Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman


We live in the Age of Show Business. Postman’s book is a history of discourse that presents the case for the preeminence of the written word over visual media, and outlines the ills inherent in a visually-driven society.

I was somewhat familiar with Postman’s general ideas, having been friends with one of his protegees for many years. However, this is the first time I have read him for myself, which is a shame because I have an advanced degree in cinema studies. My studies were focused more on film history and less on film theory, so that’s my justification.

Postman first published this book in 1985, and I can only imagine how his ideas developed in the last years of his life (I believe he died last year) with the rise of the internet, mobile video, and 24-hour news. In his discussion of TV, he writes:

Thou shalt have no prerequisites.

Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required… This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if a viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. (p. 147)

To which I say:

Previously on Lost.

The serial drama has really evolved in recent years into something quite challenging–the best of what TV has to offer. Of course, Postman would say that the best that TV has to offer is no substitute for public discourse or a word-based pedagogy, and I agree. But Postman doesn’t engage with concepts of narrative in this book, and at times I felt that it would have been appropriate to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in both the visual and the verbal. I will look forward to reading more of his work because I do find myself agreeing with a lot of his ideas.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business


3 Responses to “Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman”

  1. 1 Siham Rechkaoui

    First of all i would like to thank Postman for his nice informative work,i do really appreciate his name is siham,i am from Morocco,i study in the university,third year English department,we are dealing with Postman`s book as a study in politics course and iam in charge of tackling the first chapter of this book,it`s title is Media as Epistemology,and i would like to know the relationship between epistemology and media,if that possible ofcourse.
    please contact me
    Thank you very much.

  2. Postman would appreciate your insights, I suspect, as much as he would have enjoyed Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. But he would add that that was his point all along: smart narrative television doesn’t actually make you smarter or more capable of anything — EXCEPT the ability to watch and “get” — you guessed it — smart narrative television. In other words, it is a closed system, and the only real educational “take-away” is that it makes the viewer wish that all of life were as neat, smart, and well-edited as the TV shows are. If you’re looking at real sociological measurables, however, such as SAT scores, literacy overall, dropout rates, retention rates, etc, then Postman is still winning this debate from beyond the grave.

    That being said, I am working on a piece for an anthology called “24 and Philosophy” and I think it’s a great show! So yeah, if you are already print-literate, then I think TV is an endless source of fascination, wonder, and insight, which is why I don’t have one: I’d be addicted in about a heartbeat.

  3. Read would be the Postman protegee I was speaking of–thanks for commenting! Siham, hope this helps–

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