Amusing Ourselves to Death

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The History of Public Discourse and Media Theme Analysis

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Much of the book’s argument takes the form of a historical account that tracks the development of public discourse over time. Postman’s historical account is actually quite vast in scope: The Iliad, Plato, Jesus, the Protestant Reformation, and American history from its colonization to the present are all included in the story Postman tells about the history of media and their effects on culture. His argument essentially articulates how, in many ways, the history of public discourse is the history of different media forms achieving dominance. The Iliad was the product of an oral culture, while in Plato’s day, the rise of writing was at the center of a cultural shift. The Protestant Reformation was then made possible by the printing press, and in America, there is now a shift occurring between print and image.

Along with providing a lens through which to view the history of public discourse, Postman is also invested in demonstrating that this history, especially in America, is headed in a certain direction. In other words, not all kind of discourse are, in Postman’s account, created equal. His historical account then asks us to wonder about the damage potentially caused by the legacy of television in American history.

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The History of Public Discourse and Media ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death related to the theme of The History of Public Discourse and Media.
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. 

When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarter- backs, and Michael Jackson…

Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has moved on to describe 19th century America, continuing to emphasize that this era was dominated by mass public engagement with written texts and thus, by implication, with serious rational discourse. He points out that the popularity of Charles Dickens was comparable to the contemporary popularity of "television stars, quarter-backs, and Michael Jackson." Postman relies on the assumption that the audience will agree that Dickens is a superior cultural figure to a television star or Michael Jackson. Yet this assumption warrants critical examination. From the vantage point of the present day, we can observe that Michael Jackson had a major impact on American culture; his popularity resulted in everything from increased racial integration to the widespread adoption of complex new dance techniques. 

Furthermore, it is also important to note that in the 19th century, the novel was often considered a shallow, unsophisticated genre, much in the same way as Postman describes television. During Dickens' time, other art forms such as tragic drama, opera, and lyric poetry were thought to be far more important and admirable than the novel. Just as Postman derides mass engagement with television as evidence of a superficial, simplistic culture, so too was the novel dismissed for its accessibility and popularity. Indeed, many 19th century critics argued that the novel was ruining their culture in the same way as Postman accuses television of ruining his. 

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. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has performed a close reading of the phrase "Now... This," arguing that this two-word fragment encapsulates the aggressively shallow and disposable nature of television programming and culture. Furthermore, he has argued that in 1980s America people link credibility with style, meaning that whoever is most superficially appealing is trusted to communicate most accurately. Postman claims that, as a result, "Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." While Postman's critique of the superficiality created by visual culture is valid, following this critique with such a sweeping and unsupported claim about how informed American are somewhat undermines his original argument. 

Although Postman points to major problems in the way that television affects people's judgment and taste, entertainment culture is nonetheless only one of many factors that contribute to the extent to which a given population is well-informed. Other issues include education, social customs, and public accessibility of institutions such as libraries and museums. Furthermore, Postman's exclusive focus on the Western world should not be dismissed lightly. Note that this book was written in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, and thus government censorship of information was still the major factor preventing large parts of the world from accessing knowledge. 

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.