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sunNeil Postman,

man in seat

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business.
(New York: Penguin, 1986).


Media refers to the manner in which we converse with others.

The Medium is the metaphor. book

Neil Postman

Writing and literacy –or so Postman, based on Huxley argues– has caused our grasp of knowledge to shrink.

"We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we did, or the audience so gullible as to accept it."

Postman's use of this example indicates that any form of communication is --inherent in our recall and verbalizations-- but a glance at what is intended by the speaker, or writer, or composer and can only be a reflection of what takes place in the mind of the person creating the message.

There is in the telling of any event, even real events, some loss or "abbreviation" of what actually transpired. In this respect there are several truths with respect to the same events, stories, incidents or histories.

p. 6.


The conversation or discourse

"brainI use the word conversation metaphorically to refer to not only to speech but to all techniques and techniques that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages."

"How forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue."
p. 6

"You cannot use smoke (signals) to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content."
P. 7

"For on television, discourse is largely conducted through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words."


The media used restricts the range of meaning transmitted.

His (NP) focus:

a critique of a growing insensitivity and

thus a widespread unawareness to the limitations imposed on on how we contemporary people conceptualize experiences, express their condition and convey concepts -- especially the content of a message.

transfer of ideas is affected by the means we use to transmit messages.

"lacking a technology to advertise them, people would not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business."


An extreme example of this is when some people think

"If it is not on TV it did not happen." They mean of course that important matters --worthy of our paying attention to-- are, and of a habit end up, on television, radio, or the internet. We therefore don't have to pay attention to unreported events.



Amusing Ourselves to Death


His critique suggests a very widespread and growing insensitivity to the limitations imposed on conceptualization and the transfer of ideas by the means we use to transmit messages.

"For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk epistemology."

"Epistemology is a complex and usually opaque subject concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge. The part of its subject matter that is relevant here is the interest it takes in definitions of truth and the sources from which such definitions come."
p. 17.

"I want to show that definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed."
p. 17.

"Media are implicated in our epistemologies."

Authors who influenced Postman:

  • Northrop Frye on "resonance." and the "grapes of wrath" iconography.
  • Roland Barths on mythology as making the invented seem natural.
  • Aldous Huxley on the necessity of comprehending the politics of inquiry.
  • Lewis Mumford as one of our "great noticers." That is Mumford was a "watcher" who then reported what he noticed. Postman says of Mumford, that "he is far more interested in how a clock creates the idea of 'moment to moment'....He attends clocks as metaphor,about which education has little to say and clock maker's nothing at all."

Lewis Mumford


roseTeaching as a Subversive activity Among Postman's earliest works was a book about modern (1960s) education in a rapidly accelerating world. By accelerating he meant both in terms of the substance and the means of conveying new bodies of knowledge side by side with older belief systems. Foremost in this vanguard of learning was the revolutionary accumulation of new knowledge that displaced older traditions such as the discovery of DNA, atoms, or quarks.

Until his death in 2003, Dr. Neil Postman was a faculty member of the education department of NYU. Originally a Ph. D. in English, from Columbia University's Teachers Collage, Postman was concerned with the impact of media on discourse and vice versa.

His research and writing focused on the impact of media on the substantive or informational content of education. He was fond of explaining how young children spent more time being influenced by the passivity and coolness of the television. This he dramatically argued exposed us to 300,000 advertisements before we ever enter a schoolroom.

Tools that disturb the status quo

Books have not always existed, nor the paper the words are imprinted upon, but words from spoken language are so old we are not aware of when they emerged in the human species. Homo erectus may have used language, Homo Sapiens neanderthalensis are believed to have had the use of music and language.

In the past information was passed down from generation to generation in lyrical songs, long (epic) poems, or ritual behavior, long before written records emerged.

Postman related a story about the replacement of spoken language by writing based on an ancient fable from Plato.

carHis point was to show readers that each new advantage derived from inventions is wrapped around disadvantages. Postman argues that whether we clearly see it or not there is, as it were, hiding in every device and medium we use, an unseen quality.

motorThis hidden quality covers over the true cost of any presumed benefits derived from new tools, or technologies that foster new techniques.

