Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

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Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Human and Non-Human Nature

Over the past few days I have been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato si”. This work presents a radical critique of modernity. While I deeply disagree with Francis in some respects, this work should be read by anyone interested in politics, history or philosophy because it challenges some of the most basic presuppositions that many modern people take for granted. I cannot discuss all of “Laudato si”, but in particular, I want to focus on how humans relate to non-human nature. Francis discusses this topic in depth in “Laudato si” and contrasts the Christian relation to non-human nature with that of modernity. It seems to me that both the relation of nature encapsulated within the so-called modern tradition and Francis’ approach are modes of thought are problematic as they fail to fully appreciate the relation of the good of humanity to the good of non-human nature.

The modern tradition that Francis decries sees non-human nature as something that possesses no inherent value. According to this approach, man simply needs to figure out how to use the formless mass that is the Earth to serve his purposes; our relation to non-human nature is like a craftsman working with raw matter with no ethical significance. Francis critiques this perspective on numerous grounds including that it encourage ecological devastation, fails to respect the inherent goodness of nature, and encourages man to see himself as a God like being who only has to figure out he want to use nature, instead of asking how God intended nature to be used. In addition Francis points out that this view of non-human nature cannot help but affect the way we relate to other human beings and encourages us to see other humans too as objects to be exploited. Consequently our relation to non-human nature cannot be completely isolated from our relation to humanity.

Contrastingly, Francis puts forward a view of the way we should relate to non-human nature that sees nature as intrinsically valuable, and a reflection of God’s glory. Furthermore, he notes that it is man’s task to be a steward over the Earth and care for it. This is not only because the Earth is a common home for humanity, but because God has entrusted the care of Earth to mankind not only as a home for humans, but as a creation that needs to be cherished for its intrinsic worth. Man may have dominion over the animals, but he must take care of creation, rather than ruling over without due consideration for its worth. For Francis this requires not only changing law and behaviour, but fundamentally altering our understanding of the way we relate to non-human nature, such that we see it as God’s creation that must be cared for, rather than as something to be simply used for our convenience.

The modern perspective that Francis critiques is quite clearly problematic, and for those of us who are non-Christian, like myself, do not need to reference scripture to notice its shortcomings. At the most basic level all we need to do is recognize that non-human lives can go well or poorly, and these non-human lives matter in some sense. I think this is a plausible belief to hold because when we reflect, even if we believe that it is justifiable to slaughter animals for the resources they can provide, it does not seem justifiable to treat them in whatever way suits our ends at that given moment. For example, if wolf testicles were found to produce an oil that rejuvenated skin and prevented the appearance of aging it still seems horrifying to go around and castrate wolves or start raising wolves in conditions that don’t allow for the activities of the excellence of a wolf display itself, like having them live in small, isolated cages where they are not able to move, play or hunt to access these oils. Consequently, nature puts a claim on us, and I would agree with Francis that we have the responsibility to care for the Earth and other beings, and more specifically, all other things being equal, to try to ensure that we adopt a mode of life, that allows the lives of all beings to go well.

But what does it mean to ensure that the lives of all beings goes well? Is there a natural harmony of interest between the species that occupy the Earth that would allow all species to flourish simultaneously? The first of these questions is quite difficult for me to answer, and I will not get to it here, but to the second question I have to say that the answer tends to be no if we adopt a plausible conception of what makes a life go well. The flourishing of one species and another are not necessarily mutually supporting. The concept of “the ecosystem” sometimes has the hypnotic effect of making us think that there is a natural harmony in the environment such that we imagine nature as if it were the Garden of Eden. But this perspective does not hold up as from a very basic evolutionary perspective the ecosystem has no such harmony over time. If nature is understood in terms of species struggling for their survival, sometimes against other species, who compete with them for food and resources then it seems plausible to think that the flourishing of one species could come at the expense of another. Does this mean that humans should just struggle for their survival at all costs and not care for other beings? No, of course not. We, as beings capable of reflection on nature and value, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and ensure that its intrinsic worth is preserved. But this does not mean that non-human nature poses no threat to us. There is always the possibility that humans could be wiped out, or damaged by another species, whether it is a virus or super intelligent, malevolent Otters. From a historical perspective we have good reason to think that Cro-Magnon overtook Neanderthal man through violence among other means. So, I see little reason to think that non-human nature poses no threat to human flourishing.

