Has TV Rotted Our Minds? On Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast/Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Crossover)

Mar­shall McLuhan famous­ly said “The medi­um is the mes­sage,” by which he meant that when we receive infor­ma­tion, its effect on us is deter­mined as much by the form of that infor­ma­tion as by the actu­al con­tent.

Neil Post­man, in his 1985 book Amus­ing Our­selves to Death: Pub­lic Dis­course in the Age of Show Busi­ness, ran with this idea, argu­ing that TV has con­di­tioned us to expect that every­thing must be enter­tain­ing, and that this has had a dis­as­trous effect on news, pol­i­tics, edu­ca­tion, and think­ing in gen­er­al.

In this dis­cus­sion, your Pret­ty Much Pop hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er and Bri­an Hirt join with the rest of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life crew: Seth Paskin, Dylan Casey and Wes Alwan.

The result is much more philo­soph­i­cal con­text than you’d get in a typ­i­cal Pret­ty Much Pop dis­cus­sion. Pla­to, for exam­ple, argued (through the char­ac­ter of Socrates) in the Phae­drus against writ­ing, which he said amounts to off-load­ing thought to this inert thing, when it should be live­ly in our minds and our direct con­ver­sa­tions. Post­man’s book describes the Age of Print as high­ly con­ge­nial toward lengthy, abstract rea­son­ing. High lit­er­a­cy rates, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Amer­i­ca, con­di­tioned peo­ple to expect that this is how infor­ma­tion is to be received, and as such they were, for instance, pre­pared to lis­ten rapt­ly to the Lin­coln-Dou­glas debates in which the speak­ers pro­vid­ed lawyer­ly speech­es that might span mul­ti­ple hours.

Post­man, an edu­ca­tion­al the­o­rist, described tele­vi­sion as not just pro­vid­ing a no-con­text expe­ri­ence whose high lev­el of visu­al and audi­to­ry stim­u­la­tion beats its spec­ta­tors into thought­less pas­siv­i­ty, but that its pop­u­lar­i­ty pos­i­tive­ly infects all the oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels avail­able. Of course there is still in-per­son teach­ing, but tele­vi­sion short­ens atten­tion spans such that teach­ers now feel the need to con­stant­ly enter­tain instead of forc­ing stu­dents to make the effort required to attend care­ful­ly to what they have to teach. Of course there are still books, but they are less read, and the com­pe­ti­tion of tele­vi­sion for our time has changed the pre­sen­ta­tion with­in books so that they must be as imme­di­ate­ly and con­sis­tent­ly appeal­ing as tele­vi­sion.

McLuhan described tele­vi­sion as a “hot” medi­um due to its high lev­el of stim­u­la­tion, where a “cool” one like a text­book requires more active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the recip­i­ent. We dis­cuss how Post­man’s cri­tique fares in the Age of the Inter­net, which inter­est­ing­ly mix­es things up, with more inter­ac­tiv­i­ty (in that sense cool­er) yet even more pos­si­bil­i­ty for sen­so­ry dis­trac­tion (in that per­haps more impor­tant sense hot­ter). To sup­ple­ment Post­man, we also con­sult­ed a wide­ly read arti­cle from The Atlantic writ­ten by Nicholas Carr in 2008 called “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid.”

For more philo­soph­i­cal touch­points, see the post for this dis­cus­sion at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Hear more Pret­ty Much Pop at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes an equal­ly long sec­ond part that you can access by sup­port­ing Pret­ty Much Pop at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by sup­port­ing The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life at partiallyexaminedlife.com/support. Lis­ten to a pre­view of part two.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts.

Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The pro­logue of Friedrich Niet­zsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra (1883) intro­duced his notion of the “last man,” who is no longer cre­ative, no longer explor­ing, no longer risk tak­ing. He took this to be the implic­it aim of efforts to “dis­cov­er hap­pi­ness” by fig­ur­ing out human nature and engi­neer­ing soci­ety to ful­fill human needs. If needs are met, no suf­fer­ing occurs, no effort is need­ed to counter the suf­fer­ing, and we all stag­nate. Is our tech­nol­o­gy-enhanced con­sumer cul­ture well on its way to deliv­er­ing us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast con­sid­ers this pos­si­bil­i­ty, explores Niet­zsche’s pic­ture of ethics, and con­cludes that the poten­tial mis­take by poten­tial social engi­neers lies in under­es­ti­mat­ing the com­plex­i­ty of human needs. As Niet­zsche argued, we’re all idio­syn­crat­ic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exer­cise and enter­tain­ment, but (once these are sat­is­fied, per Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs) self-actu­al­iza­tion, which is an indi­vid­ual pur­suit, and so is impos­si­ble to mass engi­neer. Hav­ing our more basic needs ful­filled with­out life-fill­ing effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us com­pla­cent but actu­al­ly free to enter­tain these “high­er needs,” and so to pur­sue the cre­ative pur­suits that Niet­zsche thought were the pin­na­cle of human achieve­ment.

Niet­zsche’s tar­get is util­i­tar­i­an­ism, which urges indi­vid­u­als and pol­i­cy-mak­ers to max­i­mize hap­pi­ness, and the more this is pur­sued sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, the more that “hap­pi­ness” needs to be reduced to some­thing poten­tial­ly mea­sur­able, like plea­sure, but clear­ly plea­sure does not add up to a mean­ing­ful life. While we may not be able to quan­ti­fy mean­ing­ful­ness and aim pub­lic pol­i­cy in that direc­tion, it should be eas­i­er to iden­ti­fy clear obsta­cles to pur­su­ing mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty, such as ill­ness, pover­ty, drudgery and servi­tude. We should be glad that choos­ing the most eth­i­cal path is not a mat­ter of mere cal­cu­la­tion, because on Niet­zsche’s view, we thrive as “cre­ators of val­ues,” and fig­ur­ing out for our­selves what makes each us tru­ly hap­py (what we find valu­able) is itself a mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forth­com­ing) pro­vide a 4‑man walk­through of Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra, explor­ing the Last Man, the Over­man, Will to Pow­er, the dec­la­ra­tion that “God Is Dead,” and oth­er noto­ri­ous ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre pro­duced plays and nov­els like The Respect­ful Pros­ti­tute (1946), which explored racism in the Amer­i­can South. These works were crit­i­cized as too polem­i­cal to count as good lit­er­a­ture. What might in the present day cul­mi­nate only in a Twit­ter fight led Sartre to pub­lish a whole book defend­ing his prac­tices, called What Is Lit­er­a­ture? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast explains Sartre’s view, out­lin­ing both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seri­ous­ly any­way. In short, Sartre sees the act of writ­ing fic­tion as an eth­i­cal appeal to his read­er’s free­dom. The read­er is chal­lenged to hear the truths the work express­es, to under­stand and take action on them. More direct­ly, the read­er is chal­lenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the read­er’s atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion to “flesh out” the sit­u­a­tions the book describes. The read­er takes an active role in com­plet­ing the work, and this role can be aban­doned freely at any time. If a writer cre­ates an escapist fan­ta­sy, the read­er is invit­ed to escape. If the writer pro­duces a piece of lying pro­pa­gan­da, then the read­er is being invit­ed to col­lab­o­rate in that fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­rupt work.

