Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death? Part II
VTR Date: January 18, 1986
Guest: Postman, Neil
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest:Professor Neil Postman
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Generally I’ll admit I do have a very, very hard time leaving well enough alone. But with today’s guest that’s particularly true because, as with the first program just the other week, I feel so strongly that the most straightforward point I could make in introducing our discussion is that I so fervently wish that I had the wit and the skill and the learning and the insight to write something akin to his extraordinary new book. Neil Postman of the New York University joins me again today. His newest book, Viking’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Now last time Professor Postman pointed out that it’s a miracle this program has stayed around so long, I began it almost 30 years ago after all, because it so flagrantly violates what we’ll call the dancing girls principle of American mass communications. Namely, that the very dynamic of television requires dancing girls, not talking heads. Nevertheless, on the other boldest of principles, in for a dim, in for a dollar, I want now to do even more of the unthinkable on the air. I’d like Professor Postman to read two paragraphs from his book simply because they express certain ideas better than anything else that we could perform here does and now. Professor Postman, how about it?
Postman: To say it as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the Twentieth Century. The decline of the age of typography and the ascendancy of the age of television. This changeover has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education and anything else that comp-rises public business must change and be recast in terms that tare most suitable to television. In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intonations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything., Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water beneath the earth. Well, I wondered then as so many others have as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how there were to symbolize or not symbolize their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statutes or depicting their ideas in any concrete iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the word and through the word. An unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy. So that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word centered to image centered might profit by reflecting on this mosaic injunction. But even if I am wrong in these conjectures, it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.”
Heffner: What a kick it must be to be able to read your own writing on television. You know, what struck me as I read the book so formidably, yet last week when we talked about it sort of somewhere in the middle of the conversation, you kind of needed to cop out a little bit. And to move back from the kind of determinism that you expressed in those paragraphs. You talked about at the very end, you said something about, well after all, I’m an American so I’m optimistic. We’ve had a couple of weeks since we taped the other show. Have you lost any of that optimism? Isn’t it just as clear as when you wrote that?
Postman: Well, I do think that to the extent that people understand that there is a problem, that there’s an issue, it is not inconceivable to me that they can handle it. The most optimistic sign I see is with automobiles. I mean in 19—when did – I guess at the beginning of the century we first got automobiles and it took until 1964 when Ralph Nadar wrote or published Unsafe at Any Speed that people began to look at the automobile and the kind of culture it had created in an analytic way. So that we saw the automobile as a problem. Once seeing it as a problem, we then can address it. We can catalogue the particularities of the problem and to some extent do something about it Now I think this is also true with technology. That I’m not as hard a core technological determinist as I might have seemed in the early part of the last broadcast.
Heffner: But you know it’s your metaphor. I would have thought one would say, my goodness the automobile has had such an impact, a continuing impact. We have never been able to undo the mischief that the automobile brought with it.
Postman: Well, one thing that we were able to do is that before Nadar’s book care out everyone assumed that accidents were caused by drunken drivers who were incompetent drivers. His book made us aware of the fact that the automobiles sometimes were to blame. And since that time it’s commonplace to have the big car manufacturers saying that certain cars must be returned because they’re unsafe and they have to be fixed up. So, I would back off to this extent, that I do think there’s a kind of logic to a technology that it asks to be used in a certain way. And this logic has tremendous force to it. To the extent that we understand what that logic is, that television as you said is biased towards dancing girls and not talking heads, then at the very least I think we could prepare ourselves to accommodate that kind of bias; if nothing else to protect ourselves through the education of the young through the seductions of the eloquence of television’s charm.
Heffner: But that’s saying something very different, it seems to me. That’s saying, unless I misunderstand, let’s at least get rid of the schizy aspect of this business. Let’s make the concession that the change has come. Elsewhere you write in the wonderful book, who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? And by gosh the title of your book is Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Postman: Well, but at the same time the book is, even in the passage I read I said it was a lamentation about but also a sort of complaint which has as its purpose arousing people’s attention. Let me give you an example of something that I think might be done. One of the issues that I worry about a lot concerning television is this whole business of what is know as credibility. Not long ago there was an ad in the New York Times, full-page ad, quite incredible, I thought. There was a drawing of Dan Rather and President Reagan. The copy asked, which one of them was more believable. Now it turns out that according to the Gallup pole Dan Rather is, in fact. All three network anchormen had to hire a believability rating as it was called (inaudible) but Rather’s was the highest at 81%. By the way, the ad did not say whether this mean that 81% of the viewers believed Rather 100% of the times, or 100% of the viewers believed him 81% of the times. But the most significant feature of the ad was the question of Rather’s – the veracity of Rather’s statements never came up. And one can get some sense of the importance of this omission by imagining what would be the reaction to someone saying that a Gallup pole has shown that Colonel Qadhafi believability rating among Libyans is 94%. We would say well, so what. What does this have to do with whether or not he speaks the truth. Well, this ad didn’t say anything about whether or not Dan Rather speaks the truth. Only whether he is believable.
