Nov 4, 2019
This is the third and last part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. It is going to be long! And there might be typos and slightly-nonsensical sentences, as it’s not edited for the most part. Remember to read the most important ideas of the book in part one of the summary, and the notes about TV’s way of thinking taking over different areas of life, in the second part.
The medium is the metaphor
Today we must look at Las Vegas as a metaphor for the US’ national character and inspiration. Las Vegas is entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.
American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl Marx are irrelevant.
Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers.
Culture watchers and worriers (those of the type who read books like this one) will know that the examples above are not aberrations but, in fact, clichés. In short, descent into a vast triviality.
How we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages.
Another example: The information, the content, that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist (could not exist) in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.
The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
This book is an inquiry into, and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.
If all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message, I will not disavow the association. In the Bible you can find intimations of the idea that forms of media favour particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture.
Lewis Mumford, for example, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks; but he is far more interested in how clocks creates the idea of “moment to moment”. “The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes”. In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.
In the book “Technics and Civilization”, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by Enlightenment philosophers.
I bring all this up because what my book is about is how our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics. What I mean to point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking (and, of course, of the content of his culture).
Start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, eg. that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature of the ravages of time. The idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of the eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.
Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
Media as epistemology
The book’s intention is to show that a great media-metaphor shift happened in the US, which resulted in public discourse becoming dangerous nonsense.
This is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology, not aesthetics. There’s on objection to TV’s junk. In fact, that’s the good part. Besides, we measure a culture not by its trivialities, but by what it considers important. TV is in fact more dangerous when it tries to be serious. And, sadly, many intellectuals and critics often ask more serious stuff to appear on TV.
The important part of epistemology that is relevant to this book is the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come.
Media sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, goodness, or beauty; and it’s always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth. Excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22.
The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the form of expression. It must appear in its proper clothing or it’s not acknowledged. But the book doesn’t make the case for epistemological relativism: some ways of truth-telling are better than others. In fact, the book argues that a TV-based epistemology has grave consequences for public life.
Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.
Three points to defend against possible counterarguments:
- The book doesn’t claim that changes to media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of in their cognitive ability. The argument is limited to saying that a new medium changes the structure of discourse, by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favouring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.
- The epistemological shift has not yet included everyone and everything. Other forms of conversation always remain. However, that TV and print both exist doesn’t imply parity.
- TV-based epistemology pollutes public communication, not everything.
In short, as TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines.
The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quality of printed matter but because of its monopoly. Today there’s more printed matter available than before, but from the 17th century to the late 19th, printed was virtually all that was available.
The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere, eg. in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in “Democracy in America”. “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a metting, and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.”
The typographic mind
In the 19th century in the US, it was normal that politicians had seven-hour debates, and for people to “take the stump” and talk for hours about some topic. Who was the audience? By current standards, their attention span was extraordinary.
The language of many of these debates and speeches was strongly influenced by writing: speeches were written in advance, and rebuttals, too. So, what are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favour?
To engage in the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. Not that analytic thought isn’t possible outside of the written word: instead, the point is to show the predisposition of a cultural mindset.
Even in commerce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse were to be found. If we may take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in American may be considered, all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment.
In the 1890s, advertisement started using illustrations, photographs, and nonpropositional use of language with the introduction of slogans. By the turn of the century, advertisers dropped reason to became depth psychology and aesthetic theory.
The peek-a-boo world
Telegraphy did something Morse didn’t foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country”. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. The telegraph not only permitted a conversation between Maine and Texas: it insisted upon it. And that would require the content of that conversation to be different to what people were used to.
As Henry David Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch #twitter “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.
Photography also helped replace language as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. Excellent example on p. 75.
Crossword puzzles became popular at just that point. This suggests that where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use: crossword puzzles, cocktail parties, radio shows, TV game shows, and Trivial Pursuit.
Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course there’s nothing wrong with entertainment itself: the problem is when we try to live in it.
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. The goal of the book is to make this epistemology visible again: try to demonstrate that TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
The age of show business
The assumption that new media is just an amplification of old media is wrong, in the same way that cars are not fast horses. What is TV? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?
The problem is not that TV presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, ie. entertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on TV. The assumption is that everything presented in it is for our amusement and pleasure.
Sustained, complex talk does not play well on TV. It can be made to play tolerably well, but this it not TV at its best, and it is not TV that most people will choose to watch.
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. Films, records, and radio are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But TV is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances.
It is not merely that on the TV screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse; it is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.
Prior to the 1984 presidential election there was a TV “debate” between the two candidates. They had five minutes to address complex questions, so complexity, documentation and logic can play no role. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what TV does best. The relevant question became “who had KO’d whom?”, and the answer was determined by the “style” of the men.
Now… this (news on TV)
“Now… this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.
TV didn’t invent this world view, but in TV’s “news of the day” we see the “Now… this” mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.
