I. What “ism” is anti-Americanism?
What kind of “ism” is anti-Americanism? Like any “ism” it refers to a set of attitudes that help people to structure their world view and to guide their actions. It also implies a measure of exaggeration, a feverish over-concentration on one particular object of attention and action. Yet what is the object in the case of anti-Americanism? The word suggests two different readings. It could refer to anti-American feelings taken to the heights of an “ism,” representing a general rejection of things American. It can also be seen as a set of feelings against (anti) something called Americanism. In the latter case, we need to explore the nature of the Americanism that people oppose. As we shall see the word has historically been used in more than one sense. Yet whatever its precise meaning, Americanism—as an “ism” in its own right—has always been a matter of the concise and exaggerated reading of some characteristic features of an imagined America, as a country and a culture crucially different from places elsewhere in the world. In that sense Americanism can usefully be compared to nationalism.
In much the same way that nationalism implies the construction of the nation, usually one’s own, in a typically inspirational vein, causing people to rally around the flag and other such emblems of national unity, Americanism helped an anguished American nation to define itself in the face of the millions of immigrants who aspired to citizenship status. Particularly at the time following World War I it became known as the “one hundred percent Americanism” movement, confronting immigrants with a demanding list of criteria for inclusion. Americanism in that form represented the American equivalent of the more general concept of nationalism. It was carried by those Americans who saw themselves as the guardians of the integrity and purity of the American nation. There is, however, another historical relationship of Americanism to nationalism. This time it is not Americans who are the agents of definition, but others in their respective national settings. Time and time again other peoples’ nationalism not only cast their own nation in a particular inspirational light, it also used America as a counterpoint, a yardstick that other nations might either hope to emulate or should reject.
Foreigners as much as Americans themselves, therefore, have produced readings of America, condensed into the ideological contours of an “ism.” Of course, this is likely to happen only in those cases where America has become a presence in other peoples’ lives, as a political force, as an economic power, or through its cultural radiance. The years following World War I were one such watershed. Through America’s intervention in the war and the role it played in ordering the post-war world, through the physical presence of its military forces in Europe, and through the burst of its mass culture onto the European scene, Europeans were forced in their collective self-reflection to try and make sense of America, and to come to terms with its impact on their lives. Many forms of Americanism were then conceived by Europeans, sometimes admiringly, sometimes in a more rejectionist mood, often in a tenuous combination of the two. The following exploration will look at some such moments in European history, high points in the American presence in Europe, and at the complex response of Europeans.
Americanism and anti-Americanism
“Why I reject ‘America.'” Such was the provocative title of a piece, published in 1928 by a young Dutch author who was to become a leading intellectual light in the Netherlands during the 1930s. The title is not a question, but an answer, assessing his position to an America in quotation marks, a construct of the mind, a composite image based on the perception of current dismal trends which the author then links to America as the country and the culture characteristically—but not uniquely—displaying them. It is not, however, uniquely for outsiders to be struck by such trends and to reject them. Indeed, as Ter Braak himself admits, anyone sharing his particular sensibility and intellectual detachment he is willing to acknowledge as a European, “even if he happens to live on Main Street.” It is an attitude for which he offers us the striking parable of a young newspaper vendor that he saw one day standing on the balcony of one of those pre-World War II Amsterdam streetcars, surrounded by the pandemonium of traffic noise, yet enclosed in a private sphere of silence. Amid the pointless energy and meaningless noise the boy stood immersed in the reading of a musical score, deciphering the secret code which admitted entrance to a world of the mind. This immersion, this loyal devotion to the probing of meaning and sense, to a heritage of signs and significance, are for Ter Braak the ingredients of Europeanism. It constitutes for him the quintessentially European reflex of survival against the onslaught of a world increasingly geared toward the tenets of rationality, utility, mechanization, and instrumentality, yet utterly devoid of meaning and prey to the forces of entropy. The European reaction is one that pays tribute to what is useless, unproductive, defending a quasi-monastic sphere of silence and reflexiveness amidst the whirl of secular motion.
This reflex of survival through self-assertion was of course a current mood in Europe during the interwar years, a Europe in ruins not only materially but spiritually as well. Amid the aimless drift of society’s disorganization and the cacophony of demands accompanying the advent of the masses on to the political agora, Americanism as a concept had come to serve the purpose of focusing the diagnosis of Europe’s plight. The impulse toward reassertion—toward the concentrated retrieval of meaning from the fragmented score of European history—was therefore mainly cultural and conservative, much as it was an act of protest and defiance at the same time. Many are the names of the conservative apologists we tend to associate with this mood. There is Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian, who upon his return from his only visit to the United States at about the time that Ter Braak wrote his apologia, expressed himself thus: “Among us Europeans who were traveling together in America … there rose up repeatedly this pharisaical feeling: we all have something that you lack; we admire your strength but do not envy you. Your instrument of civilization and progress, your big cities and your perfect organization, only made us nostalgic for what is old and quiet, and sometimes your life seems hardly to be worth living, not to speak of your future” – a statement in which we hear resonating the ominous foreboding that “your future” might well read as “our [European] future.” For indeed, what was only implied here would come out more clearly in Huizinga’s more pessimistic writings of the late 1930s and early ’40s, when America became a mere piece of evidence in Huizinga’s case against contemporary history losing form.
