The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts


A Global Culture?


A Global Culture?

©1994 David Rieff, all rights reserved

American nonfiction writer and policy analyst, David Rieff is the author of Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World; The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami; and The Slaughterhouse: Scenes from the War on Bosnia. He is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, a Fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a board member of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and a board member of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.

"A civilization progresses from agriculture to paradox," the Romanian aphorist, E. M. Cioran, once wrote. It is not a conviction that sits particularly well with Americans, who tend to shy away from contradictions and, instead, continue to believe that solutions exist for every problem if only enough know-how or good will can be brought to bear. And yet a dual paradox informs the American situation in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The first concerns how a country by tradition and disposition considerably more self-absorbed than most had become the animating spirit of the global consumer culture that, albeit with variations, more and more predominates from Guangdong to Berlin. The second offers the spectacle of a nation whose official ideology is, increasingly, what is somewhat oddly called the "celebration" of diversity while remaining culturally, though not, of course, racially, astonishingly homogeneous, not to say conformist, in its attitudes. All one has to do is watch a group of African American tourists on a tour of West Africa or Central American immigrants returning home for Christmas to observe how American they seem and how irresistible this Americanization seems to be, even in cases when people are ideologically committed to a sense of difference or are such recent arrivals to America that it might have been more reasonable to expect them to belong more to their countries of origin than the American inner cities to which they have migrated.

If anything, the puzzle is how wide the gap still is between the great simplifications of identity that America still imposes on both its native-born citizens and those who have immigrated to it recently--the phenomenon has been much noted by visitors from Crèvecoeur forward; it began with the homogenization of various European groups and is not only being extended, for all the talk of the end of the assimilationist model, to other, non-European immigrant groups--and the current vogue in the United States for identity politics and what might, instead of celebration, more accurately be called the fetishization of diversity. In any case, this much vaunted American diversity, as anyone who has visited a truly diverse place like India can attest, is more incantation, pious hope, and construct leeched of all force, than reality. That it serves as a bromide is apparent enough, given the fact that what is being propounded is a diversity in which all contradictions are reconcilable. A billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles encapsulated the matter nicely when it asserted, "Let our differences show in our foods, not in our attitudes.?"

This is the diversity of the well-stocked supermarket, not the real cultural diversity of peoples who feel strongly enough about their beliefs that they are led to resist or, at least, quietly reject the contradictory beliefs of others. And it is an old American trope, for all the new ideological drag in which its more self-consciously militant exponents (usually this means those who come from academe or the art world) have kitted it out. Whether it is the relative similarity of what people eat in America, whether they live in South Central Los Angeles or Scarsdale, New York--regional foods, after all, have declined, even as "ethnic" cuisines have proliferated and been absorbed on supermarket shelves and by fast food chains--or the more than relative similarity in the way people talk in so many humanities departments on American university campuses—"All you Americans talk and talk about diversity," a French intellectual exclaimed in exasperation at the end of an American Studies conference held in Paris last year, "so what I want to know is how it is that you all sound the same?"--what is most striking is how quickly homogenization, whether of taste or of intellectual presuppositions, can be depended upon to set in. What is radical is not the ideas themselves, but the speed of their dissemination.

A caustic observer might have responded to the Frenchman's query by taking his question a step further and insisting that the genius of the multiculturalist movement was its ability to appear radical while not in fact threatening the status quo (after all, a plea for inclusion hardly threatens the power or profits of multinational corporations, whatever it does to race or gender relations) in much the way that the trend in industrial production toward mass customization gives consumers the impression of being able to get a product designed expressly for them when in fact technological advances simply permit producers to offer a far wider range of options and, thus, to permit an almost infinite segmentation of their consumer base.

