Amusing Our Culture to Death: A Postman Prophecy Fulfilled?

Feast of Sts Cosmas & Damian, the Holy Unmercenaries

amusing-ourselves-to-death_Square_1.jpegBACK IN 1985, Neil Postman published a great book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. It has proved to be quite prophetic, increasingly so these days. If you haven’t read it yet, it really is a must read. It’s long been a staple at Eighth Day Books, where you can still purchase a copy. Here’s a short quote to give you a taste:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

I couldn’t come up with any better description of our age today. Our nation is truly at risk and “culture-death” clearly is a possibility, if not already a reality.

This same quote by Postman is used as an epigraph in another important book by Morris Berman titled The Twilight of American Culture, published in 2000, fifteen years after Postman’s book (also available at Eighth Day Books, where I first encountered it). The title alludes to Oswald Spengler’s famous book The Decline of the West (1918-22) in which Spengler argues that every civilization has a twilight phase that eventually hardens into a classical period which preserves the form of its original key idea but loses its content or central driving spirit. That’s where we are. Political scientist Benjamin Barer calls it “McWorld,” defined as “commercial corporate consumerism for its own sake.” Berman further elaborates on McWorld:

Check out any TV ad for Nike or Pepsi and you’ll see that McWorld has tremendous vitality; it appears energetic and upbeat. The problem is that since this vitality celebrates nothing substantive beyond buying and owning things, it itself is the cultural decline . . . The concept of a vitality that is actually the touchstone of cultural collapse is probably a strange notion to contemplate, but when one examines the American situation more closely, it begins to seem rather obvious.

Berman goes on to describe this decline as “pseudorenewal” and he points to Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise as a masterpiece portrayal of our busy and purposeless commercial culture. We are all familiar—more likely far too familiar—with white noise: television and radio waves, iPads and iTunes, smart phones and tablets, emails and text messages, video games and virtual reality, Facebook and Twitter, billboards and pop-up ads, and on and on the list goes. All of this white noise, Berman concludes, pulses with life but is in reality a harbinger of death, a “toxic event” in DeLillo’s words.

Berman has a solution. And in light of Rod Dreher’s proposed Benedict Option, I find Berman’s proposal fascinating: the “monastic option.” But Berman states explicitly that he’s not talking about asceticism or religious practice. His “monastic option” is focused strictly on renunciation. Here’s how he explains it:

Today’s ‘monk’ is determined to resist the spin and hype of the global corporate world order; he or she knows the difference between reality and theme parks, integrity and commercial promotion. He regards Starbucks as a sad plastic replica of the gritty (or bohemian) café of bygone days. She has no truck with the trendy “wisdom” of the New Age, and instead seeks guidance about the human condition from Flaubert or Virginia Woolf, rather than from the latest guru tossed up by the media or the counterculture. Computers and the Internet are, for such a person, useful tools, not a way of life, and she understands that both Republican and Democratic parties represent corporate interests, rather than genuine democracy. She has no problem being labeled an elitist, because she agrees with Garrison Keillor that “what’s really snooty is to put out commercial garbage for an audience that you yourself feel superior to.” The new monk is a sacred/secular humanist, dedicated not to slogans or the fashionable patois of postmodernism, but to Enlightenment values that lie at the heart of our civilization: the disinterested pursuit of truth, the cultivation of art, the commitment to critical thinking, inter alia. Above all, he knows the difference between quality and kitsch, and he seeks to preserve the former in the teeth of a culture that is drowning in the latter. If she is a high school teacher, she has her class reading the Odyssey, despite the fact that half the teachers in the school have assigned Danielle Steel. If he is a writer, he writes for posterity, not for the best-seller lists. As a mother, she takes her kids camping or to art museums, not to Pocahontas. He elects, in short, to save his life via the monastic option.

I couldn’t agree more. But there has to be more to the solution.

There is in fact more to the solution. I hope you can find part of it in our work at Eighth Day Institute. It’s why we exist. We think Neil Postman’s prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes: we are in fact amusing our culture to death. That’s why our work of renewing culture through faith and learning is so important. It’s why we seek to promote the revival of a common culture based on historic Nicene Christianity through teaching, dialogues, feasts, and publishing, so that the Church may be one and the world may believe.

But our work is only one small part of that larger solution. You can find much more of it in Rod Dreher’s most recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. This is yet another must read book. It has caused quite a stir and, from what I can tell, the ruckus is mostly instigated by people who haven’t actually read the book. I have read the book and I hope you will too. It too is available at Eighth Day Books. So please get your own copy, read it—seriously, READ IT FROM COVER TO COVER before you judge it!—and stay tuned to the Director’s Desk in the coming weeks for my reflections on it.

Renewing Culture through Faith and Learning in Christ,

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Director Doom


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Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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