Heffner: Well, you’re talking then again about the image.
Postman: Yes. But once people begin to pose the question, well what is credibility, I mean in the theatrical context it means that the actor is able to persuade us. That he or she is the character being portrayed. Well, what does this have to do with the TV newscast? What role is Dan Rather playing? And what’s the name of the play in which he is staring? Now once people pose that questions, that is, become aware that there is, if I can use a $100 word, a short of a epistemological issue, a question concerning what we man by truth here, then I think we’ll engage in a conversation about it culturally and it’s effects will not be quite as serious as it might otherwise be.
Heffner: Yes, but you’re talking about if. And you’re talking about when. And it seemed to me that the passages that you read from your own book indicated tat thee was very little likelihood that if and when would ever come to pass. That almost by definition once we have become involved in the imagery will not find it in our hearts nor minds to move back again. Not true?
Postman: I don’t think so. I mean, I think what… there are examples of cultures finding a place for a technology. See I think this is, this is really the issue with television. At the moment this dancing girl medium has become the command center of the culture and has moved other media to the periphery of the culture.
Heffner: What would make that less so?
Postman: Well, I keep saying, but I guess I’m not being too convincing, and maybe because I’m not entirely convincing myself, that awareness may in fact be what can do the trick. I mean as people become… see, most people, I would imagine, don’t see television as problematic. They don’t see that it raises any political or epistemoligcal issues.
Heffner: Right. Then were does that…
Postman: Well, this is why I must be on THE OPEN MIND almost every week to keep saying this. But then again you’re going to say that this program is not on prime time, which I think we talked about last time.
Heffner: You brought it up.
Postman: Well, I didn’t mean to discredit the program in any way…
Heffner: No. It’s fine. But it’s a fact that we have to deal with. And you say here again in this book…. You know I love the book so much that I’m not going to let you get away with a thing. You say in the first place, talking about the possibility as you suggested before, of overcoming the impact of the technology, in the first place not everyone believes a cure is needed. And in the second, they’re probably isn’t any.
Heffner: You wrote it. I didn’t. I wish I had.
Postman: Yes. Okay. I probably wrote that line on Tuesday. You see on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I can get optimistic and on Tuesday… you’re not going to let me get away with it….
Heffner: I’m not going to let you get away with that again. No, you did last time.
Postman: Well, here’s… but I do, see I do have an ambivalent feeling about this because on the one hand from what I know about the history of technology I cannot deny that technology does have a way of taking over a culture and giving direction to the social institutions of the culture and even the cognitive habits of people in the culture. On the other hand, as an educator, I do believe that education makes a difference. And that when I said there probably isn’t’. I think maybe that was more a remark about the fact that American education at this point has been largely indifferent to the intellectual and social issues that the new media raise. And by the way one could say the same thing about computer technology. I mean computer technology has moved in. And the schools have accepted computer technology without very often raising the question for youngsters about what intellectual or epistemological or social effects and consequences such a technology might have on the culture.
Heffner: Is it not possible that we have made quantum jumps now so that one can’t easily say in the past other technological changes, other technological advances have occurred, we have integrated them. We’ve made use of them rather than having them make use of us. But now a change has occurred. A quantum jump has occurred. And it’s not so likely in the instance of the computer, not so likely. In the instance of this eye that’s staring at us now.
Postman: Well, I’m going to take one more shot at this, Richard, here. You know I wrote a book about five years ago which really I should have written now in order to confront this very serious question that you’re posing. I called it, this book, TEACHING AS A CONSERVING ACTIVITY. And I tried to argue in the book that the main function of the schools in our present situation should be to try to present to the young the world view that is opposite to the world view presented by the media. So that the schools and generally education can act as a kind of counterbalance, a counter environment if you will, to the kind of emphasis and values and style of thought represented say by a medium like television. And it’s that kind of thought which I speak in the role as an educator rather than an historian of technology that makes me ambivalent about my optimism or pessimism.
Heffner: Well, you’re a propagandist at that point. You’re talking about should. You’re talking about what the schools should do.
Heffner: You choose your word, I’ll choose mine. When you wrote THE DISAPPARANCE OF CHILDHOOD, three, four years ago, it seems to me that you were saying, you were hinting at much of what you write in AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH. And let’s see here it is, let me see if I can find the right quote.