It’s frightening to think that the perception of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of the newscaster. The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance. If on TV, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
All TV news programs begin, and, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. If there were no music, viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.
Another feature of the stylized dramatic performance is the length of each news story: 45 seconds.
The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that TV news is designed as a serious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. [How does this affect newspapers, paper and digital?]
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on TV for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching TV news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [4chan, fake news?]
I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a TV news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. For those who think it’s hyperbole, I offer the following description of TV news by Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer News-hour”. The idea, he writes, “is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required… to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
Everyone had an opinion on the Iranian Hostage Crisis, because everyone is entitled to an opinion and it’s useful to have one for when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions. What is happening is that TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. And in saying that TV news entertain but don’t inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies” (Walter Lippmann) The reporters who cover the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But apparently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused”. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. Apparently, President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining about that.
But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the President’s “misstatements” fall in the category of contradictions–mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true. “In the same context” is the key phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.
There is nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
I do not mean that the trivialisation of public information is all accomplished on TV. I mean that TV is the paradigm for our conception of public information. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, TV induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror TV. [Memory of people complaining that you needed a lot of context to understand the news]
Shuffle off to Bethlehem (religion on TV)
It is the perfect TV sermon–theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting. For TV, bless its heart, is not congenial to messages of naked hate. You never know is watching, so it is best not to be wildly offensive. There are at present thirty-five TV stations owned and operated by religious organisations.
Two conclusions: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. Not everything is televisable, or, more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
It’s fair to say that attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, just as it is for “The A-Team” and “Dallas”. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want”. That’s an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user-friendly”.
I believe I’m not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. There are counterarguments to the idea that TV degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. The difference is that the accoutrements are integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
The danger is not that religion has become the content of TV shows, but that TV shows may become the content of religion.
Reach out and elect someone (politics on TV)
In “The Last Hurrah”, a character claims that politics is the greatest spectator sport in America. In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor: “Politics is just like show business”. If it was the former, there would be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence. If it’s the latter, politics’ main business would be to please the crowd, and its principal instrument would be artifice. The idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. [How new is this?]
This chapter’s purpose is to show how advertising has devastated political discourse. But first, its effects on commerce itself: it has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. Capitalism, as originally conceived, is based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, eg. children cannot make contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.
The TV commercial is not at all about the products to be consumed, but about the potential consumers of products. About their fears, fancies, and dreams. This would come as a great surprise to Adam Smith. The TV commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways: (1) by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns (see examples on p. 129), and (2) because the TV commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americas would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of TV commercials (see examples on p. 130). Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our orientation to political discourse.
Some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life. The point is that TV does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, TV makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” being more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the TV commercial on political discourse. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.
History can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. A book is all history, everything about it takes one back in time, and it promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In 1980, Nobel Prize winner Czelaw Milosz remarked in his acceptance speech that our age is characterised by a “refusal to remember” and he cited, the “shattering” [this is the word used in the book! I wonder what Mr. Postman would have thought of modern social media –Esteban] fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Slowly, we are being rendered unfit to remember.
In the Age of TV, our information environment is completely different from that it was in 1783; we have less to fear from government restraints than from TV glut; in fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America; therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains from where they once were. Eg. the banning of books from school libraries is now largely irrelevant, and distracting; but TV clearly does impair the student’s freedom to read.
Those who run TV do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture of Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously [Social media? YouTube?] But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual [What about documentaries and such?].
Tyrants have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship.
Teaching as an amusement activity
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street” [Evidence?] It does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational; it is, in promoting what might be called a TV style of learning. And this style is hostile to book-learning or school-learning. As a TV show, it doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV.
It is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant. John Dewey observed that the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes… may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history… For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future”. And one is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the US is not happening in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the TV, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and teachers but of network executives and entertainers. I don’t mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or even that those who control TV want this responsibility.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. You will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment.
We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which TV offers:
- Thou shalt have to prerequisites: each program must be a complete package in itself, no previous knowledge is to be required. This is why you will never see a TV program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. In doing away with the idea of continuity in education, TV undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
- Thou shalt induce no perplexity: perplexity is the superhighway to low ratings. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
- Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt: arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn TV into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, TV-teaching always takes the form of storytelling. Nothing will be taught on TV that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. See references to relevant studies on p. 151. One of the conclusions from several studies is that “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”. [I wonder if that would also hold for modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube]
What is of greatest significance about “The Voyage of Mimi” (a multimedia educational project, see p. 149) is that the content selected was obviously chosen because it is eminently televisible. Why are these students studying the behaviour of humpback whales? I would suggest that the project was conceived by someone’s asking the question “What is TV good for?” not “What is education good for?” The students will learn from that project that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to.
The Huxleyan warning
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. Those who speak of this invite the charge that they are wimps or public nuisances. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
What is happening in American is not the design of an articulated ideology, but it’s an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, discussion or opposition. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology, but to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple [This book was published in 1985].
