During a nightly
newscast of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Prime Time
News, the anchorman, in the last news item before the public
affairs portion of the program, presented words to this effect:
How would you like to have a house that would cost next to nothing
to build and to maintain, no electrical, and no heating bills? Viewers
were then shown four young Inuit adults building an igloo. They
were born in the Arctic region, said the spokeswoman of the group,
but had not learned the ancestral skills of carving (literally)
a human shelter out of this harsh environment (-35 Celsius at night).
It was a broad hint that the spin on this story would be "Young
Aboriginals in search of their past." The real twist, however, was
that their instructors, a middle aged man and woman, were Caucasian
and that the man was born in Detroit. The American had studied something
which sounded like environmental architecture and was teaching this
particular technique to the young Inuits.
When asked if
they were embarrassed by this arrangement, the spokeswoman answered,
"No. If he teaches us what we need to know then that's all right."
When asked if he found the situation a bit strange, the Detroit
born man also answered in the negative, "I was born in Detroit but
I do not know how to build a car." In fact it was one of the Inuit
hunters who had taught him how to repair his snowmobile. So why
shouldn't he teach young Inuits to build igloos? In the last scene
the igloo builders lay out their seal rugs and light a small fire
using seal oil, enabling the heat to ice the inside walls, thus
insulating the dwelling from the outside cold and creating warmth
within. A final shot shows the lighted igloos against the black
can be read into this short narrative. First, the typical, white,
Canadian anchorman, by referring to concerns of Southern Canadians
(low building and maintenance costs, no taxes, clear air and quiet
neighborhoods), trivializes a technology which, over thousands of
years, has allowed populations to survive and create specific societies
and cultures in this particular environment. Secondly, we are made
aware of the benefits of international trade: an Inuit teaches a
Detroit born American how to repair a motor vehicle and, in return
learns how to build an igloo. Thirdly, we are led to understand
that what the students expect from the teacher is basic working
to build a case denouncing cultural imperialism, bemoaning the alienation
of aboriginal cultures and the shredding of their social fabric,
is strong here. On the basis of this one example, however, the argument
would at best be flawed, at worst biased. But for students of popular
culture, national identity, and cultural industries this is but
one of the many thousand daily occurrences which exemplify the dynamic
complexity of the concept of "americanization."
it are at least two notions; the American presence and the presence
of an American. In this news story, both notions are at work. On
the one hand, the viewer is made aware of the American presence,
the influence of American technology on this remote society, through
the reference to the snowmobile. (Although the inventor lived and
worked in Quebec, Canada, the fact that the Detroit born American
puts the snowmobile on the same footing as the automobile implicitly
makes it an American invention.) On the other hand, the viewer sees
and hears the American instructor.
It is the first
form of presence that usually defines the concept of americanization.
It usually refers to the presence of American products and technology
and it is against this presence that most critics argue. Surprisingly,
few argue against the presence of Americans. As individuals, Americans
are well liked and friendly; it is the presence of their way of
life, of their culture, that makes americanization such an ugly
word. Others like them but do not want to be like them; this is
the basic attitude in opposition to americanization.
One is led to
believe that s/he will become an American, will be americanized,
not by interacting with citizens of the United States but by using
American products, eating American (fast) food, and enjoying American
cultural artifacts. One can go so far as to live and work in the
United States while remaining staunchly Canadian or Australian or
British, as many artists who have succeeded in the American music
and film industries remind us. The danger of becoming americanized
seems greater, however, if one stays in the comfort of home enjoying
American cultural products such as magazines, novels, movies, music,
comics, television shows and news, or computer software and games.
two embedded notions, the presence of Americans and the American
presence, make for a fascinating debate, the concept of americanization
conceals the parallel dual notion of "the host." Hosting the American
presence seems to be more prevalent and more americanizing than
hosting Americans themselves. To be a host is to make the visitor
feel welcome, to make the visitor seem familiar, non-threatening,
at home. In this case, to be a host is to be a consumer, to be a
friendly user. To become americanized it is presumed not only that
one consumes a steady diet of readily accessible made-in-the-U.S.
products, but also consumes these cultural products with ease, i.e.
as would any American.
are distributed internationally but are not made for international
markets: they are made for the U.S. market, by, for, and about Americans.
Thus, one can conclude, to enjoy these easily accessible products
one must be or become American and the more one consumes, the more
one becomes American, thereby enabling increasing pleasure and ease
in this consumption. Americanization is a case in point of a basic
process of acculturation. It results in sounding the alarms of cultural
imperialism and cultural alienation: you become what you consume,
because in order to consume you must become the targeted consumer.
This is the equivalent of saying: because Science (as we believe
we know it) is a product of Western European civilization, then
to become a scientist one must become westernized, i.e. adopt Western
mores, values, and ways of thinking.
In most host
countries in the world there is an overwhelming presence of American
products. The pull and pressure of those products must not be underestimated.
Still, the news story of the Inuit mechanic and the Detroit igloo
builder serves as a reminder that culture, or at least certain types
of culture, are less bound by the economics of their technological
environment and modes of production than was once assumed and theorized.
The fact that
the Inuit travel on snowmobiles, live in suburban dwellings, watch
a great deal of television, and have forgotten how to build igloos
does not necessarily make them more americanized when compared with
the Detroit born teacher, who is made no less American by his ability
to build an igloo. Skills, products, and ideas take root in historically
given contexts: they bear witness to their times. When they travel,
they bring with them elements of their place of origin. To use these
ideas and products, one must have an understanding of their historical
background or context, of their original intent and of their mode
of operation. If the invention and the corresponding mode of production
of goods and ideas are context bound, so too are their uses and
in many cases these have an impact on the very nature of products
and ideas. This perspective leads to a better understanding of americanization.
