Amusing Ourselves to Death

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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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Amusing Ourselves to Death, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Typography vs. Image Theme Icon

The fundamental tension in Postman’s account is the opposition between typography, or print, and the image (as in a photograph or on a television screen). This tension is fundamental to Postman’s argument largely because (he claims) it is this opposition between print and image which is at the heart of the transition occurring in American discourse and culture at the time of his writing.

America, once highly literate and dependent on print-based forms of communication—including, in Postman’s account, books, pamphlets, and public lecture and debate—has now become a culture of the image. Newspapers feature photographs alongside headlines, thus translating news and journalism into an image-centric format. Even more importantly, television has become so central in American culture that it has dominated and overcome print culture.

Postman is often bold about choosing sides in the historical confrontation between print and image. He believes cultures of the image are degraded, less capable of reason, and less politically engaged than cultures of print media. His book then seeks to expose the ways in which television and other image media (like photography) have changed the way Americans understand, behave, believe and even think—and for the most part, Postman argues that these new forms of thought, belief, and understanding are inferior to those of the past.

Typography vs. Image ThemeTracker

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Typography vs. Image Quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death

Below you will find the important quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death related to the theme of Typography vs. Image.
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? 


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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. 

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.