Now, about remedies for the affliction: not everyone believes a cure is needed, and there probably isn’t any. In spite of this, two solutions are offered: (1) we must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position, for Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus. To suggest this is to suggest nothing at all. Almost equally unrealistic is to expect nontrivial modifications in the availability of media. That said, one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on TV (eg. banning political commercials in the same way cigarette and liquor commercials are banned), even if I’m not very optimistic about anyone taking the suggestion seriously. Improving the quality of TV programs is not good, either: TV serves us most when presenting junk-entertainment, and it’s precisely when trying to cover more serious topics that it’s a menace.
One of the problems is that we haven’t learned what TV is. What is information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? These questions are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their TV. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to TV (eg. a central thesis of computer technology, namely that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data, will go unexamined).
Only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over TV, or the computer, or any other medium. And how is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind:
- The first is nonsensical: to create TV programs whose intent would be to show how TV recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. It’s nonsensical because TV would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, the programs would have to be vastly amusing.
- The second is desperate: to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem, namely our schools. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to, because schools haven’t even gotten around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of TV on their students. Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. We are in a race between education and disaster, and we need to understand the politics and epistemology of our media.
Nov 3, 2019
This is the second part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. See the first part on this blog. The third and last part will be my full, mostly unedited notes.
EDIT: Added link to the last post.
In TV news are presented not only fragmented, but without context, consequences, or value. In short, without essential seriousness: as pure entertainment.
The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter. Political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
No matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim of TV news as serious public discourse. Imagine seeing that in a book!
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. One is drawn into the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [Does this help explain 4chan and fake news? –Esteban]
TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation (in the CIA/KGB sense): misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial–which creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
Contradictions, ie. mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly be both true in the same context, have ceased to exist because the context has disappeared or fragmented, and thus there cannot be any contradiction. The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
Two main ideas: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented as entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.
There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.
Attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, and they do so by offering people something they want. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need.
When religion is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment, and that distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.
Politics are also taken over by TV, and so the main idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. That is, advertising. In contrast, some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life.
Advertising has spoiled capitalism (there is no possible rational decision-making with modern advertising), and also politics, which have adopted advertising’s way of working: short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. In fact, TV makes it impossible to know which politician is better (= more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, etc.) than whom. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.
As a TV show, “Sesame Street” doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV. Whether or not it teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant because the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: collateral learning of attitudes is often more important than the spelling or geography lesson, for these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. No one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment. And education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment (see references to relevant studies on p. 151: “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”). [How would this compare to modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube? –Esteban]
This part of the summary explores the specific ways in which TV’s way of thinking has taken over politics, news, education, and religion. Remember to check the first part of the summary for the most important ideas in the book, and check the third and last part of the summary if you want the full notes. Or, you know, read the book, because it’s great!
Nov 2, 2019
This is the first part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.
This first part will cover the eight most important ideas in the book. The second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. The third and last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. That last part is going to be long!
EDIT: Added links to the other posts.
How a society conducts conversations has a strong influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture. Eg. “the news of the day”, ie. disconnected events happening far away, did not (and could not) exist in a world that lacked the media to advertise them quickly and efficiently. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.
As TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines. However, this book is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology (in this book’s context, epistemology is “the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come”; see excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22), not aesthetics. That is, there is no objection to “junk” on TV, and that’s in fact its good part.
Telegraphy gave a new meaning to public discourse by making relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.
The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. This makes us “unable” to remember history, which has many negative implications.
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. It was to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning: not understanding implications, background, or connections, but instead knowing of lots of things. Excellent example on p. 75. [Compare to social media –Esteban]
We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.
Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. [This book was published in 1985! –Esteban]
This is a very interesting book, although some sections are a little bit abstract. However, in general it is fairly easy to read, and everything is explained quite well.
If you have any interest in ways of thinking, especially at a society level, or politics, or media, this book is highly recommended.
Sep 14, 2019
Recently a friend mentioned that there’s an official RPG guide for some TV show. He was asking for suggestions for an alternative system to play in that world because he didn’t like the suggested system (Cypher). Mostly jokingly, I “strongly” suggested he created a custom GM-less story game for it.
Although I wasn’t really serious, that made me think about why that was genuinely my first reaction. It also made me think about what exactly I like about my idea of “story games”, and what I dislike about more traditional systems like Cypher. This post is a way to try to order my ideas, and give my friend a better response than Twitter could ever deliver.
First of all, you have to take into account that I care about the story part of role-playing games, and not very much at all about the game part. Second, I don’t really have a stable group, and I strongly prefer one-shots to any sort of campaign: I’m usually more interested in a focused story than in following what happens to a cast of characters over time.
