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Paperback Amusing Ourselves to Death : Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Book

ISBN: 0140094385

ISBN13: 9780140094381

Amusing Ourselves to Death : Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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Book Overview

Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Startling expose of the future of our culture.

Neil Postman's thesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death is simple. In his eye-opening work, he demonstrates "how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms" (6). In other words, the way something is communicated controls what is actually being communicated. The forms of media are not merely neutral channels through which facts and ideas flow. Those forms themselves either taint or enhance the message. Based on this premise, Postman demonstrates the dumbing influences that the television has had upon modern American minds. By doing so, he contends that a culture based on words is superior to one based on pictures. The book is an apology for reading. Though it was published in 1985, it has equal, if not more, relevance to us today.To begin, Postman argues that every medium of communication carries with it an epistemology, a theory of knowledge. For instance, "`Seeing is believing' has always a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but `saying is believing,' `reading is believing,' `counting is believing,' `deducing is believing,' and `feeling is believing' are other that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change" (24). He demonstrates that the Jewish concept of God, with their application of the second commandment, taught them a very high form of abstract thinking. The reader must persevere during the first two chapters because his reasoning, though tight, can tend to be somewhat thick.Beginning with chapter three, Postman gives a historical survey of America's way of thinking, as dictated by its forms of communication. America began as a typographic society. Reading and writing were valued greatly for many reasons, not the least of which was that people could read the Bible. All people recognized the value of knowledge. As a result, people would gather in droves to hear lectures and debates. For instance, people in the 1860s were captivated for 4 or 5 hours at a time by the meticulously reasoned debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Frequently, they even lasted for more than one day! Postman shows that "a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print" (50). A transition began, however, with the telegraph, which "made a three-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence" (65). Hence, there arose "context-free information," mouth-sized bytes of information with no true relevance to one's life.Along came television, which makes the "three-pronged attack" upon America's mind even fiercer. The vast majority of communication on the television has as its one underlying purpose entertainment. "No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasur

A much needed exploration into the philosophy of media

Occasionally one stumbles across a work which perfectly summarizes an era. For example, we hail the muckracker novels, primarily "The Jungle," as a brilliant picture of the late 19th century in America; likewise, any Jonathan Edwards sermon captures the essence of Puritan New England. But Neil Postman, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," has created not a picture, but an exposition of the state of America today. That it is an expostion, is extremely important.Postman's thesis in this brief but articulate book consists of two tenets: (1) The form of communication, to some extent, determines (or is biased toward certain types of) content; (2) Television, as our modern-day uber-form of communication, has biases which are destructive toward the rational mind. TV teaches us to expect life to be entertaining, rather than interesting; it teaches us to expect 8-minute durations of anything and everything (anything else is beyond our attention span); it teach us to be suspicious of argument and discussion, and instead to accept facts at face value.Furthermore - and, by far, the most important discovery Postman makes in this book - TV teaches us to live a decontextualized life. Just as a TV program has nothing to do with anything before or after it, nor the commericals inside it, we learn to view life as a series of unconnected, random events which are entertaining at best, and bear no significance toward any larger picture.As a culture, America has lost its ability to integrate experiences into a larger whole; and Postman's explaination for part (not all) of this problem's development makes perfect sense. It certainly is true that the vast majority of Americans are perfectly happy not to develop any sort of framework or philosophy; life is simply life, and one doesn't need to consider it.Even today's elite students, who are certainly able to integrate lessons and perform well academically, have fallen to this malady; as David Brooks pointed out in his searingly accurate article, "The Organization Kid," (Atlantic Monthly, April 2001) top-notch students no longer attempt to build any sort of moral or philosophical structure from their studies; a life lived in a context, makes no sense to the student who has grown up watching the decontextualized television screen.It is extremely important that today's Americans take a close look at just what effects the television has had on themselves and their children; Postman's work is dead on target. We have moved, as a nation, from those who seek entertainment as a means to an end (most particularly, rest between productive work), to those who seek entertainment as an end in itself. And, as Huxley realized in Brave New World, this is the undoing of Western civilization - a prosaic fade away into an entertained oblivion. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it in "The Hollow Men," "This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but a whimper."