Much as the attitude involved is one of a rejection of “America” and Americanism, what should strike a detached observer is the uncanny resemblance with critical positions that Americans had reached independently. Henry Adams of course is the perfect example, a prefiguration of Ter Braak’s “man on the balcony,” transcending the disparate signs of aimlessness, drift and entropy in a desperate search for a “useless” and highly private world of meaning. But of course his urgent quest, his cultural soul-searching, was much more common in America, was much more of a constant in the American psyche than Europeans may have been willing to admit. Cultural exhortation and self-reflection, under genteel or not-so-genteel auspices, were then as they are now a recurring feature of the American cultural scene. During one such episode, briefly centered around the cultural magazine The Seven Arts, James Oppenheim, its editor, pointed out that “for some time we have seen our own shallowness, our complacency, our commercialism, our thin self-indulgent kindliness, our lack of purpose, our fads and advertising and empty politics.” In this brief period, on the eve of America’s intervention in World War I, there was an acute awareness of America’s barren landscape, especially when measured by European standards. Van Wyck Brooks, one of the leading spokesmen of this group of cultural critics, pointed out that “for two generations the most sensitive minds in Europe – Renan, Ruskin, Nietzsche, to name none more recent – have summed up their mistrust of the future in that one word – Americanism.” He went on to say: “And it is because, altogether externalized ourselves, we have typified the universally externalizing influences of modern industrialism.”
Yet, in spite of these similarities, the European cultural critics may seem to argue a different case and to act on different existential cues: theirs is a highly defensive position in the face of a threat which is exteriorized, perceived as coming from outside, much as in fact it was immanent to the drift of European culture. What we see occurring is in fact the retreat toward cultural bastions in the face of an experience of a loss of power and control; it is the psychological equivalent of the defense of a national currency through protectionism. It is, so to speak, a manipulation of the terms of psychological trade. A clear example is Oswald Spengler’s statement in his Jahre der Entscheidung (Years of Decision): “Life in America is exclusively economic in its structure and lacks depth, the more so because it lacks the element of true historical tragedy, of a fate that for centuries has deepened and informed the soul of European peoples….” Huizinga made much the same point in his 1941 essay on the formlessness of history, typified by America. Yet Spengler’s choice of words is more revealing. In his elevation of such cultural staples as “depth” and “soul,” he typifies the perennial response to an experience of inferiority and backwardness of a society compared to its more potent rivals. Such was the reaction, as Norbert Elias has pointed out in his magisterial study of the process of civilization in European history, on the part of an emerging German bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the pervasive radiance of French civilization. Against French civilisation as a mere skin-deep veneer it elevated German Kultur as more deep-felt, warm and authentic. It was a proclamation of emancipation through a declaration of cultural superiority. Americanism, then, is the twentieth-century equivalent of French eighteenth-century civilisation as perceived by those who rose up in defense against it. It serves as the negative mirror image in the quest for a national identity through cultural self-assertion. Americanism in that sense is therefore a component of the wider structure of anti-Americanism, paradoxical as this may sound.
Americanism, un-Americanism, anti-Americanism
Let us dwell briefly on the conceptual intricacies of such related terms as Americanism, un-Americanism, and anti-Americanism. Apparently, as we have seen, Americanism as a concept can stand for a body of cultural characteristics deemed repugnant. Yet the same word, in a different context, can have a highly positive meaning, denoting the central tenets of the American creed, or of “American scripture,” as Michael Ignatieff would have it. Both, however, duly deserve their status of “isms”: both are emotionally charged code words in the defense of an endangered national identity. In the United States, as “one hundred percent Americanism,” it raised a demanding standard before the hordes of aliens aspiring to full membership in the American community while threatening the excommunication of those it defined as un-American. Americanism in its negative guise fulfilled much the same function in Europe, serving as a counterpoint to true Europeanism. In both senses, either positive or negative, the concept is a gate-keeping device, a rhetorical figure, rallying the initiates in rituals of self-affirmation.
Compared to these varieties of Americanism, relatively clear-cut both historically and sociologically, anti-Americanism appears as a strangely ambiguous hybrid. It never appears to imply—as the word suggests—a rejection across the board of America, of its society, its culture, its power. Although Huizinga and Ter Braak may have inveighed against Americanism, against an America in quotation marks, neither can be considered a spokesman of anti-Americanism in a broad sense. Both were much too subtle minds for that, in constant awareness of contrary evidence and redeeming features, much too open and inquiring about the real America, as a historical entity, to give up the mental reserve of the quotation mark. After all, Ter Braak’s closing lines are: “America’ I reject. Now we can turn to the problem of America.” And the Huizinga quotation above, already full of ambivalence, continues thus: “And yet in this case it must be we who are the Pharisees, for theirs is the love and the confidence. Things must be different than we think.”
Now where does that leave us? Both authors were against an Americanism as they negatively constructed it. Yet it does not meaningfully make their position one of anti-Americanism. There was simply too much intellectual puzzlement, and particularly in Huizinga’s case, too much admiration and real affection, too much appreciation of an Americanism that had inspired American history. Anti-Americanism, then, if we choose to retain the term at all, should be seen as a weak and ambivalent complex of anti-feelings. It does not apply but selectively, never extending to a total rejection of both Americanisms. Thus we can have either of two separate outcomes; an anti-Americanism rejecting cultural trends which are seen as typically American, while allowing of admiration for America’s energy, innovation, prowess, and optimism, or an anti-Americanism in reverse, rejecting an American creed that for all its missionary zeal is perceived as imperialist and oppressive, while admiring American culture, from its high-brow to its pop varieties. These opposed directions in the critical thrust of anti-Americanism often go hand in hand with opposed positions on the political spectrum. The cultural anti-Americanism of the inter-war years typically was a conservative position, whereas the political anti-Americanism of the Cold War and the war in Vietnam typically occurred on the left wing. Undoubtedly the drastic change in America’s position on the world stage since World War II has contributed to this double somersault. Since that war America has appeared in a radically different guise, as much more of a potent force in every-day life in Europe than ever before. This leads us to explore one further nexus among the various concepts.