System does matter
Ron Edwards, of (among others) Sorcerer fame, said that “System Does Matter”. Although Ron Edwards doesn’t get into that, the fact that the rules aren’t neutral implies that they make a difference in how the game feels, the kind of things you tend to do, the parts you tend to focus on, and which kinds of stories you tend to tell with it. For example: no matter how traditional it is, Call of Cthulhu would feel very different to play if it didn’t have a sanity rating. Fewer characters would run away from the monsters, and the stereotype of the game would be “fighting Lovecraftian monsters” instead of “going insane or dying”.
At a higher level, one could say that traditional systems that focus on skills and the minutae of simulating every small action encourage stories about challenges (eg. D&D, Call of Cthulhu, OSR games), whereas systems that think in terms of drama and scenes encourage stories following whichever flavour or genre the system is designed for (eg. Dread generates horror stories with mounting tension; Night Witches generates stories about constant stress, death, and the grind of war). And yes, I realise there are many games that are somewhere in between or have elements of both!
“But you can tell stories with any game!”
That is correct! However, if the system doesn’t help you at all, and in fact encourages you and your players to focus on other things, why use it to tell stories? Also, one could argue that if the rules don’t support the drama/storytelling, then that’s not a very good medium to tell stories. And note that I’m specifically not arguing that it makes it a bad game, just that it’s not very helpful for the storytelling part of it. For a (much) longer discussion about this point, read the excellent D&D: Chasing the Dragon (but make sure you read the whole thing, as the ending puts some things in context; I found myself agreeing with a lot more after reading the last part).
Another thing I like about many narrative games is that they don’t need a “scenario” decided beforehand to play: in many of these games, you generate the story collaboratively, as you play. So in many cases the system doesn’t only help you keep the drama in focus, but even generate the story itself!
“But I don’t need help telling a story”
It could very well be, but you’re doing more work than you could be doing if you had a system that supported the style of story you want to tell. Also, I have the impression that lots of people who think that, tend to tell stories about some kind of “adventure” a group of people have… and there are so many other exciting stories to tell!
“But they’re limited!”
This is a critique I have read several times: that narrative games, because they are focused in one genre/mood, are “limited” because you cannot tell any kind of story with a given game. I don’t understand why that would be a bad thing: if you care about the story, usually a narrative game for that specific mood or genre will work better than doing the narrative heavy-lifting yourself. So why wouldn’t you use a narrative game adapted to the kind of mood you want to play? It feels to me like complaining that you cannot tell an action story with the principles of horror films. Of course you can’t! The point is to use whichever principles work for the genre and mood you want for your story, instead of you trying to find some principles that work for every genre, or you doing all the heavy lifting. Besides, indie narrative games are usually very simple and easy to learn right before playing, so they don’t really need nearly as much investment as most traditional games.
The idea of using a single system for any story you want to tell seems a bit ridiculous to me. But if you insist, you can have something very close to that by playing PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games, ie. games based on the excellent Apocalypse World. It’s still a game for every mood or genre you want to play, but the games have very similar principles and mechanics, so they’re trivial to pick up if you know other PbtA games.
May 31, 2019
This is the third and final part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This third part will explore chapters “The emotional plot” and “The reader’s emotional journey”. I skipped the last chapter, “The writer’s emotional journey”, because I didn’t have a lot of notes about it. You can find the first part and the second part on this blog.
The emotional plot
It’s common to motivate characters with public stakes (“if I don’t do X, Y will happen”). Those are fine, but personal stakes (from inner need and yearning) are more powerful. The rest of the chapter details methods for building emotional plots.
Tips on p. 90 (in short: find something warm and human your character cares about, and open the story with that feeling. Now find something curious, puzzling, or weird, and highlight it, but without giving away too much about it).
Why readers really fall in love with protagonists
Longing and inner yearning are more powerful than need.
The emotional midpoint
The midpoint is when the protagonist is utterly alone with themselves, defined only by hope or dread. It’s a second when the story is suspended, unable to go backward and about to plunge forward into the unknown: the character being face-to-face with fear, failure, a dilemma, or death; a moment of truth when a secret is revealed, the protagonist is shamed, or their actions are shown to have terrible consequences. Whatever its purpose, it’s important to mark it and make space for the reader to experience it. Tips on p. 99 (in short: write about how the protagonist viewed themselves before this point, and what about that view is no longer true; think about what your protagonist can see that couldn’t before, what can no longer be seen in the distance behind, what is coming, and what is never again to be).
Failure and defeat
In crisis, the past is erased and the future is a void. It’s the end of identity. Tips on p. 104 (in short: think about what makes the failure excruciating, and work backwards setting it up so it hurts more: who is counting on the protagonists, who is let down, etc).
Catalyst and catharsis
Tips on p. 108 (in short: what frustrates your protagonist? Find three new ways to increase the need and one way to punish your protagonist for having that need. Also think about in which ways can they act out, and what they can destroy in a fit of rage over this. Now, what can they do or say that they couldn’t before? Show it).
Scenes in which nothing happens
Tips on p. 111 (in short: identify your protagonist’s greatest inner need, that would be there regardless of the plot, and write a short paragraph or sentence explaining it; then, pick a scene in the middle of your story, and rewrite it using the short paragraph as a start; when you’re done, delete the first paragraph: is the inner need and the feeling still evident?)
