In Chapter 8 of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman talks about the phenomenon of religious programming on television. He concludes that there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible. (p. 118) I believe that though it's not explicitly stated, the concept of boundaries which I have been discussing is an essential element of his argument. He says that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, has a religious aura. (p. 118-119) I think that he is basically saying that when one enters a church, one is crossing a boundary into someone else's private space; more specifically, God's. In someone else's space one must acknowledge that the owner of the space is in control of it and sets the rules for all who occupy it.
The very act of entering a church, by this interpretation, is acknowledgement of willingness to submit to the control of another, to put oneself in the hands of the Lord, so to speak. A tone of respectful reverence is thus set by the private nature of the church space, the property of God, as well as by the trappings and rituals of the religion itself. Anything that occurs on television, on the other hand, is invading the space of the viewer. Once it enters our home, we have complete control over it– we can adjust the volume, put the TV anywhere we want, buy whatever size screen we want, and turn it off or change channels at the slightest whim.
In this environment it is we who are in control of the service, because it is in our space, not God's. This is why, according to Postman, The activities in one's living room or bedroom or– God help us– one's kitchen are usually the same whether a religious program is being presented or "The A-Team' or "Dallas' is being presented. People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated television screen. (p. 119) Taken away from the church, God's home territory, and introduced into our own private strongholds, televangelism is at a huge disadvantage for actually evoking a religious experience from viewers. "If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness,' says Postman, "then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience. ' (p. 119) web / Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1985. The theories and concepts described in the book could easily apply to today's world. Postman goes to great detail in his book about the development of public discourse (verbal and written communication) over the centuries.
He explains how the development and evolution of communication over mankind's history has changed at critical points. These critical points include the development of the alphabet, the development of the printing press, the development of the telegraph and the development of the television. Postman argues that American society in particular is in danger since it relies so much on television. Postman's book is divided into two parts.
Part one documents the development of communication in Western civilization. The main course of his documentation is that the oral and printed methods of communication tend to be held in higher prestige because they take more "brain power' to learn and perfect. If a person wants to learn in an oral or printed communication based culture, he or she must learn the language, memorize customs, learn to read, learn to write, etc. Postman even goes so far to say that print communication controls your physical body as well – that a person's body must remain at least semi-mobile in order to pay attention to what the words are trying to say. In chapter 4, Postman details how the development and success of the printed word in Western civilization created what he calls "The Typographic Mind', a mind set where a person from the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries could endure and pay attention to lengthy written tomes or lengthy speeches. Postman cites the 1858 U.S. presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
One debate lasted three hours while another in 1854 went seven. When I read this, I admit I was amazed. I had known that the debates were important for many reasons, but I had no idea that they had lasted this long. I can honestly say that I don't think I could have lasted that long myself.
The point that Postman is trying to make here however is that with mass electronic communication in the 20th century (television), American attention spans would never last even a fraction of that amount of time. Think of political debates on television today. To begin with the entire debate itself lasts only an hour at most. This includes commercial breaks.
Candidates normally get five minutes to speak on an issue (sometimes only three) and the rebuttals are usually only just as long. So many of the recent televised presidential debates are successful if a candidate comes up with a great sound bite. Persons can cite the Lloyd Bents en – Dan Quayle debate of 1992 for evidence of that. Postman argues that there is an inherent danger in this. With important topics such as politics, religion and education being pared down to 15 second sound bites on the evening news, Americans do not get the whole picture.
Many critical issues and concerns are left out and trivialized at times. Part two of Postman's book goes more into current examples of his theories. One chapter discusses how television mixes with religion, while another goes into more detail about politics and television and another goes into detail about education and television. These chapters provide more specific, concrete examples of the points Postman is trying to make and they do an excellent job of helping the reader better grasp his ideas. Younger readers may not understand some of the examples used in his book (there are many references to late 1970's through mid 1980's programs here) but it is extremely easy to apply Postman's theories to television today. His ideas are just as relevant.