The late 1940s and ’50s may have been a honeymoon in the Atlantic relationship, yet throughout the period there were groups on the left loath to adopt the unfolding Cold-War view of the world; they were the nostalgics of the anti-Nazi war alliance with the Soviet Union, a motley array of fellow travelers, third roaders, Christian pacifists, and others. Their early critical stance toward the United States showed up yet another ambivalent breed of anti-Americanism. In their relative political isolation domestically, they tended to identify with precisely those who in America were being victimized as un-American in the emerging Cold-War hysteria of loyalty programs, House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) inquiries, and McCarthyite persecution. In their anti-Americanism they were the ones to rally to the defense of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, and their many American supporters. Affiliating with dissenters in America, their anti-Americanism combined with the alleged un-Americanism of protest in the United States to form a sort of shadow Atlantic partnership. It is a combination that would again occur in the late sixties when the political anti-Americanism in Europe, occasioned by the Vietnam War, felt in unison with a generation in the United States engaged in anti-war protest and the counter-culture of the time, burning US flags along with their draft cards as so many demonstrations of a domestic anti-Americanism that many among Nixon’s “silent majority” at the time may have deemed un-American. As bumper stickers at the time reminded protesters: America, Love It Or Leave It.
The disaffection from America during the Vietnam War may have appeared to stand for a more lasting value shift on both sides of the Atlantic. The alienation and disaffection of this emerging adversary culture proved much more short-lived in America, however, than it did in Europe. The return to a conservative agenda, cultural and political, in America since the end of the Vietnam War never occurred in any comparable form in countries in Europe. There indeed the disaffection from America has become part of a much more general disaffection from the complexities and contradictions of modern society. The squatters’ movement in countries such as Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands, the ecological (or Green) movement, the pacifist movement (particularly in the 1980s during the Cruise Missile debate), and more recently the anti-globalization movement have all become the safe havens of a dissenting culture, highly apocalyptic in its view of the threat which technological society poses to the survival of mankind. And despite the number and variety of anti-feelings of these adversary groups, America to each and all of them can once again serve as a symbolic focus. Thus, in this recent stage, it appears that anti-Americanism cannot only be too broad a concept, as pointed out before—a configuration of anti-feelings that never extends to all things American—it can also be too narrow, in that the “America” which one now rejected is really a code word—a symbol—for a much wider rejection of contemporary society and culture. The more diffuse and anomic these feelings are, the more readily they seem to find a cause to blame. Whether or not America is involved in an objectionable event—and given its position in the world it often is—there is always a nearby McDonald’s to bear the brunt of anger and protest, and to have its windows smashed. If this is anti-Americanism, it is of a highly inarticulate, if not irrational, kind.
II. Cultural anti-Americanism: Two French cases
“Nous sommes tous américains.” We are all Americans. Such was the rallying cry of the French newspaper Le Monde‘s editor-in-chief, Jean-Marie Colombani, published two days after the terrorist attack against symbols of America’s power. He went on to say: “We are all New Yorkers, as surely as John Kennedy declared himself, in 1962 in Berlin, to be a Berliner.” If that was one historical resonance that Colombani himself called forth for his readers, there is an even older use of this rhetorical call to solidarity that may come to mind. It is Jefferson’s call for unity after America’s first taste of two-party strife. Leading opposition forces to victory in the presidential election of 1800, he assured Americans that “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans,” urging his audience to rise above the differences that many at the time feared might divide the young nation against itself. There would clearly be no need for such a ringing rhetorical call if there were not at the same time an acute sense of difference and division. Similarly in the case of Colombani’s timely expression of solidarity with an ally singled out for vengeful attack, solely because it, more than any of its allies, had come to represent the global challenge posed by a shared Western way of life. An attack against America was therefore an attack against common values held dear by all who live by standards of democracy and the type of open society that it implies. But as in Jefferson’s case, the rhetorical urgency of the call for solidarity suggests a sense of difference and divisions now to be transcended, or at least temporarily to be shunted aside.
As we all know, there is a long history that illustrates France’s long and abiding affinity with America’s daring leap into an age of modernity. It shared America’s fascination with the political modernity of republicanism, of democracy and egalitarianism, with the economic modernity of progress in a capitalist vein, and with an existential modernity that saw Man, with a capital M and in the gender-free sense of the word, as the agent of history, the molder of his social life as well as of his own individual identity and destiny. It was after all a Frenchman, Crèvecoeur, who on the eve of American independence pondered the question of “What, then, is the American, this new Man?” A long line of French observers have, in lasting fascination, commented on this American venture, seeing it as a trajectory akin to their own hopes and dreams for France. Similarly, French immigrants in the United States, in order to legitimize their claims for ethnic specificity, have always emphasized the historical nexus of French and American political ideals, elevating Lafayette alongside George Washington to equal iconic status.
But as we also know, there is an equally long history of French awareness of American culture taking directions that were seen as a threat to French ways of life and views of culture. Whether it was Tocqueville’s more sociological intuition of an egalitarian society breeding cultural homogeneity and conformism, or later French views that sought the explanation in the economic logic of a free and unfettered market, their fear was of an erosion of the French cultural landscape, of French standards of taste and cultural value. As I have argued elsewhere, the French were not alone in harboring such fears, but they have been more consistently adamant in making the case for a defense of their national identity against a threatening process of Americanization. The very word is a French coinage. It was Baudelaire who, on the occasion of the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, spoke of modern man, set on a course of technical materialism, as “tellement américanisé … qu’il a perdu la notion des différences qui caractérisent les phénomènes du monde physique et du monde moral, du naturel et du surnaturel.” The Goncourt brothers’ Journal, from the time of the second exposition in 1867, refers to “L’exposition universelle, le dernier coup à ce qui est l’américanisation de la France.” As these critics saw it, industrial progress ushered in an era where quantity would replace quality and where a mass culture feeding on standardization would erode established taste hierarchies. There are echoes of Tocqueville here, yet the eroding factor is no longer the egalitarian logic of mass democracy but the logic of industrial progress. In both cases, however, whatever the precise link and evaluating angle, America had become the metonym for unfettered modernity, like a Prometheus unbound.