So if writ­ing is always an eth­i­cal, polit­i­cal act, then Sartre should­n’t be blamed for pro­duc­ing overt­ly polit­i­cal work. In fact, writ­ers who deny that their work is polit­i­cal are dodg­ing their own respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­ing hap­haz­ard­ly with this poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous tool. Their work will pro­duce polit­i­cal effects whether they like it or not.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Lit­er­a­ture) is a two-part treat­ment of the first two chap­ters of this text, weigh­ing Sartre’s words to try to under­stand them and deter­mine whether they ulti­mate­ly make sense. Lis­ten to the full episode below or go sub­scribe to The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Actress Lucy Lawless Performs the Proto-Feminist Comedy “Lysistrata” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Remem­ber Lucy, aka Xena the War­rior Princess, per­haps bet­ter known to younger folks as Ron Swan­son’s (even­tu­al) wife on Parks and Recre­ation? Before her career re-launched via major roles on Spar­ta­cus, Salem, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, she took some time off to study phi­los­o­phy and so got involved with The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast, which is com­ing up on its 10th birth­day and has now been down­loaded more than 25 mil­lion times.

She has now joined the gang for cold-read on-air per­for­mances with dis­cus­sions of Sartre’s No Exit, Sopho­cles’s Antigone, and most recent­ly Aristo­phanes’s still-fun­ny pro­to-fem­i­nist com­e­dy Lysis­tra­ta. For the dis­cus­sion of this last, she was joined by fel­low cast mem­ber Emi­ly Perkins (she played the lit­tle girl on the 1990 TV ver­sion of Stephen King’s “IT”) to hash through whether this sto­ry of stop­ping war through a sex-strike is actu­al­ly fem­i­nist or not, and how it relates to mod­ern pol­i­tics. (For anoth­er take on this, see Spike Lee’s 2015 adap­ta­tion of the sto­ry for the film Chi-Raq.)

And as a present to bring you into the New Year, she pro­vid­ed lead vocals on a new song by PEL host Mark Lin­sen­may­er about the funky ways women can be put on a pedestal, pro­ject­ed upon, unloaded upon, and oth­er­wise not treat­ed as quite human despite the inten­tion to pro­vide affec­tion. Stream it right below. And read the lyrics and get more infor­ma­tion on bandcamp.com.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Actress­es Lucy Law­less & Jaime Mur­ray Per­form Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Pod­cast

Pablo Picasso’s Ten­der Illus­tra­tions For Aristo­phanes’ Lysis­tra­ta (1934)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: A BBC Adap­ta­tion Star­ring Harold Pin­ter (1964)

Michael Sandel on the Partially Examined Life Podcast Talks About the Limits of a Free Market Society


Har­vard pro­fes­sor Michael J. Sandel is one of our most famous liv­ing philoso­phers. His course, Jus­tice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (avail­able via YouTube, iTunes, or Har­vard’s web page) has been enjoyed by more than 14,000 stu­dents over 30 years, and was recent­ly offered as a Mas­sive Open Online Course.

In July, the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast dis­cussed Sandel’s first (and most aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial) book, 1982’s Lib­er­al­ism and the Lim­its of Jus­tice, in which he argued that soci­ety can’t be neu­tral with regard to claims about what the good life amounts to. Mod­ern lib­er­al­ism (by which he means the tra­di­tion com­ing from John Locke focus­ing on rights; this includes both Amer­i­ca’s cur­rent lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives) acknowl­edges that peo­ple want dif­fer­ent things and tries to keep gov­ern­ment in a mere­ly medi­at­ing role, giv­ing peo­ple as much free­dom as pos­si­ble.

So what’s the alter­na­tive? Sandel thinks that pub­lic dis­course should­n’t just be about peo­ple push­ing for what they want, but a dia­logue about what is real­ly good for us. He gives the famous exam­ple of the Nazis march­ing in Skok­ie. A lib­er­al would defend free speech, even if the speech is repel­lent. Sandel thinks that we can acknowl­edge that some speech is actu­al­ly per­ni­cious, that the inter­ests of that com­mu­ni­ty’s Holo­caust sur­vivors are sim­ply more impor­tant than the inter­ests of those who want to spread a mes­sage of hate.