Postman: This is wonderful by the way sitting here on television and you’re thumbing through a book. Is there anyone watching this point?
Heffner: Who knows. Who knows if anyone watched after the first few sentences that you read. But I like to think so. But I don’t kid myself anymore than you do into thinking that there are millions or hundreds of thousands of people who are doing so. Therefore, I don’t want to kid myself into thinking that your persuasiveness either today or even in the books would be so great as to stem the tide that you describe so well here. But a few years ago in THE DISAPPARANCE OF CHILDHOOD, another wonderful book, you raise the question, is the individual powerless to resist what is happening. In this instance is it. One can refer to the impact of the media upon children. And you say the answer to this, in my opinion, is no. The individual is not powerless. But as with all resistance there’s a price to an act of rebellion against American culture. Now, I want to ask you whether you’ve seen signs since the book appeared of that rebellion. Significant signs. Maybe you’ll say yes.
Postman: Well, I don’t know if I could use the word significant. I have seen signs. There is… that particular sentence you read is important to me and has always made an impression on parents when I’ve spoken on this subject. The idea that parenting now must be a process of opposing and confronting and contradicting the drift and the emphasis of American culture, some parents have said yes it should be, but we don’t have the time or energy or even leisure to work that hard in socializing our children. So we must turn them over to television and so on. But the line does represent a kind of consistency with what changes are enormously powerful and are underestimated almost universally by everyone. Especially by people who like to say television is neutral. It’s what we do with it that will matter. Nothing can represent technological naivete more profoundly that that kind of remark. On the other hand I do believe that people are not powerless and especially institutions are not powerless. My remark that I made, I think at the end of the last broadcast, about my being an American meant to imply that like most American s I have this inordinate and slightly ridiculous faith in education.
Heffner: Max Lerner, when he’s been on THE OPEN MIND starting nearly 30 years ago I guess, 30 years ago I ask Max something about political philosophy and of his. And I asked him how he would describe himself and he looked at me and he said, “I’m a possibilist.” And I think that is the American religion. You think that it is possible, I believe, that we will overcome.
Postman: Yes. And may I just add this one thought to go back to the Second Commandment again. The Bible readers among us will remember that although Moses gave that commandment to the people, whenever he turned around, what were they doing? They were back to making their golden calves and this is a good term. I like possibilitst better than either philosopher or propagandist. That one has to keep talking, keep trying to express cultural criticism. And of course one could be completely wrong, but if one isn’t , there s always the hope that people will say yes, this guy is making some sense and we have to talk about it.
Heffner: You think that it’s likely, I won’t use the word possible, that it’s likely that humanistic values, let’s call them that, I think we probably share tem, are possible in a non-linear society, but the society that does violence to that Second Commandment?
Postman: I think that such humanistic values we’re implicitly assuming are certainly possible in oral cultures as long as language and the preeminence of the word is important to people. Then I think there are, that humanistic values will survive. Whether or not what we call humanistic values can survive when faced with a culture of dancing girls and believability ratings, this is another question. And I’m less sure about that.
Heffner: It is the image society that we’re talking about that you address yourself to in the first place, and the consequences, the implication so of an image-based society?
Postman: And so one worries and you know what the most worrisome thing is that the President who often speaks inaccurately and almost never precisely is referred to as the great communicator. Now I think this is interesting because one would have to ask on what grounds would we refer to such a person as a great communicator. And I think the answer is that he is believable. And that amounts to image being believable. And I think this puts us in some peril. You’re going to have to help me here. Is it Keate’s, does Keate’s and one of his poems with beauty is truth, truth, beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know? Now that’s beautiful poetry, but it is very dangerous epistemology.
Postman: Well, you know Jessica Savage. The late NBC correspondent, remarked once that viewers have come of age in the 80s. She said they have visceral smarts. And through the viscera they can tell what is true and what has merit and what is good. This is great….
Heffner: Tell that to the consultant to television stations.
Postman: Well, does this mean that the viscera have replaced the brain as our central organ of knowing? If that’ s the case, then your question about our humanistic values is even more terrifying than otherwise. That is to say if…. Because it seems to me that reason, the humanistic values you were referring to have their center, reason. And reason has to do with the Word.
Heffner: It’s not the question that’s terrifying. The only thing that could be terrifying is the answer, and this time we come to the end of our program. And I don’t even give you a chance to say, that you’re optimistic in a good American vein. But thank you so much for joining me today again, Neil Postman. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hop you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. And Mrs. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Inc., and The New York Times Company Foundation.