We live in the Age of Show Business. Postman’s book is a history of discourse that presents the case for the preeminence of the written word over visual media, and outlines the ills inherent in a visually-driven society.
I was somewhat familiar with Postman’s general ideas, having been friends with one of his protegees for many years. However, this is the first time I have read him for myself, which is a shame because I have an advanced degree in cinema studies. My studies were focused more on film history and less on film theory, so that’s my justification.
Postman first published this book in 1985, and I can only imagine how his ideas developed in the last years of his life (I believe he died last year) with the rise of the internet, mobile video, and 24-hour news. In his discussion of TV, he writes:
Thou shalt have no prerequisites.
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required… This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if a viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. (p. 147)
To which I say:
Previously on Lost.
The serial drama has really evolved in recent years into something quite challenging–the best of what TV has to offer. Of course, Postman would say that the best that TV has to offer is no substitute for public discourse or a word-based pedagogy, and I agree. But Postman doesn’t engage with concepts of narrative in this book, and at times I felt that it would have been appropriate to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in both the visual and the verbal. I will look forward to reading more of his work because I do find myself agreeing with a lot of his ideas.