Monday, September 11, 2006

Posting Postman

Here in this blog entry is a book review I had to do last semester. This blog entry relates to it also. You might find it interesting if you are in education or if you don't entirely swallow the idea that media are value-neutral.

Book Review: ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ by Neil Postman

Neil Postman fears we[1] are ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ in a culture where ‘we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves’.[2] The book is concerned with what Postman calls ‘the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century’, namely, the shift from print to television.[3] This is a transition that has been disastrous for American culture, causing a decline in ‘the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse’[4].

Postman begins with the cornerstone of his argument - the relationship between media and epistemology. Media are not neutral tools but culture-shaping metaphors.[5] Put another way, ‘definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed’.[6] Change the medium and you change the content and nature of the discussion. Thus, Postman shows how in the ‘Age of Typography’[7] public discourse was characterised by the biases of the medium of print, namely, content and meaning, seriousness, coherence and order, and a high regard for rational coherent argument[8]. Print was the paradigm for all ‘public business’[9] in a culture equipped for exposition.[10] The transition started with the telegraph - the first of a new wave of technologies that Postman sees as favouring a discourse structure opposite to the printing press – prizing entertainment, immediacy and disconnectedness and discouraging coherence and analysis.[11] Television, with its emphasis on image rather than words, gives the ‘most potent expression’ to these biases and has now replaced print as the discourse-shaping medium. Accordingly, the ‘reality’ it creates has become normality[12] and entertainment has become the ‘natural format for the representation of all experience’.[13] Aiming to make the biases of television ‘visible again’ to a culture that has accepted it as the norm,[14] Postman spends the remainder of his book unveiling the influence of television on modern American public discourse. Firstly, he argues that televising public information has trivialised it and caused viewers to lose the ability to discern falsehood from truthְ Because television is inherently visual, truth is all too easily related to the ‘credibility’[15] of the reporter.[16] Similarly the essential discontinuity of television news has made coherence and contradiction redundant categories for the determining of truth.[17] Secondly, Postman derides the ‘gross technological naivety’ of Christian leaders who have assumed the neutrality of television and produced a ‘user-friendly’ version of religious discourse verging on the brink of idolatry with the preacher, not God, the celebrity.[18] Thirdly, in politics, it is the Politicians who have become the celebrities, elected no longer on the basis of ability but on image.[19] ‘Image politics’ has created a passive electorate who ‘ignore what does not amuse’ – television accomplishing what the censors and dictators of yesteryear only dreamed of.[20] Fourthly and finally, Postman laments the ‘crisis’[21] of an education system infected with the same trademarks of television he’s already described in the other areas of public discourse.[22] For Postman, education concerns epistemology more than information,[23] therefore an education system shaped by television reinforces the expectation that all public business will be conducted as entertainment.[24]

Postman’s argument is clearly written and persuasively illustrated from American history and contemporary culture. As a result it is difficult not to be compelled by the warnings he sounds and most significantly his de-bunking of the ‘media are neutral’ myth is highly convincing. Although the book is now over 20 years old, one suspects that much of what Postman says about television has simply been enhanced by more recent technological developments like the internet, as his own ‘prophetic’ statements suggest.[25] Additionally, although obviously a cultural conservative, he largely succeeds in his effort to be concerned with epistemology rather than cultural elitism.[26]

He writes from a modernist stance[27] that elevates reason, that values coherent argument, and believes that there is such thing as truth and objectivity[28]. It is this worldview that is both the strength and weakness of his case. So whilst he insightfully analyses the effects of various media, he scarcely ponders why television would be created and utilised in this way. What is it about western society (and human nature generally) that causes us to prefer the image to the word, choose to be entertained rather than engage in serious thought; why are we prone to passivity and escapism? Consequently, the solution Postman reluctantly offers is limited. Whilst far from reactionary (he is not naïve enough to believe the answer is to ban or destroy television),[29] Postman’s solution stems from his faith in the modernist-rationalist creed – no surprise given his (at times perhaps idealistic) eulogising of the Age of Reason. Therefore, because the problem is the epistemology of a technology the solution is educational – if people learn the ‘epistemology and politics of media’ then its power to destroy discourse and culture will be lost.[30] Postman himself expresses doubts about such ‘mystical faith’ whilst feeling compelled to end on a note of hope.[31]

