Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2


Chapter 2 – Media as Epistemology

Postman first lays out his plan for the book. In order to show that the new media-metaphor has led "much of our public discourse [to] become dangerous nonsense," he must discuss how American public discourse was once more rational, but has now denigrated into an uglier animal.

However, he wishes to preemptively defend himself against charges of elitism by insisting that his focus is on epistemology (meaning the theory of knowledge, how we gain and use knowledge) rather than aesthetics. He insists that he not only appreciates junk, but also finds it harmless. He believes that television is at its best when it aims solely to entertain, but that it is at its worst and most dangerous when "its aspirations are high" (16). Because we judge a civilization by its "significant" output, it is the ostensibly important programming that concerns Postman; it is where the most damage can be done to the public's well-being.

Postman then takes time to explain what he means by both the word "epistemology" and the chapter title. He restates his belief from Chapter 1 that our definitions of truth are defined in large part by the technologies through which a society receives that truth. To aid his discussion, he introduces the word "resonance" which he attributes in a particular meaning to scholar Northrop Frye. According to Frye, resonance is when "a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance" (17). Whether it be a literary character like Hamlet or a country like Greece, objects can obtain larger significance because of the context in which we understand them. They gain a larger significance than their physical nature suggests, precisely because they become metaphors. Hamlet becomes a metaphor for "brooding indecisiveness," whereas Athens becomes a metaphor for "intellectual excellence" (18). Please see the Analysis below for more in-depth discussion of these concepts.

Postman believes that every medium of communication has resonance, for it is a metaphor with large-scale implications. In particular, a medium or technology of communication imposes itself on the way we understand and define truth. He offers three examples of how mediums regulate understanding of truth.

The first is the example of a West African tribe whose civil law is derived from an oral, not written, tradition. When a grievance is filed, the chief is expected to rely on proverbs and sayings, preserved through oral storytellers, to find the proper precedent for the case. This type of justice, which also corresponds to the parables of Christ, is indicative of a society reliant on solely oral sources. In our contemporary age, a reliance on proverbs seems childish and would never suffice in a courtroom, but Postman argues this is because we are divorced from the media-metaphor of oral remembrance. Even though the focus on speech and oral testimony does remain in court trials, the primary source for truth is the written word that records legal precedent - in our day, "lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed" (20). Overall, Postman is suggesting that the media-metaphor of contemporary justice is more defined by the written word as truth, even though it allows the paradox of spoken testimony as crucial.

The second example he poses is the predominance of the written word in universities. He acknowledges a similar paradox between the spoken and written word in terms of a doctoral dissertation – though doctoral candidates are expected to defend their work orally, honoring a tradition that hearkens back to more orally-based Middle Ages, their written work remains the most complete record of their ideas and qualifications. Postman poses a specific instance in which a doctoral candidate once included in his work information that was cited as having come from a conversation overheard by witnesses. His professors were skeptical of the oral source, but did not bother to verify any of the written citations. This reveals the extent to which the media-metaphor of the written word defined them: in the academic world, what is written is taken as considered and deliberate, while what is spoken is considered less definitive. Under this media-metaphor, the written word is thought to address the world, and not one individual.

As a third example of how media influences epistemology, Postman discusses the trial of Socrates. In his opening address, Socrates apologizes for not having prepared a rhetorical speech, which illustrates how the Greeks considered rhetoric not as a distracted adornment to truth (as we often do), but rather as the form in which truth was delivered. Eloquence and formal organization were the means through which they understood something to be true, rather than simply as a form to organize truth. To speak spontaneously and without prepared form was considered insulting and a cause for skepticism, and could suggest why Socrates was found guilty – he did not attempt to formulate his defense in what Athenians would have thought a 'truthful' manner.

In other words, "truth does not, and never has, come unadorned" (22). Instead, the way a culture defines "truth" is largely contingent on the means, mediums, and technologies through which they receive it. Postman speaks of truth as a bias for each culture, and illustrates some of our own biases. For instance, our society is largely reliant on numbers to illustrate our truth, to the point that we often consider no other source (like poetry or parable) as capable of communicating economic truth. We are overly-reliant on one form, in the same way ancient tribes were overly-reliant on proverbs.

Postman does not mean to suggest that all means of deriving truth are equal, but only means to show how our media is so crucial towards determining how we derive truth. And from that, he wishes to show how television has led us to grow "sillier by the minute" (24). We have turned into a culture that prizes the image as the primary medium for truth, to the point that we are no longer skeptical of how it can be manipulated. Our cultural conversations take place solely through the image, and so do its limitations to carry truth limit our ability to communicate truth. In an oral culture, intelligence was defined as the ability to remember and apply proverbs. In a print culture, intelligence is defined as the ability to see past the words on the page in order to intuit a meaning or argument, to disassociate oneself from the pleasure of the language to determine the logic of the argument.

