The Influence of the Printed Word

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly.  This point cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media environments of then and now. One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true. But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play.  There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse. The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. For example, in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in Democracy in America. "An American," he wrote, "cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say 'Gentlemen' to the person with whom he is conversing." This odd practice is less a reflection of an American's obstinacy than of his modeling his conversation style on the structure of the printed word.  Since the printed word is impersonal and is addressed to an invisible audience, what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind of printed orality, which was observable in diverse forms of oral discourse. On the pulpit, for example, sermons were usually written speeches delivered in a stately, impersonal tone consisting "largely of an impassioned, coldly analytical cataloguing of the attributes of the Deity as revealed to man through Nature and Nature's Laws."

When I read this the first time I was entranced by the thought of "no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play."  Not forever, of course.  But it would be nice to think about a life that had somewhat fewer of these things laced around it.  Fewer things cluttering and stifling the airwaves--but it would soon become stifling--unless we set about doing something useful with the time--like building a civilization rather than flowing along in a society.


  1. Just a note to say I'm appreciating these Postman posts. And to say that I chuckled at "hydrogen peroxide drinkers". Surely you jest. :-)

  2. Dear TSO,

    Would that I were! Google it. There are instructions about how to go about it and what "cures" it will bring about. But it is good that you chuckled, because I did put it in as one of the most outrageously absurd things I had ever encountered.



  3. I'm a big fan of Postman. The book from which you excerpt had a profound impact on me in college, so much so that my rommates and I decided to murder our TV. For a whole year, there was no bright, shiny screen with flickering images, no offensive corporate pornography, no sitting passively, etc. Even now, years later, I'm reluctant to wath the tele. Often I flip it off, grab my son, and we go across the street, where an old-timer of a neighbor can ruffle my boy's hair and smile and laugh. Much more valuable use of our time, I say!

  4. Dear Mr. Interpolations,

    I couldn't agree more. And I am gradually coming to an awareness of the anesthetic environment in which I have been living for a great many years. The struggle to come awake is indeed difficult. I think about Neo's choice (yes, despite some of the faults of the medium, the art of film still gives us powerful stories and metaphors)--it is indeed difficult to be awake among so many sleepwalkers--people who don't even know they do not wake, but only wake to a different sleep--good people who are not nearly as good as they could be--will we ever have the gathering of minds that were the Founding Fathers--or for all their faults, the thinkers of the enlightenment?

    Certainly not if we choose sleep.

    Thank you for your note. And yes, it is a wonderful use of time--the best in fact.



  5. Speaking of favorite words, here is something worth mentioning, it's fresh and original: Favorite Words .com... looking forward to see how this resource grows.


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