Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman: Review and Discussion

Date finished: March 30th 2017

NB: I don’t know if one can “spoil” a non-fiction analysis, but I do go into a lot of detail on the book’s content before responding with my own thoughts (which of course won’t be anywhere near as insightful as Postman’s), so please don’t read ahead if you’d rather read the book first. 

After Donald Trump’s inauguration in late January, sales of Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 experienced doubleplusgood sales. The book soared into the top ten on the Amazon bestseller chart as a reaction to the rhetoric of an administration that chillingly evokes the Newspeak of the infamous novel. Other classic works such as Fahrenheit 451Brave New World and It Can’t Happen Here also enjoyed a spike in sales.

But perhaps the most unexpected and intriguing work making the rounds as a result of the inauguration was Neil Postman’s seminal analysis of the debilitating affects of too much television on society.

“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, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death compellingly argues that the ubiquity of television as a medium of discourse necessarily changes the way we think and communicate. The advent of the printing press once did the same in a world of oral thought; cultures without written language have a radically different way of thinking when compared to societies with a culture of written language and, so, a culture with a televisual communicative system will also think differently; the nature of discourse is changed.

The point is demonstrated well by a quotation from Marx, who asked “Is the Iliad possible when the printing press and even printing machines exist?” The conditions for the sort of epic poetry that comprises the Iliad were rooted in traditions of oral storytelling, something we hear little of now. One could update the question to ask whether a work like Das Kapital would have been written in a world where televisions exist. These works require a certain mode of thought fostered by a particular kind of environment.

Postman cogently recounts the advent of modern media from its starting point – with the inventions of the telegraph and photography –  to its modern iterations. Whereas in the 1800s, Americans were well-versed in political discourse and would turn out to see speakers debate for as long as 7 hours, the telegraph and photograph changed the realm of discourse to a decontextualised one. Telegraphs allowed news about distant events and information unrelated to people’s lives to proliferate, as did photos to showcase them. This decontextualised information has pseudo-context: justified by the fact we credit it as news, but wholly irrelevant to our day-to-day lives; they are rednered a form of entertainment.

Postman’s condemnation of news is particularly ferocious, attacking the “now… this” structure of news shows, featuring attractive presenters briefly recounting a series of disconnected events within a programme book-ended by jaunty tunes and interrupted with jarring adverts for products and services. It’s hard to fault him on this front: TV news is entirely without depth or analysis, that side of the matter is still left to newspapers, books and, these days, the internet.

He then segues into the realm of commercials and politics, which have become strangely intertwined in the age of television. TV ad culture has ushered us into a lie that renders all problems solvable by consumerism – we can buy our happiness and be like the smiling people in the advert who no longer have to rush in their brand new Audi, or found love thanks to Boursin cheese. To this end, politicians now air adverts so they can sell themselves as a brand. Policy is no longer as important as kissing babies, shaking hands with ethnic minorities and grinning in front of a building site. We are encouraged to vote for a person, not a party with an ideology, and herein lie some grave implications for modern politics.

Turning to teaching, a passion of Postman’s in his role as a Professor, Amusing Ourselves to Death lays into the use of television for educational purposes. As television is framed without exposition, and aims not to perplex viewers in order to attract the widest possible audience, it remains little more than entertainment, and can’t be considered a serious platform for educating a population. If anything, the use of television in schools justifies excessive television watching at home and acts a sort of treat in schools by which other teaching methods can be compared and dismissed. Add to this the evidence of several studies that show that the medium is less memorable than print or oral teaching and its value at all in schooling is dubious at best.

Postman ends pessimistically. The love affair with television can’t be stopped – efforts to stop it are doomed. But perhaps the affects of television can be highlighted in order to show it’s long-term influence on our culture. That way, we can perhaps at least respond to television’s influence in a measured and responsible way, to ensure that it doesn’t wholly define discourse. Otherwise we will fall into the Huxleyan world where culture is trivialised in the name of constant and instant entertainment.

Postman obviously abjures television. Though he can cite programmes that he feels justify the merits of the medium, he’s obviously not a big fan of a lot of it. I would argue that, since 1987, television has come a long way. There are obvious debilitating troughs in its history – reality TV, soaps, the meta-twattery of Gogglebox – but there are also peaks. In the UK we have the sophisticated documentaries of David Attenborough, the weekday evening programme Newsnight intends to bring discussion, albeit fast-paced of the day’s politics, and the weekly Question Time seeks to bring political debate, again fast-paced, to the airwaves. These programmes are perfect, subject to an element of ‘now…this’ and decontextualised, but they make an effort to encourage intelligent discussion of real issues.

