Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death 31 years on

I read quite a lot of Neil Postman about a decade ago. Always a readable and provocative voice, I must admit I take him rather less seriously since reading more widely about the history of childhood and realising his dogmatic statements about “the invention of childhood” in The Disappearance of Childhood are, to say the least, tendentious. While I don’t buy all of Evgeny Morozov’s arguments, I do find his contention that Postman’s approach to “technology” ultimately reifies it as a sort of unstoppable force convincing. However this is not to gainsay Postman’s insights and also perhaps this is a case where flaws in rhetoric distract the essential truth of an argument

Having re-posted my SAU post on Steven Johnson it seems a good time to republish my 2005 piece on the same site on Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.  The Hugh Kenner anecdote repeated in the first paragraph illustrates well one of the flaws in the tendency to find that a particular media (or technology) “created” this or that cognitive phenomenon. And yet… this reminds me of an academic paper I read criticising Murray Schafer’s soundscapes on various grounds, especially his exploration of how mechanical sound, recorded sound and amplified sound marked a discontinuity from a world of natural sounds. While the paper made some valid points about agency and the nature of the word “natural” and so forth, I found the essence of Schafer’s point remained untouched.

Amusing Ourselves to Death
by Neil Postman
first published in 1985

Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one of the generation of media studies figures who followed Marshall McLuhan and saw themselves continuing his work. Readers of this blog will no doubt have their own views on McLuhan. The originator of the terms “global village” and “the medium is the message” undoubtedly has some right to be considered a prophet of the modern age. Sometimes one can go a bit too far with the medium-is-the-message business though. The late Hugh Kenner, responding to McLuhan’s claim that the development of cartography during the Renaissance created a geographical sense that had never previously existed, sent a postcard to the media studies guru reading:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Politically Postman was a solid Democrat, and indeed the cover of my copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death, his best known work, shows the features of Ronald Reagan, evidently on the cathode ray tube, with a clown’s red nose in situ. Inside, he remarks that “black voters are the only rational voters left in America”, as, in Postman’s account, they vote en bloc for the party that serves their interests best, rather than any other perceived interest. Again, no doubt regular readers of this blog will have their own views on this and various other asides.

Personally, the most serious point against Postman is that Amusing Ourselves to Death apparently inspired pompmeister Roger Waters of The Wall fame to record the album Amused to Death, no doubt as turgid and bombastic as most of his other works. I suppose being adopted by bore-rockers can happen to anyone.

All this can obscure the fact that Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, is a bracing, provocative examination of the deleterious effect of television on our lives. More specifically, on our political, cultural and spiritual lives.

Postman begins with Orwell and Huxley’s dystopias. Orwell’s 1984and Animal Farm were visions of coercion, of unlimited state control. Orwell’s fear was of tyranny imposed from without. Huxley’s Brave New World [see review by David Womersley], however, portrayed a society whose citizens were not coerced into anything but joyously embraced a life of apparent ease and comfort.

There is a danger in this line of argument of a lazy moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A (for Postman would class the then USSR and China as Orwellian tyrannies, with the U.S.A. a potential Huxleyan one). Nevertheless, there is much to be said for it. Postman writes:

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

In an era of universally available nutrition, analgesia and entertainment that would make the mightiest Caesar blush, one need only read Dr Theodore Dalrymple’s reports of medical practice in a slum area of an English city to realise that satiety of physical pleasures is not associated with a fulfilled, happy, free life.

The key to the book come when, discussing the Second Commandment prohibition of graven images, Postman writes:

It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, and unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.

Postman’s contention is that the medium is not only the message, but the metaphor that shapes our thought; the medium moulds our thinking and communication far more than vice versa. If an oral, non-representational culture was necessary for the great abstraction of Jehovah, the nature of communication and representation in any culture will help determine its characteristic modes of thought and enquiry. We are in the age of television; the opening chapters discuss the “Age of Typography” which preceded it. Postman writes well on the Nineteenth Century United States, one of the most literate societies of all time if not the most literate. He gives the example of the famous series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, the first of which took place in Ottowa, Illinois on August 21, 1858.

Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed … For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters preceded as Lincoln had outlined.

It’s impossible to imagine any audience today cheerfully coming back for four more hours of anything, let along “talk”. Postman is strong on the “Age of Exposition”:

the name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press.

This era ended abruptly, in his account, with Morse’s telegraph, which suddenly filled newspapers with information from remote areas that became a commodity known as “news”. Postman makes an observation that strikes a chord with me, and I assume anyone else who often wonders at the tremendous fuss that is made about “the news”:

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? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have such consequence; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about a crime will do it, if by chance the crime occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.

The weakest chapter of the book follows, “The Age of Showbusiness”. Much of this consists of various examples of the trivialisation of culture from the mid-1980s. Postman deploys rather leaden humour on these examples; for instance he makes much heavy weather of mocking an airline cabin crew who organised various games for their passengers. I for one found this a reasonable way of enlivening what was no doubt a tedious flight.

On the whole when he is not trying to be funny, Postman is very readable. Amusing Ourselves to Death possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which:

enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” [but nevertheless] it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.

It is a not particularly heavy labour to read Postman, despite his seriousness. Some of this is the thrill of all jeremiads and hellfire sermons. There is something wonderfully bracing about being told how terrible everything is.

The slight crankishness of tone helps rather than hinders this readability. One is conscious reading the book that this was a man who wrote in longhand all his life; the title of his last book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Futureshows perhaps where his historical sympathies lay.

The nub of the second section of the book is the insidious effect of television in converting public discourse into entertainment. In religion, in politics, and in education, television’s grammar is one of entertainment, one that corrupts the serious, the divine, the pedagogical. For Postman, The A Team and Dallas are preferable to any current affairs programme or “serious” documentary.

This aesthetic of public-affairs-as-entertainment easily migrates to the radio. How often listening to Morning Ireland (Ireland’s version of the Today programme) with its smug air of setting the political agenda have I listened to an exchange that goes something like this:

Government Figure says X
Trade Union/Opposition Figure says Y
A minute of so of argument ensues.

And then we move on to something else. It is like the old principle of dialectic, except thesis and antithesis never meet, let alone synthesise. The soundbite culture of current affairs broadcasting has already been commented upon in this blog, and who can listen to the strident, harrying music of these programmes, the serious gravity of the presenters’ voices (with their occasional lightening of tone for a moment of comic relief) and on reflection not consider that we are not experiencing a genuine attempt to communicate about the world but a carefully packaged piece of satisfyingly grown-up seeming news entertainment? On another point, how many documentaries have you ever seen that made any more points or imparted any more information than would be contained in an article of a thousand words or so?

Education was a particular interest of Postman. He was one of the few public figures to take on the sacred cow that was Sesame Street, and deals with it in the chapter on “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”. He writes:

we now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street’.

More recently, of course, we have seen “computers for schools!” as a sort of all purpose catch-all for improving education. Give them the PCs, and they will learn (rather than looking up dodgy pictures on Google).

Indeed, the effect of communication technology and educational fashion on childhood was a major concern of Postman’s. In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, he wrote:

if all the secrets of adulthood are opened to children, cynicism, apathy or ignorance replace curiosity for them.

Every so often someone demands that children’s fiction must be “relevant”, that rather than wizards and kings children’s stories should deal with drug addiction and broken homes. The popularity of such as Harry Potter is berated as escapism, or even worse some kind of acceptance of bourgeois values. Postman’s is a refreshing recognition that children are not simply mini-adults who should be treated as such.

Despite its crankish and bombastic overtones, there is much to recommend Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the very least, it provokes much thought, at best it allows us to see how television has in some ways corrupted not just our public discourse but even our whole idea of the good life. There is something valuable in both McLuhan and Postman’s examination of:

To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?

It is a commonplace of bien-pensant opinion that, whatever one can say about American television, we at least on this side of the Atlantic have a tradition of quality programming. Of course, in Postman’s terms this is worse than trashy television – better The Bill thanNewsnight. What would he have made of Big Brother?

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