For example: in media, the radio makes use of only audio signals and that is different from the television which makes use of visual and audio signals. The content of these mediums differ, according to Postman in how the transmit information and what meaning is contained in the message they convey.

Type, hence the typographical medium of printing in papers, magazines and printing, as opposed to paintings or photographs have all very different means of portraying the events they represent. Painting, photography, sculpture, video, audio, and typing all portray the same events or represent their content differently.

Since humans adapt to new technologies and tools with widespread changes in behavior it is important for people to know both the advantages and disadvantages that accompany the use of tools and the adoption of new spectaclesdevices, tools or implements.

Defining terms:

epistemology is the study of how we know something and ways to separate facts (nonfiction) from opinions (fiction). How we know; knowing what to do. Etymology of epistemology.

unawareness, the condition or state of not being known.

unaware is having no knowledge of a situation or fact.

cognizant means having knowledge or being aware of something that is:

  • A. crucial to your well-being
  • B. potentially important to you
  • C not critical, but of some interest or concern to you.

implicated meaning suspected of influencing, causing of brining about a desired or undesired change in any state of affairs. The driver of the car was implicated in the wreck, from which two dead bodies were dragged.

discourse, discussion, discursive are related:

discourse is any written or spoken communication or debate

discursive refers to a fluent and expansive style of speech or writing, rather than formulaic or abbreviated,

discussion is the verbal action or process of talking about something, typically in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas: not yet fully implemented, as under discussion.

a conversation or debate about a certain topic: discussions about environmental or social improvement programs.
a detailed treatment of a particular topic in speech or writing.

In media res media, meaning amid, midst or middle of.

The meaning of the phrase above refers to a situation. That is the existing situation we dwell in, flourish or languish. literally translated it means "In the midst of things.

Words express the peculiar understanding the Romans had of being immersed in something, as opposed to observing a situation from afar, or having related some condition that has ceased to exist. Here media refers to the intervening condition, or the surroundings or substance in which a person exists. The phrase reveals a double meaning of the original word medium referring to an intervening state between two distinctly different conditions

"What is peculiar about such interpositions of media is that their role in directing what we will see or know is so rarely noticed. A person who reads a book or watches television or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less by what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a watch."

Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 11.

Media, Postman insists, acts "To enforce their special definitions of reality."

"Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by interposition of [an] artificial medium.

Ernst Casirer quoted in Amusing Ourselves, p. 10.

To amuse means?



The word amuse comes from the muses.

A meaning from + muse meaning to creatively focus = to divert from, or to practice delightful deception.

These muses were personifications of the inspiration, or inner light connected to an un sensed, but powerful, force that ignites the imagination to produce tangible concepts, images, melodies, lyrics, or other works of art.

Museums are the place for keeping artifacts that inspire our imaginations and the word is a derivation from muse -- the seven sisters who inspired Greeks to write history, poetry, music, make art, dance and speak.

The muses were believed by the Greeks to have been the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory) and they are:

  • Calliope (epic poetry), beautiful voice
  • Clio (history), celebrate
  • Euterpe (flute playing and lyric poetry),
  • Terpsichore (choral dancing and song),
  • Erato (lyre playing and lyric poetry),
  • Melpomene (tragedy),
  • Thalia (comedy and light verse),
  • Polyhymnia (hymns, and later mime),
  • Urania (astronomy). heavenly, celestial

Stories convey content and form:

Thamus Story -- Not all that glitters is gold, is an aphorism that could easily stand for the many messages that Postman conveys in his retelling of the story of Thamus. Taken from Plato's dialogue "the Phaedo" a story is about the gifts from the gods --in this case Theuth-- to human cultures. Thamus is the King of Egypt who is reviewing and determining the value of each gift.

These gifts from the gods, as culture heroes, we call tools. Some such gifts such as counting, fire, or writing transformed the human condition. For Postman the story is a warning to the gullible, the argument for dialogue, and the necessity of exercising judgment with respect to using new techniques. He, like Plato, suggests that wisdom arises from a knowledge of the functional limitations of technical inventions and not just the application of technology to solving problems

Stories help us understand complicated situations by simplifying our focus on core versus tangential details. They come form the need to see the pieces in relation to the whole and draw on experience to provide a context for our meaning .




