luddite by the end of Amusing Ourselves to Death, but his criticism should still be heeded. It is not simply that Postman despises the very pixels of your new 42 inch LCD panel. On the contrary, he admits that as entertainment it is excellent and quite fun. I don’t think he is even saying that no serious message can ever be conveyed through television or a movie (or else he would be throwing all theatre out the window as well). No, the main message is a warning that serious messages are easily lost within the medium, and there is great danger when matters of utmost seriousness are couched as mere entertainment.

Amusing Ourselves to Death truly helped coalesce many disjointed thoughts in my own mind about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of the television medium. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to those of you who observe culture with a watchful eye, and wish to respond accordingly to a trend that we intuitively understand to be negative in the long run.

We should be careful to remember that the war of ideas will not be won, and certainly victory in the same will never be preserved, using images rapidly flashing on a screen. Even as we are excited that our modern heroes of freedom, like Ron Paul, Peter Schiff, and Tom Woods, are receiving incredible interview opportunities on the news, we need to remember that we will not win by merely playing their game. This culture is dying, in part because of how lost public discourse is becoming. It’s our turn to come in and rebuild culture – for the cause of liberty and of Christ.

Buy Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death from Amazon.com and support LibertarianChristians.com.

Norman Horn

Norman is the founder and editor of LibertarianChristians.com. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology.

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Categories : Book Reviews
  • Graeme Brooks

    If this interests you, I would also recommend ‘The Hidden Power of Electronic Media’ by Shane Hipps. He similarly notes the importance of media on shaping thought processes, but doesn’t focus exclusively on television. Released in 2005, it focusses on the internet and the new multimedia churches that you guys seem to have a lot of across the pond (and which we are slowly adopting over here in the UK). There’s no real politics in it though, as it concentrates more on how we need to respond to changes in media by adapting styles of community, leadership and worship in the church.

  • Graeme Brooks

    If this interests you, I would also recommend ‘The Hidden Power of Electronic Media’ by Shane Hipps. He similarly notes the importance of media on shaping thought processes, but doesn’t focus exclusively on television. Released in 2005, it focusses on the internet and the new multimedia churches that you guys seem to have a lot of across the pond (and which we are slowly adopting over here in the UK). There’s no real politics in it though, as it concentrates more on how we need to respond to changes in media by adapting styles of community, leadership and worship in the church.

  • Darwyyn

    I really enjoyed this piece, Norman. Thanks for addressing an issue that most people brush off, partly because they are ingrained to the culture which “directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well”.

    I myself stopped watching TV for news and have also cut back on how many shows I watch, mostly because with the latter I don’t get a good critique or fact-checking. With the latter, I recognized a while ago that I was watching more than reading, and while it is possible to take the message in a show and translate it into written thought/analysis, it is a level which many people don’t exercise.

    As Alec Baldwin so blithely proclaims on the Hulu commercials, actors/aliens want us to watch TV because turns our brains to goo. So they can eat them. A better metaphor for government activity would be hard to find.

  • Darwyyn

    I really enjoyed this piece, Norman. Thanks for addressing an issue that most people brush off, partly because they are ingrained to the culture which “directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well”.

    I myself stopped watching TV for news and have also cut back on how many shows I watch, mostly because with the latter I don’t get a good critique or fact-checking. With the latter, I recognized a while ago that I was watching more than reading, and while it is possible to take the message in a show and translate it into written thought/analysis, it is a level which many people don’t exercise.

    As Alec Baldwin so blithely proclaims on the Hulu commercials, actors/aliens want us to watch TV because turns our brains to goo. So they can eat them. A better metaphor for government activity would be hard to find.

  • Norman

    Graeme: There are certain things about multimedia in church that I can appreciate. At the church where I help minister, we use “The Paperless Hymnal” which puts the sheet music (including ALL the parts, we’re an acappella tradition) up on the screen. I think it’s quite valuable to do something like that. But I am extremely wary changing worship for the sake of making things more “palatable” to outsiders. Thanks for that book suggestion as well!

    Darwyyn: Great points, I hadn’t made that connection with the Hulu commercials, that’s pretty great. There’s an article in that, yes… Wanna write it? ;-)

  • Arnie

    Postman was my hero. Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death were my two favorite books for many years. People are now using “Google it” as a tautology – “Of course it correct, it is technological!”

    I agree with every one of your points about his work. However, I do not concur with your conclusion that it is “our turn to … rebuild culture…”. But if you guys want to take on every dark force in the world, have at it. When God prompts to act I will do so. The battle is His, not mine.

    Still, thank you for resurrecting a brilliant author whose message of caution to phrases like “Google it!” should not be forgotten.

  • Arnie

    Postman was my hero. Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death were my two favorite books for many years. People are now using “Google it” as a tautology – “Of course it correct, it is technological!”

    I agree with every one of your points about his work. However, I do not concur with your conclusion that it is “our turn to … rebuild culture…”. But if you guys want to take on every dark force in the world, have at it. When God prompts to act I will do so. The battle is His, not mine.

    Still, thank you for resurrecting a brilliant author whose message of caution to phrases like “Google it!” should not be forgotten.

  • todd

    Norman,

    Glad you liked this book. Agree completely with Arnie about Technopoly – you need to read it as well. I know you don’t have enough to do. :)

    I think what I find most intriguing about Postman’s discussion here is that the programming of television isn’t the issue for him. Rather, it’s the format – the very presentation (fast moving pictures, never sitting still, not allowing for contemplation; interspersed with smaller, meaningless narrative commercials, etc) debases our ability to dialogue and think logically, rationally. It is completely antithetical to print culture.

    I would like to see Postman’s theses taken to the internet (thanks to Graeme for the book suggestion!) and other kinds of technology. I’ve just heard of a new book I’m looking into on Presidents/Presidential speeches by Elvin T. Lim, called “The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush”. In it, Lim discusses the complete vacuousness of modern presidential speeches, and the way the use of rhetoric rather than substance is centralizing power in the executive branch. It seems to me that TV and other “dis-logical” media are building a populace ripe for the kind of abuse Lim discusses.

    Great review, I’ve been looking forward to it!

    todd

  • todd

    Norman,

    Glad you liked this book. Agree completely with Arnie about Technopoly – you need to read it as well. I know you don’t have enough to do. :)

    I think what I find most intriguing about Postman’s discussion here is that the programming of television isn’t the issue for him. Rather, it’s the format – the very presentation (fast moving pictures, never sitting still, not allowing for contemplation; interspersed with smaller, meaningless narrative commercials, etc) debases our ability to dialogue and think logically, rationally. It is completely antithetical to print culture.

    I would like to see Postman’s theses taken to the internet (thanks to Graeme for the book suggestion!) and other kinds of technology. I’ve just heard of a new book I’m looking into on Presidents/Presidential speeches by Elvin T. Lim, called “The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush”. In it, Lim discusses the complete vacuousness of modern presidential speeches, and the way the use of rhetoric rather than substance is centralizing power in the executive branch. It seems to me that TV and other “dis-logical” media are building a populace ripe for the kind of abuse Lim discusses.

    Great review, I’ve been looking forward to it!

    todd

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