Europeans, French observers included, have always been perplexed by two aspects of the American way with culture—two aspects that to them represented the core of America’s cultural otherness—one its crass commercialism, the other its irreverent attitude of cultural bricolage, recycling the culturally high and low, the vulgar and the sublime, in ways unfamiliar and shocking to European sensibilities. As for the alleged commercialism, what truly strikes Europeans is the blithe symbiosis between two cultural impulses that Europeans take to be incompatible: a democratic impulse and a commercial one. From early on American intellectuals and artists agreed that for American culture to be American it must needs be democratic. It should appeal to the many, not the few. Setting itself up in contradistinction to Europe’s stratified societies and the hierarchies of taste they engendered, America proclaimed democracy for the cultural realm as well. That in itself was enough to make Europeans frown. Could democratic culture ever be anything but vulgar, ever be more than the largest common denominator of the people’s tastes? Undeniably, there were those in Europe who agreed with Americans that cultural production there could not simply follow in the footsteps of Europeans, and who were willing to recognise an American Homer in Walt Whitman, America’s poet of democracy. But even they were aghast at the ease with which the democratic impulse blended into the commercial. What escaped them was that in order to reach a democratic public, the American artist found himself in much the same situation as a merchant going to market. If America was daring in its formation of a mass market for goods that it produced en masse, it was equally daring in its view that cultural production in a democratic vein needed to find its market, its mass audience. In the absence of forms of European cultural sponsorship, it needed to make its audiences, to create its own cultural market, if only with a view to recouping the cost of cultural production. Particularly in the age of mechanical reproduction when the market had to expand along with the growth in cultural supply, American culture became ever more aware of the commercial calculus. And by that same token, it became ever more suspect in the eyes of European critics. Something made for profit, for money, could inherently never be of cultural value. This critical view has a long pedigree and is alive and well today.
The other repertoire of the European critique of American mass culture focuses on its spirit of blithe bricolage, of its anti-canonical approach to questions of high culture versus low culture, or to matters of the organic holism of cultural forms. Again, some Europeans were tempted, if not convinced, by Whitmanesque experiments in recognising and embracing the elevated in the lowly, the vulgar in the sublime, or by his experiments in formlessness. They were willing to see in this America’s quest for a democratic, if not demotic, culture. But in the face of America’s shameless appropriation of the European cultural heritage, taking it apart and re-assembling it in ways that went against European views of the organic wholeness of their hallowed heritage, Europeans begged to differ. To them, the collage or re-assemblage attitude that produced Hearst Castle, Caesar’s Palace, or the architectural jumble of European quotations in some of America’s high-rise buildings seemed proof that Americans could only look at European culture in the light of contemporaneity, as if it were one big mail-order catalog. It was all there at the same time, itemized and numbered, for Americans to pick and choose from. It was all reduced to the same level of usable bits and pieces, to be recycled, re-assembled, and quoted at will. Many European critics have seen in this an anti-historical, anti-metaphysical, or anti-organicist bent of the American mind. When Huizinga was first introduced, in the 1920s, to the Dewey Decimal System used to organize library holdings, he was aghast at the reduction of the idea of a library, an organic body of knowledge, to the tyranny of the decimal system, to numbers. Others, like Charles Dickens or Sigmund Freud, more facetiously, saw American culture as reducing cultural value to exchange value, the value of dollars. Where Europeans tend toward an aesthetics that values closure, rules of organic cohesion, Americans tend to explode such views. If they have a canon, it is one that values open-endedness in the re-combination of individual components. They prefer constituent elements over their composition. Whether in television or American football, European ideas of flow and continuity get cut up and jumbled, in individual time slots as on tv, or in individual plays as in football. Examples abound, and will most likely come to your mind, “even as I speak” (to use American television lingo).
Now, potentially, the result of this bricolage view of cultural production might be endless variety. Yet what Europeans tended to see was only spurious variety, fake diversity, a lack of authenticity. A long chorus of French voices, from George Duhamel and François Mauriac in the interwar years, to Jean-Paul Sartre and more particularly Simone de Beauvoir after World War II, in the 1940s and ’50s, kept this litany resounding. At one point Simone de Beauvoir even borrowed from David Riesman, an American cultural critic, to make a point she considered her own. She referred to the American people as “un peuple de moutons,” conformist, and “extéro-conditionnés,” French for Riesman’s “other-directed.” At other points she could see nothing but a lack of taste, if not slavishness, in American consumerism.
Such French views are far from dated yet. They still inform current critiques of contemporary mass culture. Yet, apparently, the repertoire is so wide-spread and well-known that often no explicit mention of America is needed any more. America has become a subtext. In the following I propose to give two examples, both of them French. One illustrates the dangers of commercialism in the production of culture, the other the baneful effects of America’s characteristic modularizing mode in cultural production, its spirit of bricolage.