In a sense, this process of segmentation, whether expressed in the fracturing of "high culture," as it has been traditionally understood in universities and arts institutions, into narrow, self-referential interest groups, or the proliferation of television channels, each seemingly directed at a far smaller audience than the television moguls of the old network era were interested in reaching, or the multiplication of affinity groups in which people define themselves in terms of their having experienced some traumatic event or of being subject to some behavioral pathology, is less the feature of a nation-state in the traditional sense of the term than of a world. And if one thinks of the United States as having become a universe at least as much as it remains a country, then divisions within it make more sense.

In any case, all empires, even of the unconventional and peculiar American kind, eventually become "world nations" in Walt Whitman's celebrated phrase, prey to the delusion that, to quote a rather less grandiose but perhaps more germane American songwriter, "We are the world, we are the people." And if only because this experience of selling to such a monolithically consumerist but segmented public has been the defining experience of American capitalism for a long time now, it really should come as no surprise that the global consumer culture, particularly in the realm of movies, music, and food, has remained almost an American monopoly in a time when America's hegemony in other industries, ranging from automobiles to consumer electronics, has been shattered irrevocably.

No wonder so many Americans remain so confident that their parochial concerns and self-definitions are shared by everyone. With the exception of a Hong Kong film industry now in decline, an Indian film industry whose appeal does not extend beyond the (considerable) market share of the subcontinent itself and the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia and western Europe and North America, and, to a lesser extent, the Mexican television industry--Mexican soap operas, telenovelas as they are called, can be seen from China to the former Soviet Union --it is Hollywood, Burbank, the American music industry, and such fast food chains or providers as McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Burger King, and Domino's Pizza, that predominate.

The Europeans, the French in particular, are so terrified by this that the effort to obtain the right to continue to restrict the proportion of American programs that can be shown on European television stations, as well as to continue to subsidize the European film and television industries, while perhaps not quite so dangerous to a final GATT agreement as the issue of farm subsidies, is still considerably more than a minor irritant. French politicians, cultural impresarios, and performers tend to talk about what is produced in New York and Los Angeles in rather the same tones that environmentalists talk about the Brazilian farmers and miners who are burning the Amazon--as an unstoppable horde that will destroy all in its path unless it is confronted by force. To them, the situation is clear. If Europe does not resist this American cultural invasion, as a French official remarked to a reporter from L'Express, "there will soon develop a standardized world culture created according to American norms." The film Jurassic Park, remarked Jacques Toubon, the French minister of culture, was a "threat" to French culture.

American Predominance

There are those who dismiss such fears, either believing them to be overstated or insisting that America's pre-eminence in mass culture will inevitably go the way of its dominance in other industries. According to the latter model, cultural power moves with financial and industrial power. When Holland was at its apogee, Dutch styles in home furnishings were imitated all over the world. But, this argument runs, when Holland declined, the world turned to other models. And, indeed, certain cultural prerogatives have always accompanied political or military dominance. It is clear from the history of arts patronage in Europe and, albeit to a lesser extent, in imperial China, that the most powerful courts attracted the most powerful artists, musicians, and producers of beautiful clothes and furnishings. To some degree, the recent rise of Germany and Japan has provided the proof that such processes still occur, both in the form of acquisition--of art in particular--and in the form of patronage, as in the celebrated case of the American avant-garde director, Robert Wilson, who throughout most of his career was unable to get his projects funded at home. Few countries that become powerful do not succeed (Germany is the obvious exception here) in imposing their national cuisines on the rest of the bourgeois world or influencing the course of high fashion. One has only to remember that sushi bars, all but unheard of 25 years ago outside of Japan, have now proliferated not only in the major capitals of the world, from Moscow to Mexico City, but in the prosperous suburbs as well, or to note that the Germans have now produced one male and one female fashion designer of international repute, to realize that the rules of this particular game have not changed all that much since the days when fashions developed at the court of Philip II of Spain rapidly became the fashionable norm in all the European courts of the period.

