Rickeclectic's Reviews > Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
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M 50x66
's review
Feb 11, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: about-meaning
Recommended for: Not many folks
Read in February, 2009

Disappointing. Read it if you have to (it is considered to be an "important" book for media folks), but otherwise, just read the following and skip the book. Mr. Postman is obviously a well read person and the book claims the values logic and argument, but his arguments are off kilter. This is especially disappointing because the topic is important and he is a good writer in the classic sense of being able to put interesting sentences together.

His thesis is "Some ways of truth telling are better than others." The written word is good. Visual media, in particular, television, is bad. The medium of the written word, BY ITS NATURE, is one that involves logical argument, expository meaning and truth. Accordign to him, the medium of television is visual and does not support logic, exposition or truth. The ascendance of television has displaced writing and is creating a culture that is focused on entertainment rather than meaning and that is a bad thing.

Useful points first:
1. He was a student of Marshall McLuhan and therefore understands how the "medium" of communication inherently informs the type of communications available.
2. He discusses the Orwellian and Huxleyian views of the future, saying that in the USA we have not descended into a totalitarian controlled Orwellian world of communication, but rather drugged ourselves with meaningless entertainment in the Huxleyian Brave New World of willing submission.
3. He starts an interesting discussion of newpapers and the telegraph and illustrated news and advertising that is intended to support his argument on the transition from textual / distanced to visual / immediate media.

Confusions on his part:
1. He has an amazing belief that text is the vehicle of truth. Certainly text (leaving aside clearly artistic texts) can portray logical arguments, but that does not mean these arguments are true. In the post-Derridean world we might even question if these arguments can ever be "purely" true.
2. He seems to believe that visual information can only entertain and not have meaning, in particular not the rigorous "propositional" (truth laden) meaning he is so fond of. That is odd, as most people would gladly and willingly talk about how particular images captured the truth of a situation. This does not deny that images can be manipulated, but it is an odd argument to suggest that somehow writing is NOT manipulated and images ARE manipulated. Writing, by its very nature is the manipulation of text to support one's views.
3. He alludes to the past several times, in particular, to Plato, in arguments where he attempts to talk about the importance of writing. This is very dangerous ground, especially if you read Plato's Phaedrus, where Plato condemns writing. The entire debate between Socrates and the Sophists is about how to SPEAK the truth, not how to write the truth. Using Plato to defend writing is a bad idea.
4. Similarly, he seems to think that writing is some amazingly democratic medium, when in fact, until very recently the only folks who were well read were the rich and the religious. Universities (in Europe first) were originally religious schools teaching doctrine and whatever did not conflict with doctrine. The first folks who owned books were the rich. The spread of literacy and the spread of low cost books and then newspapers had almost the same effect on writing as television has had. A lot of writing became more for the masses and therefore less intellectual.
5. He seems to be very interested in the notion of truth in writing, however, he does not ever seem to talk about the truth of literature. He does mention literary works a few times and seems to think they are "good" things, but it must be clear to most people that if literature is "true" it is not true in the same way that a logical argument is true. He does not reconcile this anywhere in his discussion of television or writing. Yet we know most of television is more like literature than like logical argument, leaving aside news talk TV which seems to have very mixed motives. Most TV is fiction and most folks know that. Most factual TV is tinged with the slant of the talking head giving us the information and most people know that as well. That is no different than polemical, political writing and many modern thinkers believe that all writing is at heart political. Is this where I should compare Hitler's Mein Kampf and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which are both polemical and political, and neither is "factual."

What he should have said:

1. He mentions Roland Barthes and he mentions Marshall McLuhan. These are useful folks to mention. Barthes talks about how culture "naturalizes" artifacts of human creation so that they seem to be like the phsyical universe and taken for granted. This is a good opening for a semiological discussion of how we "naturalize" television and what that means about us as a culture, but Postman does not do a semiological analysis. He instead rants about how the medium of television prevents any meaning and only supplies entertainment.

2. In a few places he suggests a Marxist analysis of television, the role that the ECONOMICS of television have played in making it what it is today. This should have been the CENTER of his argument. I think it is very difficult to suggest (as he tries) that the medium of television in itself cannot be meaningful or educational or "portray truth." On the other hand, it is clear that, from the beginning, television has been promoted and used to generate revenue and over its life, these economic motives have drastically influenced the character and quality of what is on TV.

Until the advent of cable and talk TV, we were driving very narrowly toward the most generic, most revenue generating television shows. Traditional TV catered to the masses and progressively evolved to get the largest audience possible. Unfortunately the larger audience is statistically less educated and less interested in topics they cannot comprehend and so much of television dumbed down.

This could have been a good argument on his part, but it is NOT an argument about how television as a medium, cannot provide meaning. It is an argument about how the television industry has gone for the bucks (and how the american government has supported that) and the results of that.

COnsclusions: This is not the right book. The book that needed to be written (and it may already be out there) is one about how the medium of television works and how we have limited its value because of our profit motives. It would then talk about how this has been partially moderated by the growth of cable TV, with its myriad of channels and choices, but how this has also started to be watered down to have more mass appeal. Then it would likely close with the web and the notion of YOUTUBE and other visual media on the web, where you can look at and listen to movies made by people outside the commercial industry, you can learn to play guitar, you can look at stupid dog tricks and the list goes on. The advent of (nearly) unlimited bandwidth has made it very easy to provide a multitude of both meaningful and useless content on the web. This has challenged television and ultimately has made television (and movie) folks work harder to create some (some) better stuff. This book might even suggest how Japanese Manga fit into this new media world and how there a (small but growing) number of manga that are educational. This is the book Postman should have written, but did not.
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message 1: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn "In the post-Derridean world " says it all. Either one believe post-modernism to be an advance or one believes post-modernism to be the anti-truth. I believe that post-modernism is the latter because it starts out saying there is no such thing as truth, and attacks The Enlightenment. Post-modernism is against rationality and encourages people to believe that opinion is just as valid as evidence, which is absurd. Evidence is the basis of science. Opinion never got us to Pluto.


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