the Culture Snatchers?
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 corporations—Japanese-owned Sony, Canadian-owned Seagram,
Murdoch’s empire or Germany’s Bertelsmann—are 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 1950’s 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 Murdoch’s. 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
“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
Cultural Americanization is
thus part of a modernizing process. Americanization is not a form of cultural
imperialism, but the embodiment of modernity’s 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.
© Project Syndicate and Institute for Human Sciences, February 2001
Web Address: http://www.project-syndicate.org
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