Attention and Distraction in the Realm of Social Issues:
Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?
By Jack Blum, Senior Associate Director of the Writing Program
In addition to being the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, C. Day-Lewis had a certain facility with words and in 1938 he wrote a poem that began with the following stanza:
Enter the dream house, brothers and sisters, leaving
Your debts asleep, your history at the door:
This is the home for heroes, and this loving
Darkness a fur you can afford.
As the title of the poem "Newsreel" makes clear, the "dream house" was a movie theater, where, in the wake of the Great Depression, people often went for entertainment that might, as Day-Lewis' words imply, offer diversion from the economic hardship and political uncertainties of their daily lives. Before or between movies in those days there might have been two feature films newsreels were shown, giving the audience members in that innocent period before television their only opportunity to see motion pictures of events from around the world.
Day-Lewis's poem describes one such newsreel and turns on the contrast between the escapism being sought in the "dream house" and the contemporary scenes depicted in the newsreel. Much of what the newsreel concerns is itself merely frivolous or trivial: "the mayor opening the oyster season," "a society wedding," a display of "autumn hats," an "old crock's race," and "a politician / In fishing-waders to prove that all is well." But all may not be well, as the final stanzas make clear, for the newsreel also conveys images of a very different sort:
look at the warplanes! Screaming hysteric treble
In the low power-dive, like gannets they fall steep.
But what are they to trouble -
These silver shadows - to trouble your watery, womb-deep sleep?
See the big guns, rising, groping, erected
To plant death in your world's soft womb.
Fire-bud, smoke-blossom, iron seed projected -
Are these exotics? They will grow nearer home!
Grow nearer home - and out of the dream-house stumbling
One night into a strangling air and the flung
Rags of children and thunder of stone niagaras tumbling,
You'll know you slept too long.
In 1938 the Spanish Civil War was approaching its dιnouement, so these images probably relate to that conflict, now recognized as a direct precursor to the Second World War, the start of which jarred Britain and the rest of Europe thoroughly awake just one year after Day-Lewis' prophetic poem was published. The seeds of war had indeed bloomed much nearer home.
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How human beings can remain oblivious to events that are about to overtake them how they can, in Day-Lewis' words, "gape incurious / At what [their] active hours have willed" is an important and troubling question, and one that has not lost relevance in the seventy years since Day-Lewis wrote "Newsreel." Today we live in a culture replete with entertaining distractions. Seldom if ever in history has so large a percentage of the population devoted so much of its time to the cause of being diverted: the number of hours once spent each week in movie theaters is dwarfed today by the time spent watching television or plugged-into other immediately accessible technologies whose principal function is not to inform but to entertain: cable TV, cell phone games, computer games, DVD players, DVRs, Game Boys, HDTV, iPods, PlayStations, satellite TV, and TiVo, to mention only a few. Additional diversions have been created by the increasing shift to consumerism (shopping as entertainment), by the expanding role of sports in cultural life (e.g., it is now possible to watch football games four days a week, including all day on Saturdays and Sundays), by the development of a new genre of television "reality TV" whose sole purpose would seem to be to provide a relatively inexpensive means of giving millions of people the opportunity to engage in pseudo-voyeurism, and by a growing culture of celebrity worship which seems to be associated with all these trends.
In some ways, our culture's ability to commit significant portions of time to the goal of being entertained may be thought of as a positive development or (to use a somewhat double-edged phrase) as a "mark of progress." If nothing else, our appetite for diversion would certainly seem to demonstrate that we have achieved an economic status that allows us to indulge in activities that once would have been defined as leisure pursuits. From a rather different perspective, that appetite could also be understood to indicate that, in this era of two-worker households and sixty-hour work weeks, we have a great need to relieve the stresses of life in a competitive and fast-paced culture and thus cause to be grateful that we access to such an expansive array of distractions and amusements.
And yet there is still the question posed in Day-Lewis's poem: in being diverted by so many sources of entertainment, is our attention also being diverted from issues that may be less entertaining but ultimately more meaningful and important?
