Reflection Paper on Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

Posted: June 19, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

Postman begins by noting that the “medium is the message.”  It is not merely the information that is communicated, but also the form of communication, that produces a message or gives shape to the message.  So, for instance, he notes that philosophical discussions cannot be produced by means of smoke signals.  The medium allows certain kinds of discourse while negating others.

Orwell and Huxley both wrote notable books that visualized a future where cultures and freedom had been compromised.  For Orwell, huge forces, like Big Brother, would censor information and stymie learning through by controlling information and discourse.  Thus, culture would become enslaved to those able to control everything.  Huxley’s vision was far more subtle.  Culture would be undermined and destroyed by the things we love, namely entertainment.  Thus, television as a new medium matches Huxley’s paradigm far more closely than Orwell’s vision.  We have willing accepted, rather than had imposed, television’s role in education and curriculum and culture development.

Postman sees this in direct conflict and competition with the written word.  His argument rests upon the assumption that news and other such methods of information dissemination decontextualize the information.  Thus, we are able to hear about tragedies, war, and other stories that have no real connection to our own contexts.  The news also contains small stories that have no larger connection with the stories preceding or following each story.  Each is a self-contained whole and need no further explanation or connection.  As such, all news is relegated as unimportant and disconnected from our lives as a whole.  Thus, in Postman’s mind, it seems that television creates a culture of entertainment that allows for no real discourse or intelligent counter-argument.  Rather, as consumers of television programs we must accept whole-sale the “news” that we are provided.  Thus, information composed by images is vastly differing from arguments contained in words.

Postman decries the use of images as sufficient for dialogue and argument.  He even goes so far as to liken the culture’s use of image and icons to idolatry, quoting the Decalogue’s command to make “no graven image.”  Even though I agree with Postman’s basic intuition about the epistemology of television as information bearer, I disagree with some of his major points.  Namely, I disagree that “icons” are synonymous with idols.  Can they be?  Certainly.  However, this is not always the case, especially with a proper understanding distinguishing between an icon and an idol.  An icon draws us beyond itself to something greater than itself.  The Cross is one such icon; communion is another.  Not to mention, John 1 paints the picture of the Logos (the Word) becoming flesh and thus imaging God (imago Dei).  An idol draws our attention to itself.  Thus, if we worship the Cross or Scripture, we commit idolatry because it has taken the place of God.

The larger issue I take with Postman’s degradation of icons and images is the fact that all language bears imagery.  Or, as Wittgenstein would affirm, all language is a “form of life.”  Words are not Platonic, nebulous entities that float about disconnected from life.  Language is metaphorical because it is not the thing itself that is being described, but calls upon our experiences for understanding of the words we employ.  Postman seems to have a faith in the written word as a means of concrete communication that has little to no wriggle room for alternative interpretations between multiple readers.  Yet, many words are composed of a cloud of meaning.  Puns use this to their advantage.  Yes, news stories often decontextualize events.  Books are also often decontextualized.  Just read the Bible and you will learn quickly that not everything is abundantly clear without further information to clear up context.

Postman sits firmly within Modernism’s conception of reality, which relies heavily on the cognitive faculties with serious disregard or distrust for knowledge gained emotively.  Yet, there are some experiences that are too deep for words.  It is quite possible in those moments to discern elements of truth about life.  For instance, I don’t necessarily need a well-reasoned argument for resolving issues of poverty and malnutrition among children in our world.  Images of suffering can be explanation and argument enough for action.  That doesn’t always mean that our emotions are trustworthy and accurate, but that does not also mean that they are fully unreliable either.  Thus, images may have an important role to play in discerning truth.

However, despite my reservations, Postman’s assessment about television’s purpose seems quite appropriate and accurate.  Because it is largely based upon entertainment, it has re-oriented many things to this epistemology.  One of the profound impacts of television has been on education.  Education is now deemed to be an exercise in entertainment and amusement.  This is where I think Postman’s warnings are intelligible and helpful for the Church.  Parishioners, because they have been oriented around entertainment, view worship and Church life as an extension of television’s amusement.  Televangelists and the like have not helped this trend, nor have campus site ministries, such as Life Church.  It creates personality-centered ministries (Joel Olsteen, for instance, named a church after himself), which replicate show-business models of success.  Thus, “successful” discipleship is the church with the largest audience.  I will add that I’m not saying that ministries like Life Church are all bad – there is plenty they do well and from which we can learn.

The detriment comes when an audience is no longer entertained.  They seek their entertainment elsewhere, which usually means in the culture’s media because the Church cannot possibly compete with the substantial pocketbooks of the media moguls.  Also, as James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom, worship centered on entertainment is ultimately about us, which is idolatry because it is not centered on God.  Thus, television’s therapeutic consumerism (entertainment) is applied to faith.  However, we quickly discover this is not true faith but merely a way to be inundated, and thus rendered without personal responsibility, from the cares of the larger world.

I think Postman’s concerns for the Church now would be their worries about the things they fear as threats to their faith.  Whether it’s big government or other world religions, the focus on these “threats” to faith actually blinds us to the real threat: those things that we love.  The things that we love are the very things that shape us without much reflection about how and toward what we are being shaped!  This is James K. A. Smith’s argument as well.  The church in North America tends to reflect an Orwellian orientation to the world.  Perhaps we would do well to heed Huxley’s caution.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s