Perhaps David Bianculli’s new book should have been entitled Defending the Indefensible. Instead, the veteran television critic for the New York Post has chosen Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously as his title, and made the virtual vindication of the medium his proposition. We won’t appreciate the artistry of television or understand American culture, Bianculli argues, until we begin to take television programming seriously.
Bianculli has a two-pronged defense. First, he goes to bat for television by reframing the idea of “cultural literacy,” described a few years ago by E.C. Hirsch in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Hirsch condemned American education for not transmitting the significant artifacts and ideas of our culture, but Bianculli asserts that such a concern misses the point. “If you want to talk about knowledge that is shared by everyone,” he says, “the area to focus on is television. Television is our most common language, our most popular pastime, our basic point of reference.” Hence, the term “teleliteracy.” Where most social critics would find this situation lamentable, Bianculli finds much to endorse and even celebrate about American television.
Second, Bianculli scolds intellectuals and academics who vilify popular culture and, in what has become a time-honored tradition, ridicule television. “From Plato to Postman,” Bianculli writes, referring to fellow media commentator Neil Postman, “it’s been open season on the most popular mass media and it’s about time someone fired back.”
The omnipresent storytellerOrder now
Bianculli takes a first shot with a “media manifesto” through which he seeks to prove that, contrary to the opinions of many of his peers, television is too important to turn off. In short chapters positing arguments ranging from the sociological (television is not the cause of violence in America) to the theoretical (some television can be considered literature), Bianculli avows that television deserves serious study. He doesn’t tell us how to cultivate teleliteracy, however; he only tells us it’s okay to watch television.
Although he writes with an appealingly breezy style, Bianculli’s whimsical treatment of the weighty topics introduced in this book undermines his thesis an irony, since he opens the book with a compelling case for seriousness. Teleliteracy does demonstrate that television dramas, sit-coms and news shows need to be the subject of an authentic, humanistic discourse. As a society shaped by the media, we need to discuss the habits of thought as well as the values and myths this omnipresent storyteller helps to create and circulate.
Neil Postman, chairman of the Culture and Communications Department at New York University, explores a related, inimically modern condition in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Postman considers what many may only intuit: that instruments of technology have become sovereign in our lives and social institutions. In almost every facet of American life, what we cheerfully call “technological advances” have altered human discourse, redefined work and play and displaced tradition and manners. Postman traces the origins of this phenomenon, and questions perhaps the most powerful myth of Western culture: that a new technology always equals progress.
Conceding that technology has been a very good friend delivering the goods, making our lives cleaner, easier and longer, ushering in an age of unbounded information Postman cautions that our awe of its many accomplishments has blinded us to the consequences of its gifts. According to Postman, we have given technology carte blanche in our culture. “Technopoly,” as he describes it, is the condition where humans have little or no control over their tools. To give technology unlimited freedom and allow it privileges to be unguarded by human reason, Postman warns, is to deny and perhaps take away our judgment.
This condition can clearly be seen in what Postman calls “the information glut.” Modern technology has enabled information to multiply faster than we can process, comprehend or manage it. Many believe that the more information we have the better off we are, but Postman suggests that we need to combat this situation through an ecological view of the technologies that in fact bring us the information.
Selling cars and Amy Fisher
What do we need to know about television? Not how many cars it can sell or how many stories about Amy Fisher it can tell, Postman contends. “We need,” he writes, “to know if television (or any technology) changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself.” What we need to know, in other words, is not how efficient a technology is, but what values it favors or discourages.
We are living in a time when our social problems are so acute that we look for a deus ex machina to solve them, and for many technology has replaced religion or art. As Postman explains, those who are in love with technology constantly develop new methods for putting forth its agenda. “It is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not,” he reasons. That forces another question: Are we up to this challenge?