Chapter 2.

         Media as Epistemology           


"As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: 'They are incessant.
They form the substance of thought itself. Though in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.' "

"all that glitters is not gold," for example is a proverb.

pp. 18-19

"Thus we may say there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing."


"The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed."
"But to the people that invented it, the Sophists of fifth century BC Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs and therefore of communicating truth."

"To the Greeks rhetoric was a form of spoken writing."

"rhetoric was the proper means through which 'right opinion' was to be both discovered and articulated."

"The point I am leading to by this and previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that 'truth' is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant."

"We have enough of our own (prejudices), as for example,the equation we moderns make of truth and quantification. In this prejudice, we come astonishingly close to the mystical beliefs of Pythagoras and his followers who attempted to submit all of life to the sovereignty of numbers."

"But the modern minds, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers."

"there is a certain measure of arbitrariness in the forms that truth-telling may take."
Discussion of nature as discovered in myth and ritual pp. 24-25

Galileo "the language of nature is written in mathematics. He did not say  everything is."

Pages 27-29 see this link to his key ideas.

The focus of his discussion about meaning of discourse being affected by the medium used to communicate the message.





Chapter 3.

Typographic America.


"The Dunkers came close here to formulating a commandment about religious discourse: Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print them, lest thou be entrapped by them for all time."                                                                     

P. 31.

The premise of this book:
"that the form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be."

p. 31.

New England Puritanism and Calvinist offshoots demanded literacy and that required schooling.

p. 31-32

Popular ditty (song):

"From public schools shall general knowledge flow
for tis the people's sacred right to know."


"Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page."

Postman quotes Lewis Mumford:

"More than any other device the printed book  released people from  the domination of the immediate and the local. . exist was to exist in print: the rest of the world tended to become more shadowy. Learning became book-learning."

In 1660 there were 444 schools in England, one for every twelve miles. (528 square miles).
"growth in literacy was closely connected to schooling."


Democratization of opinions based on widespread reading, seen not (as in Europe) an elitist activity (at least in New England).

Quotes Howard Fast with respect to the 300,000 copies of Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

"Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book published today would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well."

pp. 34-35

As America moved into the nineteenth century, it did so as a fully print-based culture in all of its regions." (N&S), possessed libraries intended for the working class.

Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 305,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of four million in today's America.

p. 39




Chapter 4.

Typographic Mind


"The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly. This cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media environments of then and now."
[1830s-1980s ]

p. 41.

"But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, no radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play.+  There was no television."

"Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse."

"The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt every where. For example, in how people talked."

"America was as dominated by the printed word and the oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of."

p. 41.

". . .what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind of  printed orality, which was observable in diverse forms of oral discourse."


"I do not mean to say that print merely influenced the form of public discourse. That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content."

Marx asked in The German Ideology if the Iliad was now possible in the age of the printing press.
"Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease: that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?"
Marx quoted in Postman,

pp. 42-43.

"..the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience."


"how the press worked as a metaphor and an epistemology to create a serious and rational public conversation, from which we have now been so dramatically separated."


Lincoln and Douglas debated for four hours                                               

pp. 44-45

Story and Webster

Amusing Ourselves to Death,




Chapter 5

A 'Peek-a-boo' world: How communications combined with transportation removed us from the immediate present.

bookSee here: as an outline.


"The new idea was that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information."

p. 64.

There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. . . . the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have changed.

Postman's intention is: to "make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate by concrete example ... that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality ... and that television speaks in only one persistent voice –the voice of entertainment.

that to enter the great television conversation, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms."

"Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business."



Chapter 6

Age of Show Business peril of "rear-view mirror" thinking


"But the television screen is more than a light source. It is a smooth neatly flat surface on which the printed word may be displayed . . . .an electronic bulletin board."

p. 83.




Chapter 7

Metaphors of discontinuity phrases which allow us to become more removed.


"Uh Oh" - "a conjunction - that separates everything from everything."

p. 99.

Robert MacNeil on television news.

p. 105-106.

"What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of 'being informed' by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation.. . . does not mean false information. It means misinformation--misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information. . .that creates the illusion of knowing something."

p. 107.

