"Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman. A Review

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man-cold! Though I’m not likely to die any time soon, a man-cold is miserable. And into this misery I decided to add the 192-page paperback “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”. Neil Postman, American educator, media theorist, and social critic, originally penned this broadside against entertainment media during the early Reagan years. Though it is dated at points, nevertheless, his criticisms and calculations still ring true. And it made my man-cold a bit more tolerable.

Postman’s primary postulation is that we have entered a new era, the Age of Television. This is the eon where everything from education, political dialogue, religion, and information-transfer have all begun to succumb to entertainment. And televising means contextless communication without perplexity, without analysis, without dialogue and without engagement. As he asserts, it is “not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience…The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether” (87). Though he had little inkling of what would arrive some 35 years later, his accounts and alarms fit well in our season of social media, selfies, and the like.

And he takes this to the area of truth. No longer is truth expected to be factual and honest, but something else is required. For “television provides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition…credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling” (102-3). And one’s credibility has to do with their appearance: do they look genuine; do they appear reliable; are they televisable?

But the centerpiece of Postman’s scrutiny has to do with how any given form of media changes a message. This came out the clearest for me as he took on television religion and the way this media platform morphs the message to make it entertaining. For "...the danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion" (124). As the author sees it, we have moved, not into an Orwellian world of tyranny but a Huxleyan one, where we are entertaining ourselves to death, even with regard to our faith!

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” has been rightly called a classic. Even dated as it is, Postman asks the right questions to stoke our discursive juices and jumpstart our perceptions. It won’t cure a man-cold, but it will make it more tolerable. I highly recommend the book!

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