You can lis­ten to the dis­cus­sion of Sandel’s views below or at the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life web­site:

A week lat­er, a fol­low-up episode brought Sandel him­self onto the pod­cast, pri­mar­i­ly to speak about his most recent book, What Mon­ey Can’t Buy: The Moral Lim­its of Mar­kets. A more pop­u­lar work, this book con­sid­ers numer­ous exam­ples of the mar­ket soci­ety gone amok, where every­thing from sex to body parts to adver­tis­ing space on the side of one’s house is poten­tial­ly for sale.

Sandel helped us under­stand the con­nec­tion between this and his ear­li­er work: In remain­ing neu­tral among com­pet­ing con­cep­tions of what’s real­ly good for us, lib­er­al­ism has made an all-too-quick peace with unfet­tered exchange. If two peo­ple want to make a deal, who are the rest of us to step in and stop it? Lib­er­al think­ing does jus­ti­fy pre­vent­ing sup­pos­ed­ly free exchanges on the grounds that they might not actu­al­ly be free, e.g. one side is under undue eco­nom­ic pres­sure, not mature or ful­ly informed, in some way coerced or incom­pe­tent. But Sandel wants to argue that some prac­tices can be mere­ly degrad­ing, even if per­formed will­ing­ly, and that a moral­ly neu­tral soci­ety does­n’t have the con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus to for­mu­late such a claim. Instead, as exem­pli­fied by his course on jus­tice, Sandel thinks that moral issues need to be a part of pub­lic debate. By exten­sion, we can’t pre­tend that eco­nom­ics is a moral­ly neu­tral sci­ence that mere­ly mea­sures human behav­ior. Our empha­sis on eco­nom­ics in pub­lic pol­i­cy crowds out oth­er pos­i­tive goods like cit­i­zen­ship and integri­ty.

For addi­tion­al back­ground, lis­ten to the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life’s ear­li­er dis­cus­sion of John Rawls, the father of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism who is Sandel’s main tar­get in his dis­cus­sion of lib­er­al­ism. You could also watch Sandel’s lec­ture on Rawls from his Jus­tice course.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er runs the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life phi­los­o­phy pod­cast and blog, which has just hit episode 100 with a spe­cial live-in-front-of-an-audi­ence dis­cus­sion of Pla­to’s Sym­po­sium, now avail­able on audio or video. You can access the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast via iTunes or the PEL web site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What’s the Right Thing to Do?: Pop­u­lar Har­vard Course Now Online

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Actress­es Lucy Law­less & Jaime Mur­ray Per­form Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Pod­cast

Actresses Lucy Lawless & Jaime Murray Perform Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Spartacus sartre

Lucy Law­less (Star of Xena the War­rior Princess and notable con­trib­u­tor to such shows as Spar­ti­ca, Bat­tlestar Galac­ti­ca, and Parks & Recre­ation) pre­vi­ous­ly appeared on the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast in Fall 2012. And, in Spring 2013, she sang with me (under my musi­cian moniker Mark Lint) on an orig­i­nal song called “Things We Should Do Before We Die.” Now she’s joined fel­low PEL host Wes Alwan (“The Valet”) and me to cre­ate an audio­play of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit,” where she plays the work­ing class, hos­tile les­bian Inès Ser­ra­no with a pret­ty hilar­i­ous off-the-cuff gener­i­cal­ly Euro­pean accent against my rel­a­tive­ly dead­pan Joseph Garcin.

The third damned soul in our one-room hell was played by a delight­ful­ly shrieky Jaime Mur­ray, friend and Spar­ta­cus co-star of Lucy’s. You like­ly know Jaime for her role as Lila, the psy­chot­ic main guest star in Sea­son 2 of Dex­ter, and right now she appears in the sci-fi shows Defi­ance and Ware­house 13.

The play is about three dead peo­ple stuck in a room togeth­er, any two of which would prob­a­bly reach some equi­lib­ri­um. But, as a three­some, they enter into a tox­ic dynam­ic where none can get what he or she needs out of the oth­ers.

To hear Lucy, Jamie and me per­form “No Exit,” click below or lis­ten at Partiallyexaminedlife.com.


