Amusing Ourselves to Death Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Aldous Huxley • Contrary to common belief, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think (vii).
The Medium is the Metaphor • Boston (The Revolutionary War) • New York (Ellis Island) • Las Vegas???: “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death” (4).
The Medium is the Metaphor • Form and Content • “smoke signals” • “For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. It’s form works against the content” (7).
The Medium is the Metaphor • “…this book is an inquiry into and lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas” (8).
The Medium is the Metaphor • “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message. His aphorism, however is in need of amendment because, as it stands, it may lead one to confuse a message with a metaphor…
The Medium is the Metaphor • …A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality (10).”
The Medium is the Metaphor • Examples: • The Clock (Mumford’s observations) • Writing • Eyeglasses • The Microscope • “What I mean to point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking” (13).
The Medium is the Metaphor • “Where do our notions of mind come from if not from metaphors generated by our tools” (15).
Media as Epistemology • Oral versus Print courtroom example • The Oral versus Print thesis example • “…the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in the proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice” (22/23).
Media as Epistemology • Oral skills (25) • Memory, Performance Skills • Print skills (25) • Immobility of the body • Focus on meaning (not appearance) • Detachment / Objectivity (critical skills) • Comprehension • Delayed gratification • Abstraction
Medium as Epistemology • “My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling” (27).
Medium as Epistemology • “We must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us. The invention of the printing press itself is a paradigmatic example. Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose, but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion” (29). • Everything Bad is Good for You
Typographic America • In colonial America, religion, politics, and social life were steeped in print literacy. • “Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page” (33).
Typographic America • The Printing Press: Invented in southern Germany (near Augsburg, Regensburg, Ulm & Nuremberg) in the 1450s. Johannes Gansfleisch zur laden zum Gutenberg used a modified linen press fitted with typeface made from tin antimony to build the first printing press.
Typographic America • The first printing press in America appeared in 1638 at Harvard University.
Typographic America • Widespread literacy and schools in 17th Century England. • Widespread literacy in the colonies. • Common Sense (1776) by Thomas Paine. • Federalist Papers (1787/1788) by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
Typographic America • “The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and pwerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly”(41).
The Typographic Mind • The Lincoln vs. Douglas debates of 1858: Print literacy in oral performance. • “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” (45). • See example on page 46.
The Typographic Mind • “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 false, but there is not escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence” (50).
The Typographic Mind • “To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community” (50). • “Early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that vicious.” (Nietzche, Ecce Homo, 1888)
The Typographic Mind • Skills of the Reader: • Following a line of thought • Classification • Inference-making • Reasoning • Critical reading • Comparison of ideas • Connect generalizations • Detachment • Delayed Gratification
The Typographic Mind • Effects of literacy on culture • Science • Capitalism • Secularization • Continuous progress
The Typographic Mind • The evolution of advertising • 1890s: from rational to emotional appeals • Politics and Religion • From the Age of Exposition to the Age of Show Business.
The Peek-a-Boo World • Until the 1840s information could only move as quickly as human beings • Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1837. Space was annihilated. • Maine and Texas? • “…telegraphy gave legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the ida that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity” (65).
The Peek-a-Boo World • Information as a commodity • The penny press. • AP wire services. • “The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other” (67).
The Peek-a-Boo World • Information Action Ratio • “Thus we have a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing” (69).
The Peek-a-Boo World • “The principle strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography” (69). • “To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them” (70).
The Peek-a-Boo World • “Thus, to the reverent question posed by Morse – What hath God wrought? – a disturbing answer came back: a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities” (70).
The Peek-a-Boo World • The invention of photography: Louis Daguerre (1835) • Photography vs. Print • Argumentation • Context
The Peek-a-Boo World • “In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to the unknown names…
The Peek-a-Boo World • …Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that ‘the news’ had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the ‘news of the day.’ And the ‘news of the day’ created a context for the photograph” (75).
The Peek-a-Boo World • Context free information is given a pseudo-context through the union of telegraphy and photography. • Pseudo-Context: “A pseudo-context is a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. • Because information presented in a pseudo-context lacks use value in our everyday lives, it exists for amusement.
The Peek-a-Boo World • “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained” (77).
The Peek-a-Boo World TELEVISION AS A GAME OF PEEK-A-BOO