Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

The other day, a friend of mine and I were watching the pre-Batman Christian Bale movie “Equilibrium”

Here is the summary from the Wikipedia:

The film follows John Preston (Christian Bale), a warrior-priest and enforcement officer in a future dystopia where both feelings and artistic expression are outlawed and citizens take daily injections of drugs to suppress their emotions. After accidentally missing a dose, Preston begins to experience emotions which make him question his own morality and moderate his actions, while attempting to remain undetected by the suspicious society in which he lives. Ultimately he aids a resistance movement using advanced martial arts, which he was taught serving the very regime he is to help overthrow.

As is typical of the type of people who enjoy these times of movies my  “friend” begun to expound on how our society was going in this very direction. We were, he claimed, headed towards a prison planet where we would be drugged up, brainwashed, and then kept in permanent serfdom in a neo-fascist state.

Being the contrarian that I am, I had to ask him some issues regarding this scenario – Why would you need to force people to take drugs? Why not make the drugs addictive? How can a fascist nation be economically viable?

But there was also something about that movie. Anyone who has watched the trailer, read the above summary, or watched the whole movie will notice just how utterly derivative it is. Its one of those new “mashups” that all the cool kids are talking about. It combines the Soma drug from Brave New World, the fascist state from 1984, the book-burning from Fahrenheit 451, the fascist uniforms from the Matrix, the sterile cinematography of Gattaca, and  the Guardian characters from Judge Dredd, with all the self-importance and pretentiousness that we have come to expect from sci-fi action movies. And as with any  mashup, it is inevitably lesser than the sum of its ripped-off parts.

I had asked my friend if he had read any off the books that the movie had been “influenced” by. He said no, though he had watched the 1984 movie with John Hurt.

Now my “friend”  is one of those “people” who believes that the world will end come the 21st of December 2012, that 9/11 was a U.S. government operation and that there is a second star in our solar system called Nibiru that also influences our planet. Obviously we should not take him seriously, but that is not the point.

When most people think of a totalitarian state, they think of a 1984 type situation, as seen in Equilibrium. What Neil Postman is here to tell us is that we are heading in a totally different direction. See below.

Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death:Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business “, posits that, rather than being controlled through the application of pain, we will be manipulated through the inflicting of pleasure. He believes that we have switched from a contextual, analytical, print based culture to a context-free, graphical one. As a result, the rational, liberal democracy that was created during the 18th and 19th century is becoming unsustainable as our visual culture is leading us … somewhere else.

We were not amused (in the old days)

The book is divided into two parts. The first part contains its legendary foreword, an explanation of its main theme and sub-themes, as well as a short history of American typographic culture, pre-telegraph. The main theme, from which all else flows, is not that television is making us stupid, neither it is that a print based culture is superior but that the form in which an idea is expressed affects what those ideas will be. From this value neutral theme, Postman develops an idea in Part 1 known as the Age of Exposition.

To quote Postman

The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.

Note that he did not say that the print media creates “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response“, but that it amplifies it. Postman is no fool. He is quite aware of all the junk romance novels, gossip and all the other nonsense that anyone with access to a printing press can put out. Those simple ideas are nothing for a complex form to reproduce. But it takes a complex form to produce complex ideas. Not complicated – complex. A web browser, with its Javascript JIT compiler, tabbed windows and JQuery/Flash animations is quite complicated. A book, is complex, but not complicated.

Postman uses the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates to further his point about Man in the Age of Exposition. At one debate at Peoria, Illinois on the 16th of October 1854, Stephen Douglas went first for three hours. By the time Douglas had finished, it was 5 in the evening. Lincoln then suggested everyone go home to have dinner, then come back in the evening. They did, and when they returned they were treated to another four hours of oratory, starting with Lincoln’s rebuttal of Douglas.

They certainly were not bored into a catatonic stupor by sentences such as

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which  I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.

