Friday, April 14, 2006

Amusing book about telly

I’ve just finished reading:

Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Methuen, London, 1985)

Postman’s polemical essay is often well expressed and has some striking statistics and amazing anecdotes. His concern is mainly with US culture and the book feels a bit dated – there’s no mention of the internet, for example – but its well worth a browse. Below are some of my favourite bits.

Postman argues that we have moved from a print-based culture, which valued exposition, to a TV culture, where all our public discourse is now a matter of amusement and entertainment. Image is all and coherent thought is dying. We a heading for a Brave New World:

“… in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” (p2)

“Big Brother”, of course, has an added reality TV resonance for us, which wasn’t part of Postman’s authorial intent!

Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism (p2), the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Part 1

1. The Medium is the Metaphor

Las Vegas as a metaphor of our current national character and aspiration (p3)

“… how we are obliged to conduct our conversations [e.g. through the medium of TV] will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.” (p6) forms determine content (p7)

“… 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.” (p8)

The 2nd commandment prohibits image making

Northrop Frye: “the written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives us, not the familiar remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned up hallucination.” (p13, Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto Academic Press 1981), p227)

2. Media as Epistemology (p16ff)

a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America: printing press – coherent, serious, rational; TV – shrivelled and absurd (p16)
Not an objection to junk TV but to TV when it aspires to the high (p16f)
Truth must come in its proper clothing if it is to be acknowledged (p23)

3. Typographic America (p31ff)

New England settlers’ commitment to the written word – Bible – Luther on printing press (p33)
Conversation / preaching as spoken written text (p43) – impersonal / oratorical literary speeches

4. The Typographic Mind (p45ff)

“much of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional content” (p51)

reading encourages analytical management of knowledge (p52) – sequence, argument etc.
“the predispositions of a cultural mindset” (p52) – print culture: serious, logical, ordered, rational intelligence, content – Age of Reason (p53)

Jonathan Edwards’ reasoned literary sermons (p55f)

commerce / advertising (p59) – once appeals to understanding in words but now turn to pictures and slogans (p61)

the monopoly of the printed word in the 18th & 19th CC (p61)

“… most people could read and did participate [in the culture’s conversation in 18th and 19th C America]. To these people, reading was both their connection to and their model of the world. The printed page revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism.” (p63)
mature citizenship required sophisticated literacy (p63)

“For two centuries, America declared its intentions, expressed its ideology, designed its laws, sold its products, created its literature and addressed its deities with black squiggles on white paper. It did its talking in typography, and with that as the main feature of its symbolic environment rose to prominence in world civilization.
The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of though, 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. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, … the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.” (p64)

5. The Peek-a-Boo World (p65)

New idea in middle of 19th C that “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” (p65)

Nation / continent wide communication compared with collection of regions (p65)
Morse – Telegraph brings unified American discourse (p66)
Typographic Man
Telegraph introduced irrelevance, impotence and incoherence to public discourse (p66)
Context free information not serving a purpose in social or political decision making or action but novelty, interest and curiosity (p66f) – information a commodity (p67)
Penny newspapers treated the irrelevant as news (p67)
News no longer functional information (p68)
An abundance of decontextualised information (p68) – information-action ratio altered
Permanence and continuity of books – part of a conversation with the past, require time (p71)
News a series of exciting headlines / slogans (p71)
Development of photography (p72)
Cf language / words – abstract etc & photography - only speaks in particularities, concrete representations of objects (p73) – not ideas / concepts not internal, unseen, abstract – here and now
Language gives comprehension & coherence
Photography no argument, no should have been or might have been (p74)
Photography atomises the world – not part of a story (p75)
Daniel Boorstin – “the graphic revolution” (p75)
“the new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself.” (p75)
cross word and quizzes – Trivial Pursuit – inventing a context to use our useless information for entertainment (p77)
Telegraph, photograph, radio and film: “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.” (p79)

On entertainment: “… we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.” (p79)
TV: Image and instancy
“We are by now well into a second generation of children for whom television has been their first and most accessible teacher and, for many, their most reliable companion and friend.” (p79)
TV the command centre of our culture (p79) and a meta medium – directs not only our knowledge of the world but also our knowledge of ways of knowing about the world (p80)
TV the status of Myth in Ronald Barthes’ sense of the word (p80) – a not fully conscious way of understanding the world that is natural to us, not problematic
TV has become our culture – we rarely talk about TV, only what is on TV
TV as background radiation fall out of big bang we no longer notice (p80f)
Rest of book: the epistemology of TV – how TV’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing – TV promotes incoherence and triviality – “serious television” is a contradiction in terms – TV about entertainment (p81)
“Television… is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.” (p81)

Part II.

