AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH; Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. By Neil Postman. Elisabeth Sifton/Viking. 184 pp. $15.95.
IT IS NEIL POSTMAN's contention, in this powerful, troubling and important book, that we are now "undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics," with the singularly unhappy result that "the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense." His language is blunt and his claims are large:
"To say it, then, as plainly as I can, 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. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaninblic discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television."
Which is to say that it must be recast in terms of entertainment, of show business. Television is a technologically brilliant medium, a genuine miracle, "a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day." For the very reason that it is "image-centered," though, television is inherently hostile to thought, logic and contemplation -- processes central to a "word-centered" culture. "It is in the nature of the medium," Postman writes, "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."
This it does in every aspect of its operation; television is saturated with the needs and values of show business, and because it has become the principal medium of national conversation it has imposed those same needs and values on the country itself. Postman writes: "The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether. . . . A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis." He fears, and he is right to do so, that it is not the gloomy Orwellian vision of the future that awaits us, but the one depicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, wherein "a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act."
There may be an apocalyptic ring to this, but Postman is at pains to emphasize that he is no Luddite, that television is here to stay and that there will be no turning back the technological clock. What is necessary, though, is that we look more clearly at what we, in our bottomless joy at being entertained by television, are permitting it to do to us. In essence, it has changed us from "perhaps the most print-oriented culture ever to have existed" into "a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not the printed word." Quite correctly, Postman views this transformation with dismay:
"Obviously, my point of view is that the four-hundred-year imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit than deficit. Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas about education, knowledge, truth and information. I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines. Of what benefits may come from other directions, one must keep an open mind."
IT IS DIFFICULT to do so, though, in the face of the evidence. It is in the nature of television to trivialize everything it touches, to make Americans "the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." Television, which requires nothing of us except that we watch -- which a six- year-old and an eighty-year-old can do equally well -- thereby frees us of the obligation to think. Everything becomes image, nothing has substance. To call news what passes on television for "news" is to make a mockery of the word -- television "news," with its ear-catching theme songs, with its 45-second "reports" on complex and momentous events, with the insistently upbeat commercials that set its pace and tone, with its blow-dried anchorpeople and telegenic "reporters." This has nothing to do with what we knew as "news" in the Age of Typography -- which Postman also calls "the Age of Exposition" -- and everything to do with show business; yet this is what sets the national agenda.
As is nowhere made more appallingly evident than in politics. It is no longer an original thought to say that the influence upon politics of television has been both pervasive and dire, but Postman makes a most perceptive connection between the television commercial and contemporary political discourse. Not merely does the commercial demand "an unprecedented brevity of expression," it also "asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, and that they are solvable fast, through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry." It teaches "that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems."
THESE ARE the terms in which the television commercial has taught us to think, and the terms in which our politics is now conducted. Image is now everything, substance nothing: "Like television commercials, image politics is a form of therapy, which is why so much of it is charm, good looks, celebrity and personal disclosure. It is a sobering thought to recall that there are no photographs of Abraham Lincoln smiling, that his wife was in all likelihood a psychopath, and that he was subject to lengthy fits of depression. He would hardly have been well suited for image politics. We do not want our mirrors to be so dark and so far from amusing. What I am saying is that just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political substance for the same reason."
So too do religion and education. On television"Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana." Quite apart from the theatrics to which televised religion is given, "there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced" and "the screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events." On television, the Super Bowl and the sermon are the same: entertainment.
Ditto for education, which is in the early phase of a revolution, "the 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." So far our response has been to accommodate education to television, rather than vice versa. Thus, for example, we have "Sesame Street": "As a television show, and a good one, 'Sesame Street' does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television." The "education" with which television is most comfortable is that which follows three commandments identified by Postman: "Thou shalt have no prerequisites," "Thou shalt induce no perplexity," and "Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt." Toward all the discipline, thought and self-restraint demanded by an education in the printed word, television is implacably hostile; television can accommodate only that which is easy, which is devoid of history, which demands mere passivity.
This is a brutal indictment Postman has laid down, and so far as I can see an irrefutable one. To be sure, his book is not without flaws, and these should be mentioned. Postman is right to ridicule television for the offensive transitional phrase "Now . . . this," but he is wrong about its purpose; it is not "a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything," but a euphemistic announcement that the viewer is about to be subjected to a commercial. His attempt to give metaphoric weight to the crossword puzzle as a vessel for the detritus of information glut is silly; the crossword puzzle is a word game, nothing more or less. And his analysis of televised religion ignores the history of American evangelism, which stressed entertainment -- remember Billy Sunday? Aimee Semple McPherson? -- long before the television set came along to mesmerize us all.
But mesmerize us is exactly what it has done, with effects on our national life that we have scarcely begun to identify, much less analyze or debate. Television may be "the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation," but "it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition." But in this brilliant book -- one every bit as provocative as Postman's previous book, The Disappearance of Childhood -- that debate has at last begun. If we permit Postman to be its only participant, we will do ourselves an incalculable disservice.