Emotional goals in scenes
Tips on p. 115 (in short: look at the scene you’re writing right now. Who is the POV character? Identify the scene goal [what the character has to do, get, seek, or avoid], and then shift focus to the emotional goal: what in this scene is pulling the character closer of farther from the emotional goal? How does this character attempt to reach the emotional goal in spite of what’s happening? Write a passage that shows all this).
Emotional breakthroughs: getting real
Getting real is what happens when the scene’s subtext bursts through. Sudden shift in tone, unexpected openness, show of force, begging for compassion, etc. This shows that we’re in the middle of a struggle that has nothing to do with the plot. Tips on p. 118. In short: try to be a NYC cop, Mother Teresa, Oscar Wilde, or the Oracle of Delphi for one of your characters. Does the result help you pierce through the fog and the artifice? If so, use it.
Plotting the non-plot-driven novel
There’s nothing wrong with writing about the human condition with stuck characters, but these are hard to write as they can easily become passive. The recommended approach is to play off your reader’s feeling of impatience, expressed through unspoken questions like “why can’t the protagonist just get what he wants? why can’t she simply talk it out? why can’t he just walk away or quit? why can’t she simply change?” Tips on p. 123 (in short: work with the four questions).
In these kind of stories it’s important that the reader doesn’t feel lost, and can keep a mental map of where the story is. Tips on p. 127.
The true ending
The job is not finished at “Happily Ever After”: everyone else in the protagonist’s world has to be ok, too. The highest human good is not gaining happiness, but giving back.
The reader’s emotional journey
Tears, rage, and terror are big, but notice that when they occur thy are preceded by something. They come about when conditions are right. They also carry with them attendant feelings. Big emotional experiences are engineered by circumstances.
- Forgiveness: The act of forgiveness is a fundamental change that occurs, most important, in the one who must forgive.
- Sacrifice: It can be big or small: what makes the sacrifice moving is not its size but how much it is needed.
- Betrayal: It isn’t the act of betrayal that’s so bad, but who does it, and how.
- Moral dilemma: They work best when the stakes are both high and personal.
- Death: Sadness in itself is not a feeling that we want, but sorrow is. The former is a door closed; the latter is a door open to something good that we don’t want to give up. To make death poignant, make life beautiful.
Extra tips on p. 144.
They are more than flags, eagles, roses, rings, or rain. You can make symbols out of anything. Tips on p. 150.
Story worlds we don’t want to leave
The buildup of tension and its release is one of the big ways that a big story becomes big. Even better is when the tension comes from something good that we hope will happen, rather than from fear that something bad will happen. Thus the first task when creating a world is to create hope. The stronger the hope, and the more we fear is won’t be fulfilled, the greater will be the emotional release when things turn out ok.
Making the world a better place for others may inspire admiration, but what grabs us is a hope that for something that we want for ourselves. World peace vs. getting a smile from the beauty that serves at the coffee shop.
Hostile environments don’t make us want to stay. That goes for a story’s moral values as well. In that place, goodness reigns… or will reign again, once the protagonist wins.
Tips on p. 154 (in short: think about how your protagonist feels about the world, about where they find comfort or goodness or refuge [if it’s a hostile place], and what warms your protagonist inside. Find a way for the readers to feel that pleasure, comfort, security, or delight right away).
Change is the goal of every character and the true ending of every story. We want to know that despite the difficulty we can all change. Tips on p. 163 (in short: start from the new self, and work backwards: how’s the old self, what sparks the need for change, add some mentor and devil, find when must change happen, and find the most dramatic way for your protagonist to become their new self).
Seasons of the self
We go through transitions, and the self-awareness of who I was and who I am becoming now is very significant, maybe more so than what the characters do. Tips on p. 167 (in short: figure out the periods of the characters’s life, and which events started the transitions; figure out which phase the character is leaving behind at the beginning of the story, and what phase they’re heading towards; somewhere in the middle, change is being forced on the character: what makes the protagonist aware, what is good about changing, and why does your protagonist want to stay the same?)
Protagonists and other characters always change one another. Tips on p. 171 (in short: look at your current scene and figure out who wins and who loses in an interaction; then, figure out how your POV character is changed by that interaction; make a chart with characters and how they influence each other’s view of self, the other, the problems in the plot, people in general, etc).
Feelings without names
Unique feelings are situation-specific. They flare and then perish quickly, but leave a trace. The smaller and more specific the imagery, the more universal and expansive the unspoken feelings of the POV character. Small visual details turn into big invisible feelings.
I thought the book was quite interesting, and it made me think of, or realise, many things about fiction and writing. I had mixed feelings about the insistence on happy endings and good characters when I read it, but I guess there’s something to it.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed the summary!
