A Diffusion of American Culture in Western Europe since World War Two: A Crosscultural Survey

Article excerpt

Years ago, I was part of a summer teaching program in American cultural studies for European teachers of English, which took place in a distant corner of the Old World itself. We were there because European students had a lot of first-hand experience with American popular culture and their teachers wanted to build on this and transform the raw material into the energy of crosscultural understanding. On one of the first nights, we showed John Ford's great western Stagecoach (1939). I'll never forget what happened. I was sitting bunched in with the Americans somewhere near the front row. This was a film I hadn't seen since I was a little cowpoke. I was amazed, enthralled, oooing and ahhhing amid my fellow Americans. Time passed deliciously. Then I realized something basic in the room felt out of sync. At least two sets of sounds, feelings and reactions were going on-that of the American group and those of the Europeans. We were yelling encouragement when they were silent. Or we would be worried when they were laughing. We'd freeze in our seats like terrified ice cubes when they'd be wiggling in theirs like hot and happy movie theater glow worms. The two groups weren't getting the same messages. Were we even experiencing the same story? And thus began a very interesting topic of study.

What we are dealing with here is a story with at least six different characters and eight major themes. Our characters are the six most visible kinds of Americans or American forms of expression which have been vitally present in everyday European life in modern times: GIs, Tourists, Propaganda, Mass Media, Bohemianism, Consumer Goods. Eight basic ideas help to explain what happens when Americans meet, clash, integrate with or separate from Europeans: culture in general, emics and etics, the crosscultural, American culture in particular, diffusion, Americanization, generation, and rationalization. To begin, three basic assumptions.

First, I think a crosscultural history needs to be explained both in practice and by theory. The student must do more than expose events in the courtroom of history. One needs to follow what Emerson seductively called the law of undulation-analysis as a breathing process of heart and head, a balance of giving into experience and working that experience with a framework of theory. However: beware. Too much theory and one's infected with the subtle virus of jargon; too many facts and the communication roads get clogged with brute beasts. So, this will be more of a survey than a date by detail, every "i" dotted, exhaustive encyclopedia; tackle the big problems, get to the point.

Second, in cultural anthropology and among crosscultural trainers, one of the oldest metaphors for perceiving another culture is the iceberg analogy (See illustration 1). When we see the tip of the icebergthat iceberg being another culture-we perceive their forms of behavior, their words, customs, traditions. Then we hit the waterline and things get a bit choppy. Here are their beliefs, not always clear. Underneath the waterline, invisible to sight, are their values, assumptions, and their thought process. We would have to be an insider to know what they know unconsciously. Thus, when Europeans experience American popular culture, well, sometimes they see it and sometimes they don't. We are discussing American popular culture as it happens over there. It is not exactly American popular culture anymore. It's become an export culture, united to or rejected by their own "foreign" culture. Or, it's become a global culture, a way America builds its own version of a world-wide colonial culture.

Third, my analysis focuses on Western and nonEastern Europe in the period since World War Two. The effects of American culture on Western and Eastern Europe are two very different stories. The story we'll be looking at mainly happened during the Cold War (approximately 1948-1989). American materials and information were more or less freely available in Western Europe, more or less forbidden in Eastern Europe. …