Thursday, September 6, 2018

Witney Seibold Reviews 'Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business'

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As a young man,
I plug into the tube,
But the stench of all that pretense
I cannot muddle through.

I lay on my back
And scan the radio
All that comes out my speakers
Is a steady syrup flow.

I suck information through the holes in my skull
As my belly gurgles hungry, my mouth is always full.

          "Antipop" by Primus

In 1984 – when Ronald Reagan was president, when Macintosh was posed to take over the tech world, when pop entertainment was poppier than ever – there naturally arrived a wave of essays and thinkpieces on George Orwell's eponymous novel. 

Up until that point, A.D. 1984 had previously been associated with political dystopia and governmental control of a citizen's unconsciousness, all thanks to Orwell's frantic – and all too plausible – warning. When the year itself finally arrived, pundits and thinkers all around the world – writing in the pages of political rags and entertainment magazines – began to compare the dark future of Orwell's imagination to the actual present state of the world, offering compare/contrast articles, both to the positive and to the negative. 

How powerful wast he government in the actual 1984? How much were we being spied upon or controlled? How did the real world's news language resemble Orwell's Newspeak? How much was cultural rebellion tolerated, and how much was silenced?

Penguin Books

While entertaining these dark conspiratorial fantasies offered a great deal of release for those who were genuinely worried, Neil Postman – a media critic, teacher, and regular contributor to many magazines – was worried by another all-too-real dystopian fantasy: The one presented in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

Postman felt that the downfall of the human mind, liberty, and freedom of thought would not come at the hands of a shadowy government conspiracy, but from our own inability to put down the widgets and TV shows and other minor entertainments that offer us small pieces of distracting amusement along the way. 

In the introduction to his book on the topic, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (1985), Postman points out that "1984" was an apocalypse at the hands of things we hate. "Brave New World," conversely, presented an apocalypse at the hands of things we love.

What was more likely, Postman asked? That the world's oligarchs and warmongers will be organized enough to implement a vast disinformation campaign to keep all of the world's citizens drunk and in the dark? Or that we'll simply become too lazy and distracted to actually move ourselves to action, allowing our own culture to deteriorate from sloth alone and a weird shifting of our values away from the serious and more toward the frivolous? Postman posited it as the latter.

Postman uses this central allegory as the jumping off point as a general analysis of the way humanity has consumed media over the millennia, going back as far as the preliterate world and the way the human mind was constructed in the days before writing. He then goes on to examine how we first, as a species, began to put trust in the written word over the spoken word – its very permanence lent it gravitas even if the information wasn't necessarily reliable – and how the written word fell away when radio broadcasts began to damage culture in earnest. 

Postman points out that while the ultimate intent and potential for radio were ostensibly positive – people could turn on the radio and be educated – the medium offered up information without context, replacing useful learning with unconnected memes; what, after all, did news in New York matter to a radio owner in Kansas? Radio introduced the notion of “information for its own sake” into the cultural discourse. All information had authority, regardless of context. To Postman, this sort of media consumption only offered cognitive clutter.


And, in Postman's eyes, cultural degradation became complete when the TV was introduced as the central tool of information (a true concern in the media-saturated age of Reagan's 1984). Because of the medium's frantic brevity, its eye-catching construction, and its need to appear attractive and entertaining at all times, Postman posited that it pushed culture into a place where entertaining information is the only trustworthy information. Everything must now be quick and easy to consume. TV deliberately defies analysis and actual permanence, allowing showbiz moguls and editors and actors and production designers to be the ultimate arbiters of truth, as opposed to teachers, experts, scholars, thinkers, and intellectuals. 

Everyone had a voice, but now only the most entertaining voices were the ones worth hearing. This was, mind you, when an actor was president.

Postman openly admits that a lot of his media theory was cribbed directly from Marshall McLuhan and that "Amusing Ourselves to Death" was a mere “fanfic” extension of "Understanding Media" from 20 years previous. Here in 2018, revisiting both may be a valuable exercise. One wonders what Postman and McLuhan would think of a world controlled by Twitter, Facebook, Russian misinformation campaigns, the worship of box office success, the glut of Disney, and an un-informable, bloviating reality TV hack in the White House.

Indeed, Trump would have made a fascinating case study for Postman. Here is a man who ran for president on the platform of the dramatic destruction of decorum, but his primary feature as a candidate (apart from a chorus of racist dog whistles) was his status as an entertainment object. More so than any candidate before him, Trump assumed that he could garner votes based on his previously achieved celebrity on television. He also seems to have mixed up high ratings with genuine affection and political achievement, as have the bulk of his supporters. Being entertaining – more entertaining that one's foes – is the central ethos of Trump. It's a pity Postman didn't live to write about America's most disheartening phenomenon.

Postman may not have necessarily predicted the future landscape of media consumption, but he was savvy in recognizing we were on an immediate upswing in an insidious and self-inflicted addiction to entertainment. Postman wasn't a Luddite; he didn't call for the downfall of all technology or retreat into ancient forms of bardic storytelling. But he did call for a new wave of media awareness in our schools and in our discourse. It's been 35 years since "Amusing Ourselves to Death," and we're only just now getting to that point of awareness... maybe.