American composers, playwrights, and various other artists have
affected the popular arts of the world. With the same degree of
certitude, one can proclaim that American entrepreneurs and American
entrepreneurship have affected the cultural industries the world
over. But perhaps the most profound impact of this particular historical
culture and its modes of production, is found in the social uses
American society has made of these cultural products. If one wishes
to speak of americanization in the realm of popular (or mass) culture,
one must focus on the social uses of industrially produced and commercially
distributed sounds and images. To show American-made movies in local
theaters, to watch American sitcoms on the television set, to listen
to American music on the radio--or to use copycat versions of any
of these materials--is not, necessarily, to become americanized.
To build into the local social fabric a permanent presence of these
sounds and images, is to become americanized but not necessarily
have a permanent background of American images and sounds
(for example, television sets turned on all day, ads overflowing
in print, on buses, on T-shirts, talk radio, Walkmans, etc.) means
to live and work and play in a permanent kaleidoscope world plugged
into a never ending soundtrack. This, it can be argued, is
to become americanized.
Dallas imperialism syndrome, and its legitimate heir, the
O.J. Simpson Trial, are good illustrations of this. The debate surrounding
Dallas rekindles the debate which greeted the American penny
press and Hollywood cinema. Its central question: is communication
technology a threat to basic (Western) values, local cultures, and
the human psyche? Dallas symbolized this ongoing debate,
a debate central to Western culture. But Dallas also symbolized
a social evolution which has not received the attention it deserves.
The worldwide popularity of Dallas revived the paradigm of
the "magic bullet" theory of direct media effects, a theory suggesting
that media content and style can be "injected" into the cultural
life system, infecting and contaminating the "healthy" cultural
body. It also revived discussions of cultural imperialism, but in
a more sophisticated fashion and on a much grander scale. And it
also raised the counter paradigm of the uses and gratifications
model in communication studies.
researchers were eager to publish their claims that Dallas
did not magically turn all its viewers into Americans, but that
the program signified many things to many viewers. Moreover, they
pointed out that, on the whole, national cultural products (including
television programs) still outsold imported American ones. And if
they did not, they certainly enjoyed more popular support and provided
in this foray was the fact that Dallas symbolized the popularization
and the banalization of television viewing, its normal integration
within the activities of everyday life, its quiet nestling in the
central foyer of the household environment. Television viewing,
a remarkable new social practice in many locations, quickly and
quietly became, inside and outside academia, a major source of everyday
conversation, the measuring stick of many moral debates, the epitome
of modern living. In so doing television viewing displaced the boundaries
of centuries-old institutions such as family, work, school and religion.
The Dallas syndrome symbolized the fact that in a large number
of host countries, communication technology hadbecome a permanent
part of the everyday social environment, that its messages had become
a permanent part of the social fabric and that its spokepersons
had joined the public club of opinion makers.
one can debate the pros and cons of this social fact, one can also
speculate that television is not the revolution that many of its
critics as well as admirers had hoped or feared. It did not destroy
a sacred treasure of Western values based on the technology of the
written word. Rather it revealed a blind spot among many social
thinkers: the constructed centrality of the spoken word in modern
societies. Television possibly revealed to the most industrialized
society of the postwar era, the United States, that it was and still
is, by and large, an oral society.
technology did not trigger a revolution, social, moral, or sexual;
it became part of the establishment in every way, shape, and form.
And just as U.S. cultural industries have become an American institution,
a part of the social order and a sustainer of culture in American
society, so too have cultural industries in many other societies.
In this sense, other societies have become americanized. Americanization
is not to be found in the consumption of American cultural products.
It lies in the establishment of a particular social formation. This
formation is, to be sure, defined in part by the use of the products
of national cultural industries. But it is also defined by alterations
in patterns of everyday life and by the emergence of "new" voices
that take their place among existing relations and structures of
power. The uses of television throughout the world are both cause
and effect within these cultural and social shifts
americanization is neither a boon nor a threat--it is a cultural
and economic fact of life in most (Western) countries. The debate
then, is not over whether to stop or to hasten the consumption of
American cultural products. It should instead be centered on the
impact of specific social uses of industrially mass-produced cultural
products, whether foreign or national. For better or worse, the
socialization of sounds and images, and socialization through sounds
and images, have made more visible, and more mainstream, the oral
traditions and the tradition of orality not only in American society
but also in all (Western) americanized societies.
matters little whether television, and other technologically based
cultural industries, were invented by the Americans or not. What
they invented was a particular social use of these technologies:
the massification of production, distribution, and consumption and
the commodification of industrially produced cultural products.
In return, this particular social use revealed to American society,
and to other industrialized societies which followed suit, the forgotten
presence of traditional, non-national, oral cultures. Cultural industries,
and television in particular, revealed that print technology (the
written word) had not subverted oral technology (the spoken word);
it had only partially silenced it by making it less "visible." Television
made words and sound once again "visible" and "audible" to the eyes
and ears of the mind. In doing so it also revealed to the heavily
industrialized, print oriented, Western societies that they were
blinded by their most popular visual aid, television.
de la Gaarde
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Kaarle and Tapio Varis. Television Traffic--A One-Way Street?
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also Audience Research