Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-5


Chapter 3 – Typographic America

Postman cites an incident detailed in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in which a sect of religious figures known as the Dunkers refused to publish the tenets of their faith, for fear that by recording their belief system, they would later be limited by the unalterable nature of those utterances.

While Postman is intrigued by this consideration of the written word's permanence, he also sees in it an exception to the rule of colonial America, which found great comfort and faith in the written word. Even the Mayflower was unique in the way it considered its books amongst its most precious cargo. He cites figures that reveal the uniquely high rates of literacy in the early colonial period, and admires the fact that these highly religious people did not confine their reading interests to the Bible, but in fact also imported a great myriad of books of different subjects from England. The importance of literacy amongst these early settlers was fostered both through religious expectation and actual laws of education.

Postman considers that this perspective of reading as a "moral duty" resulted from the way that published texts freed Europeans from the confines of their local communities (33). Because they could read and write, they could both influence and be influenced by important social events. Further, the prevalence of literacy had a truly democratic aura – "no literary aristocracy emerged in Colonial America," but instead even the poorest of laborers could engage in the cultural dialogue afforded by print (34). As evidence of this prevalence, Postman cites Thomas Paine's Common Sense, a revolutionary pamphlet whose relative success Postman compares to the public success of the Super Bowl.

Postman briefly considers Thomas Paine himself as a reflection of these ideas. Though a common man with minimal education, the public never doubted that "such powers of written expression could originate" from him (35). The democracy of written word seemed to have opened up barriers of classist expectation.

Though Americans were at first only fervent readers with little inclination towards creating their own work, typographic America made a great step forward with a series of newspapers and pamphlets of explicitly political purpose. As a result, American readers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were focused primarily on these political documents rather than on books. Nevertheless, the prevalence of the printing press increased unopposed, allowing ideas to cross regional boundaries, evidence of which Postman provides as the Federalist Papers. Libraries became progressively more common, and though novels remained of lower reputation, writers like Walter Scott and Charles Dickens became celebrity figures nevertheless through the popularity of their stories.

Foreigners were impressed not only by the high rates of literacy in the New World, but also by the prevalence of lecture halls wherein the public would entertain great thinkers and writers for their own edification. Overall, Postman illustrates that "well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of" (41).

What is most intriguing to him is that the printed word had a monopoly on public entertainment and education; because print was the only outlet for thought, it became the media-metaphor for the culture, influencing the way people expressed themselves in "lineal, analytical structure" (41). He cites evidence of the way people spoke in the "impersonal" style of writing, even in such passionate, fiery outbursts like those of The Great Awakening. He then announces his purpose to further explore how print in typographic America dictated the mode of discourse.

Chapter 4 – The Typographic Mind

To begin his exploration of how print as a media-metaphor influenced the discourse of its time, Postman considers the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas publicly debated one another when competing for the Illinois state senate seat. Their respective speeches were always at least one hour long, so that the entire debate spanned up to seven hours or more.

What intrigues Postman most is not the nature of their debate, but that the debates were so popular. Though held at extravaganzas like county fairs, audiences would gladly follow the entirety of the debates themselves. Moreover, this public was accustomed to seeking oratory in other venues outside debates, meaning these were not unique events. Postman notes that the audience was not respectful and somber, but instead enlivened and prone to outbursts of support or denigration towards either Lincoln or Douglas. In fact, he acknowledges that the speeches were part of a "carnival-like atmosphere" of bands and liquor, though the complexity of the arguments nevertheless remained sound enough to warrant contemporary attention (47). Not only is Postman fascinated by the extent of the audience's attention span (which he believes does not exist today), but he is also inspired by the way they were apparently capable of contextualizing the long, winding sentences of the relatively complicated prose in which the speakers presented themselves. By analyzing excerpts of their speeches, Postman indicates how the audience must have had a strong understanding of the day's issues, and how they were willing to hear those issues explored at length, as opposed to being summed up in soundbites, as is the case in the television age.

What he most wishes to illustrate is that the audience of that day was both accustomed to and entertained by "language as a means of complex argument" (47). He argues that in a world still almost exclusively dominated by the written word, the public was accustomed to literary, complicated oratory modeled on written language. Speeches were expected to bear signs of deliberation and the emotional distance of the written word. In short, print as a media-metaphor resonated in a specific way through the expectations and thought-processes of the public who lived in its age. Postman seeks in this chapter to consider what is unique about oratory and the written word, and how it influenced the minds of those who lived under it.

