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American Without Tears
"Here, There, and Everywhere": The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture Edited by Reinhold Wagnleitner and Elaine Tyler May University Press of New England 400 pp $24.95
In November 1991, the German film director Wim Wenders warned the people of Berlin that "we are all still foreigners and are trying to settle an unfamiliar land called Germany." Oddly enough, he was referring not to the internal troubles of his newly reunified nation but to the menace of "American images that more and more exclusively nourish the imaginations of the peoples of this world." Two years later, a similar fear of American cultural imperialism inspired the efforts of French president Jacques Chirac to shelter his country's film industry from competition. "A society that abandons to others its means of representation," declared Chirac, "is an enslaved society."
It's undeniable that parts of Europe, if not the world, are saturated with American mass culture: If Michael Jackson isn't the most famous person in the world, Madonna probably is, and even the worst Hollywood sequels crowd the video shops of Peshawar. But that hardly means that the complaints of Wenders, Chirac, and countless European intellectuals are justified. Such laments tend to presume that America's cultural exports lead ineluctably to the colonization of foreign minds and, conversely, that the protection of markets by quotas, tariffs, and subsidies nurtures native talents. Challenging these assumptions is the aim of "Here, There, and Everywhere": The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture, a collection of essays edited by Reinhold Wagnleitner and Elaine Tyler May.
"Who was in charge of all of this, anyway?" Wagnleitner and May ask, regarding American cultural exports, in their introduction. "Was it Wall Street, Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, the CIA, or Hollywood? ... Or was it simply 'the people,' nationalities be damned?" Most of the twenty-one contributors to "Here, There, and Everywhere" maintain that American culture abroad neither ushers in a nightmare of alienation nor serves as the fifth column that various U.S. government agencies wanted to establish in Europe as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The reason, Wagnleitner and May contend, is that American mass culture changes meaning when it crosses national borders. In the argot of cultural studies, it becomes an ingredient in a "cultural mélange created by creolization or hybridization." Woody Allen's Alvy Singer may be a whiny jerk in Manhattan, but he comes off as a veritable philosophe on the Champs-Elysées.
"Here, There, and Everywhere" is a fitting vehicle for the editors' efforts to put the very idea of Americanization to rest (even if the title is taken from the Beatles, courtesy of the UK). The volume began as a seminar held at the Schloss Leopoldskron, a castle perched on a mountain near Salzburg, Austria. Most Americans know the Schloss as the setting for the film version of The Sound of Music. But since 1947, the Schloss has also been the home of the Salzburg Seminar, founded by three Harvard students as a forum where European intellectuals could gather to discuss American culture. "From the very beginning, European students had invited their American colleagues to organize an exchange forum," Oliver Schmidt explains in his essay on the Salzburg Seminar's early years. "Letters, applications, and evaluation reports indicate over and over young Europeans' dual interest in, and suspicion of, the emerging formula of the ŽAmerican way of life.'"
Much of "Here, There, and Everywhere" dwells on the vexed reactions to American culture during the Cold War era. Thomas Fuchs, for instance, argues that a profound hatred for American rock 'n' roll was perhaps the only thing that West German capitalists shared with East German communists. Elsewhere, American mass culture was embraced so fully that it was no longer treated as an import, let alone a threat. Michael May's profile of Oleg Lundstrem, an octogenarian Russian jazz musician, opens with Lundstrem scolding May for mischaracterizing his passion. "Jazz belongs to the whole world," Lundstrem insists. "You know--at one time the waltz was Viennese music, but now it is international. It is the same way with jazz. Once it is international--you can do nothing to stop it." Indeed, at the end of the piece, after hinting at the variety of bleats and blasts seeping out of basement bars in contemporary Moscow, the American leaves no doubt that Lundstrem has won him over. May confesses he is amazed that jazz, treated by Soviet-era Stalinists as the epitome of capitalist decadence, has become "an oasis of Russian virtues--intensity, dedication, and soul--in a country drowning in American commercialism."
May's piece is by far the collection's sunniest, but most of the contributors are comfortable with the idea that Europeans can admire American popular culture without necessarily absorbing America's dreaded free-market politics. Some essays, however, do raise difficult questions. Nosa Owens-Ibie's "Programmed for Domination" portrays the fierce economic and cultural pressure that American broadcasters have exerted on the Nigerian television industry. When the Nigerian government sought to launch a state-controlled public broadcasting system more than forty years ago, the country lacked both its own hardware and its own programming. Consequently it ended up securing them from NBC, but only after agreeing to allot nearly half of the government station's airtime to the American network.
The commercialization of Nigerian public broadcasting over the last decade has hardly stemmed the tide of imports; CNN and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network have become standard programming fare, further consolidating the place of American television in Nigeria. One doesn't need to believe in the inviolability of traditional cultures to wonder if this is quite what the champions of hybridization have been hoping for.
John Palattella is associate editor of University Business and the editor of LF's Breakthrough Books column.