Commercialism and culture
In our present age of globalization, with communication systems such as the Internet spanning the globe, national borders have become increasingly porous. They no longer serve as cultural barriers that one can raise at will to fend off cultural intrusions from abroad. It is increasingly hard to erect them as a cultural “Imaginot” line (forgive the pun) in defense of a national cultural identity. Yet old instincts die hard. In a typically preemptive move, France modernized its telephone system in the 1980s, introducing a communication network (the Minitel) that allowed people to browse and shop around. It was a network much like the later World Wide Web. The French system was national, however, and stopped at the border. At the time it was a bold step forward, but it put France at a disadvantage later on, when the global communications revolution got under way. The French were slower than most of their European neighbors to connect to the Internet. And that may have been precisely the point.
At every moment in the recent past when the liberalization of trade and flows of communication was being discussed in international meetings, the French raised the issue of cultural protection. They have repeatedly insisted on exempting cultural goods, such as film and television, from the logic of free trade. They do this because, as they see it, France represents cultural “quality” and therefore may help to maintain diversity in the American-dominated international market for ideas. The subtext for such defensive strategies is not so much the fear of opening France’s borders to the world but rather fear of letting American culture wash across the country. Given America’s dominant role in world markets for popular culture, as well as its quasi-imperial place in the communications web of the Internet, globalization to many French people is a Trojan horse. For many of them, globalization means Americanization.
Not too long ago the French minister of culture published a piece in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, again making the French case for a cultural exemption from free trade rule. A week later one of France’s leading intellectual lights, Pierre Bourdieu, joined the fray in a piece published in the same newspaper. It was the text of an address delivered on October 11, 1999, to the International Council of the Museum of Television and Radio in Paris. He chose to address his audience as “representing the true masters of the world,” those whose control of global communication networks gives them not political or economic power but what Bourdieu called “symbolic power,” that is, power over people’s minds and imaginations gained through cultural artifacts – books, films, and television programs—that they produce and disseminate. This power is increasingly globalized through international market control, mergers and consolidations, and a revolution in communications technology. Bourdieu briefly considered the fashionable claim that the newly emerging structures, aided by the digital revolution, will bring endless cultural diversity, catering to the cultural demands of specific niche markets. Bourdieu refected this out of hand; what he saw was an increasing homogenization and vulgarization of cultural supply driven by a logic that is purely commercial, not cultural. Aiming at profit maximization, market control, and ever larger audiences, the “true masters of the world” gear their products to the largest common denominator that defines their audience. What the world gets is more soap operas, expensive blockbuster movies organized around special effects, and books whose success is measured by sales, not by intrinsic cultural merit.
It is a Manichaean world that Bourdieu conjured up. True culture, as he saw it, is the work of individual artists who view their audience as being posterity, not the throngs at the box office. In the cultural resistance that artists have put up over the centuries against the purely commercial view of their work, they have managed to carve out a social and cultural domain whose organizing logic is at right angles to that of the economic market. As Bourdieu put it: “Reintroducing the sway of the ‘commercial’ in realms that have been set up, step by step, against it means endangering the highest works of mankind.” Quoting Ernest Gombrich, Bourdieu said that when the “ecological prerequisites” for art are destroyed, art and culture will not be long for dying. After voicing a litany of cultural demise in film industries in a number of European countries, he lamented the fate of a cultural radio station about to be liquidated “in the name of modernity,” a victim to Nielsen ratings and the profit motive. “In the name of modernity” indeed. Never in his address did Bourdieu rail against America as the site of such dismal modernity, yet the logic of his argument is reminiscent of many earlier French views of American culture, a culture emanating from a country that never shied from merging the cultural and the commercial (or, for that matter, the cultural and the democratic). Culture, as Bourdieu defended it, is typically high culture. Interestingly, though, unlike many earlier French criticisms of an American culture that reached Europe under commercial auspices, Bourdieu’s defense was not of national cultures, more specifically the French national identity, threatened by globalization. No, he argued, the choice is between “the kitsch products of commercial globalization” and those of an international world of creative artists in literature, visual arts, and cinematography, a world that knows many constantly shifting centers. Yet blood runs thicker than water. Great artists, and Bourdieu listed several writers and filmmakers, “would not exist the way they do without this literary, artistic, and cinematographic international whose seat is [present tense!] situated in Paris. No doubt because there, for strictly historical reasons, the microcosm of producers, critics, and informed audiences, necessary for its survival, has long since taken shape and has managed to survive.” Bourdieu thus managed to have his cake and eat it too, arrogating a place for Paris as the true seat of a modernity in high culture. In his construction of a global cultural dichotomy lurks an established French parti pris. More than that, however, his reading of globalization as Americanization by stealth blinded him to the way in which French intellectuals and artists before him have discovered, adapted, and adopted forms of American commercial culture, such as Hollywood movies.
In his description of the social universe that sustains a cultural international in Paris, Bourdieu mentioned the infrastructure of art-film houses, of a cinémathèque, of eager audiences and informed critics, such as those writing for the Cahiers du cinéma. He seemed oblivious to the fact that in the 1950s precisely this potent ambience for cultural reception led to the French discovery of Hollywood movies as true examples of the “cinéma d’auteur,” of true film art showing the hand of individual makers, now acclaimed masters in the pantheon of film history. Their works are held and regularly shown in Bourdieu’s vaunted cinémathèque and his art-film houses. They were made to work, like much other despised commercial culture coming from America, within frameworks of cultural appropriation and appreciation more typically French, or European, than American. They may have been misread in the process as works of individual “auteurs” more than as products of the Hollywood studio system. That they were the products of a cultural infrastructure totally at variance with the one Bourdieu deemed essential may have escaped French fans at the time. It certainly escaped Bourdieu.