His first proposition is that print and oratory must necessarily have "a content" - a subject around which it is centered (49). He notes that he will later explore how television inspires a discourse of "marginal" content (49). No matter how banal the idea behind a piece of writing, it is only functional and relevant if it indeed has an idea behind it. As a subsequent proposition, Postman suggests that the existence of a meaning presupposes that the author is capable of communicating that meaning and that the reader is capable of understanding it. The act of reading is, therefore, a "serious business" and a "rational activity" (50). He then gives historical examples of writers and thinkers who have explored the way reading "encourages rationality" by forcing the reader to compare ideas, claims, and grammatical constructions to first identify the author's meaning and then to compose a personal response to that meaning (51).

After further in-depth consideration of how reading led to a historical shift towards reason over other faculties, Postman provides examples of how discourse was influenced towards reason in Typographic America. He notes how religious discourse was framed in early America as a series of rational dialogues, so that more emotionally-detached faiths like Deism were "given their say in an open court" (53). He does mean to suggest that religious fervor lacked a passionate component, but only that religious messages were delivered rationally. Even the more controversial arguments over Protestant dogma took place through literary arguments in pamphlets, and the great Jonathan Edwards, who could purportedly move any audience to tears with his fiery delivery, spoke in a way that expected his audiences to follow his sculpted arguments. Postman contrasts this era with the more contemporary televangelists like Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell, who must be careful not to associate themselves too closely with intellectualism lest it alienate their audience.

As another example, Postman explains how lawyers in typographic America tended to see law as a rational exercise, as opposed to a theatrical one meant to sway juries. He links this more intellectual focus on legality to the importance of America's written Constitution, which was a relatively new historical concept at the time. Because the laws were based on immutable recorded precedents, a lawyer was expected to be rational, learned, and literary, while he in turn expected his audience (whether juries or the public) to also have a grasp of legal thought and ideas.

Postman also illustrates how even commerce reflected the rational shape of a print-based discourse. He provides examples of how advertising expected its audience to be literate and rational. Early advertisements – of which he provides two examples – were a paragraph in length, composed of long sentences with multiple clauses, and a simply made claim. The expectation was that the reader was rational enough to discern the claim being made, and then to decide whether the product warranted his or her patronage; advertisements of this era appealed to the intellect rather than emotions. Postman notes that advertising remained an "essentially serious and rational enterprise" until as late as 1890, after which it began to shift into entertainment and spectacle rather than rational claim (59).

It is here that Postman begins to discuss the idea of context, which will prove important to his later discussions. Advertising in its early forms, Postman argues, essentially assembled "a context in which the question, Is this true or false? is relevant" (60). By making a proposition in a straightforward print-based way, it allowed the reader to consider whether the facts presented were worth believing. Contrarily, the introduction of slogans, images and jingles created a decontextualized experience in an ad. No longer was the context controlled, but rather, a photo was placed next to a claim with nothing directly connecting them, and so the audience was now subject to psychological and aesthetic forces. The simple context no longer existed, and so was rationality no longer the primary tool being used to engage a consumer. This concept is explored more fully in later chapters.

In terms of image, Postman suggests that readers of the 18th and 19th century would have judged their public figures by the strength of their language and propositions. By the time a politician would have visited a community, his public would have known him as the speaker or writer of certain tracts or ideas. Postman contrasts this with current Presidents, whom he assumes we see first as an image, and secondarily as the speaker of certain words. He further suggests that reading had a "sacred" element in those days because most people had much less leisure time than we do, and so the choice to read was more pronounced (62). They were inspired to be part of the cultural conversation that reading allowed.

Finally, Postman names this age as the "Age of Exposition," exposition meaning a mode of thought wherein one made a proposition and had a "tolerance for delayed response" to that proposition (63). He next wishes to explain how the Age of Exposition was slowly replaced by the Age of Show Business.

Chapter 5 – The Peek-a-Boo World

Postman suggests that two ideas intersected in the middle of the 19th century to lay the foundation for the Age of Show Business. One of these ideas was new, and the other was "as old as the cave paintings of Altamira" (64).

The new idea was that distance no longer impeded the duration of communication. As America battled to conquer the frontier, it used electricity to ultimately create the telegraph, which allowed information to travel faster than a human being could. While speaking across a continent had obvious value, Postman argues, partly through quoting Thoreau, that telegraphy also redefined discourse in a pernicious fashion, for it "not only [permitted] but [insisted] upon a conversation" between regions that had little to say to one another (65).

