The following article was written by Joel Zartman.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin: New York, 1985.
This book is one of the books nobody ought to neglect. It isn’t hard to read. It isn’t long either. It is twenty years old now and the only thing that has changed is that it rings more true than before. We have not listened very closely to Postman’s warning.
Postman is one of those chaps who sat around thinking about things. Unlike most people who sit around thinking about things and then perpetrate them on the public either by way of ink and paper or a blog, he was actually more successful at thinking about things than not. His books are worth reading. His trouble is that he’s a friendly critic of modernity. But for what he’s doing, that is no great trouble. Postman remembers the age of print and holds it up against the age of the image, the age when public events are being reported and even conducted on the television. His argument is that the age of the image is an inferior age, one that is antagonistic to serious discourse because the medium in which it is conducted has a bias against reasoned discourse.
What Postman argues is that the medium of film and television have a bias. Every medium has a bias. For example: he argues that the printing press, while capable of reproducing images, is biased against them. The printing press did not usher in books filled with illustrations. There were illustrations, there were even books full of illustrations, but in the main, the medium of print gave us books full of letters and words and sentences. This is its bias. The bias of television and film is toward images. In one chapter Postman lists the possible uses he has known that are made of a TV. It can be used as a lamp, as a table, as a bookshelf even or as a flat surface on which to project text. But its bias is revealed in that for which it is most successfully used. And this use, he argues, tends toward irrational associations that degrade serious discourse.
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville (105).
Want proof? Consider, Postman urges, how long anything takes on a TV news report. How long is an “in-depth” story? Look about the little pictures they flash beside the talking head and ask how much it really has to do with the story, how much it really adds, or why they keep showing that same tedious sequence. Ask yourself about the value of “live” reports, why they need to conjure up the air of immediacy with spontaneous comments from generals or civilians with nothing really useful to say. Just notice what the basis of the appeal is for most commercials. On what grounds do they expect you to get their product?
In the first half of the book Postman explains the basis for the evaluation he is making. Here is where he talks about mediums of communication and their bias. Here is where he contrasts the previous ages with the present age and where he gives you the explanations of the differences between language and image very thoroughly. I think anybody who engages in communication in our day ought to read this. I think people who put vaguely associated little pictures on their blogs ought to consider it. Seriously, the way he treats this whole matter applies to blogs and I think some with their fondness for clever and cute graphics and magazine illustration pretensions ought to regard what postman says. Postman convinces at least me when he points out the ways in which irrational behavior is less than harmless. And it says much of our age that we even need an argument to demonstrate that irrational things are harmful. But try putting that in the comments of a post with some very vaguely connected image. You will either receive fatuous derision and scorn, or a dismissal.
The second half of the book deals specifically with the degrading of serious discourse in four areas of life, then draws conclusions. First Postman deals with the degradation of current events that forms what we know as “the news.” Then he lights into TV evangelists and the whole sordid world of religion on TV which he treats in such as way as would make a saint rejoice exceedingly. It is a very salutary bit of writing and if you need something to make your heart glad and to expose the folly of the unrighteous as it should be exposed, try this. Then he deals with politics specifically, showing how campaigning has deteriorated. He calls the chapter “Reach out and elect someone.” The last chapter before the conclusion is the one that deals with so-called educational television. This chapter takes on Sesame Street and has the power to set you against the whole genre, if you aren’t already. One very thought-provoking suggestion that Postman makes at the end of the chapter on religion which ties in with the educational chapter is how the TV spreads outside of itself and starts fashioning the religious and educational endeavors of real life into its own degraded image. It is humiliating to think that the structure of our worship of the living God has so much in common and draws so many of the unquestioned assumptions on which it rests from a medium unsuited to anything but the most vulgar entertainment. But it is not surprising, for the thoughtlessness that is the bias of this media is the thoughtlessness that characterizes and permeates all our lives.
You might wonder if this is an overstatement. There has been thoughtlessness in ages quite devoid of cathode ray tubes, antennae or remote controls. I would answer that we have only increased our capacity for thoughtlessness (more precisely, we have decreased our capacity for thoughtfulness and live at a disadvantage). We are worse off.
Now the reason I was urged by Ryan to work on something out of Postman was to address his present attempts to challenge the assumption about the Gospel and film in the whole situation which we shall here designate Sharper Spear. Postman’s argument is that putting anything serious into the medium of the TV will inevitably degrade it. “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television” (87). Nobody who really cares about their message will do so. Perhaps you will ask if Postman distinguishes film and television. He does. Do you know what he says? It is in the context of telling us why TV is worse than other mass media such as radio or records or films. “No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances” (92). His point is that we do expect serious things from TV. Isn’t it telling that Postman assumed that movies were only used for entertainment, not serious business? Isn’t it curious that the people who seem to think films can be used for talking about government policy and religion are Michael Moore and Jason Janz? Now it seems to me that what Postman says suggests two things: either those who want the Gospel put into a film are ignorant, or they are evil. They are ignorant if they neglect to consider the nature of the medium they employ. They are evil if they understand the nature of the medium they employ and use it to degrade the message given out. Charity suggests we chalk it up to ignorance. For that ignorance we recommend Postman’s book.