“Media As Epistemology”: Chapter 2 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the second installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. This is the summation and thoughts on the first chapter. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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Epistemology is a complex and usually opaque subject matter concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge.” (p. 17) Now that you have a firm grasp on and a working definition of epistemology, let’s move on.

There are many examples in our world where truth is assumed to be lacking. We do not necessarily have solid answers as to why we don’t think statements, propositions, or people are true, but we deem them as such regardless. In many cases, it is that our bias is presupposed by the media-metaphors in which the content of a message is being carried.

For example, Postman details how in an oral culture, wronged persons would approach a judge – generally an elder of some sort – with the story of what occurred. Being print-less, this elder would preside over this debate not through a rummaging of legal notebooks and a history of prior judgments. Rather, he would “search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served.” For the oral culture, proverbs and sayings are not the stuff of the periphery.

They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them. – Walter Ong, quoted on p. 19

This, however, is not true in our print culture. In a modern day – or at least one back in 1985, the year of the book’s publishing – stories, proverbs, and general aphorisms do not fly as proper judgments brought down by those cloaked in black. It does pass for witness testimonial, but could you imagine a judge saying, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? Jury, lawyers, and bailiff: snickers from all.

What separates us in the print-centric culture from the aforementioned tribal chief is a media-metaphor. Words have taken on a truer form in print over speech. The form of their presentation weighs heavily upon the contents’ veracity.

The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the ‘truth’ is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant. (p. 22-23)

With the mirror clouded over by our cultural assumptions, it is easy to pick and choose media-metaphors that seem silly or antiquated. However, we all have these assumptions needing to be wiped away by a dose of humility and historicity. This is why it is essential to see our place on the world’s timeline and how as time marches on, so do our media-metaphors. The above quote is not an affirmation of epistemological relativism; it is a recognition of how we denote what is true and what is not. Furthermore, “Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them.” Again, Postman states

As a culture moves forward from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it…we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.  (p. 24)

As the changing tides of epistemology shift with the sands of our media, so do our ways of deciphering intelligence. Once again, in a purely oral culture, intelligence manifests itself in being able to repeat stories of old. One who can memorize aurally is the one who has proper intelligence. To forget something is to be a communal outcast. Contrastingly, in a print culture, memory is not deemed necessary. And why would it be? When everything is written down, there is no need to engage the memory aurally. All is contained within a text, not a mind. The mobile library of the mind gets upstaged by the brick-and-mortar library.

“What a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.” (p. 25) Essentially, this is what is happening. The member of the oral culture is demonstrating intelligence in being able to use the “important forms of communication” in proper ways.

Intelligence in a printed culture is whole different ball game. Here Postman brings clarity on what is (literally) right underneath our noses:

You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this…our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay attention to the shapes of  the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can do directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely thought to be stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity…you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images…To be able to do all these things, and more, constitutes a primary definition of intelligence in a culture whose notions of truth are organized around the printed word. (p. 26-27)

Were you aware of all that going on at this very moment? Quite a bit, huh?

Postman’s main argument here is the manner by which truth is transmitted depends heavily upon its media-metaphors. As these shift, so does our understanding of truth itself. Culture is comprised of and constituted by conversations and as such, we must be aware of the form and content of these conversations.

So before we close this chapter out, Postman wants to make sure we don’t come to conclusions too swiftly. He gives us three admonitions to take heed of:

1. “…at no point do I care to claim that changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of changes in their cognitive capacities.” (p. 27) Intellectually speaking, the tribal chief is not less developed than the television people. “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.” (p. 27)

2. “…the epistemological shift I have intimated, and will describe in detail, has not yet included (and perhaps never will include) everyone and everything.” (p. 27) Shifts happen slowly and don’t always bring everything with them in their wake. It takes time and effort for things to become completely integrated and/or eradicated. People still read books in spite of the dominance of television. However, Postman declares, “They delude themselves who believe that television and print coexist, for existence implies parity. There is no parity here. Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens.” (p. 28) Prophetic words, indeed.