The modularizing mind and the World Wide Web
Among other dreams the Internet has inspired those of a return to a world of total intertextuality, of the reconstitution of the full body of human thinking and writing. It would be the return to the “City of Words,” the labyrinthine library that, like a nostalgic recollection, has haunted the human imagination since the age of the mythical library of Babylon. Tony Tanner used the metaphor of the city of words to describe the central quest inspiring the literary imagination of the 20th century. One author who, for Tanner, epitomizes this quest is Jorge Luis Borges. It is the constructional power of the human mind that moves and amazes Borges. His stories are full of the strangest architecture, including the endless variety of lexical architecture to which man throughout history has devoted his time—philosophical theories, theological disputes, encyclopaedias, religious beliefs, critical interpretations, novels, and books of all kinds. While having a deep feeling for the shaping and abstracting powers of man’s mind, Borges has at the same time a profound sense of how nightmarish the resultant structures might become. In one of his stories, the library of Babel is referred to by the narrator as the “universe” and one can take it as a metaphysical parable of all the difficulties of deciphering man’s encounters in existence. On the other hand Babel remains the most famous example of the madness in man’s rage for architecture, and books are only another form of building. In this library every possible combination of letters and words is to be found, with the result that there are fragments of sense separated by “leagues of insensate cacophony, of verbal farragos and incoherencies.” Most books are “mere labyrinths of letters.” Since everything that language can do and express is somewhere in the library, “the clarification of the basic mysteries of humanity … was also expected.” The “necessary vocabularies and grammars” must be discoverable in the lexical totality. Yet the attempt at discovery and detection is maddening; the story is full of the sadness, sickness and madness of the pathetic figures who roam around the library as around a vast prison.
What do Borges’s fantasies tell us about the Promethean potential of a restored city of words in cyberspace? During an international colloquium in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, held on June 3rd and 4th, 1998, scholars and library presidents discussed the implications of a virtual memory bank on the Internet, connecting the holdings of all great libraries in the world. Some saw it as a dream come true. In his opening remarks Jean-Pierre Angremy referred to the library of Babel as imagined by Borges, while ignoring its nightmarish side: “When it was proclaimed that the library would hold all books, the first reaction was one of extravagant mirth. Everyone felt like mastering an intact and secret treasure.” The perspective, as Angremy saw it, was extravagant indeed. All the world’s knowledge at your command, like an endless scroll across your computer screen. Others, like Jacques Attali, spiritual father of the idea of digitalizing the holdings of the new Bibliothèque Nationale, took a similar positive view. Whatever the form of the library, real or virtual, it would always be “a reservoir of books.” Others weren’t so sure. They foresaw a mutation of our traditional relationship toward the written text, where new manipulations and competences would make our reading habits as antiquated as the reading of papyrus scrolls is to us.
Ironically, as others pointed out, texts as they now appear on our screen are like a throw-back to the reading of scrolls, and may well affect our sense of the single page. In the printed book every page comes in its own context of pages preceding and following it, suggesting a discursive continuity. On the screen, however, the same page would be the interchangeable element of a virtual data bank that one penetrates into by the use of a key word that opens many books at the same time. All information is thus put at the same plan, without the logical hierarchy of an unfolding argument. As Michel Melot, long-time member of the Conseil supérieur des bibliothèques, pointed out, randomness becomes the rule. The coherence of traditional discursive presentation will tend to give way to what is fragmented, incomplete, disparate, if not incoherent. In his view, the patchwork or cut-and-paste approach will become the dominant mode of composition.
These darker views are suggestive of a possible American imprint of the Internet. They are strangely reminiscent of an earlier cultural critique in Europe of the ways in which American culture would affect European civilization. Particularly the contrast seen between the act of reading traditional books and of texts down-loaded from the Net recalls a contrast between Europe and America that constitutes a staple in the work of many European critics of American culture. Europe, in this view, stands for organic cohesion, for logical and stylistic closure, whereas America tends towards fragmentation and recombination, in a mode of blithe cultural bricolage, exploding every prevailing cultural canon in Europe. Furthermore we recognise the traditional European fear of American culture as a leveling force, bringing everything down to the surface level of the total interchangeability of cultural items, oblivious to their intrinsic value and to cultural hierarchies of high versus low.
Yet in the views as exposed at the Paris symposium, we find no reference to America. Is this because America is a sub-text, a code instantly recognised by French intellectuals? Or is it because the logic of the Internet and of digital intertextuality have a cultural impact in their own right, similar to the impact of American culture, but this time unrelated to any American agency? I would go no further at this point than to suggest a Weberian answer. It seems to be undeniably the case that there is a Wahlverwandtschaft—an elective affinity—between the logic of the Internet and the American cast of mind, which makes for an easier, less anguished acceptance and use of the new medium among Americans than among a certain breed of Europeans.
After reviewing these two exhibits of cultural anti-Americanism as a subtext, taking French attitudes as its typical expression, what conclusions can we draw? One is that fears of an American way with culture, due to either its commercial motives or its modularizing instincts, are too narrow, too hide-bound. Discussing Bourdieu’s views, I mentioned counter-examples where compatriots of his, in the 1950s, thoroughly re-evaluated the body of cinematography produced in Hollywood. They moved it up the French hierarchy of taste and discovered individual auteurs where the logic of established French views of commercial culture would have precluded the very possibility of their existence. This is a story that keeps repeating itself. Time and time again French artists and intellectuals, after initial neglect and rejection, have discovered redeeming cultural value in American jazz, in American hard-boiled detective novels, in rap music, in Disney World, and other forms of American mass culture. What they did, and this may have been typically for French or more generally European intellectuals to achieve, was to develop critical lexicons, constructing canonic readings of American cultural genres. It is a form of cultural appropriation, making forms of American culture part of a European critical discourse, measuring it in terms of European taste hierarchies. It is a process of subtle and nuanced appropriation that takes us far beyond any facile, across-the-board rejection of American culture due to its commercial agency.