But successfully imposing a taste for salmon-skin handrolls or Jil Sander linen jackets is not the same thing as engendering a global mass culture in the sense that the United States has succeeded in doing in the twentieth century. Rather, such accomplishments, particularly nowadays, when elite culture matters far less than it did before the era of $50 million motion pictures, records that have to go platinum if theirproducers are to remain in the record companies' continued favor, and the virtual disappearance of servants and custom tailors, are epiphenomena of a nation's power, obeisances that the citizens of other countries proffer toward countries they admire or fear.

The inclusion of cultural artifacts or tastes of newly powerful nations or regions has a different resonance, however, in the interlocking world of the late-twentieth-century global economy than it did when multinationals had distinct national identities, and power radiated outward from metropolitan centers to the provinces. Then it was possible to speak of a single dominant culture; now, in financial, industrial, corporate, and technological terms it is not. It is all the more surprising, then, that the American domination of mass culture has only intensified in a period when American power in other domains has waned. And yet the fact remains that now, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet empire (the U.S.S.R. provided a cultural alternative to American mass culture, albeit it was in the form of a somewhat sclerotic reinterpretation of nineteenth-century European high culture, just as it provided an alternative to the world market), American mass culture is everywhere triumphant.

In many instances, the financing for, say, a Hollywood studio, will come from overseas, and it is commonplace that the people producing this "American" culture are often imported, like National Hockey League players, from overseas. But such diverse fads as bungee jumping and cigarette smoking, though they did not originate in the United States, seem to gain worldwide acceptance through their commodification--another way of describing their Americanization. Jules Verne, after all, was interested in dinosaurs, but no French movie company could possibly have produced Jurassic Park. In this, as in any number of other instances, cultural conservatives like John Paul II, and cultural nationalists like the French political class, are right to be fearful.

The class character of the objection (even when it comes disguised as a species of radicalism) is worth noting. What is probably most distinctive about American popular culture is its resolutely demotic character. As not only the prestige but the economic significance of high culture wanes, and operas, symphonies, and even museums increasingly can only survive through state subsidy or private philanthropy, it becomes more and more irrelevant to our common cultural future; the bankruptcy of so many of these forms is also a factor, in the sense that, for example, there is no contemporary analogue in terms of influence to a Verdi or a Coleridge on the elite end of the spectrum. And in an era of high culture's eclipse, the market can reassert itself. All things being equal, Wal-Mart is a better investment than Gucci, just as Michael Jackson is more valuable as a cultural commodity (both in the literal sense of return on investment for those who underwrite his recordings and tours and in terms of the numbers of people throughout the world who are affected by him) than Yitzhak Perlman or even such desperate popularizers as Luciano Pavarotti.

In the end, when we talk about the dominance of one culture, or even, less agonistically, of the globalization of culture, it is important to keep in mind that what is really at issue is the victory of culture that makes money over all other forms, and, particularly, over both folk culture and elite culture. Examples of this are everywhere and, if anything, the tendency toward bottom-line thinking is accelerating. Think of "art" filmmaking, a relatively accessible form when compared to, say, serial music, and how it has become about as relevant to the movie industry as antiquarian bookselling is to the publishing business. And if high culture now exists on life support, the culture of traditional societies, for all the lip service rendered to it by pious academics and political activists, is everywhere in retreat, and, in many parts of the world, on the brink of extinction as a living rather than as an artificially preserved set of forms.

There are exceptions of course. Very poor countries have succeeded in preserving their cultural authenticity, for all the good it does them when the gentlemen from the World Bank and the IMF come calling, or at least more of it than the denizens of most parts of the world have done. But the configurations of our collective future can scarcely be apprehended by looking at Botswana or Andean Peru. It is true that immigrants from the poor world to western Europe and North America have seemed able to maintain, at least for a generation or two, if not their traditional ways then at least their own slightly less atomized versions of modernity. In a Salvadoran neighborhood in L.A. or a Turkish neighborhood in Germany, the atmosphere is more Central American or Anatolian than orthodox American or German. It can even be argued that the constant flows of immigrants from south to north, and, in the European case, perhaps increasingly from east to west, will function as cultural "reinforcements" from home, both linguistically and in terms of mores, and will serve as an undertow to the general tidal pull toward homogenization at play everywhere in the world.