Naturally, this conversation led to a different content than what had come before. The first symptom of this new conversation was the transferral of "context-free information" - information that was not tied to any practical function in the listener's life. Information became a commodity valuable for being a novelty rather than for being important towards informing the public. Postman also notes how the press took advantage of this new commodity. The "penny newspaper" had long been obsessed with "elevating irrelevance to the status of news," but while they had a local, regional audience, the sudden emergence of available instantaneous information from throughout the country led to most newspapers becoming purveyors of this same type of irrelevant information. What was born was the "news of the day" – information on what atrocities had occurred, with little emphasis on relevance, the perspective of time, or functional value (67). This type of news had always existed in some form, but it now became the primary form of news. These stories had little to offer to a region far removed from where they occurred, but the lack of context was no longer an issue for consideration. The way people thought and spoke would be influenced by this new media-metaphor. What is most troubling about this influx of irrelevant information is that while it "gives us something to talk about, it cannot lead to any meaningful action" (68). The power of information to truly influence us had been diminished.

Postman gives several examples of how the information of the "news of the day" does not have the power to inspire action in us. He asks what action we plan to take regarding trouble in the Middle East, or crime rates. Noting that we can only vote for candidates every two to four years, he suggests that this world of incessant, de-contextualized news only allows us to form more opinions about the news, opinions which then become news themselves to feed the vicious circle. He contrasts this with typographic culture, in which news and arguments had a direct correlation to the context in which they were spoken, whether that was regional or topical.

Further, Postman believes that the telegraph made information "essentially incoherent" (69). Because the telegraph exists only to transmit information, and not to analyze it, it announces the information as disposable. The speed of transmittal allows little time for reflection, and only offers an opportunity to replace one piece of information with whatever happens next. He suggests that our culture's language became a "language of headlines – sensational, fragmented, impersonal" (70). A headline provided its own context, and has no purpose to explain why it matters.

It is here that Postman provides the very old idea that brought on the Age of Show Business – the prominence of pictures, delivered through photographs. He acknowledges that reproducing nature in images has always been around, but suggests that when Louis Daguerre discovered a way to immortalize those images in photographs, he allowed reality to be not just reproduced but redefined.

He begins to explain this concept by first indicating that photography is not quite a "language," despite the common tendency to discuss it as such (72). Firstly, language is a medium through which one thing is meant to evoke something else. A word evokes a particular idea, which is part of a larger context that leads us into abstraction. To mention nature is to invoke many images and contextualized associations in our minds. A photograph, on the other hand, is concerned only with particulars. For instance, one cannot photograph nature; one can only photograph a tree, or a particular perspective of a cliffside. It lacks any impulse to categorize, to require its audience to connect it to anything other than itself. Further, a photograph presents itself as "objective," as "fact" (72-73). It cannot be analyzed and refuted, because its very basis implies that we know the world well enough to capture it in image. Thirdly, language only functions through context – one proposition needs to be both preceded and followed in order to make any sense. A photograph, on the other hand, is an object in itself, and requires no context. He quotes theorist Susan Sontag to suggest that a photograph presents only a decontextualized present, and allows us to break reality into component parts, no longer contingent on the greater context. The photograph of the tree needs not acknowledge the cliffside or underground system of roots that ensure its survival.

None of this, Postman acknowledges, is a new idea. However, what was new in the mid-19th century is that the picture became the primary basis for understanding truth. Because it could present itself as irrefutable truth without any context, the photo became the primary way through which news, advertising, and information were presented. The exposition become secondary, a caption to the photo. This fit in with the decontextualized model of telegraph news because an objective photo gave some sense of reality to news that otherwise had little to do with the listener's life. He or she could now feel that this headline was connected to his or her life because the illusion revealed that the news did in fact occur in real life.

After discussing in more depth how the photograph created an illusory but still irrelevant context for irrelevant news, Postman points out how the crossword puzzle became popular around this time, suggesting that the public was learning to think in terms of irrelevant, decontextualized information. The crossword puzzle provided a context for all of this meaningless information, whereas in the Age of Exposition, people did not need to find contexts for news that was delivered, precisely because it fit within an already existing context. And most interestingly of all, the crossword puzzle suggests that news had found a new purpose: not to elucidate or aid, but to amuse.

