Saturday, December 19, 2009

Neil Postman: TV as Epistemological Entrapment

Neil Postman: The Reciprocating Pseudo-Culture of Television and Word in His “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

The defining insight:

“The Second Commandment of …the Israelites prohibits (them) from making concrete images of anything. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth’ … 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 a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-image-centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction.”

I quickly add that the Word-centered culture of the Jews is completed by the enfleshed Word, now as Person, Who is “the image of the invisible God.”[1] He was and is present in the flesh (“Feel me and see that a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have,” Lk. 24, 39-40) but cannot be recognized by us because He is pure relation to the Father. We can recognize Him if we become relation as self-gift to the others.

The Argument:

TV as image and telegraphic word create a pseudo-reality that becomes a culture in itself. Neil Postman’s presentation in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” explains that as confluence of the two: image and word, TV replaces “meaning” by reciprocal reinforcement of the two metaphors of contextual-less, and therefore meaningless “facts.” Postman gives an example:

“Imagine a stranger’s informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of vermiform plant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the island of Aldononjes. And if you wonder aloud, ‘Yes, but what has that to do with anything?’ imaging that your informant replies, ‘But here is a photograph I want you to see,’ and hands you a picture labeled Illyx on Aldononjes. ‘Ah, yes,’ you might murmur, ‘now I see.’ It is true enough that the photograph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photograph, and you may even believe for a day or so that you have learned something. But if the even is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have ‘learned’ nothing (except perhaps to avoid strangers with photographs) and the illyx will fade from you mental landscape as though it had never been. At best you are left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving a crossword puzzle, but nothing more.”[2]

Postman’s point is that not only some experience, but all experience is reduced to this state of irrelevance that is the culture spawned by TV. How well he says it: “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 gray light. This, in turn, means that it epistemology goes largely unnoticed. And the peek-a-boo world it has constructed around us no longer seems even strange.”[3] Quite the opposite. The world that TV has given us now is perceived as the normal. “Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now all but 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.”[4]

If we achieve a direct experience of the real in the encounter with ourselves in the act of going out of ourselves, then the total absorption of the knowing process with a visual idolatry keeps us captive within ourselves, and we are never in contact with the real. And, being amused in the deception, we will never escape.

Consider this email that a profound and insightful mother sent me on the occasion of a few remarks I made yesterday on Postman and the pernicious epistemological state that we, and especially young people, are trapped in:.

“I love Neil Postman. What a surprise to find you reading something I own and have actually read. I own it because of my insatiable appetite to support my never ending battle to protect my children from the one eyed monster and to justify my draconian approach of keeping the monster under lock and key. If it is locked up, boys look to books for "entertainment". I first read Postman 15 years ago – “The Disappearance of Childhood.” My copy is completely highlighted and of course the 2 books go hand in hand. "Children are immersed in a world of secrets, surrounded by mystery and awe; a world that will be made intelligible to them by adults....but because of television, nothing is awesome, nothing is held back from public view....having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information (think Viagra commercials!!!)...they are expelled from the garden of childhood." The book is phenomenal and I adore his humor.”

[1] Col. 1, 15.

[2] Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Penguin Books (1985) 75.

[3] Ibid 79.

[4] Ibid 80

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