But if this represents a bifurcation between the bourgeoisie and the new immigrant poor, it is not so very different as a phenomenon than the new dichotomy in matters ranging from child rearing to tastes in food that divides prosperous native-born citizens of the developed world from their native-born working-class fellow citizens. In the American context, it is safe to assume that lower-middle-class and working-class Americans have not given up, say, either eating red meat or spanking their children, but upper-middle-class Americans increasingly have, as have their counterparts in western Europe and Japan.

But all of this only underscores something that most people understand instinctively: that the history of consumerism, like the history of sentiments, proceeds unevenly in different classes and in different parts of the world. What has happened is that because people everywhere now at least know of one another's existence, at least voyeuristically, through televised images, such fault lines and time lags are instantly apprehensible in ways they could not have been previously. All the fascination with diversity-- a mindset that, at first glance, seems radically at odds with the way previous generations thought of things (one right way, one's own; lots of wrong ways, everyone else's)--should not obscure the fact that the general direction in the world is toward greater and greater similarity, at least on the levels of material ambitions, architecture, food, and ambient noise, aka, music. Only someone who had assumed that what leftists used to call the Coca-colonization of the planet had already been completed could take consolation from the fact that this process of homogenization is as yet incomplete. For compared with the genuinely diverse world of half a century ago, things have proceeded rapidly. One can now travel the entire world and never be very far from a Coke, a Big Mac, or the sound of some American entertainer. There are video rental stores in villages in India where most dwellings still have no electricity. And in Bedouin camps in the Sinai and Zulu kraals in the Transvaal, I have had as many conversations about Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger as I have about Allah or King Cetshwayo.

Almost invariably, what the poor of the world know, which is to say what the overwhelming majority of the people of the world know, if they are familiar with anything foreign, is American popular culture. With the exception of the Islamic world, where resistance, however last-ditch, is still fierce, that culture has and continues to sweep all before it. India and China, which between them now have two-fifths of the world's population, were the other great holdouts, fearing, by no means wrongly, the enormous changes allowing American culture in would bring. But those barriers have either fallen or are on the brink of falling. The corporate logos, and, perhaps, the Logos as well, are on the wall. The essential point is that most people want this consumer culture, however much they may resent its effect on, say, the status of women. And yet such changes come as part of the package, since American consumer culture is corrosive of all traditions and established truths. In any case, the position of people in the Third World, which can be summed up as wanting more of this culture and resenting and fearing its triumph, is finally untenable. In the end, the market simply has more resources than a traditional society incapable of providing prosperity in an era of demographic increase and urbanization. The decision of a few Middle Eastern immigrants to bomb the World Trade Center in New York was a notable event, but the decision of most of their fellow immigrants to increasingly adapt to America's norms was, in many ways, far more remarkable. For immigration and global consumer culture are part of a larger uprooting, which is another way of saying a larger Americanization of the world.

These, at least, are some of the realities of globalized and globalizing culture in the anthropological sense of the term. And it is no more relevant, in this context, to talk about whether people wanted this culture or had it foisted upon them than it is to have talked about some alternative to the world economy, or, as European leftists used to say, some "third way." We are stuck with the global culture, just as we are stuck with world capitalism. Like the latter, the former will be more or less successful in different parts of the world. But whatever variations to this general pattern that history has in store, the outlines of what is coming are plain enough. Those who yearn for authenticity, for the preservation or restoration of the traditional, will not prevail because of the brute fact that traditional societies--of which traditional culture is a product--cannot support their populations in a period of rapid increases in the world population. The paradigmatic Third World cities--Jakarta, Lagos, Mexico City--are as corrosive of tradition as Coca-Cola and the internal combustion engine. Those who would, out of revulsion toward American culture in particular, husband the belief that other paradigms are available are in for a long wait.