Postman acknowledges that the Age of Exposition did not immediately die under these news pressures, but does illustrate that the writers of this age – like Faulkner or Fitzgerald – focused on the way in which people were disconnected from one another, as though implicitly acknowledging what was happening.

In effect, Postman argues that a "peek-a-boo" world had come into being, a world wherein an event pops into consciousness for a moment and then disappears without any pretense at "coherence or sense" (77). It is entertaining, but neither allows nor permits us to do anything about the information it provides.

However, the real problem came when not only news, but life, followed this peek-a-boo shape, and this is what he suggests happened when television became the primary media-metaphor. By delivering the most historically concentrated synthesis of image and information, and by bringing this synthesis into everyone's home, television forced all modes of discourse into a realm of entertainment. It has so thoroughly defined what we think of as truth that we no longer question the way in which it works. Postman announces an exploration of this idea as the purpose for the remainder of his book.


These three chapters work together to end Part I by providing an equally theoretical and practical framework to understand Postman's method and purpose in Amusing Ourselves to Death. His long emphasis on "Typographic America" is important not only for elucidating his meaning about how media-metaphors influence the mode of public discourse, but also for providing an image of how the world could be if we could break television's sway.

Without restating his argument, it is useful to collect all of his thoughts about what a print and oratory based culture offers. He believes that the written word (and oratory based on it) is essentially detached from its audience. We do not respond to words themselves, but in fact look past those words to discern meaning. It is, in a word, rational. We must think to read and understand. Further, the conversation implied by writing has a universal edge. Because a text is generally spoken to nobody in particular (but rather to an unnamed audience), it is therefore directed towards everyone. Therefore, every reader has the opportunity (or compulsion) to engage in dialogue with it. By considering the proposition made in writing and comparing that to one's own life and ethics, one is now part of a cultural conversation. One is inspired to either make or not make changes, but nevertheless, that text has inspired something of relevance. Lastly, what is written is immutable. As he indicates, this is why burning books is considered so philistine; it is destroying what is immortal. Because written thoughts can never change, they imply a deliberation on the writer's part, and also an honesty of expression. All of these elements are those which make Postman so value reading and writing – they force one to grapple with the world, rather than blowing off what is uninteresting or not immediately accessible.

Central to the contrasting ideas of these chapters, then, is the public. As previously noted, Postman seems to view the public as victim to whatever media-metaphor exists in its time. He loves the idea of Typographic America because that media-metaphor allowed and encouraged everyone to be engaged. Even uneducated people could react to long, intelligent discussions about slavery because they could weigh the propositions being put forward. On the other hand, the public in a Peek-a-Boo world are no longer able to even realize the way in which they are not being engaged. Instead, they gladly turn to crossword puzzles to waste their brainpower on irrelevant knowledge, totally unaware of the ramifications of this decontextualized information.

It is through arguments like these that Postman most seems like a curmudgeonly reactionary, and often might appear to students that way. However, what lies behind his arguments are more pervasive attacks that he does not explicitly make. As noted before, Postman tends to ignore any discussion of power structures that might enforce these strictures for their own gain. Consider the discussion of advertising. When Postman contrasts more contemporary advertising – which uses slogans to appeal to people's psychology rather than their rationality, he barely mentions the possibility that the new media-metaphors are preferred by the powerful because they keep people from exercising rational thought. This is better not only for the companies that want to sell their products, but also for the governments that want to limit public awareness of their actions. This quasi-Marxist critique is certainly something Postman would have been aware of, and it is interesting that he so conspicuously refuses to even postulate it. Perhaps it is a fear that he would seem like a revolutionary rather than a media theorist, or perhaps he fears that such conspiracy theory is too controversial to keep a lay reader's attention. Nevertheless, the book continues to inspire that type of consideration.

Finally, one can continue to question whether this book remains relevant, though these chapters make a strong argument for its continued importance. Everything Postman describes about the Peek-a-Boo world is doubly true about the Internet, where the public is not only privy to, but in control of, the incessant flow of information. Much Internet humor derives from decontextualizing artists or politicians from their primary context, and the prevalence of photo manipulation allows even an amateur photographer to suggest extreme ideas that have the weight of objectivity without any pretense towards accuracy. As newspapers become part of a dying industry, replaced by a prevalence of less-researched and accountable Internet sources, one would do well to heed the warning that information without context can only serve to make us less informed and less driven towards any type of real action.