On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 1
I am in the midst of re-reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death to see if the book might still be relevant to a future class on media and society.
Postman’s Foreword had quickly referenced two classic books of the 20th Century, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, which likely will require some deeper — but valuable — focus so students get the most from Postman’s argument.
And the title of Chapter 1 — “The Medium is the Metaphor” — tells me immediately that we will also be covering another classic author and text: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. In that book, McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message.” That is, to put it simply, the medium of communication — print vs. electronic, for example — has a large influence on what gets communicated and how. Postman will give his own interpretation of this.
Postman gets right to his argument on the first page. He says Las Vegas is now the most representative of all American cities.
“For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture n which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjunct of show business, large without protest or even much popular notice. The result is we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death” (3–4).
That is called quickly getting to the point.
His next line will make readers of 2018 take note. “As I write, the President of the United States is a former Hollywood movie actor” (4). The year, of course, is 1984 and the President is Ronald Reagan. The link and relevance to our present — with a former reality television star in the White House — is immediately made.
Postman goes on what we would now call “a rant” — decrying the emphasis on artifice and display in politics, journalism, business, religion and education. Fat people cannot run for office. Journalists must spend time with hair dryers instead of stories. The usefulness of business goods is less important than their display (4–5).
His insights, he writes, are not extraordinary. Indeed, they are cliches. But, he says, we still do not know “the story of the origin and meaning of this descent into a vast triviality” (6). Though Marxists, Freudians and others have tried to explain the descent, Postman feels they are missing a fundamental point offered by Plato centuries ago: the forms of human communication shape, “regulate and even dictate” that communication (6).
Plato, of course, was thinking about the transition from speech to print. For centuries, before the invention of print, knowledge was passed down by an oral tradition. The shift to print changed what could be communicated, how much of it could be communicated, what it would be used for — everything about communication.
Postman gives the example of “the news of the day.” Modern audiences take for granted that they can get information from around the world on a daily basis, even minute to minute. But before the invention of the telegraph, Postman says, that very notion of communication did not — could not — even exist. The medium — the form of communication — had not first been created.
Postman’s focus in 1984 zeroes in on television: “To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television” (8).
The reader of 2018 can profitably sit back and extend that thought. Are we still in an Age of Television? Are we in the ascendancy of new age — Internet? Digital? Andrew Postman was right: His father’s big questions still resonate today.
As foretold by the Chapter’s title, Postman now draws the connection between this emphasis on the forms of communication and Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message.” Postman says that he met McLuhan 30 years before, when Postman was a graduate student and McLuhan “an unknown English professor” (8).
“I have remained steadfast to his teaching that the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation,” Postman writes (8). A bit further, he repeats: “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility” (10).
For all his reverence, Postman wants to amend McLuhan’s famed phrase. “A message,” Postman writes, “denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality” (10).
I am not sure that McLuhan’s phrase was often understood so literally as to need Postman’s amendment. But we arrive at the same understanding.
In a nice phrase, Postman writes: No matter what medium — speech, print, television — “our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like” (10)
To get the most from this book throughout, modern readers will want to sit back and think of our own time and place. Can we say that Twitter — the medium of choice of the current President — argues “a case for what the world is like”? And what kind of world is that? Truncated? Disjointed? Prone to statements with no room for elaboration or validation? There could be many answers and many media for us to consider. But Postman’s questions indeed are relevant.
He goes on to note that this defining, regulating role of a medium is rarely noted. He compares it to the invention of the clock and uses Lewis Mumford’s observation that the clock produced seconds and minutes, transforming time into a human-made product, making us into “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers” (12).
Like any communication medium, Postman says, the clock was a technology with huge implications — that often go unnoticed.
He then returns to Plato, tracing once again the seismic shift from speech to print but, in this telling, Postman says that Plato noted the importance of the shift and, in effect, set the foundation for study of the forms and means of communication.
As the chapter concludes, Postman returns to his title. I found myself still resisting the need to talk about “media-metaphors.” But Postman again arrives at the same location as McLuhan — the medium produces a transformation of a way of thinking (13).
I think what Postman wants to says is that “the medium is the message” because the medium allows for, creates, defines and accepts some ways of thinking about the world (metaphors) and rejects, ignores, disallows and invalidates other ways of thinking about the world (other metaphors).
He concludes: “Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture” (15).
As I noted above in rumination about Twitter, readers of 2018 will find much to consider here. Are we in the waning days of the Age of Television? What is the dawning age? Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, virtual reality, augmented reality and other communications forms of today — are they to be considered one medium of the digital age or have we splintered into many media with their own metaphors?
I am hopeful that Postman will give us more tools to consider these questions as we proceed.