In fact, these debates would take place at fairs and circuses. The music would not be played during these debates of course, but the crowd would quite often shout encouragements (”’You tell ’em Abe ‘) or scorn (“Answer that one, if you can”).

The above excerpt by Lincoln is not something that one finds in an oral culture, which is dependent upon poetry, proverbs and limericks are used as mnemonic devices. Nor would it be normally found in a graphic culture, with its focus on charts, graphs, Youtube clips, soundbites, LOLcats, smiley faces, and jump cuts. Both the pictorial medium, and its counterpart, the medium created by electronic communication . The whole point of a photograph and the bit is to preserve information like a a mosquito trapped in amber. But determining whether or not the mosquito is relevant in that time or place is not a within by those media, as they are primarily suited to preserving an eternal present and transporting information, not its exposition or its interpretation.

We are always amused (nowadays)

Of the audience at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Postman asks “What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?” He, of course, means this as a rhetorical question. The Americans of the time from the Late 17th to the early 19th century were analytic and rational, as a result of living in a print based culture. Thus, they were able to readily deal with the all the new ideas and techniques that were part and parcel of the Enlightenment, whether it be the Protestantism of Jonathan Edwards, the economics of Adam Smith, the literature of Charles Dickens, the politics of Thomas Paine and the oratory of Abraham Lincoln.

So what does he think of the 1985-era citizen? Here is his take on a viewing of a 1984 Presidential Debate (emphases are mine ):

Prior to the  1984 presidential elections, the two candidates confronted each other on television in what  were called “debates.” These events were not in the  least like the  Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as, What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on  several  occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter The men were less concerned with  giving  arguments  than  with  “giving  off”  impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the  candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom?

Let us look at the skills that were fostered by the Age of Exposition

  1. A sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially
  2. A high valuation of reason and order
  3. An abhorrence of contradiction
  4. A large capacity for detachment and and objectivity
  5. A tolerance for delayed response

Anyone who watches a debate on TV nowadays knows that it is nothing more than a more sophisticated version of an exchange of “Yo Mama!” jokes. Yo mama jokes are subjective and emotional attachment (opposite of 4.), They require an immediate response, as no one expects . At the debate itself, the emphasis is not on reason or order, but on emotional appeal and non-fiction versions of manatee jokes. Contradictions are par the course in politics.

To put it simply, people vote for pretty faces and nice slogans, both in Jamaica, and in the United States. They vote for politicians based on the narrative that has been created for them, not on the content of their policies.

Postman explains that the progenitor of the television, the photograph and telegraph, were the technological systems (and epistemologies) that caused the shift from print to visual culture. The telegraph made introduced into the culture irrelevant information, the information would be about things so far away that no one in the receiving location would be able to do anything about it. This is a direct result of the form of the the medium – it is intended to bring information from far away – not to aid in its exposition. One does not construct a telegraph link within a small city or town. It is not feasible and besides, why would you need a telegraph when you could just go outside? The photograph, can only show concrete examples of things, it cannot deal with abstract categories. It can show a man, but not Mankind, lovers, but not Love, pornography, but not sensuality. Both media only need to be recognized, but words need to be understood.

In order to demonstrate how the de-contextualized media of the Age of Show Business (post-telegraph age) creates information that leads to “irrelevance,impotence, and  incoherence.”  Postman develops a concept called the information-action ratio. It is the measure of how much action you take based on how much information you have. For example, let us say that you are a white guy that has heard about the plight of some poor darkies Ugandans via a YouTube video.

I think you can tell where I’m going with this….

Being the well-meaning person you are, you want to do your very best to help them. Now, having watched that half-hour video on YouTube, you should be very well informed about the situation, right? Do you know the name of the President of Uganda? The name of the capital? What about the name of the last President? What is an Acholi? I am willing to bet that the answer would be “no” to all those questions. Those are very important questions that are quite relevant to the action you would need to take. But because a television based epistemology (in this case, a YouTube video) depends on slogans and appeals to emotion, instead of explanation and exposition, you would information that was not important, merely sensational. And even if you did get important information, you would be impotent to do anything with that information.