Yet Francis does not mention this threat that non-human nature puts to humanity. I think there are two reasons for this. The first likely lies within Francis’ Christian anthropology. If God gave the Earth to humans to care for as Francis thinks, than it seems plausible to think that part of the structure of the universe is that humans will maintain their dominion over non-human nature until the end of time. The other reason however is that Francis’ understanding of goodness is rooted in the Christian notion of love or Agape. For Francis, it seems that the core of living well for a human being is to participate in Agape, God’s love for all creation, by loving and caring for one’s fellow human beings and for creation. According to this understanding human goodness is never at odds with the goodness of other species or nature as a whole, rather Agape unites all of creation and relates it back to God.

Now while Agape is a very powerful notion I have a difficult time seeing it as the fundamental core of goodness. For example, let us consider a person who is kind, courageous, caring and generous. In one set of life circumstances this person is a slave to a wealthy landlord. The wealthy landlord does not physically abuse her, but she lacks the ability to pursue many of her own interests and so while she is always kind, courageous, caring and generous, she is never able to pursue romantic love, or develop her interest in the plastic arts or music. Now, on the other hand imagine this same person lives in a society where she is an equal citizen with access to resources that allow her to pursue romantic love and her artistic interests, and consequently she pursues these activities. From the standpoint of character, in both circumstances this women lives equally excellent lives as in both the woman is kind, courageous, caring and generous. But in another sense the latter life circumstances allow the women to live a better life than the former life circumstances, as in the latter life she not only can develop her ethical character, but also can develop other capabilities such as the expression of romantic love and beauty that seem integral to a good life. This is a point that Aristotle makes in the ethics when he suggests that certain external conditions need to obtain for man to have a life that is good in a fundamental sense such as wealth and health. The slave can exhibit positive character traits, but in not being free certain forms of goodness are closed off to him.

In this sense we might say that there are two forms of goodness that need to be present for the best kind of life: the first is goodness of character, and the other is goodness of circumstance. The former ensures the development of intrinsically worthy qualities of character, while the latter ensures that one lives in a context that allows one to pursue the range of activities necessary for the best kind of life. The modern tradition that Francis critiques focuses exclusively on goodness of circumstance by focusing on transforming raw nature to serve human ends and make human life commodious. Contrastingly, Francis seems to be overly fixated on goodness of charaacter to the degree to which he cannot recognize that non-human nature presents a threat to man. Now Francis does not deny that we should try to develop technology and institutions to support the increase of material prosperity for all, but he seems to think that we can do this without any cost to nature, as nowhere in “Laudato si”, does he ever suggest that human flourishing might come at the expense of the flourishing of God’s creation. But if we return to my earlier point about evolution this seems far from plausible. While we can do our best to care for nature and creation to ensure that it flourishes we sometimes have to face the agonistic choice of the flourishing of our species and the decline of another. Without looking at the specifics of the case it is difficult to say what the right choice is in this case, instead, we need to see that, as humans we bear the responsibility of trying to figure out how to make these painful decisions. In this sense human flourishing and the flourishing of non-human nature can come into conflict and in some cases one good will have to be take priority over another, so I find Francis’ suggestion in “Laudato si” that there is a complete harmony between the good of man, and the good non-human nature implausible.

In response to this someone might say that there is no conflict if we reconceive human flourishing so that it is less focused on material prosperity and more on spiritual health, as the conflict is not between human flourishing per se and the flourishing of other species, but between material prosperity for humans and the flourishing of other species. However, this objection seems misguided as imagine that an insect carries a disease that like Syphilis eventually ends in madness, and we have made no progress in understanding how to cure this disease. It probably makes sense to purge this species of fly from urban areas if possible, as this species not only affects physical health, but spiritual and moral well-being, and so there is a genuine conflict between the good of this fly and the good of humanity.

It is possible that I am misreading Francis, and that we actually agree at the most basic level, but if that is the case than Francis has been too willing to conceal the conflict that exists between humanity and non-human nature, such that he make it seem like there is a natural harmony of interests between the two. One of the most profound difficulties in caring for all beings is that some of these beings may pose a threat to us, and our flourishing. So we need to take note of this difficulty.