"All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.."

pp. 110-111.

He fears that society "will dance and dream themselves into oblivion [rather] than march into it."

"As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it."

p. 111.

"So we move rapidly into an information environment which may be rightly called trivial pursuit -- [a game] which uses facts as a source of amusement, so do our sources of news."

"It has been demonstrated many times that a culture can survive misinformation and false opinion. It has not yet been demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the measure of the world in twenty-two minutes."

p. 113.




Chapter 8

Televangelist' true intent–the selling of God

"It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America."

Pat Robertson, T. V. ministry quoted by Postman p. 118.


"Prosperity is the true aim of religion."

"As it brings one nearer to Jesus, it also provides advice on how to increase one's bank account."

p. 114.

"Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture, or value."

p. 117.

"the point, there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible, The first has to do with the fact that there is no way to consecrate the space in which the television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there,...has a religious aura."

p. 118-119.

Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial ad entertainment worlds. . . ."

p. 119.

"The television preachers themselves are well aware of this. They know that their programs. . . are merely a part of an unbroken [--commercial broadcasting--] continuum."

p. 120.

"The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure."

"In addition, exceedingly handsome people are usually in view, both on stage and in the audience."


Unwritten Law "You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want."

p. 121.

Television, unlike established religions is "user friendly."

"RELIGIOUS PROGRAMS ARE FILLED WITH GOOD CHEER. They celebrate affluence Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.

I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.

p. 121

"The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is a means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it."

p. 122.

"I think it is both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is evoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped."


". . . that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continued hazard. Television is after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf."

p. 123.

"Television's strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads."

". . . the word for this is blasphemy."


He quotes Hannah Arendt:

This state of affairs,which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well.

Filling the pews with congregation members "that is the problem, not a solution to one."

p. 124.




Chapter 9

Elections and the media: the selling of democratic values

television and political culture


"Politics is the greatest spectator sport in America."

p. 125.

"If politics were like a sporting event, there could be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence."

p. 126.

"The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug."

"An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime."

"By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business–music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity–the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital."

p. 126

Of course the practice of capitalism has its contradictions. . . . But television commercials make hash of it."

"If that universe of discourse [the context in which propositions are either true or false] is discarded, then the application of empirical tests tests, logical analysis, or any of the other instruments of reason are impotent."

p. 127

"The television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas."

Ramsay Clark ran against Jacob Javits using well-developed position papers -- exposition based on background, examples, and evidence to support his argumentation.

"He might as well have drawn cartoons."

Javits "Built his campaign on a series of thirty-second television commercials in which he used visual imagery, in much the same way as a MacDonald's commercial, to project himself as a man of experience, virtue, and piety."

p. 129.

"Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials."

They and "We accept them as normal and plausible form of discourse."

"an unprecedented brevity of expression."

"The commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer."

"It is instant therapy."

"The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques, and chemistry."

"This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent. . ."

p. 130.

Postman quotes Bill Moyers, influential press secretary and media journalist, PBS show host:

Television ". . . helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs....We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries, or sixty years."

p. 137.

We "have less to fear from government restraints than from television glut."

p. 140.




Chapter 10

Teaching as an amusing activity


"Parents were eager to hope that television could teach their children something other than which cereal has the most crackle."

p. 142

"We face a rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image."

"Television is a curriculum."




Chapter 11

Huxleyan warning: Television's role


"There are two ways by which the spirit of culture may be shriveled.

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World concerning the willingness of people to want thought control.

His is a look at history thematically from the age of exposition and the typographical mind to the age of show business and the schizoid mind that transport and communication revolutions currently nourish ­ if not endow with–a power of site and sound to squash, hush and suppress the informed heart.


Related concepts

Social stratification and economic inequality

photography and message

narrative's temporal structure

framing arguments




reform culture

Susan Sontag


Economic rhetoric

Market collapse




chemieWater- private property or public good?

The ten lessons of Postman and Sontag

Overseas, or Foreign Press a sampling

USA print media, daily newspapers

William Greider, Come Home, America

George Lakoff, The Political Mind

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans and James Agee, 1941.


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