3. “I am arguing that a television-based epistemology pollutes public communication and its surrounding landscape, not that it pollutes everything.” He is not arguing for television’s demise because it has indeed aided in some beneficial ways. For some, namely, the elderly, infirm, or motel-room frequenters, it is a source of pleasure and comfort. It can insight protest in positive ways. In many ways, he is not seeking for television to be taken lightly. We must, Postman encourages, keep an open mind to the future and any benefits unseen that television may potentially provide.

Yet amid these three warnings, Postman consistently comes back to his axiom: “I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.” (p. 29)

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Thoughts?

Come back again as we’ll dive further into this argument found in chapter 3: “Typographic America”.

“The Medium Is the Metaphor”: Chapter 1 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the second installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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Throughout history differing cities have taken on the vocation, whether they wanted it or not, as “the focal point of a radiating American spirit.” Early on in American history it was Boston, followed by New York City, and perhaps more recently, Chicago. In 1985, Postman argued this focal point had shifted to

Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (p. 3-4)

Indeed.

I’d certainly agree with this assessment dating back to 1985. Now, in 2013, this reality has become the proverbial water we unconsciously swim in. Nothing is worthwhile if it is not entertaining. And entertaining has often come with the price tag of shortsightedness, shallowness, vapidness, and an overall spirit imbibed by individualism.

Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers. (p. 5)

Postman contends that within our entertainment-centric culture, it is essential to take note of the “conversations” we have and the manner by which we have them. He uses the term

metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all the techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms. (p. 6)

What he is getting at is the relationship between content and form. We all have conversations of all kinds. All of these messages are carried out through differing “symbolic modes.” For instance, you wouldn’t, or better yet, couldn’t, expect smoke signals to be the best choice for discussing philosophy. “You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.”

Likewise, “You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.” This is due to the form television employs to distribute its content: visual images. Television is mainly a conversation “in images, not words” making it difficult to see – quite literally – past an unattractive person giving forth wisdom on a given topic. Our listening is predicated upon the level of attraction to the image we see, not the level of information/experience/knowledge of the content.

If this all beginning to sound Marshall McLuhan-esque, it should. Postman is not shy about his reliance upon McLuhan and his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Yet, he differentiates between message and metaphor.

A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like. (p. 10)

Furthermore,

We are told in school, quite correctly, that a metaphor suggests what thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man; the mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge. And if these metaphors no longer serve us, we must, in the nature of the matter find others that will. Light is a particle; language, a river; God (as Bertrand Russell proclaimed), a differential equation; the mind, a garden that years to be cultivated.

The trouble with our media metaphors is their inherent complexity. They are not easy things to recognize, let alone their subtle power and influence. Again, they are the proverbial water we’re swimming in and, as such, we are hardly cognizant of their effect.

For instance, think about the very media you are engaged with right now, namely the computer and internet. They enable you to connect with me via my blog (my content). I am here in the greater Syracuse area and you, well you might be right around the corner or around the world. My words are the digitized version of my thoughts coming to you through a combination of 1’s and 0’s. The light from the computer screen hits your retinas and as a written word, you have some fun interpretive moves to make. Moreover, the form – the computer – molds, shapes, and allows for the message to be accepted in myriad of ways. When we begin looking behind the curtains of our media metaphors – complexity and all – Postman encourages us to begin with the following: “And yet such digging becomes easier if we start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”

I love the example Postman borrows from Lewis Mumford. Mumford was one of these people who noticed the unnoticed. He was enamored with the clock, both its function and formative nature. In his thoughtful “digging” regarding the ubiquitous clock, he concluded,

“‘The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.’ In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.”  (p. 11)

We effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers” with the invention of the clock. It seems the clock carries with it an idea beyond its implicit function.

The question is now: What effect has our transition “from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics” had on us? How can we begin to dig into the media metaphors we are swimming in? In what manner have our metaphors altered our messages? The Age of Electronics has dawned; how has it changed things?

If Postman is correct, it begins with the recognition of our conversations, in both form and content. Essential to the rest of his work is this foundational axiom: the medium is the metaphor. It doesn’t give us direct messages, yet discretely and profoundly shapes the message. If we want to begin to examine our culture, we need “to attend to its tools for conversation.” 

As we move forward in this conversation, I’ll leave you with Postman’s clearest words on the scope and intent of this book:

To say it, then, 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 change-over 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 comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television. (p. 8)

Thoughts?

See you next time for chapter 2: “Media as Epistemology.”