Neil Postman & Roger Waters

Neil Postman & Roger Waters

“Miraculous you call it babe, You ain’t seen nothing yet. They’ve got Pepsi in the Andes, McDonald’s in Tibet…”

Roger Waters

Even though this is not a new discovery for me, I find there is more to this story than I am able to identify somehow, and so I find myself returning to this again and again. The thing is, in 1985, the well known media researcher Neil Postman wrote the book ”Amusing ourselves to death”.

The book – known probably to most of you – is concerned with how media and television has placed itself in the center of our collective consciousness. One of the main ideas in the book is that media – and especially television – is setting the scene on which all other events happen. One of the problems with media being the pivot point for our understanding of the world, is that at the core of every media service and television broadcast is an element of entertainment. Given that the TV stations need to have their viewers returning, the viewers have to want to be returning, and for the viewers to want to be returning, the programs, even the news programs, have to be – to some extent at least – entertaining. The viewers don’t return to a dull program, that don’t make any sensations. Hence, whatever is put on television inevitably becomes associated with entertainment, no matter how brutal the murder or worrying the news conveyed is. Credibility becomes a question of good editing, not truth. Reality is more a matter of what we think is happening, than factual events.

However, in 1992 Postman’s ideas was translated into music by none less than Roger Waters, all time superhero and former lead singer of Pink Floyd. Waters made the album “Amused to Death” and put Postman’s thoughts into music in a way that – at least by my standards – makes an outstanding album. Of course, we don’t need music to receive information, we get the idea when we read the book, we see the concepts that Postman is trying to show us and we are able to follow the arguments quite precisely. In his book, Postman is conveying his message in a very understandable and accurate way. But here’s the thing: put Waters’ CD on, really listen to the lyrics and feel how it all suddenly just make sense! This is what we’re talking about, this is how media is portraying reality and contextualizing information in a language that we – more or less intuitively – understand. What Waters is doing is visualizing – audiolizing – exactly what happens when one medium is replaced with another: the concepts is remediated, and the message sent are related, but makes sense in a different way. Ironically, to many it is the music that makes the book interesting; when reading the book again we start humming the tunes of Waters. This is Postman’s point exactly: even if it is not television we are talking about, entertainment (music in this case) is providing the message with grounds for meaning making that we return to.

Of course, Postman and Waters is obviously not saying the same thing – Postman is a researcher and Waters is making records, still Postman recognizes Waters’ work in a later book of his, “The End of Education” from 1995:

“There are, as we know, different levels of sensibility. In the case of music, for example, most American students are well tuned to respond with feeling, critical intelligence, and considerable attention to forms of popular music, but are not prepared to feel or even experience the music of Haydn, Bach, or Mozart; that is to say, their hearts are closed, or partially closed, to the canon of Western music. I am not about to launch into a screed against rock, metal, rap, and other forms of teenage music. In fact, readers should know that Roger Waters, once the lead singer of Pink Floyd, was sufficiently inspired by a book of mine to produce a CD called Amused to Death. This fact so elevated my prestige among undergraduates that I am hardly in a position to repudiate him or his kind of music. Nor do I have the inclination for any other reason. Nonetheless, the level of sensibility required to appreciate the music of Roger Waters is both different and lower than what is required to appreciate, let us say, a Chopin étude.”

Even if this is really not about being sensible to music, Waters production makes an impact on some of us unparalleled by the book by Postman. I’m not quite sure what makes the CD so good, the mood in the voice of Waters, the message he is conveying, or the “soundscape” in his music; it all plays together and makes me feel something. I feel «this makes perfect sense», to borrow one of the titles on the CD. At least partly what makes Waters’ album intriguing, is his description of our society and its development, how we are making our lives and society into a varnish without any depth.  Somehow, Waters has managed to mix both sacred and somewhat trivial matters, based it on a truly intriguing foundation and enhanced it with music. Waters contribution makes me see Postman’s message in another light, there is of course a lot of Postman’s argumentation that is missing in Waters edition of the story, but Waters has the privilege to speak between the lines. Where Poster needs to rigorously make stringent arguments in order to make the reader (especially, perhaps, in the academic societies) see the point, Waters are able to simply imply the meaning. If you do it the right way, there is something truly attractive in omitting details, leaving gaps to be interpreted by the reader or the listener. From time to time, research and academic texts need to be “translated” in this way, making the scientific arguments to be “feed back” into the realm of the lived life.

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score no tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.”

References

Postman, Neil (1985): Amusing ourselfs to death 
Postman, Neil (1992): End of education
Waters, Roger (1992): Amused to death