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Amusing Ourselves to Death: PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW BUSINESS by Neil Postman (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $14.95; 175 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Laurien Alexandre | Alexandre is a professor of journalism at Cal State Northridge. and

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" is a book for culture watchers and worriers. Author, educator and communications theorist Neil Postman embarks on an intriguing exploration of the ways in which entertainment values have corrupted essential public discourse, from education, science, religion, and the conduct of politics to the very way we think. While it is not a particularly new argument--and the author acknowledges his debt to Marxists, Freudians, structuralists and McLuhanites--Postman uses both historical content and perceptive analysis to present the relationship of media to cultural content in a thought-provoking, although not entirely satisfying, fashion.

The book's central thesis is that forms of media favor particular kinds of content; that any medium, through powerful implication and metaphorical infiltration, enforces special definitions of reality upon a culture. Public discourse is thus framed, enlarged, reduced, colored and classified within and by that mode of communication. Postman laments the decline of print and the rise of television in serious public conversation--on what we know, how we know it, what we believe to be truth, and the manner in which we act on the world around us. It is the author's contention that as the influence of print has waned, the content of public discourse has changed and been recast in terms more suitable to the character and bias of television. Under the governance of the printed word, public discourse had serious content that demanded thought and called for the orderly progression of facts and coherent arguments. Under television's dominance, public conversation has become trite, irrelevant and amusing.

Postman turns to Colonial America as proof of print's superior influence. Unfortunately, he is more a contemporary culture watcher than he is an accurate student of history. Citing partial data of the period, such as uncommonly high literacy rates for Massachusetts and Connecticut, Postman infers that the colonists were dedicated readers whose political ideas and social life were embedded in the print medium, who did not regard reading as an elitist activity and who fostered a thriving classless reading culture. But, all this duly noted, merchant centers enjoyed a literacy rate far higher than the Colonies in general. Second, Postman fails to mention the millions of black slaves for whom reading was not only denied, but for whom it was a crime punishable by death. Additionally, the known illiteracy of women, indentured servants and the "mechanics" class is further evidence that shatters Postman's vision of a classless reading society. Perhaps the author's historical oversight can be traced to his outdated Colonial period sources: All citations come from a group of late 1950s-1960s consensus historians whose approach to early American classlessness has been questioned by more recent scholars who have shown the existence of significant Colonial inequities. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the reader to accept Postman's assumption of print's more democratic and rational bias when this proposition is based on such dated historical analysis.

While Postman's book falters on historical exposition, it does illuminate a thoughtful exploration of contemporary culture, public discourse in the Age of Show Business. In Postman's media-as-motor-force-of-history approach, the change started with the telegraph, a 19th-Century invention that attacked print's definition of discourse by introducing large-scale irrelevance, impotence and incoherence. The telegraph gave legitimacy to context-free information valued for its novelty rather than its function. The overabundance of irrelevant information altered people's ability to use it for meaningful action, thereby producing a sense of great impotence.

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all public discourse in contemporary culture, says Postman. Even our most serious public communication about nuclear holocaust is shriveled and made absurd by TV's entertainment values. Postman's critique of religious broadcasting, for example, is unique because it avoids the well-known criticisms of TV evangelicals' crass commercialism and instead shows the reader how the medium itself transforms the message. Authentic religious and sacred experiences are not transferable because of, among other things, the tube's context as a showcase for sex and violence, and the profane places for its viewing (the bedroom, no less). Advertising has also corrupted public discourse by its insistence on brevity and its belief that all problems are soluble fast and usually through technology.

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