To make my point – on the issue of attention span, I heard today that the National Hockey League is considering rules to help "speed up the game'. After game six of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs lasted until 1: 30 am Eastern Time, the NHL has decided to allow only four players on a team during overtime periods next season. The logic is that the games will be faster and decided faster in order to keep the fans interested. Similar ideas have been presented for the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and Major League Baseball. It seems to me that if your favorite sports team were playing for its life in the championship playoffs you would not mind the fact that the game lasts six hours, especially if you are on hand to see it in person. However it seems the television ratings for this year's hockey playoffs and basketball playoffs were very low compared to years past and in part because of this, the leaders of these fine organizations are now willing to tamper with the basic rules that govern their games.
Another constant theme through Postman's book is that George Orwell had it wrong about our society when he wrote 1984. Orwell prophesied that government forces would take over civilization and conquer and squash personal freedoms and rights. Postman argues that this viewpoint is incorrect. Postman states that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is more appropriate. Huxley saw a world where civilization would go gladly into that dark night, with a smile on its face.
We would be entertained out of our personal freedoms and rights. Postman believes Huxley is more on target when a person considers what television has done to create such a reliance on itself in the 20th century. I liked this book a lot. Again, some of the references were a bit dated but the concepts are still just as relevant today. It is always interesting to read a book that examines such a large part of society, be it television, music or computers. It is interesting because it gives you the chance to examine your own habits and traits.
I personally have not given up television altogether. My profession as a teacher in the mass media dictates that I at least remain topical. I also use television mainly for news and sports information, although lately I have found that I do not really appreciate the current trends in both. There are too many graphics, not enough details and too many soft stories.
Sports coverage lately seems to be the same. Too many graphics, too much advertising and not enough good announcers. I have been turning back to printed materials for news more often and am now turning back to the radio for sports broadcasts. About the only entertainment programming I watch on television anymore is The Simpsons, NYPD Blue and Days of Our Lives. That should tell you something right there.
– Bud Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind – people during the 1850's know what's going on around them (history and political matters), they also have great attention span and could understand lengthy and complex sentences aurally. – people of a television culture need "plain language' both aurally and visually. – the use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena that time. – during that time, the speakers had little to offer, and the audiences little to expect, but language.
The language that was offered was clearly modeled on the style of the written word. – the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. – whenever language is the principal medium of communication – especially language controlled by the rigors of print – an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim flash, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one's thought. – the written word challenges our intellect. we must be able to understand what the writer is saying. – books was the basis of everything during the 18th and 19th century.
– the churches in America laid the foundation of our system of higher education. – John Marshall was the preeminent example of Typographic Man – detached, analytical, devoted to logic, abhorring contradiction. – mind formed by printed word: clear and downright simple, vast comprehensiveness of topics, fertility in illustrations drawn from practical sources, keen analysis and suggestion of difficulties, power of disentangling a complicated proposition and resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common minds, vigor generalizations, wariness and caution. – history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered as a metaphor of the descent of typographic mind, beginning with reason and ending with entertainment.
– advertising was intended to appeal to understanding, not to passion. – in advertising words cannot be trusted, you must understand it through its context. – difference between word-culture and image-centered culture: a. in a word-centered culture, people are known through their works, while in an image-centered culture, people are known through their image and / or face. b. in a word-centered culture, reading was important (can vote, can understand what's going on around them), there was not enough to do in leisure time. in an image- centered culture, people have many options for leisure. – for 2 centuries, America depended on the written word. it was the Age of Exposition (a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression; a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Television has become, so to speak, the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering grey light. This, in turn, means that its epistemology goes largely unnoticed.
And the peek-a-boo world it has constructed around us no longer seems even strange. There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre. For the loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have changed. Our culture's adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now almost complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.
It is my object in the rest of this book to make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality and that television speaks in only one persistent voice? the voice of entertainment. Beyond that, I will try to demonstrate that to enter the great television conversation, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. This is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago.