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Amusing ourselves to death.

Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Amusing Ourselves to Death. Neil Postman. Viking, $15.95. With 1984 safely past, along comes someone to remind us of that other modern nightmare, Brave New World. Huxley envisioned a future in which culture becomes not a prison but a burlesque. Neil Postman, a professor of communications at New York University, believes that this vision has been largely realized. Television, he argues convincingly, has reduced our public discourse to "a sea of irrelevance . . . preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.'

Now it doesn't take much insight to trash American TV. Postman's thesis is to claim that "the best things on television are its junk . . . television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversation.' Though he devotes the second part of his book to fairly routine TV-bashing, Postman's real theme is the supplanting of an epistemology based on the printed word by one grounded in electronic media.

His analysis takes off from McLuhan's perception that any means of communication--oral legends, books, newspapers, TV--is not simply a conduit of information but implicitly shapes the meaning of the message it conveys. Postman asserts that "from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of.'

In fostering what we think of as patterns of rational thought, this typographic tradition was essential to the development of American democracy. Postman points to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a preeminent example of American political discourse that, while oral, was rooted in the tradition of the written word.

The invention of the telegraph, photograph, radio, and film hastened the onset of what Postman calls "a peek-a-boo world' of fleeting, disjointed images, offering "fascination in place of complexity and coherence.' This world has reached its apotheosis--and reductio ad absurdum--in television. The boob tube's hegemony is essentially complete, Postman feels, though he holds out the "desperate answer' of the public schools as a forum for "de-mythologizing media.'

The author's obvious zeal occasionally leads him to overstatement. At times Postman comes off like an apostle of the Age of Reason, inveighing against the vagaries of modernity. For example, he appears to identify the value of what he calls the typographic mind-- "detached, analytical, devoted to logic, abhorring contradiction'-- too closely with the actual practices of book-reading societies. Surely our ancestors had their fill of irrational quirks despite having been deprived of TV.

Likewise, he is too quick to dismiss the advantages of the "global village' created by electronic media. No doubt we are inundated by more news than we can process. But there's something to be said for knowing about riots in South Africa or famines in Ethiopia, distant though these events may seem. Far from trivializing them, TV imbues these stories with an impact no other medium can approach. And at its best, TV can inspire viewers to respond constructively to far-flung crises, as they have in sending aid to Ethiopia and protesting U.S. support for South Africa.
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Author:Stowe, David W.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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