Postman announces his intention to further explore the idea of intelligence in a print culture in his following chapters. He wishes to show how our ability to manage truth has declined as a result of the television age. However, he first offers three defenses to counter-arguments he believes could be leveled against him.

First, he wishes to stress that he does not mean to argue that the "structure of people's minds" or their "cognitive abilities" are changed by the media of their culture (27). Even though he implies that he does somewhat believe this, his argument relies only on the proof that media influences our mode of discourse, the way we talk to and about one another. Each medium stresses a different form of intelligence, but does not rob any one culture of a natural ability to practice other forms of intelligence.

Secondly, he does not believe that any of the shifts he describes are all-inclusive of any particular civilization. He acknowledges that speech and writing will always remain, thereby acknowledging the existence of outliers even after a new epistemology has reached its "critical mass" (28).

Thirdly, he does not wish to denigrate television overall, but merely the way that it forces its epistemology on every form of public discourse (like religion and politics). He acknowledges the comfort and pleasure that television can bring, especially to the infirm or elderly, and the emotional power it can inspire, as it did by delivering images of the Vietnam War. Further, while he does intend to argue the superiority of a print-based epistemology, he realizes that every technology requires a trade-off, and that the future could reveal benefits of television that are yet to be seen.


In his second primary chapter, Postman continues to both define his argument and to stress the stakes of his purpose. Because this chapter relies so heavily on philosophy, it is useful to properly understand his terminology so that the rest of the book is contextualized. In this chapter, his language stresses the importance of his aim. He calls television "dangerous nonsense," and suggests that it leads us towards silliness, limiting our capacity to understand truth.

The most important term to understand in this chapter is epistemology. A branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the way we understand and apply truth, epistemology is a complicated subject that needs not be fully understood to glean Postman's meaning. In its most basic sense, what Postman means by the term is the way any person (or society) understands truth. Some people believe that "seeing is believing," while others will only believe what they touch. This difference marks a difference in epistemology – the first person believes what he can see, while the other needs tactile proof. Postman takes this basic concept and applies it to societies. An oral culture has no choice but to believe that proverbs are true. If they have survived through the ages, then they must contain truth in them. Whether this is logical is not important. What is important is that an oral culture has little other choice. Without a written or illustrated alternative, they must define truth based on what technologies they have. When a written alternative did surface in history, civilization began to lean towards the written word as truth; the new technology of writing allowed it. Suddenly, the impulsive, spontaneous nature of speech made it a specious source of truth. Think how we are disinclined to trust words spoken in drunkenness, whereas we believe someone's non-fiction work must be their true thoughts. This reveals how the nature of the written word has biased us towards believing that the written word contains the most truth. The argument could certainly be made that words spoken in drunkenness are uninhibited truth, whereas written words reflect a more guarded and deliberate depiction of someone, but our society does not tend to see it that way. The media of writing has biased us towards written language as the greatest repository of truth. This is his basic argument, and it is important to understand it for when he later discusses the epistemology that the image-based television culture embraces.

The concept of "resonance" is also useful to understand. The literary concept of metaphor is central to Postman's argument, and resonance basically refers to a metaphor with great significance. Hamlet is actually a specific character with a specific invented background as a Danish prince in a specific play. And yet the idea of Hamlet resonates at a far higher frequency. He represents the concept of over-thinking, or perhaps of literary canonization. When we speak of Hamlet, we often mean to communicate something bigger than that specific character. Likewise, when we speak of Athens, we do not usually think of the specific city, with its actual topography, but rather the seminal history of its great buildings and past. Richard Nixon is a contemporary American example – we usually mention Nixon not as the flesh-and-blood man, but rather as a symbol of a certain American schism that continues to resonate in politics today. When Postman speaks of a media – like television – he does not mean to indicate the TV set in your grandmother's living room, but instead, an idea of television, one that defines the world we live in. The Internet is perhaps the best way to think of this. In truth, few people actually understand what the Internet physically is, but rather speak of it in a symbolic term, as a reflection of a world over-saturated with information. It is important to recognize Postman's use of resonance and metaphor in discussing technologies, especially since he wishes to avoid seeming like a cantankerous opponent to television.

It is interesting to note how strenuously he protests against being labeled as such an opponent. He starts this theoretical chapter by praising the benefits of junk television, and ends it with three defenses against counterarguments. It is important for him to illustrate that he acknowledges the existence of outliers and benefits, and that the entirety of television is not something he opposes knee-jerk. Instead, he means to discuss the metaphor of television, the way it influences our dialogue with one another, rather than what it actually delivers on a day to day basis. This counter-argument will be applied in future Analysis sections so that we understand throughout the theoretical framework of the book.