Amusing Ourselves to Death

The 1960s had given us the idealism which was supposed to solve all our problems. [see Changing Media II; Hair, and Deaf-Mutes in Mao’s China]. All we had to do was make the move away from our individual selves to what I have come to call our “inner goddess” and what Robert Graves had called The White Goddess. I was determined to make a “night journey” on the pattern laid out by Carl Jung [see my essay on Conrad’s “Secret Sharer”] to meet my inner goddess. [Yeah, what kind of a jerk was I? I can only plead the excuse of my youth.].

As I was reading Joseph Campbell and watching Zelig looking for answers to the questions I had naively decided to pursue, the avant-garde world was losing confidence in those same ideals. They had set out to systematically dismantle the edifice of certainty upon which the Modern worldview was built.

They did so on the basis of philosophical skepticism. In hindsight, academics have come to see the change that overcame the world circa 1980 as a firm splitting off Postmodernism from the Modernism that had ruled the universe of the 20th century. I see it as the replacement of philosophical optimism—with statements like “We have the truth, or at least we’re almost at the truth”—with philosophical skepticism—featuring statements like “There is no one truth or there are many truths.”

What intellectuals now look at as a fait accompli was not apparent in the 1960s. Change came slow, and at the time it was by no means certain to end up in the solid opposition of Modernism to Postmodernism. But, because I had dropped out of college, I was still determined to plumb the depths of the idealist proposition long after the avant-garde thinkers had destroyed the foundations on which it lay.

It is not that I was naïve. I was young. But, as I grew older, I, too, had to rapidly confront the problem of idealism [see Joseph Campbell]. Being out of college put me on my own resources without the help (or hindrance) of the grand tradition of academia. This led me to solve the problem of Modernism differently than my fellow academics. I never lost faith in philosophical optimism.

A Central Problem in American Culture

I trace the birth of Postmodern culture back to the late Modernism of people like Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s global village was an avenue of opportunity to realize the dream of breaking down barriers that separated us as individuals in order to reconstitute us on a “higher” plane. McLuhan had relied on Rousseau’s version of the ideal world as a way out of time. In this, he followed the Modernist lead of James Joyce. Stephen Daedelus had been on the beach at Sandymount Strand wondering how he could ever tear through the appearance of things back to the solid ground of things. For only on the solid ground of things, outside of temporal world and so outside of our individual experience that we could (Stephen thought) be sure of our position in the world. This is a paradox that the Moderns simply accepted. And it’s a thread that runs through, not only modernism, but also postmodernism.

The dying of culture was a central cultural problem in the 1970s. I have already written about Louis Male’s My Dinner with Andre, which was a study in man’s loss of faith, not in the ideal, but in the realization of the ideal. The sixties, Andre said, were the last era in which we were in touch with our inner spirit. After that, the ideals faded from a common desire of the generation to the desire of a few. And those few were now being oppressed by the common culture, which it gotten out of their intellectual control. In other words, intellectuals intended to stay the course, but the “common man” had moved on to other aspects of their lives.

But at the same time, Male exchanged the objective world for a world of fiction. Male was telling us to escape the physical world of space to a mental world of “space” in which we could visit invisible planets to rejuvenate our minds and reconnect with the ideal world, which was no longer in actual space. Male [see My Dinner] was stepping into a smaller ideal world. The culture had shifted to worrying about the fate of the ideal.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

We can see the transitional state of affairs by looking at Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a work that appeared in 1982. This work was the product of the same mindset as 1981’s My Dinner with Andre. Like Andre, who believes that the global village is an invasive force that threatens to destroy the higher mind that we had just begun to glimpse in the 1960s, Postman’s 1982 book has one foot in the Modern world and one foot in the postmodern world. He wants to save the culture from the money-oriented, selfish desires of the “lower” man. He has one foot in the late Modernist dream of McLuhan; indeed, he tells the story of how he met McLuhan “more than 30 years ago when I was a graduate student and he an unknown English professor” (8) before he equates the McLuhan genius with the genius of no less a towering figure than Plato! (8-9).

By tracing Postman’s intermediate work which operates on the same premises that Modernism is failing but has yet to fully embrace its opposite (Postmodernism), we can trace the divergence of my solution from the solution offered by the Postmoderns.

