Cultural Imperialism - The future of cultural transfer studies

At least four points of the debate on American cultural transfer abroad and on the question of where students of cultural transfer should turn next merit scholarly attention. First, the Internet revolution represents one of many events pointing to both globalization and multiculturalism, implying that Americans may no longer be able to agree on the substance and meaning of their culture, let alone agree sufficiently to export the idea of an American culture. In a way, this discord echoes the original conviction that Americans have no culture worthy to export.

Second, at the same time, the American public has once again begun to fret over the portrayal of American culture abroad, thus reinventing the discussion of the 1950s. On 8 June 1997, the New York Times Magazine published a special issue titled "How the World Sees Us." International observers reluctantly admitted the preponderance of American power and culture. But they also stressed their respective countries' resistance. "American movies have achieved the impossible," exclaimed playwright Edvard Radzinsky in one article. "Russians are so sick of them that they have started watching films from the days of Socialist Realism." And American commentators concurred. "Some of America's cultural exports are so awful that you begin to suspect that we're using the rest of the world as a vast toxic waste dump," editor Michiko Kakutani said.

Third, the center of the debate is changing rapidly. Until recently, the discussion centered on the nation-state, with a few significant exceptions. After the end of the Cold War, however, scholars paid more attention to the individual entrepreneur. The debate, that is, shifted from a nation-centered critique to the study of the impact of private business. This change of argument not only obliterated national boundaries but, equally important, transferred the object under investigation from politics to capitalism.

Fourth, until the late twentieth century the debate in the United States centered almost exclusively on that century. With only a few exceptions, discussants seemed to agree that the transfer of American culture had no history before the formal establishment of a program and then an agency that was in charge of projecting U.S. culture abroad. Yet sociologists tell us that bureaucratic formations follow rather than outline the way of a political trend or need. By shifting the notion of cultural transfer from formal government programs to nongovernmental encounters, scholars have increasingly realized that cultural transmission has existed everywhere and much earlier in time. Indeed, cultural transmission often preceded formal diplomatic ties. Although their findings were for many years ignored in the debates over cultural transfer, students of American history have for decades been investigating nineteenth-century ambassadors of American culture abroad. They have looked at missionaries in China, soldiers in Cuba, and the encounter between American settlers and Indian nations. They have investigated actors, as in the examination of the exodus and exchange of private groups including political émigrés, businessmen, and artists. They have also studied ideas and products as transmitted, for example, by scientists, poets, tourists, and museum curators. Their findings underline the general point that there was quite a lot of cultural transfer prior to World War I.

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