However, from a Christian worldview perspective, Postman inadvertently stumbles on a far deeper analysis of the problem, though understandably he never pursues it. In the first chapter he uses the 2nd commandment as an illustration of the relationship between medium and meaning - one reason [32] why a biblical worldview would see the problems which Postman analyses as the latest manifestation of a far more fundamental problem. Humanity likes to pervert the truth about God and the world, replacing the word of the creator with graven images and lies of our own fashioning.[33] No wonder that idolatrous people would create a technology like television and use it to exalt celebrities, to hide from the harsh reality of life, to feed their self-infatuation and satiate their own pleasures. So basic is the problem in humanity that reason and education offer no solution.[34] As a result, even if education could resolve the presenting issues that Postman helpfully addresses, anesthetise the ill effects of television, and prevent total ‘culture-death’,[35] the Huxleyan prophesy that ‘what we love will ruin us’[36] will remain and return merely in a different form with a different technology.

[1] Postman is talking about America in the 1980s, but both the links to ‘us’ in the UK and to the early 21st century are (hopefully) implicated in the remainder of this review.
[2] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (London: Methuen, 1987) p. 144.
[3] Ibid., p. 8.
[4] Ibid. p. 30.
[5] That is, they work by implication and suggestion, more inconspicuously than bald statements. See Ibid. pp. 10-14.
[6] Ibid., p. 16.
[7] This period seems to cover the founding of America in the 17th century to the latter part of the 19th. See Ibid., pp. 42 & 64.
[8] Ibid., pp. 51-2 & 64.
[9] Ibid., p. 43.
[10] Ibid., p. 52.
[11] Ibid., pp. 70-75, 78-79.
[12] Ibid., pp. 77-81, 94-95.
[13] For example he argues that television has become the ‘paradigm for our conception of public information’ such that other technologies follow suit in bringing us news in the same show-business format. See Ibid., pp. 89 & 113. Similarly, Postman asserts that television has come to shape education ‘by its power to control the time, attention and cognitive habits of our youth’. See Ibid., pp. 149-150.
[14] Ibid., p. 81.
[15] i.e. ‘the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness’ See Ibid., p. 104.
[16] Ibid., pp. 102-104.
[17] Ibid., p. 112.
[18] Ibid., pp. 120-125.
[19] Ibid., pp. 135 & 137.
[20] Ibid., pp. 144-145.
[21] Ibid., p. 149.
[22] Ibid., pp. 151-152.
[23] Ibid., p. 148.
[24] Ibid., p. 159.
[25] Ibid., pp. 80, 157 & 166.
[26] Ibid., pp. 16-17.
[27] This generalisation should not be seen to confine his entire viewpoint. There are times when Postman demonstrates views not traditionally associated with rationalism. His discussion on sacred space would suggest he might hold views more closely associated with Romanticism on some issue. See Ibid., p. 121. It has also been suggested that Postman writes as a postmodern, albeit one who mourns the passing of the modern. See ‘Post (Modern) Man or Neil Postman as a Postmodernist’
[28] E.g. Postman sees epistemological relativism is a blind-alley and says ‘some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them. See Ibid., pp. 24 & 27.
[29] Ibid., pp. 163-165.
[30] Ibid., pp. 166 & 168.
[31] Ibid., pp. 167-168.
[32] Ηe returns to the same territory when asserting the idolatry of religious television. See Ibid., p. 125.
[33] See Romans 1:18-23.
[34] Romans 18:21 suggests that human reason is no guard against this destructive tendency, but often a further manifestation of the problem.
[35] Postman, Amusing, p. 161.
[36] Ibid., p. viii.

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