Willed American Culture

American mass culture has not become the global benchmark by accident. Instead, it is precisely the history-less, willed quality of American popular culture, its conviction that dreams and realities are, or at least should be, indistinguishable, that makes it superior, at least for the foreseeable future, to anything that can be produced by societies where people have lived longer and believed their cultures to be less perennially up for grabs. It is French, or Japanese, or Egyptian history, its organic specificity, that makes it so difficult for such cultures to concoct the dreamscape that has been America's great contribution to the twentieth century. Now, even more than in the past, it is the inorganic quality of the American cultural mix that has made it infinitely exportable. In a world in which all the old certainties have collapsed--a world both literally in motion through its hordes of immigrants and refugees, and psychologically in motion through the dissolution of belief on the one hand and the cognitive transformation that the communications revolution has unleashed on the other--global culture can, finally, only be American because only America has already, to a very large extent, accommodated these new realities.

And from an internal American perspective, the main reason that American popular culture arose with such swiftness and achieved such success was that there was always less of a firebreak made up of traditions and institutions of high culture to hold it back. A country motivated by assumptions on the part not of its critics but of its ruling class that ‘history is bunk,’ or that ‘the business of America is business,’ is unlikely to worry very much about questions of quality so long as the customers keep buying. Indeed, notions of quality, excluding, as they must, whole sectors of prospective customers, are likely to be more disliked by the business establishment than by the so-called multiculturalists, and this helps to explain why the recent multiculturalist attack on notions like the masterpiece or the cultural canon and, for that matter, various other sets of aesthetic guidelines based on principles of exclusion as well as inclusion, has met with such favor.

When the critic Arthur Danto says that "a work of art is something produced by an artist," he is, inadvertently or not, expressing a view that perfectly coincides with the American merchandising ethic, one of whose first principles has been to claim that there is no distinction to be drawn between a manufacturer's claim and a product's innate worth. The recent enthusiasm for art that is insistently accessible, democratic, and contemptuous of categories recapitulates that very old American suspicion toward kings, courts, and their esoteric artifacts, and the American belief that newness, in and of itself, is a positive value.

The Logic of the Marketplace

Although they still don't know it, the American business elite should probably put up heroic statues to the student radicals of the 1960s. It was these would-be revolutionaries who, unwittingly, made it possible for universities to operate more like corporations (using such marketing criteria as consumer satisfaction and demand to determine in many cases what course would be offered and what academic specialties beefed up) than like European academic institutions with their ideals of what should, no, what had to be known by any graduate. It was a breaking of tradition, alright, though not in the sense the radical students of the time intended. For instead of the imagination coming to power, as a slogan of the period promised, the broken hierarchies were replaced not by revolution but by the logic of the marketplace.

The same ethos that declared that people should buy anything they felt like having, however little they might need it, so long as they could somehow finance the purchase, mandated that one should learn anything one wanted to learn, and little or nothing else, so long as such learning could be either subsidized or end in a decent-paying job. Identity politics, with its rapid self-absorption, is cut from the same cloth. Just as one buys things to adorn oneself and one's surroundings, acquires in order to feel good--as every business executive would agree, a consumerism based on actual need would be a disaster economically--so students began to be encouraged to study themselves, with the promise of maintaining or upgrading their self-esteem. It was, as they say in the insurance business, a no-fault situation, a picking and choosing within bodies of knowledge on the nearly exclusive basis of personal taste--a process not very different from a shopper's impulse buying. But it had the advantage of coming packaged as something virtuous. The presumption was that knowledge had been withheld by an oppressive society and that its recapture was a revolutionary act. The students were happy, pleased to be able to study themselves, a therapeutic rather than an educational experience, and the university administration was happy because, as an educational commodity, such curricula could be expanded to satisfy the demands of whatever new oppressed subset presented itself, so long as its members could afford the tuition.

