Age of American Unreason – 4/5 Stars
This is the 2008 historical analysis of our exhausting times by the journalist and historian Susan Jacoby. I’ve read a previous work of hers, and my review of this one more or less matches this one. Jacoby’s collection of history and historical facts is mostly strong and effective, her analysis more than adequate, but her tendency to both attempt solutions or eradicate causes, as well as her need to cast herself as different or separate from the failures she’s highlighting, put her at odds with her audience. The effect of this tone is like watching Richard Dawkins smirk and sneer his way through a speech to a room full of people already in agreement with him. This might seem like a silly and trite criticism, except that part of Jacoby’s argument is that the creation of echo chambers has partly led us to this current problem.
So the book more or less picks up where Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which a movement in the wider world of televised life. And televised will be a catch-all term for the shift from written to visual culture in the US. The rest of the world is not immune, but the US does have some of its exceptions and particulars to address, not withstanding its cultural influence on the rest of the world. So the book is a catalog of events, movements, concepts, and people within the last 70 years or so, as well as some historical presentation of other times in the history of the US. The basic thesis right now is that the various strains of American anti-intellectualism have become widespread and manifest because of visual culture, and more or less everyone is involved in it.
And again, I don’t really take issue with this. I think it’s pretty obvious to those looking around themselves. The book does serve cold comfort though, as it’s pretty clear through her citation of examples that this is not a strictly partisan issue, and unlike a lot of weak analyses of this historical strain (like in Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland where his devotion to a cute framing device means citing examples that are accurate but trivial, as opposed to finding ways to explore and discuss dominant threads) her analysis is better following where historical fact takes her reading.
The failure of this book is in coming up with a framework for understanding the complexity of the situation. So while she clearly describes the historical roots of the issue, as well as the pervasiveness, the complexity of the issue, the interplay of a near infinite number of cultural forces in a tangled web ala a quantum computer or even a more advanced philosophic framing like Deleuze’s rhizome means that the analysis can pinpoint the issue but not a solution. Here’s the solution: all human need to die for an entire generation to unmake the overlap of cultural forces. Not that this would work, but I do think the problems are too complex to sneeringly suggest more, better education is needed. The refusal to seriously engage with the driving forces of exploitation and capitalism also limit this discussion to one of culture and education, when the forces of wealth and power (quite complex in their own) are also drivers in the issue. The book ends up overshooting its own capacity and so the final chapter is almost impossible to read with a real sense that something meaningful is being addressed.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – 5/5 Stars
This is obviously one of the touchstone texts of Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason, and I know this in part because she makes reference to it, but also because there’s a lot of cross-over in the subject matter and analysis. The strength of this book is that Neil Postman has a clarity of purpose in his research and writing, but he also is approaching the subject in an academic manner, as opposed to a polemic one, even if the implication and argument of the book is that television is a destructive force. But what makes his book useful and effective is that he doesn’t believe that the situation is fixable in the sense of stopping it from happening. Instead, he believes in figuring out a way to define and discuss the problems in ways that activate the same kinds of appeals of television, while also not attempting to compete with it.
So half of the book is spent setting up the issue and providing background. The second half is in tracing the manifestation of the problem. The analysis of television as an entertainment medium is as good as can be, but his further analysis of news, religion, and advertising also ad depth and interest.
Over all, there’s much here that we don’t and didn’t already know, but his sense of the complexity (and therefore enormity) of the issue just makes for a more compelling tackling of it.