Postman makes a strong case against television, but he perhaps willfully denies any benefits to it. And, seemingly without irony, he treats the handover from an oral society to one dominated by the printing press as historical fact, but the passing of the torch to television as something more insidious. There’s a level of conservatism to his remarks that smacks of ‘things were better in my day’, such as one hears over any new form. Postman’s is well-founded but nonetheless somewhat biased.

However, things have changed since Postman’s day, and I take issue with some of his points. I would defend television as a gateway to other things. If it weren’t for David Attenborough’s stunning wildlife documentaries I would never have read any of his books. And if I hadn’t read his books I probably wouldn’t have moved onto other non-fiction. If it weren’t for TV shows like Doctor Who (which, I have to say, has become dire), I probably wouldn’t have become interested in the work of Isaac Asimov which further led me towards Orwell, Huxley, and more beyond. Even a cartoon such as The Simpsons which has had such a deep influence on my sense of humour has conferred benefits. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the comical works Catch-22The Sellout, or the books of Terry Pratchett without it. Postman has a tendency to focus so wholly on the negative sides of television that he seems to imply that nothing positive could come of it.

Postman speaks of a “critical mass” of televisual discourse, arguing that our dependence on television peaked in the early eighties. In light of modern socio-political events, it seems fair to posit that we are now reaping the result of that; the election of a reality TV businessman to the highest office in the world begins to make a lot more sense when viewed in light of a society that grew up in critical mass televisual society. We know all politicians are liars and spinners to some extent, but Donald Trump’s record on the independent fact-checking site Politifact (as of writing) is an astonishing 4% wholly true, and 49% wholly false (with the remaining 47% deemed as gradations of true, though what exactly “mostly true” or “mostly false” actually means is unclear).

 

Trump epitomises the post-television world, relying on his personal brand and shock value to fuel his popularity, exploiting the need of all media outlets to report on anything remotely clickworthy in order to get revenue. On the face of things, Trump’s rhetoric seems very simplistic, bordering on idiotic, but what he actually does is very clever and calculated, whether or not he’s consciously aware of that. He has returned to traditions of the oral world which play brilliantly on television. Indeed, Postman points out that ancient kings and wise men were more or less judged on their ability to recite proverbs. Nowadays this seems quaint, even charming, but it’s not a sign of great intellect. Trump relays his pithy Tweet-level discourse in a similar way, and it works.

What seems the case now isn’t that the world has been cowed by the influence of this new mode of thought, but two rival factions have emerged: one with a televisual discourse, the other with a print discourse. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen – they communicate their ideas in the form of snappy slogans: “Take our country back”, “Make America Great Again”, “Au nom de people”; all are happy to make sensational lies in the name of gaining attention and usually get away with it; all rely on personal brands (Brexit being embodied by a few characters, notably Nigel Farage). What’s the difference between these and “Beans Means Heinz”? At least “Labour isn’t working” had an element of social commentary. This is politics as entertainment; all style (or lack thereof), no substance. Meanwhile, more reputable politicians are swept aside, and those who refuse to engage in soundbites receive little media attention in favour of those who can come out with an obnoxious catchphrase.

During the campaign for Brexit, Michael Gove said that people were “tired of experts”. Experts being the people citing their work in print publications, positing hypotheses which they supported with evidence. Gove’s remark seemed stupid, but it proved prescient. We are now subject to a form of politics that relies on the ability to create emotions, and exploit them towards a given outcome. A statement or policy or campaign’s validity is irrelevant as its success will be dictated by whether or not it resonates with them on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. Facts are swept away in favour of whatever mode of discourse is the most populist, and at the moment this is the patriotic claptrap about returning to the “good old days”; a fantasy composed of a divisive rhetoric which points the finger at a group of people whom become the scapegoat of all the troubles of the world. Elections have become popularity contests, as though people are voting for someone to win the X-Factor, not run the country. When a man is discredited for public office based on the manner in which he eats a bacon sandwich, we have a problem. This is the entertainment factor ushered in by an age of television. Postman was right.

There’s a lot of value in a work like Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s a consciousness raiser, it increases the awareness of the reader by adding another dimension, another consideration to the world around them. Postman sheds a lot of light on why the world is the way it is. 2016 saw some bizarre changes in the social and political landscape which need explanation and, amazingly, Postman manages to untangle at least one aspect of this strange time from his vantage point of over three decades ago. A work that remains timely and relevant this far along is a book well worth reading, remembering and adding to our shared debate. The diatribe above should show how thought-provoking and, well, just generally provocative Amusing Ourselves to Death really is. In a world that makes little sense, Postman makes a lot of sense.

8/10

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