May 30, 2019
This is the second part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This second part will explore chapters “The emotional craft of fiction”, “Inner vs. Outer”, “The emotional world”, and “Emotions, meaning, and arc”. You can find the first part on this blog.
The emotional craft of fiction
How can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own? Readers may believe they’re living a story along with its characters. Actually, they are having their own experience that is occasioned by what’s on the page. This experience can be elicited by a number of story elements (plot, setting, theme, mood, dialogue… and what characters feel).
Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way the readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook or outrage. They formulate their own.
Emotional impact is not an extra: it’s a fundamental to a novel’s purpose and structure as its plot.
Inner vs. outer
There are three primary paths to producing an emotional response in readers: inner mode (telling of emotions), outer mode (showing of emotions), and other mode (making readers feel something the characters do not feel; it’s an emotional dialogue between the author and the reader). All three are valid, but they can all fail to work.
- Outer mode: tips on p. 16 (in short: write feelings for a character in a scene, including obvious and non-obvious ones, then imagine how the character could act out, exploring different possibilities, then delete the feelings and leave the reactions).
- Inner mode: writing what the character feels should be a shortcut to make the reader feel that way, but it’s actually the opposite. You have to play with unexpected feelings, thinking about the layers of feelings for a given situation. Example on p. 21 using analogy, alternatives, moral judgment, and justification. Tips on p. 22 (in short: think about what a character feels in a given scene. Then wonder what else they feel, then a third layer. Go through the four steps of the example, then write about the third feeling).
- Other mode: readers want to feel something about themselves. They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge. That they have been through something. That they have connected to your characters and their fictional experience, or think that they have. That is much more than just walking them through the plot.
The emotional world
The emotional life of the characters should be the focus, not a sideshow. Methods to make us feel as we read:
- Me-centered narration: Make characters talk about themselves. We open our hearts to those that do it first. That said, when characters say things about themselves, they say the opposite of what is actually true (tips on p. 34). It’s a good idea to describe the world not by explaining how it sounds, tastes, or smells, but by explaining how the characters experience the world.
- Emotional scale: Big emotions can be stirred in readers, but not directly or by force. It requires laying a foundation on top of which readers will place their own feelings. Small details and reminders that evoke situations preloaded with feelings. Tips on p. 38. Making characters struggle with their feelings force readers to wonder if they would feel like that, too. Tips on p. 41.
- Stirring higher emotions: Moral elevation: reading about good characters make us better people. Tips on p. 49.
- Moral stakes: Apart from the personal stakes for the characters, the moral stakes are very important, too. We want to read about good characters (when anti-heroes work, it’s a trick: they’re actually good), and we should establish that early in the story. That said, moral struggles that pervade the story makes readers get invested in it. Tips on g. 56 (in short: prepare a big change for a character, including three “anticipation” events to prepare for the last event in which the character finally changes).
Emotions, meaning, and arc
What shapes us and gives our life meaning is not what happens to us, but their significance.
Dry information can have a big emotional effect not because of what it means, but because of the personal significance for one of the characters. Tips on g. 67.
You might think your telling your characters’ stories, but in fact you’re telling us ours. Think of the universal significance of what happens.
Connecting the inner vs. outer journeys
Connect the plot and the emotional journey of a character by making the events in the plot (a) matter to them personally and (b) make them change. Also, make something outward happen when there’s an internal change.
Tension vs. energy
Pondering/reflecting/feeling vs. acting. Good stories make characters swing between those two modes. Tips on p. 79, 81.
May 29, 2019
This is the first part of my summary of the book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction”, by Donald Maass. It’s a book about writing fiction, as you can imagine. This first part is very short, and will simply distill what I think are the main ideas in the book. Later parts will explore the book more in detail, chapter by chapter.
Edit: See the second part of the summary on this blog.
What I can see as the main ideas of the book are:
- Showing and telling are both fine, but they have to be used well.
- Personal stakes (longing and inner yearning) are more powerful than public stakes (external need, “bad things will happen unless they do this”). Characters changing is the most important part of a story.
- Readers don’t feel the feelings they read. Instead, what they read makes them respond and feel their own feelings. You’re not telling your characters’ stories, you’re telling us ours.
- Uplifting endings and the assumption of goodness (the world is a good place, or will be by the end of the story) work better than the alternatives.
These are ideas that I found surprising, inspiring, and/or that are repeating throughout the book and seem important for the lessons to be learned. They might not completely make sense without the context of the book, though. Stay tuned for the more detailed, chapter-by-chapter summary!
Apr 23, 2019
This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book, the second part, which discusses the first five chapters, and the third part, which discusses the next three.
This is the fourth post of the summary, and the third discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover the last two chapters: Architecture and Institutions.
Catholicism makes a half touching, half alarming point about the importance of architecture: we are very sensitive to what is around us, so we need to have good architecture in order to grow into, and remain, good people. Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus argued that beauty alludes to, and can remind us about, virtues like love, trust, intelligence, kindness, and justice. Far from being merely unfortunate, ugliness is recategorised as a subset of evil.