Looking to Las Vegas

Postman’s book begins by noting that at “different times in our history, different cities had been the focal point of irradiating American spirit.” He lists several before announcing that

today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce had been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (3-4)

Neil Postman is looking backwards towards history for a blanket of security that is missing in the modern, relativistic world.

The Human Constant in Postman’s Book

It seems to be a human constant to compare our vision of today to our vision of yesterday and to decide that yesterday was better, while today we are dealing with a debased version of a once great notion. This is the case with Rush Limbaugh. It is also the case with Neil Postman (who would be horrified to hear me say this, but I can assure you that he is rolling over in his grave as I write this).

Unlike Rush Limbaugh, Neil Postman is an intellectual, and therefore takes a longer view than most of human progress (or decay). He contrasts the vision that came into being with the invention of the printing press to the culture of television and decides that the “old order” was better. In the old order, the graphically-oriented mind had allowed for “olden days people” to follow the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?

These were people who were who regarded such offense is essential to their political education, who took them to be and I focal part of their social lives, and who were quite accustomed to extended oratorical performances. (44-45).

In the modern world, this feeling for listening to seven hours of extended oratory has disappeared. Most of us think that this is for the good, but the long-thinking, hard-listening Postman disagrees. The state of affairs has substituted the rational behavior of reading words on the printed page for a “peekaboo world” of political images intended to defraud the populace into voting against their interests.

Thing were better in “the olden days” for sure.

The Academic Response

I have been to several postmodern conferences, and I can tell you that Postman’s words in 1982 were prophetic of the change which was to come. Academics feared that American culture had been captured by “the little people,” who were not so much interested in pursuing the ideal life as they were in pursuing money and fame. In 1982, the recently elected former actor Ronald Reagan had exemplified the trend. “’Politics,’ Postman said, ‘is just like show business’” (125). Paris Hilton and Britney Spears exemplify the trend in 2009. They have stripped all political pretense from their pursuit of raw fame.

Academics reacted early to the shifting trends. In 1982 they grasped hold of the rope, saving American culture from slipping over the edge of the cliff. It did not take long for the intellectual class, who tend to look to Europe for guidance in intellectual matters, to decide that maybe there was something wrong with America. Just like in the 30s, when the intellectual joined the Communist party to eschew selfish American ways, intellectuals in the 60s joined in the larger collective community. These intellectuals would lead the “good life,” remaining “purists” in a world that was sliding into the abyss.

As the years have progressed they have continued to react with a mixture of horror and bemusement at the condition of the outside world from their protection within the Ivory Tower as saviors of the ideas of the past.

The Question of Relative or Absolute Truth

But was this a quest after relative or absolute truth? Ironically, Postman seems to come down on the side of relative truth.

And, in any case, I would should be very surprised if a story I have to tell is anywhere near the whole truth. We are all, as Huxley sought Huxley says somewhere, great a previous, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, but time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it. (6).

Postman does not stand on absolute ground. Rather, he makes you stand on his belief that intellectuals are better than the bourgeoisie at making decisions about our collective life. The bourgeoisie suffered under the tyranny of images, whereas the intellectual who had learned to read beneath the surface was better able to orient himself correctly. If this assessment of the intellectual class was wrong—but how could the smartest, best educated people in our society be wrong?—the entire structure of in-and-out (within the Ivory Tower are right, while those who stand outside the Ivory Tower are wrong) and up-and-down (Plato’s mind is up and right, while the pursuit of material goods is down and bad) would come crashing down.

Postman’s Dying Idealism

It is not difficult to believe Postman when he is talking about the relative nature of our ideals. What is more difficult to believe is his notion that if we follow him, Neil Postman, that we will have captured more of the truth than if we do not. His philosophy is idealism, albeit an idealism whose death knell Postman is sounding, even as he tries to defend it. I, on the other hand, have lingering questions about idealism, even the idealism of a Plato or a McLuhan.

What has always bothered me about these conservative systems is not that conservative nature. I myself am somewhat conservative in fiscal (if not in social) matters. What bothers me specifically about Postman’s conservativism is his notion that (sometime in the past) there was an era in which capitalism worked with exceptional rational rigor. This is pure nonsense! And yet in his idealist construct of the world, he opposes the pure and rational age of capitalism to the age of “show business” capitalism.

By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business — music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity, — the television commercials mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. (126)

Okay well that’s not a very good advertisement for a conservative ideology, but I maintain that Postman is a conservative. Because of the way he continues.

