Amusing Ourselves with Dreck: Neil Postman & Post-Modern Entertainment

“Reality is the new fiction they say
Truth is truer in these days, truth is man-made
If you’re here cause you want to be entertained
Please go away, you can go away”

-“Entertain”, Sleater-Kinney 

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Adams K. I D E A #1. 2007. Web. 20 June. 2015.

Since about the age of 16, I’ve had a terrible secret. I suppose, in the annals of terrible secrets, it’s really not so bad, but I’ve found myself staying up late at night to avoid the judgement of other human eyes, to indulge covertly and religiously. In the past, I’ve read pages and pages of message boards in the hopes of getting some keen new insight. I’ve even lied shamelessly in the midst of public conversation when someone lambasts the latest addition to the television screen, asking me “Have you watched it?”

My zeal for reality television has certainly waned in the last few years, but there was a time when the answer to the question of which new bad reality show I’d watched was always – on the inside – an apologetic yes. Though I only watch one (or two…) of the Real Housewives franchises today, there are so many things on now that make me feel guilty about ever watching this kind of programming at all. Like, for example, the mass of cat videos that reality television seems to have been a precursor to.

I have to say, I’ve never felt particularly dumb watching Real Housewives. That might seem stupid given the subject matter, but a Real Housewives episode has context, and relationship development and destruction. There is a progression of sorts, however decadent, that makes it akin to life or storytelling. With the cat videos and dog videos and screaming kid videos, I feel persistently aware of the fact that I’m supposed to respond only on the most basic level, again and again and again – it’s cute, it’s awful, it’s instant, I’m entertained!

In 1985, social critic Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death explored the impact of the medium of television on our culture. Technology has, of course, advanced considerably since 1985 with the Internet, tablets and smartphones, but Postman’s exploration of TV culture then was prescient in its understanding of how the future would unfold. As Postman pointed out, “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining”.

From the 140-character tweet to the viral video, our recognition of what deserves our attention has been drastically reduced. It goes without saying that – in a culture where information in all of its formats is fighting for a click – what is most immediate seems to be winning the war over our attention span. In an instant culture, judgement and rational choice has been replaced by what is scandalous, simplified or consumable. Cat videos might not be so bad here and there, but every day and all the time?

With Google maps and revelations about the NSA surveillance practices, we have become aware of the potential for an Orwellian 1984 world. But, Postman brings us back to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World stating that:

“…In the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate…There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is re- defined as a perpetual round of entertainments…when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act…culture-death is a clear possibility.”

Certainly entertainment has always been an aspect of life – and this will persist – but for it to cut a deeper swathe into the day to day, to stomp out the framework and limit the time for reflective thought and criticism is reckless. Is a society that has lost the ability to question its institutions not a dangerous one? Should we not be asking for more than just entertainment, or why, at least, we seem to need so much of it? I mean, I like Real Housewives, but still…



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