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Invasion of the Culture Snatchers?

Winfried Fluck

The specter of Americanization haunts the world. Its consequences are demonized everywhere, sometimes going as far as to draw on the metaphor of a (need I say American) science-fiction movie entitled Invasion of the Body Snatchers, within which hostile aliens imperceptibly take control of our bodies and our minds. But hyperbolic rhetoric about invasions misses the complexity of the cultural change taking place all around us.

Neither side in the debate about Americanization offers a convincing explanation for the phenomenon. Those who argue that Americanization is a virulent form of cultural imperialism apparently see it as a product of growing market domination by American media concerns. However, many giant cultural corporationsJapanese-owned Sony, Canadian-owned Seagram, Murdochs empire or Germanys Bertelsmannare no longer American, even though they promote American cultural models.
Even if the media were American-owned, it is too facile to say that consumers of culture the world over are mere clay in the hands of skilled marketing experts. It makes more sense to assume that there are some elements of social, psychic, and aesthetic gratification that explain the resonance of American cultural models, and provide for their commercial usefulness.
The other side in the debate over Americanization emphasizes the liberating, anti-authoritarian power of American popular culture. At times, this may be fitting: in 1950s Germany, for example, American youth culture had a strong anti-authoritarian component that helped to undermine authoritarianism and contributed to the process of postwar democratization.
Only rarely, however, does American-inspired popular culture possess this dimension explicitly. More often, its attack on authority takes the form of willful provocations or ever-more uninhibited and graphic depictions of violence. At other times, the refreshingly anti-authoritarian appeal of such programs as The Simpsons is commercially exploited to strengthen global media empires, such as Rupert Murdochs. In other words, anti-authoritarianism is not the whole story either.
We need to look with more nuance at the forward march of American culture instead of demonizing it as a form of crude imperialism or merely celebrating its liberating potential. In particular, American popular culture must be viewed in light of the drawn-out historical process of cultural modernization.
In the past, culture was tied to privilege and wealth. Until the 18th century, books were comparatively expensive; their ownership was limited largely to the propertied classes. Moreover, a certain educational grounding (such as knowledge of Latin or Greek) was necessary to make sense of most cultural objects.
Popular culture is our word for a form of culture that gradually abolished these restrictions. Its earliest manifestation, the novel, aided by new print technologies, created a market that allowed for much wider access to literature. Knowledge of meter or classical poetics was no longer necessary. The novel became the literature of the middle class, and the dime novel, an abbreviated novel for a dime and slimmed down to magazine-size, expanded readership to the lower strata of society, especially to adolescent readers.
The development of an entertainment culture around the turn of the 20th century, including vaudeville theater, amusement parks, a dance craze triggered by the domestication of black plantation dances, and silent movies, further reduced the prerequisites for cultural understanding. The invention of radio and television extended the audience for this new
mass culture even more, and the shift to the priority of pictures and music created a universal language, not limited to a particular community.
For a number of reasons, America was in the forefront of this cultural revolution. Due to its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural composition, especially in the formative years of modern entertainment culture around 1900, American popular culture was faced with the challenge of a market that anticipated the present global market on a smaller scale. This led to the development of broadly comprehensible, non-verbal forms of performance, relying preferably on visual and auditory forms of expression. Before Americanization of other societies could occur, American culture itself had to be Americanized.
What is the meaning and cultural significance of this process of Americanization? The constant reduction of the prerequisites for making sense of culture may confirm the view that consumers of mass culture are passive. Popular music, in particular, is highly effective in insinuating itself into the listener almost imperceptibly; no intellectual processing of its content is required because it makes no claim to inform. Instead, moods are created by subliminal effect.
The characteristic form by which music activates the imagination is by short evocations of out-of-context images, or a diffuse feeling of boundlessness, both of which need not be integrated into any meaningful context. Listeners to popular music need not earn their aesthetic experience through participation. Contrary to prior visual forms of cultural expression, including the movies, there is no longer a need for continuity in the flow of images; contrary to what happens with a novel, no mental translation is required because the sensual effect of music creates associations that are shaped not by narrative but by mood.
The development of popular culture from the novel via the image to the triumph of popular music and the center-less heterogeneity of television, created forms of cultural expression that are singularly useful for the purposes of imaginary self-extension and self-empowerment. The result is an increasing separation of expressive elements from moral, social, even narrative contexts. Here is the triumph of mood over morals. Americanization, indeed, is carried by the promise of heightened imaginary self-realization for individuals who are freed from the bonds of social norms and cultural traditions.
Americanization, thus, cannot be viewed as a tacitly engineered hidden cultural takeover but as a process in which individualization is the driving force. This process is most advanced in the US for a number of reasons. The promise of a particular form of individualization provides the explanation why American popular culture finds so much resonance in other societies where it has taken hold almost without resistance (mostly carried by a young generation trying to escape tradition).

Cultural Americanization is thus part of a modernizing process. Americanization is not a form of cultural imperialism, but the embodiment of modernitys promise of painless self-realization for each individual, in contrast to the demands made by more traditional concepts of emancipation. Globalization, which often appears as the triumph of cultural standardization, in reality undermines standardization. No single national culture is the driving force but, instead, globalization is powered by a restless individualism drawing on a growing store of mass symbols. So: we are not becoming Americanized. We Americanize ourselves.

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Project Syndicate and Institute for Human Sciences, February 2001

Web Address: http://www.project-syndicate.org



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