With high culture in retreat, the field was then entirely clear for mass culture. This has been the real significance of the academic culture wars. For while rads and neo-cons squabble, the selling goes on. Even before the latest campus tumult, it should have been clear that as a purveyor of commodities, actual and imaginative, the American version of capitalism had proved itself to be infinitely resilient and absorptive. But nowadays, the time it takes for some genuinely disturbing or seemingly seditious movement--rap music is the obvious example here--to be successfully merchandised grows ever shorter. It is only a decade since hip-hop clubs were a phenomenon of urban ghettos. Now, sanitized versions of the music that originated there are being used as background muzak for Pepsi-Cola commercials. In Europe or East Asia, where ideas are still taken more seriously, rap, with its violent, hate-filled lyrics, would have made the establishment, at the very least, wince.

But the genius of American popular culture resides precisely in the nihilism of its entrepreneurs and, finally, out of the society from whence they spring. There is a staunch refusal to admit that anything needs to be taken so seriously as to get in the way of its marketing, and a confidence that anything can be marketed, anything made appealing, if it is packaged well enough and given the right advertising spin. Because it excludes nothing, from Bambi to Rambo, where almost any other culture would leave at least some things off the manifest, and because it knows how to make everything seem not only attractive but somehow necessary, the new global culture has to at least pass through the American dream factory, even if it does not originate there, before being sent out to fill the dreams of the world.

Critics of the System

The coda to this story is that while the world consumes this output greedily, and is more and more drawn into this Americanized global culture, the small minority of Americans interested in academic or cultural questions increasingly has taken refuge in the fantasy that their own work is oppositional, that they are, in fact, critics of the system. And in their work and their writings some of them are. But while the artist whose button at last year's Whitney Biennial stated, "I could never imagine wanting to be white," doubtless believed he was engaged in a brave act of defiance, the truth is that there are no acts of defiance in the context of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum on the East Side of Manhattan, only acts of entertainment. That was what Herbert Marcuse was talking about when, almost 30 years ago, he warned of capitalism's "repressive tolerance." What he could not have foreseen was capitalism's ability, at least in America, not only to neuter dissent but to make money off it, to commodify it. After all, why shouldn't there be a niche market for identity politics, just as there is a niche market for Court TV or the Home Shopping Network? Museums need a product too, and if an exhibition provokes outrage then so much the better if the real point is to garner publicity. It is not surprising that at the Biennial, white people, who could scarcely have agreed with the sentiments on the buttons, nonetheless could be seen pocketing them as they left the museum. Why not? They might be valuable one day.

Nonetheless, for those who retain their skepticism in a culture that tolerates anything but skepticism, it is worth wondering how, in an era in which demographic, ecological, and political disasters loom on a world scale, in which the continent of Africa may suffer unimaginable calamity from the Horn to the Sahel, and in which the very real prospect exists of a vast war of succession across the former Soviet Union lasting for a decade or more, Americans can go on bickering about the degree of fairness with which their ethnic or affective group is depicted in school curricula and in the media and vie with one another for the role of most tragic victim. Only people who live in a cosseted enclave quite divorced from what is happening in the rest of the world could treat these questions with such anguished seriousness. Certainly only the fortunate could say, with Gloria Steinem, that "the personal is the political."

And yet the paradox in all this is that if these complaints can appear, at least to a jaundiced outsider, like squabbles from a dream-world, it is precisely this quintessentially American ability to ignore reality, or give it the spin of one's individual choosing, that has provided American culture with its unique global reach and seductiveness. Other peoples are still imbued with a more modest sense of their own significance, but this does not mean that, presented with the opportunity, they would not like to have the same psychological privileges as Americans to disdain the past and pacify themselves with things and dreams. It was said of the Philippines that its tragedy was to have had 300 years of the Inquisition and 50 years of Hollywood. Like the Philippines during the 1930s, the whole world seems to be entering its Hollywood period, while back where those dreams are manufactured the natives squabble fantastically and arcanely among themselves. Caveat emptor and, while we're at it, caveat faber, as well.