Is serious television possible? As America moves into the Age of Videoculture, the question presses itself with increasing urgency. Yea-sayers point to public-television dramas, ``60 Minutes,'' and the Children's Television Workshop. Nay-sayers point to prime-time sitcoms, the smiling non-statements of quoted politicians, and the fact that among the biggest crowd-pleasers on cable TV are 1950s westerns and ``All-American Wrestling.''
Both camps miss the point, which has less to do with current programming than with the inherent demands of the medium itself. To restate the question: Does television, by its very nature, strain out all serious ideas and remake everything into lightweight entertainment? Behind that question lies another: Is television so pervasive that it is reshaping American culture in its own fluffy image?
Loaded questions? Certainly. But if you've ever asked them yourself, you'll be interested in Neil Postman's new book. Aptly titled ``Amusing Ourselves to Death: Pubic Discourse in the Age of Show Business,'' it provides the most succinct, lucid, and eminently readable argument against the yea-sayers that I've seen.
Professor Postman, who teaches at New York University, is no mere whiner, pouting in moral umbrage over shows he finds offensive. Nor is he shackled to an academic pedantry that scorns popular culture simply because it's popular. He starts where Marshall McLuhan (his acknowledged teacher) left off, constructing his arguments with the resources of a scholar and the wit of a raconteur. His subject is nothing less than the way America converses with itself -- what ideas it has, how it chooses to say them, and how it listens. And his purpose is to show that ``our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.''
His method is straightforward: He brings to bear the disciplines of literary criticism, communications theory, and sociology on a study of American discourse pre- and post-television. His thesis, too, is simple: to demonstrate ``how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now -- generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.''
``In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes,'' says Postman, ``Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.''
Scrambling to television's defense, the yea-sayers will immediately think of two arguments:
Yes, indeed, they will agree, an awful lot of television is junk: But at its best television can be a wonderfully serious medium. Postman is ready for them, arguing in some detail that ``television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.''
Well then (the yea-sayers will say), he's simply overstating the case. Television, however bad, can't be that important: How much damage can it do, anyway? ``When a population becomes distracted by trivia,'' says Postman, ``when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk;
culture-death is a clear possibility.''
These, by the way, are not idle whens: each of them is backed up by example, with which this book is rich.
This is not a balanced book: It makes no pretense of being so. For the real enemy, from Postman's perspective, is that nobody really thinks there is an enemy. Hence a sometimes strident tone -- and, on occasion, the crafted sentence that places the delight of words above the power of logic. That's excusable: Striving for the ear of the public, he's also seeking to remind it that language itself, unaccompanied by music or pictures, really is delightful.
A more important lack, however, is a sense of direction for the future. Where should television go from here -- assuming that it is, after all, here to stay? What should an individual or group do to help elevate the nation's discourse -- ``to take arms,'' as Postman says, ``against a sea of amusements''?
Reading between the lines, one finds some useful hints. ``I do not say categorically that it is impossible to use television as a carrier of coherent language or thought in process,'' Postman observes. He adds, however, that ``It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.''
Hidden in these lines (should someone want to get serious about television) are two rules. First, find a way -- as print has been doing for centuries -- to focus on ``thought in process'' rather than on gestures, glibness, prepackaged assertions, and uninterrupted prattle. Second, identify and avoid ``the values of show business,'' which aims not at educating, uplifting, or stretching its audience, but simply at pleasing it quickly and lavishly.
Can television be serious? If not, can America be taken seriously? The nation desperately needs to hear from those who, after reading and digesting this book, are willing to put such questions to the ultimate test. A Monday column