How about the second ground for rejection, America’s blithe leveling of cultural components to the level of interchangeable bits and pieces? As I argued in my review of the second exhibit, America may have been more daring when it ventures out in this field, yet we can find parallels and affinities with Europe’s cultural traditions. A catalytic disenchantment of the world, as part of a larger secularization of Europe’s Weltanschauung, had been eating away at traditional views of God-ordained order before Americans joined in. Again, facile rejections of what many mistakenly see as Americanization by stealth, when confronted with more radical manifestations of the modularization of the world, miss the point. I suggested the possibility that what the World Wide Web brings us in terms of endless digital dissection and re-assemblage of “texts,” may have more to do with the inherent logic of the digital revolution than with any American agency. A more or less open aversion to this happening should be seen, therefore, as anti-modernity rather than as anti-Americanism. It reveals a resentment against the relentless modernization of our world that has been a continuing voice of protest in the history of Western civilization.
It is a resentment, though, that should make us think twice. Clearly, we are not all Americans. We do not all freely join their Promethean exploration of the frontier of modernity. This is not the same as saying that those who are not “Americans” are therefore the Bin Ladens in our midst. But their resentment is certainly akin to what, in other parts of the world, has turned into blind hatred of everything Western civilization stands for.
III. Anti-Americanism and American power
New York, 9/11, one year later. While I am writing this, the events of a year ago are being remembered in a moving, simple ceremony. The list of names is being read of all those who lost their lives in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. Their names appropriately reflect what the words World Trade Center conjure up; they are names of people from all over the world, from Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, the Pacific, Latin America, Europe, and, of course, North America—people of many cultures and many religions. Again the whole world is watching, and I realize suddenly that something remarkable is happening here. The American mass media record an event staged by Americans. They powerfully re-appropriate a place where a year ago international terrorism was in charge. They literally turn the site into a lieu de mémoire. They are in the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, read again on this occasion, consecrating the place. They imbue it with the sense and meaning of a typically American scripture. It is the language that, for over two centuries, has defined America’s purpose and mission in the ringing words of freedom and democracy.
I borrow the words “American scripture” from Michael Ignatieff. He used them in a piece he wrote for a special issue of Granta. He is one of twenty-four writers from various parts of the world who contributed to a section entitled “What We Think of America.” Ignatieff describes American scripture as “the treasure house of language, at once sacred and profane, to renew the faith of the only country on earth (…) whose citizenship is an act of faith, the only country whose promises to itself continue to command the faith of people like me, who are not its citizens.” Ignatieff is a Canadian. He describes a faith and an affinity with American hopes and dreams that many non-Americans share. Yet, if the point of Granta‘s editors was to explore the question of “Why others hate us, Americans,” Ignatieff’s view is not of much help. In the outside world after 9/11, as Granta‘s editor, Ian Jack, reminds us, there was a wide-spread feeling that “Americans had it coming to them,” that it was “good that Americans now know what it’s like to be vulnerable.” For people who share such views American scripture deconstructs into hypocrisy and willful deceit.
There are many signs in the recent past of people’s views of America shifting in the direction of disenchantment and disillusionment. Sure enough, there were fine moments when President Bush rose to the occasion and used the hallowed words of American scripture to make it clear to the world and his fellow-Americans what terrorism had truly attacked. The terrorists’ aim had been more than symbols of American power and prowess. It had been the very values of freedom and democracy that America sees as its foundation. These were moments when the president literally seemed to rise above himself. But it was never long before he showed a face of America that had already worried many long-time friends and allies during Bush’s first year in office.
Even before September 11th, the Bush administration had signaled its retreat from the internationalism that had consistently inspired US foreign policy since World War II. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, American scripture had also implied the vision of a world order that would forever transcend the lawlessness of international relations. Many of the international organizations that now serve to regulate inter-state relations bear a markedly American imprint, and spring from American ideals and initiatives. President Bush Sr., in spite of his avowed aversion to the “vision thing,” nevertheless deemed it essential to speak of a New World Order when, at the end of the Cold War, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait seemed to signal a relapse into a state of international lawlessness. Bush Jr. takes a narrower, national-interest view of America’s place in the world. In an un-abashed unilateralism he has moved United States foreign policy away from high-minded idealism and the arena of international treaty obligations. He is actively undermining the fledgling International Penal Court in The Hague, rather than taking a leadership role in making it work. He displays a consistent unwillingness to play by rules internationally agreed to and to abide by decisions reached by international bodies that the United States itself has helped set up. He squarely places the United States above or outside the reach of international law, seeing himself as the sole and final arbiter of America’s national interest.
After September 11th this outlook has only hardened. The overriding view of international relations in terms of the war against terrorism has led the United States to ride roughshod over its own Constitutional protection of civil rights as well as over international treaty obligations under the Convention of Geneva in the ways it handles individuals, US citizens among them, suspected of links to terrorist networks. Seeing anti-terrorism as the one way to define who is with America or against it, President Bush takes forms of state terrorism, whether in Russia against the Chechens, or in Israel against the Palestinians, as so many justified anti-terrorist efforts. He gives them his full support and calls Sharon a “man of peace.” If Europeans beg to differ and wish to take a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration and many op-ed voices blame European anti-Semitism.