That is quite plainly the issue
argued in the affirmative by Neil Postman in his 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse
in the Age of Show Business.
Postman's view at the time was that "
As a fervent
evangelist of the age of
Postman's concern that we may be "amusing ourselves to death" arises not simply out his recognition of the seductive appeal of electronic media but, even more importantly, out of his belief that these media have radically altered the nature of every form of public discourse, from advertising to education to journalism to politics to religion. Postman motivates this argument on epistemological grounds those having to do with how we know and learn arising out of the shift from language-based media (books, newspapers, radio) into image-based media beginning with television and running through all the screen-centered electronic communications that have followed in its wake. Different forms of media have different epistemological tendencies they shape our knowledge in different ways. Image-based media are excellent at showing us the physical characteristics of objects; in doing so they are not confined to any sort of structural or grammatical order but can jump easily from one image to the next in almost any sequence; and they are inherently interesting: our eyes are naturally drawn to movement, and television and other image-based media can cut from one image to the next with frequencies ranging from the merely rapid (a few seconds per image) to the subliminal so fast we can't consciously register the image. By comparison, language-based media are less "realistic," much slower, and, especially in their printed forms, far less flexible.
Postman nonetheless believes that the transformation of public discourse occasioned by the advent of electronic media has reduced our culture's ability to provide attention to a range of critically important social issues. The very qualities that make image-based media fast, flexible, entrancing, and "real" undermine their value in addressing substantive issues. Images do not provide an effective means to address the abstract dimensions that are necessarily part of significant social and political problems; as Postman notes, "Thinking does not play well on television. . . There is not much to see in it" (90). Similarly, images tend toward the personal and emotional, rather than the conceptual and logical: "Television's strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads" (123). Image-based media are not propositional images can neither offer truth claims nor be confirmed or refuted and for this reason Postman argues that language-based media are much more appropriate to the conduct of public discourse: "Language . . . is the medium we use to challenge, dispute and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface. The words 'true' and 'false' come from the universe of language and no other" (73). Perhaps most importantly for Postman, image-based media tend to privilege entertainment and excitement over substance and significance. "The problem," he notes, "is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether":
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why, even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to "join them tomorrow." What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as materials for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters' invitation because we know that the "news" is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not education, reflection, or catharsis. (87)
But are there real consequences to living in a society which perhaps spends a disproportionate amount of its time being distracted by various forms of amusement and entertainment? How can the relative balance of distraction and attention actually matter? Robert Bellah, a sociologist specializing in questions of ethics and religion, has suggested that attention should be understood not simply as "conscious awareness" but as a value in itself, a commitment to the "cultivation of human possibilities and purposes." In The Good Society, Bellah and several of his colleagues maintain that "attention and distraction are not merely descriptive but normative terms" and that the quality of a society may be assessed according to which of these terms is granted priority:
Attending means to concern ourselves with the larger meaning of things in the longer run, rather than with short-terms pay-offs. The pursuit of immediate pleasure, or the promise of immediate pleasure, is the essence of distraction. A good society is one in which attention takes precedence over distraction.
(273; emphasis added)
Bellah points out that "attending and caring or caring for are closely related," and he goes on to assert that "One way of defining democracy would be to call it a political system in which people actively attend to what is significant" (273). On this view, attention has to do not so much with the passive accumulation of knowledge but with an active involvement in the life around us, including the social issues that serve to constitute much of our cultural life. If, for whatever reason, we allow ourselves to be distracted from such involvement, then there is perhaps a real possibility that we may, as a society, wake up one day to find we've slept too long.
 C. Day Lewis was a journalist, editor, writer of mystery novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), professor of literature, and, from 1968 until his death in 1972, Poet Laureate of Great Britain.
 The following website provides a complete text of the poem, together with a video clip in which the poem is spoken over a simulated newsreel, based on contemporary footage from the film library of the Pathe newsreel company, of the events being described in the poem. Go to:
Bellah, Robert N. et al.
The Good Society.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.