Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Form and Content Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Form and Content Theme Icon
Typography vs. Image Theme Icon
The History of Public Discourse and Media Theme Icon
News and Entertainment Theme Icon
Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future Theme Icon
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Form and Content Theme Icon

At the heart of Postman’s argument is a claim about a relationship between the form of a medium (where “form” refers to the form the medium takes, e.g. television, spoken language, writing, etc.) and the content of that medium (where content is the information the medium communicates). Postman says that there is a determinate relationship between form and content. This means that the form of a media determines, or has a definitive impact on, its content. Certain kinds of media are suited for certain kinds of discourse, information, or communication. For example, Postman argues that television, as a form of media, is simply not suited for rational discussion or any kind of “serious” content. On the other hand, he believes typography (print and writing) is a form of media perfectly suited for rational content—but not necessarily entertaining content. Spoken language, its own medium separate from print, also determines its own special content: sayings, proverbs, or aphorisms are the dominant kinds of content in oral traditions, where information is communicated primarily by the spoken word.

Postman believes that this determinate relationship between form and content is of vital importance for people, especially Americans, to understand. He notes that too many Americans believe they can get out of television what they once got out of books or other kinds of print media. The implications for this claim are indeed large: if the form of a medium determines its content, then the introduction and dominance of new media, Postman extrapolates, brings with it the dominance of altogether new kinds of content. The difference between print culture and television culture is not simply the difference between writing and watching: it is the difference between a culture dominated by reason and a culture dominated by entertainment.

Form and Content ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Form and Content appears in each chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Form and Content Quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death

Below you will find the important quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death related to the theme of Form and Content.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has described the ways in which the increasing prevalence of image-based communication has resulted in a culture where appearances and style matter more than content. He has introduced the ideas of his former teacher, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who claimed "the medium is the message," although Postman himself adapts this statement to "the medium is the metaphor," meaning that communicative media convey indirect messages to audiences. In the final sentences of this chapter, Postman illustrates the link between languages, media, metaphor, and "the content of our culture." By "languages", Postman means not only different tongues, such as English and Spanish, but all modes of communication more generally, including nonverbal and symbolic languages.

Postman's words here emphasize the fact that different media are not simply transparent, interchangeable vehicles through which ideas are neutrally transmitted. While a book and a TV show may appear to express the same message, the very fact that this message is being conveyed via two different media means that the message itself will be different. Postman argues that this, in turn, has a significant impact on culture, as the kinds of messages being circulated in public discourse affect people's thoughts, expectations, and behaviors. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters…

Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has illustrated the way in which media determines the epistemology of a given culture, meaning that the media we use affects what we think counts as knowledge, as well as influencing how this knowledge is gained, disseminated, and used. He has argued that "television-based epistemology" is shallow and absurd, in comparison to print-based epistemology which is more sophisticated, reasonable, and reliable. At the end of the chapter, Postman points out that just because one form of media is dominant, this doesn't mean that others become completely irrelevant. As someone critical of television and the discourse it produces, Postman compares himself to a fish in a "toxic river." In writing this book, Postman hopes to encourage others to become more critical of television-based knowledge and culture. 

Though many may agree with Postman's argument here, this passage also leaves Postman vulnerable to charges of elitism. First, he seems to position himself as exceptionally immune to the influence of television and capable of rational critique. Second, in the years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, many scholars have described television as a democratizing medium, accessible to people who may not have the knowledge, time, or resources to consume sophisticated printed texts. Other movements of thought would also dispute Postman's claim to be a clear-headed fish in toxic waters. If we are all a product of the time in which we live, what qualifies Postman to distinguish himself as more connected to the "rational" past than others? 

Chapter 3 Quotes

The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.

Related Symbols: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has described the print culture of 17th and 18th century America in positive, nostalgic terms, mentioning the high literacy rates and the popularity of Thomas Paine's pre-Revolutionary War pamphlet "Common Sense", which sold a total of 3 million copies despite being a complex, intellectually rigorous text. He concludes disdainfully that in the America of the 1980s only the Superbowl would receive such a level of collective public attention. There is much to critique about Postman's romanticization of colonial America. Perhaps the most crucial point is that, if print culture created such rational, sophisticated ways of thinking, how did that same culture allow and encourage the institution of slavery? (Note the vast majority of slaves were illiterate, and teaching a slave to read was even a crime.) 

Postman evidently views mass interest in forms of entertainment such as the Superbowl as inherently detracting from public engagement with serious political and philosophical issues. However, it is not necessarily the case that just because people consume sports and other supposedly shallow forms of entertainment, that they are not also devoting time to more complex issues as well. Sports have played a large role in human life throughout history––including in colonial America––and have long harmoniously coincided with intellectual pursuits. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

The use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena…

Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has turned to another historical example of public discourse, the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas that occurred in 1858. Postman has explained that these debates are marvelous by contemporary standards both in their length––audiences listened attentively for hours at a time––but also for the complexity of language used. In this passage, he emphasizes that this intellectually rigorous use of language was considered an important and enjoyable part of life in the past. Once again, Postman uses a specific event to illustrate the differences between the past and the present. On one level, this is persuasive, as it effectively reveals the stark difference in the kinds of activities that people pursued and enjoyed in the nineteenth century versus the 1980s. 

On the other hand, there are also several problems with this method of comparison. As this passage shows, Postman frequently generalizes––for example, by saying that the debates between Lincoln and Douglas were representative of discourse taking place in "almost every public arena." In nineteenth-century America (as in the present), public arenas differed vastly from one another, depending on their location, the local population, and their primary function. It is therefore not possible to describe all public arenas, unless one does so in extremely vague terms. Furthermore, the use of these examples becomes less powerful when one factors in the wider context of how people in the nineteenth century spent their time. Life in the 19th century existed at a much slower pace than life in the 1980s, one of many reasons why it is unsurprising that people had more patience for lengthy, complex discourse.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.

Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has moved on to describe a pivotal moment in the history of communications: the invention of the telegraph. He describes the effect of the telegraph on American culture as "a three-pronged attack" that made discourse more irrelevant, impotent, and incoherent.

This is a somewhat surprising statement; usually, we might think of the direct and concise messages transmitted via telegraph as being more relevant, potent, and (perhaps) coherent than, for example, a long letter that does not arrive until weeks or months after it is sent. However, Postman challenges this assumption, suggesting that conveying information immediately and concisely perhaps does not have an advantageous effect on communications at all. In his view, the ease with which mass media is produced and disseminated decreases the quality of the messages conveyed.

To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them…

Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has argued that the invention of the telegraph turned information into a commodity, which people consume without truly processing. In today's world, Postman contends that people "consume" vast amounts of news but that it does not affect their actions, making news irrelevant even while it is more ubiquitous than ever. This passage critiques the fact that, since the invention of the telegraph, "intelligence meant knowing of lots of things" but never engaging with information in a substantial, sophisticated way. While this is a powerful point, Postman seems to be addressing issues of globalization much broader than communications technology alone.

In an increasingly interconnected world, what responsibilities do we have to "know of lots of things," even if they are remote from our own experience? Postman's assumption that it is better to know more about fewer topics is plausible, but perhaps better suited to a time in which people could afford to be informed only about their immediate surroundings. Finally, this passage clearly takes on a whole different meaning in the age of the internet. Many people today approach the issue of broad versus deep understandings of the world by asking how valuable it is to have vast general knowledge when almost all of this knowledge is a quick Google search away. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection.

Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has emphasized the difference between television and the literature of the past, claiming that the format of television has created a constant demand for entertainment. In Postman's view, entertainment is fundamentally oppositional to rational thought. In this passage, he states that the purpose of "a good television program" is to elicit "applause" rather than "reflection." Although this coheres with much criticism of the way in which people "mindlessly" consume television, there are a few flaws in Postman's argument. It might seem pedantic to point out that viewers watching television at home rarely ever actually applaud, but given Postman's emphasis on this issue, it is worth close examination. 

To Postman, applause and reflection are inherently opposed, but there is little empirical evidence to support this claim. Long and complex symphonies, operas, and plays are all likely to end with the audience applauding, followed by sophisticated, "rational" discussion of the work being performed. Meanwhile, a family watching television at home are unlikely to applaud, but may discuss the program with one another. Indeed, in many ways television seems the ideal medium for encouraging discussion, considering it is consumed socially (unlike novels) and in the privacy of people's homes (unlike opera). Both these factors make conversing about television much easier and perhaps more common than discussion of other art forms. 

Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song [There’s No Business like Show Business], he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There's No Business But Show Business.

Related Characters: Aldous Huxley
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has emphasized both television's uniqueness among other forms of media and its unparalleled influence on culture. Even thoughts, behaviors, and modes of communication that do not immediately appear related to television are often deeply affected by its influence. In this passage, Postman wryly comments that Irving Berlin's famous song "There's No Business Like Show Business," written in 1946, would have been "prophetic" if the title had been altered to "There's No Business But Show Business." The second title highlights the entertainment industry's exceptional status within late 20th-century American culture, as well as the particular power of "show business" to turn all aspects of life into frivolous, flashy forms of entertainment. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.

Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has claimed that television is the enemy of capitalism, a surprising statement that he roots in the example of television commercials. In this passage he argues that television is problematic for capitalism because television commercials focus on "the character of the consumers of products" rather than the products themselves. This observation is one of the most prescient points in the book, and coheres with much contemporary theory about advertising. Cultural critics today are quick to identify the ways in which contemporary advertisements attempt to sell a "lifestyle" (or in other words, a "character") rather than any specific product. This is why it is often difficult to determine what many commercials are for until the every end. 

However, as critics today point out, this ambiguity is far from antithetical to capitalism––indeed, it is a key feature of the capitalist moment in which we live (often referred to as "late capitalism"). Many theorists reason that advertisers have discovered that it is more powerful to sell a personality or lifestyle to audiences than an individual item, especially given the fact that contemporary consumers have such a vast array of commodities at their fingertips. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

We now know that "Sesame Street" encourages children to love school only if school is like "Sesame Street."

Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Postman turns his attention to a potential objection to his argument, born in the example of educational programming. He identifies Sesame Street as an example of a television program with education as its primary focus. However, Postman views Sesame Street as deeply flawed as a vehicle for transmitting knowledge and critical thinking skills to children. The problem, as Postman illustrates in this passage, is that when children receive educational messages in the form of entertainment, they will expect all education and knowledge to be entertaining. Furthermore, this promotes a model of education in which knowledge is consumed, as opposed to produced and interrogated through interactions between student and teacher. 

In many ways, this is a valid criticism of the popularity of Sesame Street and of educational programming in general. However, Postman fails to address the fact that under many historical methods of teaching, education was constructed as a one-sided process of consumption, albeit one that looked very different from Sesame Street. In many traditional schooling systems, students were expected to mutely consume, memorize, and regurgitate information without engaging in critical discourse with their teachers. This method of teaching was born out of the absolutist idea that learning should centre around the accumulation of accepted, "correct" facts, ideas, and skills. In many instances, more progressive, discourse-based modes of education have arisen in conjunction with the age of television.