To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, the least capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver. (126-127)

He follows this with this:

The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires the buyer that only knows what is good for him but also knows what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by rational marketplace, then he loses out. It is the assumption of rationality among buyers that spurs competitors to become winners, and winners to keep on winning. (127)

His assumption is that there was no crack in the rational foundation of early capitalism. This is a tenuous assumption, at best, and only available from a long way off. This is why people in Ivory Towers continue to hold such opinions, while people who are closer to the truth of capitalism, tend to think that this is a simplification of a complex system. Rather than thinking that their intellectual counterparts, who have foregone the life of greed for the “higher” life of the mind, and so are higher than they, these people work on other assumptions entirely.

The pure rationality of the marketplace has, indeed, come under fire from thinkers like Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist, who says that, while the economy may be rational in its foundation, individuals may not have perfect knowledge of their position in that universe. This applies to the intellectual, as well as the common man.

How I Reacted to This State of Affairs

I reacted as my academic colleagues reacted. I threw away the absolute nature of knowledge. But since I had been in business before coming to academia, I looked to business to make up the lack of a satisfying model of experience. Business has a perfect model for dealing with a state of affairs in which there was no basis on which to make Modernist absolute judgments.

This is why, in my opinion, I could not get a fair hearing in graduate school. My conservative professors thought I was really liberal, while my liberal professors thought I was engaged in the insidious pursuit of business. They could stand anything but that, for business was a testament to the life of the un-free, the victims of false consciousness.

This is different than my academic colleagues, who are following Derrida. Derrida had challenged the notion that all human behavior was rational, but he did not give up the notion of forging a new “historic-metaphysical” vision without the divisions implied by logic. Only the intellectual who was at the forefront of thought (they used to call it the avant-garde before avant-garde became a thing of the past and we entered the post-avant-garde period; I have no idea what that means, and neither do you).

Back to Postman

Now by relying on a pure rational account of economic behavior as the only source of equity in the market, Postman may be engaging in an ideal situation, rather than engaging with the reality as it really is (the Dang an Sich, as we used to call it). This is only the case if Postman is correct in his feeling that reason is at the base of human nature. That assumes a lot, and Derrida comes to the rescue of those who believe that there is something else at the basis of economic activity. Not that Derrida’s solution to the problem is correct. It’s not. But Derrida provides the tools to recreate our activity on a more realistic basis than the Enlightenment thinkers who were so foolish as to believe that reason was the basis of economic activity (and indeed of all human activity).

Mass Culture and the Individual

One thing Postman’s doing here is he’s trying to figure out is the individual’s relationship to the (presumably larger) mass culture. Postman thinks that the mass culture is dying; and with that culture, he has lost a part of himself.

I, for one, do not believe that his conclusion, noted at the beginning of his book, that the city of Las Vegas is the city where people expend themselves, and their rational earnings, on irrational thoughts and behaviors. (This notion is at the center of my next book). But, moreover, even if he is correct about Las Vegas, what has that to do with me? Sure, they’re people like Paris Hilton who are nothing but idiots. And those idiots are famous. And those idiots tend to go to Las Vegas. And that may mean that Las Vegas Nevada is the capital of our culture. But that doesn’t mean that I, as an individual, have to follow them.

In fact, I, as an individual, have chosen not to follow that crowd. In fact, I have not chosen to follow any crowd. Instead, I follow the truth, as it appears to me. And that has meant, on occasion that I have suffered the consequences of not being a good follower. In grad school, in particular, I continued on my own way because there was no one who could answer all the questions I had about the difficulties with Joseph Campbell or Jacques Derrida. The assumption was always that I was an idiot for not following my intellectual superiors.

My Response to the Death of Culture

As a result, I don’t especially care about the death of culture. It doesn’t affect me. And I suspect it would not have been any more appealing to me to be a part of the larger culture in the 1950s, which in many ways is more to my liking. This is the result of my commitment to the truth as the end of critical inquiry, and not to culture.

I don’t always have the final answer to questions, as Postman says. Indeed, I think that looking for the final answer to any question betrays the notion of looking for the best possible hypothesis to any question, which is enshrined in scientific method.

What I want from my intellectual experience is to be taken seriously in a domain that allows one to ask questions, even stupid questions, and to get back reasoned answers. This was not my experience in graduate school, so I dropped out and followed the truth where it led me.

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