Well, that is one action you could take.

I have used the example of YouTube because even though the book was written in 1985 (Postman talks about “microcomputers”), it is still relevant. This is because Postman does not see television as a technology, but a philosophy of knowledge. He shows how the television philosophy renders everything it touches into entertainment. Religion loses its theology, dogma and ritual, and becomes a personality cult. Education loses its ability for  exposition, perplexity and need for prerequisites, and becomes mere entertainment.

This is the logical conclusion of Postman’s argument. Television’s inherent structure reduces everything to entertainment.The medium of television is a Procrustean bed that cuts the profound, erudite foundations of the serious aspects of our culture, reducing it to mere trivia. At the same time, it stretches the commonplace, irrelevant, piddling, trite features of consumer capitalism to fit those foundational principles that it has so efficiently eviscerated. Postman has no problem with entertainment -indeed he agrees that the television is best used for entertainment. The problem is when it is used for serious affairs such as religion, politics, news and education, then it becomes a problem. These institutions still retain the features that he had when they where created in the late 17th to the mid 19th century, and  still require the analytic-rational skills that are fostered by a print based culture. Attempting to engage them using a 20th century image centered philosophy, is folly, as Postman hints at, but Chris Hedges says openly

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

Will you be amused?

It might seem strange that a book that mentions shows like “Cheers”, “Dynasty” and “Dallas” as if they are still being broadcasted can still be relevant, but 27 years after it was first published Amusing Ourselves to Death is actually more relevant than ever. With this book (and others such as “Technopoly”, “The End of Education” and “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century”) Postman cemented himself as one of the premier cultural critics of our time. While he may lack the profundity of a Lewis Mumford, or the conciseness of a Ivan Illich, and he often fuses ideas from previous greats, his writing style is what catapults him to the top, his writing is funny, yet never curmudgeonly, and always penetrating. Some examples

On  December 5, 1989,  Daniel Goleman, covering the social-science beat for The New York Times, gave considerable space to some “recent research findings” that doubtless unsettled readers who hadn’t been keeping informed about the work of our scientists of the mind: Goleman reported that psychological researchers have discovered that people fear death. This insight led them to formulate “a sweeping theory,”  to quote Goleman, “that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life.”

As I write, the trend in call-in shows is for the “host” to  insult callers whose language does not, in itself, go much  beyond humanoid grunting. Such  programs  have  little content,  as this word  used to be defined, and are merely of archeological interest in that they give us a sense of what a dialogue among Neanderthals might have been like. More to the point,  the language of radio newscasts has become, under the influence of television, increasingly decontextualized and discontinuous, so that the possibility of anyone’s knowing about the world, as against merely knowing of it, is effectively blocked. In New York City, radio station WINS entreats its listeners to “Give us twenty-two  minutes and we’ll give you the world.” This is said without irony, and its audience, we may assume, does not regard the slogan as the conception of a disordered mind.

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.

The first quote is from the his book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology”, another of his books that I will soon be reviewing. And as Amusing Ourselves to Death is one the books of The Satanforce Canon, a chapter by chapter summation, with specific reference to Jamaica will be done at a later date

I had previously stated that Jamaica had a tradition of producing fine ministers and theologians, who were steeped in the intellectual and philosophical tradition of Christianity. Well, it seems that in the Age of Show Business, the possibility of this tradition continuing is in jeopardy. Could we have gotten a Malcolm X when there is a TV room right beside the library? A Sam Sharpe when the slavemaster realizes that Carnival is greater allure the church sermons? I don;t know, not yet anyway, but on the meantime, here’s som Gun Kata!

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1 thought on “Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death”

  1. Thanks for letting me know it was up. Your review is a good read. Postman sounds like he put a good critique together. I haven’t read Brave New World, I should. As I read the review, I substituted plastic surgery and pharmaceutical addictions in at various places. People seek out this thing called “pleasure” in some strange places.

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