After having it on my to read list for years, I am finally getting around to Neal Postman’s Amusing Orselves to Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Sor far its great.
One of Postman’s main points is that certain mediums of communication are useless at conveying certain types of messages. It is impossible to discuss philosophy, for instance, using smoke signals. For deep, abstract concepts a person needs words. Image oriented mediums such as television simply will not do. For this reason, a culture’s dominant forms of communication will determine to a great extent, what type of culture it is. In a TV and movie saturated culture like ours that is bad news as people no longer wrestle with deep thinking.
Interestingly, Postman was led to study this topic by reading the Old Testament. In the second commandment, Postman recounts, God tells His people
“Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.” I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symobolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter the culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction. But even if I am wrong in these conjectures, it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication avaialable to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culutre’s intellectual and social preoccupations.
Great stuff. It helps make sense of the fact that God left us the Bible rather then a DVD. After all, The Passion is a fine movie, but what would it be if we didn’t have the book of Romans?
Postman’s observations might make one discouraged about our image obsessed culture, but I see a ray of hope in the rise of internet publishing. Could the power of the Word make a comeback through blogging?