6. The Age of Show Business (p85ff)

TV not an extension of or servant of a literate culture (p85f)

“What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce? These are the questions to be addressed in the rest of this book…” (p86)

Technology and medium (p86)
Technology is not entirely neutral – contains an inherent bias / agenda (p86f)
TV as a medium in America the focus here (p87)

“In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read. American television is, indeed, a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music. There is no question but that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials. American television, in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.” (p88f)

“… what I am claiming is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that the television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.” (p89)

“… entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.” (p89) – for our amusement / pleasure- even news (p89)

““good television” has little to do with what is “good” about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial images look like.” (p90)

“Thinking does not go down well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art.” (p93)

TV aims for applause not reflection (p93)

“I do not say categorically that it is impossible to use television as a carrier of coherent language or thought in process.” (p93)

“The single most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called “television”…. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.” (p94)

“… television is different [from films, records and radio] because it encompasses all forms of discourse…. Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the crucial point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” (p94f)

“… the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.” (p95)

“The nature of its [our culture’s] discourse is changing as the demarcation lines between what is show business and what is not becomes harder to see with each passing day. Our priests and presidents, surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship. Had Irving Berlin changed one word of his celebrated song, he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There’s No Business But Show Business.” (p100)

7. “Now… This” (p101ff)

The “Now… This” world view is the offspring of the intercourse between telegraphy and photography. TV nurtured it and brought it to a perverse maturity. (p102)

News as entertainment (p104) – “… a news show as a stylized dramatic performance whose content has been staged largely to entertain…” (p105) – music – 45 sec segments – commercials (p106)

“… embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the practice of the theatre, it is known as vaudeville.” (p107)

“… television is the paradigm for our conception of public information…. television has achieved the power to define the form in which the news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it.” (p113) – the total information environment begins to mirror television (p113)

As in Trivial pursuit, facts are a source of amusement (p115)

8. Shuffle Off to Bethlehem (p116ff)

Because of the bias of TV “… on television, religion, like everything else, is presented quite simply and without apology, as entertainment.” (p119)

Not everything is televisable and that which is televised is transformed (p120)

TV offering people what they want (p123): “… Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” (p124)

“… the power of a close-up televised face [of a preacher], in colour, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring that a golden calf.” (p125)

“There is no doubt… that religion can be entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an “authentic object of culture”? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?” (p126)

9. Reach Out and Elect Someone (p128ff)

Reagan: “Politics is just like show business.” (p128)

“… in America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial.” (p129)

Politicians “have become assimilated into the general television culture as celebrities.” (p135)

TV commercials offer viewers an image of themselves (p138) – men make their gods in their own image (Xenophanes) – “Those who would be gods refashion themselves into the images the viewers would have them be.” (p138)

TV a present tense medium – diminution of history (p139f): “With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present.” (p141)

“To paraphrase David Riesman only slightly, in a world of printing, information is the gunpowder of the mind; hence come the censors in their austere robes to dampen the explosion.” (p142)

George Gerbner: “Television is the new state religion run by a private Ministry of Culture (the three networks), offering a universal curriculum for all people, financed by a form of hidden taxation without representation. You pay when you wash, not when you watch, and whether or not you care to watch.” (p143)

10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity (p146ff)

Sesame Street (1969-)
“… television’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable.” (p150)

“We might say that there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which television offers… Thou shalt have no prerequisites…. Thou shalt induce no perplexity…. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt. ” (p151f)

11. The Huxleyan Warning (p160ff)

The spirit of our culture shrivelled by becoming a burlesque (p160)

We watch Big Brother by choice (p160)

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversations become a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” (p161)

“Those who speak about this matter must often raise their voices to near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether…. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” (p161f)

“Television… serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them into entertainment packages. We would be better off if television got worse, not better. “The A-Team” and “Cheers” are no threat to our public health. “60 Minutes”, “Eye-Witness News” and “Sesame Street” are.” (p164f)

“The solution must be found in how we watch.” (p165)

Americans must begin talking back to their televisions (p166) – asking questions breaks the spell

“… questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to television…. I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology…” (p166)

“… in the end, he [Aldous Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted people in Brave New World was no that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (p168)

1 comment:

Ros said...

I shall recommend your blog to all the first years currently writing essays on Postman's book!