This latter area is probably the one where the dramatic, if not tragic, drifting apart of America and Europe comes out most starkly. It testifies to a slow separation of the terms of public debate. Thus, to give an example, in England the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said that many of the things Israel did to the Palestinians flew in the face of the values of Judaism. “(They) make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” He had always believed, he said, that Israel “must give back all the land (taken in 1967) for the sake of peace.” Peaceniks in Israel, like Amos Oz, take similar views. And so do many in Europe, Jews and non-Jews alike. Yet it would be hard to hear similar views expressed in the United States. There is a closing of ranks, among American Jews, the religious right, opinion leaders, and Washington political circles, behind the view that everything Israel does to the Palestinians is done in legitimate self-defense against acts of terrorism. Yet, clearly, if America’s overriding foreign-policy concern is the war against terrorism, one element tragically lacking in public policy statements of its Middle-East policy is the attempt to look at themselves through the eyes of Arabs, or more particularly Palestinians. A conflation seems to have occurred between Israel’s national interest and that of the United States. Both countries share a definition of the situation that blinkers them to rival views that are more openly discussed in Europe.
Among the pieces in Granta is one by a Palestinian writer, Raja Shehadeh. He reminds the reader that “today there are more Ramallah people in the US than in Ramallah. Before 1967 that was how most Palestinians related to America—via the good things about the country that they heard from their migrant friends and relations. After 1967, America entered our life in a different way.” The author goes on to say that the Israeli occupation policy of expropriating Arab land to build Jewish settlements and roads to connect them, while deploying soldiers to protect settlers, would never have been possible without “American largesse.” But American assistance, Shehadeh continues, did not stop at the funding of ideologically motivated programs. In a personal vignette, more telling than any newspaper reports, Shehadeh writes: “Last July my cousin was at a wedding reception in a hotel on the southern outskirts of Ramallah when an F16 fighter jet dropped a hundred-pound bomb on a nearby building. Everything had been quiet. There had not been any warning of an imminent air attack. … Something happened to my cousin that evening. … He felt he had died and was surprised afterwards to find he was still alive. … He did not hate America. He studied there. … Yet when I asked him what he thought of the country he indicated that he dismissed it as a lackey of Israel, giving it unlimited assistance and never censoring its use of US weaponry against innocent civilians.” The author concludes with these words: “Most Americans may never know why my cousin turned his back on their country. But in America the parts are larger than the whole. It is still possible that the optimism, energy and opposition of Americans in their diversity may yet turn the tide and make America listen.”
The current Bush administration, with its pre-emptive strategy of taking out opponents before they can harm the US at home or abroad, in much the same way that Israeli fighter jets execute alleged Palestinian terrorists, in their cars, homes, and backyards, without bothering about due process or collateral damage, is not an America that one may hope “to make listen.” Who is not for Bush is against him. Well, so be it. Many Europeans have chosen not to be bullied into sharing the Bush administration’s view of the world. They may not command as many divisions as Bush; they surely can handle the “division” that Bush has brought to the Atlantic community.
There has been a resurgence of open anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Not least in the Middle East, the area that has brought us Osama Bin Laden and his paranoid hatred of America, and the West more generally. If he can still conflate the two, why can’t we? If Raja Shehadeh still holds hopes of an America that one can make listen, why don’t we? Let us face it: We are all Americans, but sometimes it is hard to see the Americans we hold dear in the Americans that hold sway.
This may remind Europeans that anti-Americanism is not the point. We may believe we recognize Americanism in any particular American behavior, be it cultural or political. Yet the range of such behavior is simply too wide—ranging in culture from the sublime to the vulgar, and in politics from high-minded internationalism to narrow nationalism—to warrant any across-the-board rejection.
Rob Kroes, chair and professor of American studies at the University of Amsterdam, is the author of If You’ve Seen One You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture, and Them and Us: Questions of Citizenship in a Globalizing World.
1 M. ter Braak, “Waarom ik ‘Amerika’ afwijs,” (Why I reject America), De Vrije Bladen, V, 3, 1928; repr. in: Verzameld Werk, (Collected Works) Amsterdam: G.A. van Oorschot, 1950/1, Vol I, 255-65.
2 J. Huizinga, Amerika levend en denkend – Losse opmerkingen. (America living and thinking – Loose observations) (Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1926), 162.
3 The Seven Arts, (June 1917), 199.
4 The Seven Arts, (March 1917), 535.
5 O. Spengler, Jahre der Entscheidung, (Muenchen: Beck, 1933) 48.
6 Michael Ignatieff, “What We Think of America,” Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, 77 (Spring 2002), 47-50.
7 I may refer the reader to my survey of such French views of American modernity. See Rob Kroes, Them and Us: Questions of Citizenship in a Globalizing World (University of Illinois Press, 2000), chapter 9.
8 See, e.g., Annick Foucrier, Le rêve californien: Migrants francais sur la côte Pacifique (XVIIIe-XXe siècles). (Paris, 1999).
9 See my If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture. (University of Illinois Press, 1996)
10 Quoted in: D. Lacorne, J Rupnik, and M.F. Toinet, eds., L’Amérique dans les têtes (Paris, 1986), 61.
11 Quoted in ibid., 62.
12 Pierre Bourdieu, “Questions aux vrais maîtres du monde” Le Monde, Sélection Hebdomadaire, October 23, 1999, pp. 1,7.
13 Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (New York, 1971)
14 For the Borges quotations, see Tanner, City of Words, 41.
15 For my summary of the proceedings at the Paris colloquium, I have used a report published in Le Monde, Sélection Hebdomadaire, 2589, June 20th, 1998, p.13.
16 For a fuller analysis of the metaphorical deep structure underlying the European critique of American culture, I may refer the reader to my If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall.
17 I argue this more at length in the concluding chapter of my If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall, entitled “Americanization: What are we talking about?”
18 In an interview in the Guardian on August 27th, 2003.