On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 4
In Chapter 4, Postman continues his meticulous dissection of the evolution — devolution — of American culture.
Chapter 3 outlined what Postman calls, “Typographic America.” Chapter 4 looks at the implication of such an America — “The Typographic Mind.”
He opens the chapter with a description of the Lincoln-Douglas debate. He stresses that Douglas spoke for . . . three hours. And Lincoln followed with his own three hours with an hour of rebuttal for each. It was seven hours of political discourse attended closely by people from all walks of life.
These were people with a “typographic mind.” And Postman is enthralled with them.
“I chose the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a starting point of this chapter,” Postman says, “not only because they were the preeminent example of political discourse in the mid-nineteenth century but also because they illustrate the power of typography to control that discourse” (48).
Print culture, Postman argues, results in public discourse governed by the metaphors of typography. He asks:
“What are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favors?” (49)
Modern readers can ask the same for the governing metaphors of our media today.
Public discourse in a typographic culture is “both content laden and serious,” Postman says. “Reading encourages rationality,” he argues, and notes the “sequential propositional character of the written word” (51).
He says: “In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas” (51).
Postman finds meaningful, serious public discourse not only in politics but in religion, in legal circles and even in commerce and advertising of the era with its text-heavy description of products and services, so unlike our loud, lush, dramatic advertising today.
“Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered, all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment,” he writes (58).
Postman reminds us that this was a time when leisure time was rare and that Americans were devoting that rare time to reading.
He says: “Almost anywhere one looks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then, one finds the resonances of the printed word and, in particular, its inextricable relationship to all forms of public expression” (62).
Postman calls this period, sacred to him, the Age of Exposition. It is not the most accessible term but he explains at length:
Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response (63).
Toward the end of the 19th Century, the replacement for the Age of Exposition emerged on the horizon. Postman gives it a most accessible title: The Age of Show Business.