In the absence of gods, we still retain ethical beliefs which are in need of being solidified and celebrated, using temples. These wouldn’t have to look all similar (as religious building do), but they could be left up to their individual architects and patrons. Some ideas for secular temples:
- Temple to Perspective: similar to a science museum, possibly with items of palaeontological and geological interest in the walls, and astronomical instruments in the ceilings and roof. However, it wouldn’t pretend to try to give a scientific education. The science would be roughly handled and presented in the interests of stirring awe rather than in the name of promoting knowledge: science for its therapeutic perspective-giving capacity, rather than its factual value.
- Temple to Reflection: in the modern age, our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. This temple would be a simple space, a bench or two, and a vista.
- Temple for the Genius Loci: the Imperial Roman religion not only provided for the worship of cosmopolitan gods like Juno and Mars, but also local deities whose personalities reflected the characters of their native regions. These gods (genii locorum) were given temples of their own and developed reputations and sometimes drew travelers from afar. Like so much else that seems sensible about Roman religion, the tradition was absorbed by Christianity (in the form of saints). Travelling is at the heart of many secular ideas of fulfilment, and there are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness, retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us. Travelling could be existential healing, and not merely entertainment or relaxation.
While the secular world uses mostly books to promote ideas, religion employs institutions. Institutions have a much wider-ranging influence than books (Plato argues this then talking about the limits of lone intellectuals in his Republic). Many secular intellectuals suspect institutions for their tolerance to mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual is a free spirit, disdainful of money, cut off from practical affairs. However, institutions aggregate money, intelligence, and status. They also coalesce the efforts of its members through a shared visual vocabulary. Brands promote consistency, and their enemy is local variation.
A regrettable feature of the modern world is that while some of our most trivial requirements are met by superlatively managed brands, our essential needs are left in the disorganised and unpredictable care of lone actors. And because we’re embodied creatures (sensory as well as rational), we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels: what we read and see, but also what we wear, eat, sing, and decorate our houses with.
Religions bring scale, consistency, and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments. Romanticism falsely thinks that it’s better to leave those moment unregulated, for fear of hampering our authenticity. On the contrary, we need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be to distracted and undisciplined to make time for.
Auguste Comte’s (failed) attempt at making a “secular religion”. He presented his Religion of Humanity in two books: Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion and Theory of the Future of Man. He thought that capitalism had aggravated people’s competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them for their communities, traditions, and their sympathies with nature. “Know yourself to improve yourself”.
One of the problems is that, while we’re well disposed to embrace new technology, we like to stick with what we know in social practices like education, relationships, leisure time, ceremonies, and manners. However, many of these solutions have existed for a long time, they have just been ignored by secular minds repelled by religious doctrines.
Many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure in which they were conceived. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
And that’s it! Phew, that was a lot of text. I hope you enjoyed it.
Apr 23, 2019
This is the third part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book, and the second part, which discusses the first five chapters.
This is the third post of the summary, and the second discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover three chapters: Pessimism, Perspective, and Art.
Edit: see the fourth and last post of the summary on this blog.
Christianity emphasises the darker side of earthly existence. Parallel to Blaise Pascal, his exceptionally merciless pessimism, and his Pensées. We should face the desperate facts of our situation head on: “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched”. It may come as a surprise that reading Pascal is not at all a depressing experience. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet. If his pessimism can console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope: it’s hope that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. Hence the relief when we come across something that confirms that our very worst insights are not unique to us, but an inevitable reality of humankind.
The secular age maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on the messianic faith in the three drivers of change: science, technology, and commerce. Material improvements have been so remarkable that it’s hard to remain pessimistic, and thus hard to stay sane and content. We have many material improvements, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than before. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising happiness.
Christianity is not in and of itself an unhopeful institution, it merely has the good sense to locate its expectations firmly in the next life. The secular are at this moment much more optimistic than the religious (something of an irony, because the latter are derided by the former for their apparent naivety). The seculars’ longing for perfection is so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. In the same breath it dismisses a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind.
A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists have a greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well. Accepting that existence is inherently frustrating can give us the impetus to say “Thank you” a little more often.
One of the most consoling texts of the Old Testament should be the Book of Job, which has the theme of why bad things happen to good people. It’s not for us to know why events occur in the way they do, and we shouldn’t always interpret pain as punishment. Our problems aren’t the biggest, nor the most important.
Godless societies are at risk of making human beings centres of the stage, because it invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history. Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives. Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.
Secular art exposes us to objects of genuine importance, but they seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls. We are too often looking at the right pictures through the wrong frames. Being an art “expert” is associated with knowing a great deal: where a work was made, who paid for it, where its artists’ parents came from and what his or her artistic influences may have been. A statuette like “Virgin and Child” was made for people to kneel and draw strength from Mary’s compassion and serenity. Now, in Louvre, we have to understand it. Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: a medium to remind us about what matters, to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane.
