Some musings on Neil Postman's “Amusing Ourselves To Death”

by Jim Carroll

Neil Postman in his oft quoted “Amusing Ourselves to Death” wonderfully demonstrates how the form taken by media has large influence over the content and quality of the discourse carried by that media. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the public discourse was almost exclusively dominated by print media (the written word) and as a result the characteristics of public discourse reflected qualities required to utilize that media. Writing emphasizes almost exclusively propositional content and therefore the type of discourse carried by print media is characterized by all of the qualities engendered by the use of propositional content. That is not simply limited to the propositions themselves but also to the structuring of cogent arguments through the making of appropriate distinctions and generalizations.

Have I lost you? Well, I'm not one given to eloquence to begin with, nor do I have much experience with writing; so in writing about writing I am one of the least qualified. However, the above demonstrates one of the points made forcefully (and much more eloquently) by Mr. Postman; that the form of the common media in a culture often dictates the quality and content of that discourse. Why is it that so many people (even in Reformed churches) have difficulty in following the writings of the Puritans? Why is it that the attention span of the average reader today makes it impossible to follow an argument that is drawn out over a single lengthy sentence (never mind the hundreds of pages some of the Puritans used to make their points). Why is it that a thought that requires more than a sound bite often cannot be grasped by the general populace and even when it seems perhaps it can, direct consequences of that thought are rarely realized? To answer this will be easier if we first answer why it is that for our predecessors, this was not the case?

On the morning of August 21st, 1858, an event only unusual in its brevity took place. A debate between political opponents about the current pressing issues. This was the first of a (now famous) set of seven, very abbreviated debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Mr Douglas was given one hour to make his opening statement, Mr. Lincoln was given an hour and a half to reply followed finally by an hour and a half rebuttal to Mr. Lincoln. This debate was about half as long as what these men were accustomed to. The attendants to this debate (and the others) were not political insiders or movers and shakers, they were the general public. And they were able to follow a line of reasoning spoken orally that spanned the entire speech, suspend judgment until hearing all of the argumentation, cogently make connections from abstraction to abstraction, just as would be required across the pages of a book.

To carry an argument in writing one must utilize tools that operate on propositions. In committing thoughts to writing ideas take on a permanence that allows further scrutiny and criticism which requires a serious writer to consider his remarks and the way they are made beforehand. A culture where all discourse takes place in the medium of writing is one whose discourse will be characterized by skill in the handing of propositions, even in its oral presentation. This is why Alexis de Toquiville remarked that Americans address individuals as if they are speaking to a group; that is, as if they were committing their discourse to writing.

More and more, images rather than propositions have become the stock and trade of this cultural discourse. With television replacing the printed word as the medium of this conversation and with television's focus on images rather than propositions, the character of the very discourse of culture has changed. No longer are lengthy discussions conducted for the ascertaining of the truth; now it is the emotive force of a sound bite (no matter how absurd). In place of coherent logical argument is the decontextualized sequence of unrelated snapshots which entertain. While it used to be that good conversation was one that convinced, now it's one that amuses. Mr Postman's main contention is that the type of dialog required by the medium of television is one that will be shaped by non-propositional imagery ending in incoherence, triviality, and irrelevance.

Though Postman doesn't mention it explicitly (perhaps somewhat dating the book) the connection with postmodernism is readily apparent. The assumptions that underlie the content of this cultural discourse is intimately connected to society's worldview. It's “metanarrative” is, after all, the narrative already assumed by the particular stories we tell ourselves. And what other than the content of this cultural discourse would constitute the postmodern view of “the stories we tell ourselves?” Is it any surprise then that television, with it's effect to shape the discourse to exclude propositional reasoning, has made ripe society for the acceptance postmodern relativism?

Is there a reaction against this triviality? I see possible signs. These would include the fact that less and less people are actually watching TV.

What Postman couldn't have envisioned when he wrote was that a completely new media would rise to prominence over the span of a few short years. While the character of the Internet with respect to how it will affect this cultural discourse is still an open matter it is increasingly displacing television for the attention of it's viewers. Currently it is very much “print” oriented but as time passes, this seems less and less likely to remain so.

When asked about the book Ginger replied - “It's not a topic I'm interested in. I don't have the .... attention span for it.” ... DOH!