AFP/Getty Images

Indeed, I'm surprised that Postman didn't mention "Don Quixote" in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," as what he was observing about television directly parallels the story behind Cervantes' seminal work. "Don Quixote" was first published in 1605, but comments on a time when a printing boom was taking place in the few decades previous. To many in Europe at the time, the printed word still carried with it an air of authority. If it was in print, then it was considered to be “more true” than something one had spoken aloud. 

The hero of Cervantes' work was a foolish old man who had gotten his hands on hundreds of printed pulp novels about fictional knights and their battles with fantasy creatures. Because of their very medium, Don Quixote assumed said pulp novels to be authoritative works of actual history. To him, knights errant were alive and well, and it was logical that he should take up the mantle himself.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One can easily see Quixote's false application of authority onto a new medium running parallel with the modern phenomenon of online discourse. In the modern age, if it's published online, it's more “real” than if it's printed elsewhere. “It's true! I heard it from the media!” If one accepts truth from a media rather than facts... well, we know what happens then.

Hear the voices in my head,
I swear to God it sounds like they're snoring.

But if you're bored then you're boring.
The agony and the irony, they're killing me.

          "Flagpole Sitta," by Harvey Danger

While Postman's hand-wringing may feel hopelessly alarmist to a modern person – especially a modern young person who gets all of their information from their own pocket TV – it's difficult not to see how true it is, especially from the perspective of a media critic. While I am hardly a key player in the media landscape, I have been working in it for long enough to notice trends within film criticism rise and fall, and how said trends point to Postman's thesis. I can't tell you how many young critics I've heard utter a variation on the phrase “The worst thing a film can be is boring.” Or perhaps the curter “Just don't bore me.” 

As Harvey Danger once wisely said, “If you're bored, then you're boring.”


And while I agree that writing a review of an outright bad film can be easier than writing a review of a boring one (and certainly more edifying; it's always more satisfying to comment of a film if you have something, however negative, to say about it), I have always found this aversion of what is “boring” to be a fallacy. The implication is that a film – and by extension, any piece of art – is only going to have value based on how diverting or distracting it is. If it can keep your interest, then the art has done its job, regardless of its skill or cultural value. Just as Postman posits, the modern young critic posits that the value of a film will be directly contingent on its ability to distract and occupy the largest audiences.

Indeed, one may even argue that the day's most popular films – which tend to be widely entertaining sci-fi and fantasy films – feature information of a “softer” variety than their more sophisticated and less effects-heavy counterparts for adults. While there may be a good deal of allegory and criticism couched in the worlds of fantasy – indeed that is the genre's most useful intellectual function – the fantasy can also act as a both a positive and a negative “buffer” for real lessons. 

One can approach a difficult notion or a complex idea slowly with fantasy, and back off when it becomes too difficult. One can enjoy “Lord of the Rings” as an allegory for the dangers of obsession with material power but can back off from the messages if they prefer to revel in the aesthetic aspects. If a filmmaker were to write a more realistic story that explored the same obsession in the real world with a more stripped down aesthetic – and with no fantasy to “get in the way,” as it were – would that have less value because it wasn't as entertaining? What if it was a better art, but had no way of snagging the eye of a listless audience? What value does that have?

And, of course, “boring” is relative. Many might find a slow-moving film about apes and spaceships to be dull. Some of us, however, adore 1968's “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Some of us love movies about giant robots wailing on each other with their giant robots fists. Some of us are bored to tears by the chaos of Michael Bay's “Transformers” movies (which were based on a cartoon show and Hasbro toy line from... 1984). Some audiences – more experienced audiences – get quite a thrill from an intellectual challenge and have no patience for fluff or distraction.

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.” 
              -Harold Bloom

The above quotation from the famed literary critic Harold Bloom sums up what he had been trying to say for many decades. That difficult pleasure – the pleasure we have to work for, do research for, change our minds for – is the ultimately most edifying experience one can achieve when engaging in that most rarefied pursuits: consuming literature. 

Bloom has encountered, in his experiences teaching and reading modern criticism, a modern attitude that favored simple pleasures over any other kind. The idea behind this – in his mind incorrect – criticism was that ease of consumption and passive entertainment value made for a more accessible art, and, hence a more valuable one. Bloom railed against this flip attitude and began to more regularly use the phrase “difficult pleasure” in response. Simple pleasures are fine, of course. But difficult pleasures are infinitely greater.

So while Postman's commentary isn't necessarily up to date, it's central message remains salient. We are addicted to entertainment, and the only solution is education. We need to be aware of how we consume our media, and how much we value entertainment over information. Are we willing to read something we consider dry in order to wean ourselves off of our addiction? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps a healthier solution is a simple flip in the way we define entertainment. As it stands, “entertainment” can stand in for word like “distraction” or “diversion.” Perhaps if we also fold in other definitions – like “gratifying struggle,” or “intellectually challenging” – we can insert more information into our media diet.

Difficulty can be entertaining too.

Top Image: Ed Lindlof/Penguin Books

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