Upon reading Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, one is immediately struck by the entertainment necessitated culture in which we exist. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, yet its prolific themes make it exceptionally applicable today. Postman begins his book by explaining the media as epistemology and what typographic America looked like prior to the age of the television. In the second part of his book, Postman discusses how the television has propagated this age of entertainment and show-business in which we find ourselves. Postman ends with encouraging education and critical thinking as the solution to this entertainment based culture of America.
Postman speaks greatly as to how media effects epistemology. By definition, epistemology is a subject concerned with ways of knowing and definitions of truth. Form is relevant to the truth that is being propositioned. Take for instance, the courtroom scene: truth is determined by how situations compare to the laws written in law books. Citations are given in a written form, and lawyers’ briefs are written documents. Print media is a socially accepted, relevant form to dictate truth. Yet, print media is not the only form that is acceptable or desired in court. Witnesses are expected to give verbal testimony to that which they have seen. Judges and jurors alike expect to hear the truth given, not merely see it typed on a page. The court system plays both sides of the field when it comes to media forms and truth. On the one hand written documentation is required for legal truth to be upheld, but on the other hand, judges must hear the truth in public speaking in order to make a judgment call. Postman words it eloquently when he says: “Truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression” (22).
This point is fascinating when applied to the media of television. Television brings a visual aspect to public discourse– public discourse being the political, religious, informational, and commercial forms of conversation in which the general public is engaged. Postman firmly believes that maintaining a television-based epistemology pollutes public communication (28). With every new media form, there is a trade-off that occurs; a sacrifice that’s made. Typography brought an individuality to America, but degraded a sense of community and integration. It is foolish to believe that somehow television avoids this exchange. Starting with Samuel Morse and the telegraph, information has slowly disseminated into decontextualized data. Television brought immediacy to news, but sacrificed relevance in the process. The television assumes that information never requires a context and plays fifty-five channels of irrelevant programs to prove it. Just look at the news as an example: every evening for an hour someone comes on the TV and tells you about different events that have occurred– in no particular sequence or context. Now, you cannot do anything (except maybe cast a ballot in the near future) to change or effect any one of the crises that have been described to you. You receive decontextualized information about which you can do nothing, other than regurgitate and repeat it as “news” to someone else. This is not even touching on the concept that mediums themselves are biased. Television really arranges the communication environment in which we live.
Postman calls television a “meta-medium”, a medium that directs the knowledge of the world but also its ways of knowing as well. Yet, the television is described as “myth.” Roland Barthes uses the word not in the typical Greek tragedy epic which one often pictures, but meaning it as a way of thinking that is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is relatively invisible. The television fits this category. At one time, Americans were astounded by the machinery of the TV and the effect it would have. Now, no one is surprised by a how the television works or imagines how it will effect its audience. Television has become the culture. Discussions about TV only involve its content– what happened on this episode of The Bachelor— and not how it works or the situation in which we find ourselves watching it. It no longer seems strange or fascinating to sit in front of a glass screen, watching pictures and hearing sounds come from a box that is plugged into the wall. We, as a culture, have adjusted to the epistemology of television. We readily accept television’s definitions of truth and knowledge, so much so that the actual relevance and coherence of that knowledge is no longer questioned. This is scary to realize, especially when you consider the fact that television only speaks in one language: entertainment.
The culture of entertainment has so permeated our thinking that talking about it almost seems abstract. However, it is necessary to consider what this culture looks like, especially when applied to art. The problem with television is not that it presents its audience with entertainment. But rather that all subject matter presented is depicted as entertainment. The overarching assumption is that all is presented for our entertainment and pleasure. Think back to the news example: all the newscasters invite their audiences to come back and “join them tomorrow”, as if the tragedies presented that evening weren’t enough for our ears. The music, the look of the newscasters, even the two-minute long news stories, speak to a culture that expects to be entertained and amused by the news.
This concept of an entertainment based culture was especially riveting to me when applied to the arts. Having also just read Art Needs No Justification by Hans Rookmaaker, I have been trying to understand how this idea of entertainment and amusement has permeated even our art-making. Rookmaaker writes his essay on the premise that art does not need justification, its justification is in its being a God-given possibility (39). Yet, I cannot escape the idea that Postman presents in Amusing Ourselves to Death: that we live in a culture and an age of show-business. I can theoretically hold to the claim that art is art and it should never require a justification, but I cannot escape the culture in which I live. The question for me is: how do I make good art, that people want to see, but at the same time have art that does not attract an audience by making itself into mere entertainment? It seems the only way that this culture knows and accepts truth is if they are entertained or amused by it; I believe Neil Postman would agree with me. So the challenge to the artist becomes, how can I present truth in art as art? I, as an artist, have to protect that art from becoming pure entertainment or kitsch, and even then I do not know if my audience will accept my art as truth, if it does not entertain them. This is a terrifying realization and a legitimate challenge that faces artists in American culture today. Is there a place in culture for the arts? Can we, as culture, break through this epistemology that television has convinced us of, and realize that truth and entertainment are not equivalent?
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
Rookmaaker, Hans. Art Needs No Justification. Vancouver: Regent College, 2010. Print.