Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Why does Postman include discussion of the Lincoln-Douglass debate? What is his point?

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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.