We need art because we’re so forgetful. Many of our ideas gets flattened and overlooked in everyday life, their truth rubbed off through casual use. We know intellectually that we should be forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have property remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and its sanity.
Another reason art is needed is that the unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, when they’re in reality very similar to us.
Suffering is important in Christianity, and it knows that pain is aggravated by a sense that we are alone in experiencing it. Jesus and Mary represent many of the sufferings people can experience. Maybe we should have contemporary artists depict a Seven Sorrows of Parenthood, a Twelve Sorrows of Adolescence or a Twenty-one Sorrows of Divorce.
In the secular world, we depend on artists to both impress our senses with their technique, and be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Maybe that’s too much to ask.
Maybe museums should not order galleries into movements or time, but the concerns of our souls. As they are know, they don’t achieve any real coherence at the emotional level. Museums should be more than just places for displaying beautiful objects: they should use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise.
Apr 23, 2019
This is the second part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book.
This is the second post of the summary, and the first discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover five chapters: Wisdom without doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, and Tenderness.
Wisdom without doctrine
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling. We can recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and haven’t been solved by any secular society: the need to live together in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.
It’s hard to build community and we are used to mingling with mostly people who are like us. We, as a society, are focused on success and status. We develop a desire to be famous and powerful when being “like everyone else” seems a distressing fate, when the norm is mediocre and depressing. If there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it’s because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly and representing aspects of humanity and of ourselves which we are tempted to deny. But when we acknowledge them it brings us closer to our need for one another. Two ideas to steal:
- The Agape restaurant (too long to summarise here, see p. 43-50), inspired by early Masses, in which people shared a meal.
- Yom Kippur: Jews must review what they have done the previous year, and apologise for their bad actions, however small. Many things that would be too small to bring up again, but that hurt social relationships (things that we cannot quite forget, but that we cannot quite mention, either), would be mentioned and apologised for on this day.
Our obsession with “freedom” makes us hold to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves in which we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about kindness. We are not. Our lack of freedom is not the problem in most cases, it’s having enough wisdom to know how to exploit our freedom.
The myth of the original sin reminds us of how weak and broken we are, as opposed to the approach of the Enlightenment, which tells us that we are naturally good. The latter is depressing as a frame, because our flaws are evident and make us think that the problem is in ourselves. The former is healthier, because it is more understanding when we inevitably fail, and encourages us to do our best regardless.
Idea to steal: Saints are a great idea to remind us of qualities we should nurture in ourselves, inspiring us to get better. Calendars constantly remind us of them, assigning a date to many. We should have secular “saints” who personify good sides of people we need reminders for.
What we’re taught
Few things secular society believes in as fervently as education. We have an intense faith in it, and there are grand claims implying that colleges are more than mere factories, and that they may turn us into better, wiser and happier people. However, the courses offered only prepare us for successful careers in mercantile, technological societies.
How we’re taught
Again, Christianity sees us as flawed and lost, and their purpose in education is to change our lives. Current universities are on the side of Enlightenment, assuming we’re good, and just focusing on cramming new knowledge in our heads.
We have a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance actually to do it, whether through weakness or absent-mindedness (what Greeks called Akrasia). There’s much value in reminding us of things “we already know”, as opposed to filling in for lack of knowledge. To do that, we have to focus on excerpts, repetition, and simplification. See John Wesley references on p. 120.
Secular life is not free of calendars, but mostly they’re used for work. We feel, however, that it would be a violation of spontaneity to be presented with rotas for rereading Walt Whitman or Marcus Aurelius. We’re addicted to news and novelty, and we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of quieter truths which we know about in theory but forget to live by in practice. We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante: the problem is the manner of absorption rather than the extent of our consumption.
Religions have been radical in taking lesson out of the classroom, encouraging their followers to learn with their senses, through activities (eg. Zen Buddhism’s tea ceremony). We should train our minds as rigorously as our bodies, and we should train our minds through our bodies. Religious retreats, and comparison with hotels and spas from p. 145, ego and meditation notes from p. 155.
Ultimately, the point of education is to save us time and spare us errors. Obvious and inoffensive in science, why so controversial for wisdom? No existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living. Religion has lots of ideas about this, and frequently those ideas were around before the birth of Jesus. Why not steal those back?
From a rational perspective, devotion to Mary seems infantile. But it’s the wrong framing: the cult of Mary (or Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, Venus in Rome, Guan Yin in China; this is not shared cultural origin, this is universal human need!) speaks to the extent to which the needs of our childhood endure within us. Even if most of the time we can be mature, sometimes we’re hit by helplessness.
Atheism is impatient with neediness, and has attacked religion for being nothing more than a glorified response to childhood longings. This is probably correct, but we need it: many of those needs are not exclusively childish, they’re human. In Christianity, only the proud would deny their weakness.
Idea to steal: it would be useful if secular artists occasionally created works which took parental care as their central theme. They could be put in temples to tenderness.