Cultural Imperialism - Four discourses on cultural imperialism




John Tomlinson developed a most insightful critique, on the basis of which we can identify at least four different discourses of cultural imperialism. His categories are the media, national domination, the global dominance of capitalism, and the critique of modernity. Media imperialism is the oldest and by far most widely debated category. Most importantly, it relates to current political issues. The study of media imperialism originated in Latin America among students of communication research. In the 1950s and 1960s, Latin American economists interpreted their countries' economic relations to Europe and the United States by developing a theory of dependency. Chilean communication scholars quickly appropriated that concept when, at the time of the 1970 election that brought Salvador Allende to power, they began to admonish the United States for its involvement in Latin American affairs. One of the most dramatic and widely read essays written by these scholars came from Armand Mattelart, a professor of mass communications and ideology at the University of Chile, and Ariel Dorfman, a literary critic and novelist. In Para leer al pato Donald ("How to Read Donald Duck," 1971), they held that in an effort to protect U.S. economic interests in Chile, the Central Intelligence Agency financed and fostered an arsenal of psychological warfare devices to indoctrinate the minds of the Chilean people, including Disney cartoons and other consumer products. They denounced Hollywood's distorted version of reality and cautioned Latin Americans against U.S. propaganda. The danger of Walt Disney, Mattelart and Dorfman believed, consisted of the manner in which the United States "forces us Latin Americans to see ourselves as they see us." The authors stated that the Chilean people would eventually free their own culture and kick out the Disney duck: "Feathers plucked and well-roasted….Donald, Go Home!" Published shortly before the Chilean revolution, this essay appealed to readers far beyond the borders of Chile; Para leer al pato Donald went through more than fifteen editions and was translated into several languages.

American scholars quickly borrowed the concept of media imperialism. The Watergate scandal propelled suspicions of a conspiracy between the government and the media and of abuses of executive power. In a variety of studies, the communication scientist Herbert I. Schiller retraced a powerful connection between the domestic business, military, and governmental power structure on the one hand and, on the other, the "mind managers"—that is, the leaders of the U.S. communications industry—who in his view had conspired to manipulate minds at home and abroad. As Schiller saw it, nineteenth-century Anglo-American geopolitical imperialism had been replaced in the twentieth century by an aggressive industrial-electronics complex "working to extend the American socioeconomic system spatially and ideologically" across the globe. "What does it matter," Schiller asked in 1976, "if a national movement has struggled for years to achieve liberation if that condition … is undercut by values and aspirations derived from the apparently vanquished dominator?"

A second group of critics understood cultural imperialism as the domination of one country by another. To no small degree, this discourse grew out of the growing concern of the United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with the protection of national cultures, as well as the rising interest in the study of nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s, as represented by Benedict Anderson and others. In this interpretation, "culture" suggests a natural and static heritage of traditions that are akin to a certain country. It also serves as a tool of social control as important as controlling material resources. Hence, cultural imperialism implies the efforts of one country to undermine another country's cultural heritage by imposing its own. Frank Ninkovich's analysis of the State Department's efforts to establish an art program between 1938 and 1947 showed that during World War II, policymakers attempted to use artifacts of American culture, notably paintings, to promote "a sense of common values among nations of varied traditions." Just as free trade would have a liberalizing effect by contributing to other nations' economic well-being, art would create a common sense of culture. Simply put, if everyone agreed that American culture qualified artistically and aesthetically and also politically as a universal way of life and taste, it would indeed increase foreign acceptance of American values and American politics.

A third group of scholars interpreted cultural imperialism as the expansion and sometimes global dominance of U.S. consumer capitalism. Historians like Ralph Willet identified imperialist motivations within the American business community and government. Carrying this argument even further, others, such as Emily S. Rosenberg, claimed that in the twentieth century U.S. foreign policymakers had purposely begun to spread American culture, information, and the concept of a free and open economy in order to expand the national market abroad. Here, culture identifies capitalism in its most materialist form, encompassing goods and ideas associated with such goods, both of which foster homogenization. Culture is thus turned into an instrument to fuse different societies into one international economic system. E. Richard Brown (1982) denounced U.S. medical and health education programs sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in pre-1949 China. They were a "Trojan horse," guided "in their conception and development by imperialist objectives." These programs, Brown held, "were more concerned with building an elite professional stratum to carry out cultural and technological transformation than with meeting the health needs of each country." The programs facilitated American control of foreign markets and raw materials.

The most persisting and intellectually challenging criticism of U.S. cultural imperialism, however, originated among a fourth group of scholars who redefined the debate into a critique of modernity. The arguments of Jürgen Habermas, Marshall Berman, and others followed the outline of the Frankfurt School, which had originally launched the postwar investigation of cultural imperialism. Building on the writings of Marcuse and others, they depicted cultural imperialism as the imposition of modernity. They studied how the primary agents of modernity, such as the media, bureaucracy, science, and other social and economic institutions of the West, transferred the "lived culture" of capitalism to non-Western cultures. These scholars admitted that members of a recipient society had choices but that these choices were conditioned and manipulated by the modern capitalist environment in which these societies existed. Culture and modernity thus became a global prison.

In the eyes of Habermas and others, "modernity" represents the "main cultural direction of global development." Culture entails capitalism but also mass culture, urbanism, a "technical-scientific-rationalist dominant ideology," nation-states and a certain one-dimensional self-consciousness. The domination of these all contribute to the core meaning of Western "imperialism."

The critics of modernity were the first group that focused their analyses not on the question of agency but on the process of manipulation itself. They expanded the study from "American" to "Western" cultural imperialism that left out no field, no people, and no culture. While this perspective retained the term "imperialism," it also served as a forerunner for later trends in the debate over cultural transfer by moving the emphasis from the question of guilt to the actual process of cultural imposition. Because of its innovative approach, much of the critique of modernity has remained fashionable after most other critiques of cultural imperialism have ceased to influence the debate.

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