An intriguing epistemological exploration

Postman's book is an interesting and quick read examining the relationships between the primary means of communication in a society and epistemology. He traces the history of American media and American epistemology along with it to show the ways in which television, The Age of Show Business, and commercial culture have deteriorated America's capacity for public discourse. It's an intriguing thesis, handled exquisitely by Postman. Admittedly I believe that he does occasionally jump to some extreme conclusions in this book, and his insights are slightly dated (I can only imagine that his social prognosis would be even more terrifying today). However, the easy style and interesting ideas carry the reader through this book quickly and easilly, instilling ideas which will stick for long after the book is done.Another reviewer commented that perhaps Postman neglects the idea that we can turn our television's off, or assumes that books are better than TV because they are on paper. I think that this reviewer is missing the point of the book in its epistemological investigation of the subject. You can't just turn off the TV because you've grown up with the TV, you've been programmed by the programs to think along with the TV. Because television is at the forefront of our culture, there are certain mental skills which are fostered and others which are ignored which effects the way that we think, that's what epistemology is. It's not as easy as just turning it off or watching it less because it's already there, it's already in you and in your head and every aspect of the culture is driven by it. What is required is an awareness, a critical questioning to wake-up our culture and not just sit passively by while the TV tells us what the truth is, and the criteria by which we should define the truth.This book is not exhaustive in the subject matter, but like I said it's an easy read, packed with important ideas, and a perfect jumping off point for further media studies. I would recommend this to anyone interested in engaging their media.

Postman's Thesis is Powerful, Provocative, and Important!

For anyone interested in exploring the meaning of the rapid eclipse of ordinary reality and how it is being changed and altered by the rise of the electronic media, this book is very important. From the introduction and Postman's tongue-in-cheek comments about the novel 1984, his observations regarding the cogency of British author Aldous Huxley's technotronic nightmare vision in "Brave New World" through out the book right up to its conclusion, Postman binds your interest by illustrating and documenting how the rise of the elecrtonic media and its manipulation of what you see in way of news and entertainment has inexorably changed the meanings,purposes and ultimate uses of politics, economics, and technology. As Huxley himslef warned, totalitarian societies need not arise through violent overthrow of the democracies using brutality, cruelty and violence, but can also occur whenever the citizenry is successfully deluded into apathy by petty diversions and entertainments, as well. Postman shows how the electronic media's presentation of facts and fcition in an entertaining fashion diverts us, channeling our attention, money, and energies in ways that make us much more susceptible to social, political and economic manipulation and eventual subjugation. The book is a bit difficult to read at points, but well worth a sustained effort and a little concentration. For any citizen concerned about how the media is rapidly changing the rules of political, social, and economic engagement, and what it portends for the future, this book is a must read. And follow it up with Postman's book "Technopoly", which picks up where this book leaves off.

Man's Mistaken Identity

Neil Postman's book 'Amusing Ourselves To Death' is an excellent look at the world today (more accurately in 1985). He explains that there is no need to fear George Orwell's vision of 1984, but rather to fear an older title of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. One which takes away freedom, the latter giving you all the freedom you want. Funny and witty, Postman gives a top rate analysis of the current media (second to McLuhan). I dont see this book as a prediction of any sort, but rather observing the direction the media of print and television is headed. Television has been given so much authority that it does not matter whats on it, so much that its on. Postman declares that television has the power to do away with books by the sheer hypnotic power that television has over print. And this, by being in a trance and reclining in our sofas to and forgetting about the world (and what the GOVT is doing) is just as fatal as the government getting involved in every aspect of our lives. This book is a nice read with some profoundness to it which will change your perspective on 1984, television and the way you live.
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