Postman recounts to his reader the debates that took place between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in August 1858. Douglas spoke for one hour, then Lincoln replied for an hour and a half—and this was one of their shortest debates. Postman wonders “What kind of audience was this?” He marvels at the ability of Lincoln and Douglas’s audience to sit through hours of oratory from people who were not even, at the time, officially presidential candidates. Postman is confident that contemporary audiences could never give their time and attention the way then-audiences did.
Postman continues to ask rhetorical questions that put the present in conversation with the past. His contention is not only that contemporary audiences do not engage in sustained speaking and listening, but also that they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Media don’t simply affect our practices, but also our ability to practice.
Postman also analyzes the speech of Lincoln during the debate. Postman quotes a particularly long and logically complex sentence from Lincoln, and notes that contemporary politicians are far less likely to speak like this—either because they can’t, or because they are wary of being incomprehensible. People of television culture, says Postman, need “plain language.” This sets us apart in a fundamental way from 19th century Americans, for whom “the use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discoursein almost every public arena.”
Postman points out that values which today seem obvious and natural to us—like valuing a politician’s ability to “speak plainly”—are in fact only recent cultural trends, and contingent upon the rise of television culture. Postman wants us to see how our value systems have changed: we cannot imagine a politician today being praised for reciting his logically complex argument in a public arena—but this has not always been the case.
Postman then says it is important to remember that the written word “has a content” that is semantic and paraphraseable. He notes that this may sound odd or obvious, but contends that it is important to his argument. The fact that writing has a paraphraseable content means that it inherently asks to be understood: to be worked through and grappled with by its audience. This is why Postman calls the language of print “serious business.” It is, according to him, fundamentally rational. “It is no accident,” he writes, “That the Age of Reason coincided with print culture.”
This is one of Postman’s most central—and perhaps most controversial—points. He argues here that printed language is inherently rational because it has a paraphraseable content. This implies that television does not have a paraphraseable content, and therefore it is inherently non-rational. Today’s culture is “silly” because television itself is inescapably silly.
Postman then extrapolates that great men of the past—thinkers, orators, politicians, intellectuals—were required to be well-versed and logical, and their audiences were required to do the work of understanding printed language. He notes that great preachers of the 18th and 19th centuries were all men who were exceedingly well-versed in scripture, and whose appeal grew out of their refined intellect. He compares this to the contemporary, commodified “megachurch” figures whose zealotry is often precisely anti-intellectual.
Postman begins diving into examples to prove this point. His first example concerns how we practice religion: whereas (in Postman’s view) scripture used to be a tool for rational understanding, now it is a tool for non-rational entertainment. Religion is a place where we can see intellect being replaced by something less “serious,” and thus where the influence of new visual media is made apparent.
Postman then shifts his attention to advertising. As with all other spheres of culture, advertising was more serious in the age of reason than it is in contemporary culture. “Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions.” But Postman argues that with the decline of print culture, it was no longer safe for advertisers to assume the rationality of their audience. Instead, they had to appeal to emotion, psychology, and aesthetic sensibility—reason was left by the wayside.
Advertising is not often thought of as a serious intellectual business, and today we assume it to be on the same level as light entertainment and amusement. However, Postman points out that once upon a time advertising was considered rational and serious. Thus entertainment is not an inherent part of advertising—it is in fact a new development related to the rise of television culture.
Postman moves into a more in-depth discussion of contemporary “image culture.” He says that once upon a time, citizens would have associated the names of great thinkers with their prose style or handwriting. But now that technologies of image have proliferated, we associate the names of thinkers and politicians—like Einstein or John F. Kennedy—with images of their face, either in a photograph or on a television screen. This, Postman opines, is the replacement of print culture by television or image culture. We can’t remember the rational content of a person’s work—we only think of their image.
Similarly, in today’s world we might consider it natural to associate someone’s name with a face. Celebrities, politicians, and public figures today exist to us primarily as images. Once again, however, Postman seeks to de-naturalize this way of thinking. In other words, he emphasizes that the association of a politician with an image is a historically new development, and one directly related to a rise of the culture of the image.
Postman continues to lay out reasons why print culture was once so strong. Before electricity, he argues, time for reading was compressed. Whatever daylight a person had to make use of, they would make use of deliberately and with concentration. Reading was done carefully and attentively. There was no such thing as absent-minded reading of perusing, says Postman. Reading and comprehending were always the same thing. But at the end of the nineteenth century, reading was sundered from comprehension, attention span grew shorter, and the “Age of Show Business” began to take shape.
Today it doesn’t seem strange for us to speak of “reading carefully” or to refer to someone’s “reading comprehension” skills—but Postman again puts this kind of thinking into historical perspective. Reading used to always mean comprehension—reading used to always be “careful.” Postman that announces that all these changes can be attributed to the rise of what he finally calls the “Age of Show Business.”