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Chapter 2: The Media as Epistemology (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Chapter 2: The Media as Epistemology

In this chapter, Postman explain the role of media as a means of understanding the world. He first reminds us that proverbs and sayings were not just occasional devices in oral cultures, as Walter Ong points out, “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”

But relying on proverbs and sayings is not taken seriously by modern people, they are seen as convenient ways of resolving disputes with children. “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” We would not think of using these phrases in a courtroom, where serious matters are being discussed.

Judges and lawyers don’t think of proverbs as a relevant response to any legal dispute, they are separated from the chief of their tribe by a media-metaphor. In a print based courtroom, where law books, citations, and briefs define how the truth is found, the oral tradition has lost most of its resonance, but not all of it. We still expect oral testimonies, on the assumption that the spoken word is a truer reflection of one’s state of mind than the written word.

Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing.

Postman’s argument is not to say that we should be ambivalent about epistemology, but that some ways of telling the truth are better than others, and have a better influence on the cultures that adopt them. His book is an attempt to persuade the reader that the decline of a print-based epistemology, with a rise of the television-based epistemology has had terrible consequences on society – that we are getting sillier every minute.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessChapter 2: The Media as Epistemology (Amusing Ourselves to Death) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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