Amusing Ourselves to Death--Neil Postman

By now Neil Postman is old news, even to those who first met him through the aegis of this blog.  However, to achieve closure, a review is in order, a sorting out of those stray thoughts and ideas that fleet-footed flee the mind at the first possible moment unless they are capture, more or less intact, through the medium of a review or some stray scribblings dedicated to them.

Postman's book is one that everyone would profit from reading, even if one disagrees with the central thesis.  And we must be very careful to state what the central thesis of the work is because there are those who would have us extend that thesis to realms beyond what Mr. Postman intended in this small work.  It is possible that in other works he expanded upon the central thesis of this one; however for our purposes, the thesis of Amusing Ourselves to Death is that the television medium has irreversibly altered the nature of political discourse in America and in the world.  Several times Mr. Postman goes to some lengths to make clear that his gripe is not with television qua television.  Indeed, he specifically refutes the intention or necessity of discussing the aesthetics of television, pointing out that they can do little or no harm to anyone.  While we can debate that issue or take Mr. Postman to task over the statement, he specifically excludes that discussion from the central premise of his book.

Additionally, he does not expatiate at length upon the possible effects of the contextless information deluge that is the media on profound connected thought, the probable connection of this endless tsunami with any number of oppressive mental irregularities, or the potential effect on the human spirit.  (Although he does do some critique of television religious ministries.)  This is a shame, because that was what I was hoping for in the course of the book.  Naturally, I can take the principles articulated for politics and apply them across the board, but it would have been nice to see more treatment of other areas.

However, that is confusing what the author wrote and intended with what I want--and one cannot discuss the merits or lack thereof of the basis of a book the author never wrote.  So, we deal with what is here and I can say that it was an eye-opening and convincing discussion of the progressive decline of politics and the overall attention span of ordinary people for weighty matters.  At one time, listening to two men debate (Lincoln and Douglas) for hours at a time was a form of popular entertainment.  And surely, as at any such event, there were comings and goings--those more interested and those less, background noise and chatter and distraction, but it remains a fact that Lincoln and Douglas engaged in formal debate for hours at a time and commanded an audience who found in that discussion not only information, but a profound sort of entertainment. I suppose Mr. Postman might argue against this interpretation--but the reality is that people don't stick around for that length of time based on an intellectual commitment to the truth; indeed, there is some pleasure, some entertainment value to be derived from the proceedings that makes the pursuit of truth worthwhile.  And it isn't entertainment that is the problem.  It is entertainment without substance--talking about weighty matters, as in the title of a book "weighty words lightly thrown."  Ninety good seconds about nuclear disarmament.  Fifteen seconds about Islam and terrorism. Perhaps a minute devoted to the latest terrorist threat.  But never more, and never enough to give a strong sense of the meaning behind the words.  Entertainment has drained information of its value and reduced it to a daily round of progressively more trivial information.  Do you think by watching the news you can understand the real-estate bubble and the bank crisis?  To give you a better sense of this--the Icelandic Volcano was, for me, an interesting abstraction, until I discovered that it basically marooned a group of my coworkers who, after two weeks in the states were anxious to get back to their families and friends in Ireland.  Iceland suddenly had a name and a face and a meaning beyond an eruption that will make for glowing sunsets in Europe for a while.

This seems to be Mr. Postman's main argument and complaint--not that all of television is bad, but that television that has serious intent is bad, not deliberately so much as casually--informing with informing--giving detail without sufficient background to given the information meaning or purpose.  Delivering information that is simply not actionable.  What can I do about an erupting volcano?  The Gulf Oil Spill?  Global Warming/Cooling/Indifferentism?  Most major news stories fall as a pall over conversation--bleak information that you cannot act on or do anything about.  And when there is something you're willing to do or can do, there generally isn't enough information available to give you any sense of what should be done.

It is in drawing out these points and in showing how Huxley's Brave New World is brought to live in our own time, that Mr. Postman most thoroughly succeeds.  Where he elides Huxley to compare him to Orwell, in the neglect of the truly oppressive government system that has placed all of the Huxleyian world into motion, he can be forgiven, because those elements of the novel are not to his purpose and they can be regarded in their own right as set pieces.  (But also important to where the world is going.)

In sum, a book that accomplishes succinctly what it sets out to do--to demonstrate how television has effected public discourse since its advent and by overtones and nuances (penumbras and emanations) shows how the same principles apply to different aspects of public discourse and interaction.  How television and the world it reveals has lead to a coursening of interest and of society as a whole. But that is a book for someone else to write (or that, perhaps someone else has already written.)

Highest recommendation


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