The record­ing was made in sup­port of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode dis­cussing Sartre, cov­er­ing this play as well as his essays “Exis­ten­tial­ism is a Human­ism” (1946), and “Bad Faith,” (which con­sti­tutes part 1, chap­ter 2 of Being & Noth­ing­ness, 1943). These con­vey the essence of Sartre’s exis­ten­tial­ism and give a pic­ture of his view of man’s rad­i­cal free­dom (we’re con­demned to be free!) and what for him serves as some sem­blance of an ethics.

For the Sartre episode, click below or lis­ten at Partiallyexaminedlife.com.


The audio­play is the sec­ond in a series, with the first being the PEL Play­ers’ per­for­mance of Pla­to’s dia­logue, The Gor­gias.

For those with who want more, PEL offers access to an out­takes reel. The pic­ture above fea­tures both actress­es in Spar­ta­cus.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the head hon­cho at The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, the #1 down­loaded phi­los­o­phy pod­cast on the plan­et, which pro­vides amus­ing, in-depth dis­cus­sions of philoso­phers old and new. Mark is also a musi­cian who wrote a song just for this audio­play.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: A BBC Adap­ta­tion Star­ring Harold Pin­ter (1964)

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

The Exis­ten­tial­ism Files: How the FBI Tar­get­ed Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assas­si­na­tion

100 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

The Partially Examined Life: A Philosophy Podcast

A year-and-a-half ago, an old friend found me on Face­book and offered me a writ­ing job and par­tic­i­pa­tion in a pod­cast. I took him up on both.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er and I had been grad­u­ate stu­dents in phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas in Austin, but we both left before get­ting the PhD to try our hands at some­thing more prac­ti­cal. Mark sug­gest­ed we make that expe­ri­ence the theme of an ongo­ing philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion: we loved phi­los­o­phy but pre­ferred it as an avo­ca­tion. There was some­thing about the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of phi­los­o­phy that seemed to go against the spir­it of it. We pre­ferred the “par­tial­ly exam­ined life” to the exam­ined life.

And so we decid­ed to cre­ate a phi­los­o­phy pod­cast with dis­cus­sions that were informed but not over­ly aca­d­e­m­ic, less like a class­room lec­ture and more like a con­ver­sa­tion over drinks after class, and uni­fied by the ques­tion of what makes phi­los­o­phy worth­while. We found anoth­er like­mind­ed for­mer col­league from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, Seth Paskin, and began record­ing and pub­lish­ing our dis­cus­sions as The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life. (Find the pod­cast on iTunes here.)

May 12 was the one year anniver­sary of our first episode. Dur­ing that time we’ve cov­ered top­ics rang­ing from Plato’s con­cep­tion of the exam­ined life to Nietzsche’s immoral­ism, God and faith, to the phi­los­o­phy of mind. Frankly I’m always amazed that there are peo­ple who want to lis­ten to three guys talk about these things, but we seem to have a chem­istry that works. One review—for bet­ter or for worse—pegs Mark as “the Jack Black-like musi­cian,” Seth as the “sad one with calm voice who usu­al­ly guides the rud­der of the con­ver­sa­tion back into the top­ic,” and me as “avun­cu­lar and wry.” We’ve also received a lot of great reviews on iTunes, and a thrilling com­pli­ment from philoso­pher Arthur C. Dan­to, who was gra­cious enough to lis­ten to our dis­cus­sion of two of his essays in The Philo­soph­i­cal Dis­en­fran­chise­ment of Art. We’ve been grat­i­fied to see our lis­ten­er­ship rise, but most impor­tant­ly we’re hap­py that the pod­cast has kept us con­nect­ed to phi­los­o­phy and allowed us to pur­sue it—partially—in a way that seems more com­pat­i­ble with the spir­it of the dis­ci­pline.

This post comes to us via Wes Alwan, an occa­sion­al con­trib­u­tor to Open Cul­ture.

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.