Book Review

Amusing Ourselves… Is Still Relevant

T. David Gordon
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

For a book written about media in 1985, Postman’s book is surprisingly relevant. When my students read it, I expect them to say something about how irrelevant it is to them, but they never say this; instead, they speak enthusiastically about how insightful and helpful it is. This is probably because laptops, iPads, and smartphones are really little more than portable televisions. The videos (YouTube or otherwise) my students view on their digital devices are as “amusing” as television itself, and Postman’s insights regarding the one realm are highly applicable to the other. If anything, their portability (and therefore ubiquity) exacerbates the cultural problem Postman addressed in 1985.

Second, Postman’s critics have almost never engaged what he actually said. All the critics I have encountered tend to object to one of two things: what they think he intends to say (but never actually says), or what some people might do with what he says (e.g., never watch television). Many think Postman was a media determinist, though he was not. If he were a determinist and believed that the dehumanizing aspects of television were inescapable, he would not have bothered to have written books and essays alerting his readership to our current cultural tendencies, advising us how to escape those tendencies. To be sure, he said that the triumph of television over print “dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse” (8), but individuals could and can choose to conduct themselves differently from the culture at large. As Postman said, “I do not mean to imply that prior to the written word analytic thought was not possible. I am referring here not to the potentialities of the individual mind but to the predispositions of a cultural mind-set” (51). If Postman was a determinist, then surely Malcolm Gladwell is. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2002), Gladwell, even more than Postman, has argued that cultures reach “tipping points,” where they move in different directions than they did before and exert pressures on individuals to conform to these directions.

Similarly, Postman never said that no one should watch any television of any sort in any amount (what people fear his readership will conclude). Here’s what Postman said: “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether” (87). If television merely presented us with entertaining subject matter for an hour or so daily, Postman would have had no problem with it. But when it becomes the primary means of knowing, and when it televises matter (e.g., public policy, education, religion) that ought to be discussed in another (print) forum, he indeed had problems.

Postman’s Two Theses

Postman’s first thesis that pervades his book is this: Every medium inevitably shapes, to a greater or lesser degree, the “message” it conveys. Some media (e.g., painting and sculpture) are nondynamic; others (drama and music) are dynamic. Some media are visual (painting, film, and television), and others are auditory (audiobooks and radio). Every medium has certain formal properties, and these properties shape its peculiar potential. We employ stone for grave-markers because of its peculiar potential to last a long time, which is a result of its medium. A balloon would not do the same. Similarly, Postman denied that smoke signals were an adequate medium for conducting philosophical discourse (7). He justly says,

It is naïve to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value. Much prose translates fairly well from one language to another, but we know that poetry does not; we may get a rough idea of the sense of a translated poem but usually everything else is lost, especially that which makes it an object of beauty. The translation makes it into something it was not. (117)

Postman’s second (and equally pervasive) thesis is this: Every medium inevitably shapes, to a greater or lesser degree, those who employ it. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Delta, 1971), coauthored with Charles Weingartner, Postman writes:

Being illiterate in the processes of any medium leaves one at the mercy of those who control it. The new media-these new languages-then are among the most important “subjects” to be studied in the interests of survival. But they must be studied in a new way if they are to be understood; they must be studied as mediators of perception. (166)

Most media ecologists put it this way: To evaluate any tool, we ask two questions, not one. First, what does the tool do for us; and second, what does the tool do to us? A shovel, for instance, does something for us; it puts holes in the ground. It also does something to us; it callouses our hands. This observation about callouses is not a value judgment; handball players like to have calloused hands, because they can hit the ball harder than they can with soft hands. Whether one desires to have calloused hands or not is up to the individual to decide; but as a simple matter of fact, using any material thing affects material humans in certain ways, by altering either the physiology or neurology of those who use it. (1)

Further, media influence the sociology of knowledge or how a community comes to know what it knows (and thereby a culture’s values). Every culture creates what some call “plausibility structures,” (2) and different media shape these structures differently. As Postman writes:

My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content’in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling….I believe that the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist. (27)

Postman’s twin theses that media shape their messages and that media shape their users are bedrock principles of the discipline of Media Ecology.

Postman’s Theses and Television

Applied to commercial television, Postman calls attention to its particular form: there are commercial interruptions every five minutes (which militates against sustained discourse or argumentation), and commercial interests demand that the programming be comparatively easily comprehended (which militates against refined or specialized vocabulary). (3) Postman also follows French philosopher Jacques Ellul in saying that, compared to print or radio, television is largely image based, appealing to (and cultivating) the emotions at the expense of rationality: “The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable….Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence” (73, 158).

Perhaps of greatest interest to Modern Reformation readers are Postman’s thoughts about televised religion. Postman was not, of course, the first to talk about the incompatibility of the two. Malcolm Muggeridge brought the public’s attention to the matter in the series of lectures he gave in 1976 in London. (4) Postman, however, brought to the discussion his basic media-ecological orientation, as well as his sardonic wit, giving the pertinent chapter the impertinent title, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” Though himself a secular Jew, Postman demonstrated greater understanding of the Christian faith than many who profess to embrace it:

On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana….I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. (117, 121)

If space permitted, I would augment Postman’s negative comments about religion and television with some positive arguments about religion and proclamation. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, NRSV). God decided not only what message to employ for salvation (the word of the cross, 1 Cor. 1:18); he chose also the medium by which to save. Proclamation was much less common in Paul’s culture than at least four other media: poetry, dialogue, rhetoric, and drama (by far the most popular medium with the Greeks and the Romans). Further, proclamation was often regarded, with a degree of contempt, as a rather perfunctory task assumed by a lower-level functionary: “At a first glance it seems as though the herald has completely lost the status which he had in the royal period….Obviously, a herald was not highly regarded. He was simply an official.” (5) Yet, for reasons I cannot address here, God chose this unpopular and not very highly regarded medium as the ordinary vehicle of salvation. Postman did not appear to be aware of this, but he had enough knowledge of both religion and commercial television to rightly perceive that the two were incompatible.

Those who have not yet read Amusing Ourselves to Death should treat themselves to it; and those of us who haven’t read it recently should read it again. It is surprisingly germane to our tweeting, texting, distracted YouTubing, Facebooking, Net-surfing culture.

1 [ Back ] Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper, 2007).
2 [ Back ] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969).
3 [ Back ] Postman's critics often overlook his express statement that it is commercial television as a medium that he is writing about, not television as a technology, that might have been employed differently than it has been commercially: "We must understand that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, where 'talking heads' are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio" (85).
4 [ Back ] Later published as Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
5 [ Back ] G. Friedrich, "???Ï??," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament III (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 685.
Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church