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ISSUE:  Winter 1997
If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture. By Rob Kroes. Illinois. $27.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.

The myth of America stimulated the European imagination long before independence was formally declared and a republic forged, and has exercised a grip upon the mass culture of many nations that cannot be explained merely by locating the vectors of U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic power. From Utopia and The Tempest to Locke and Donne, from Tocqueville down to Huizinga and Myrdal and Laski and then to Baudrillard and Eco today, the New World has fascinated and disappointed and sometimes repelled. But especially in the wake of two World Wars and a Cold War, the United States could not be neglected—especially in the stuff that dreams are made of. One superpower dominates an increasingly interdependent planet in more than multiple-warhead missiles. More earthlings are familiar with “okay” than any other term; second is “Coca-Cola,” whose logo is more widely recognized than the symbol of the Red Cross. What such impact has meant for Europeans is the subject of this collection of essays, written by the chairperson of the American Studies program at the University of Amsterdam and the immediate past president of the European Association of American Studies. With his playful title, Rob Kroes refuses to be spell-bound by orthography; his fellow Europeans, however, have been spellbound by the ferocious vitality and dynamism of American culture. He thus joins a growing number of scholars here and abroad who have traced the astonishing trans-Atlantic diffusion of fantasies, tastes, and styles made in the U.S.A.

That nation is not the spitting image of the Old World; the author is not animated by hostility or even ambivalence but by a spirit of generosity and a sense of wonder. His nine thoughtful and engaging chapters are devoted mostly to the evolution of visual forms (like films, photographs, advertisements), to patterns of consumption and to the effort among intellectuals to articulate cultural standards. There is a unifying theme, but it is not what Kroes’s title might suggest. The shopping mall has undoubtedly displaced the dark Satanic mill as the representative site of capitalism, where consumerism and commercialism are triumphantly magnified. But only a paragraph in If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall describes such a site (in the ersatz-ethnic town of Holland, Michigan). Nor is this volume primarily concerned with recording the broader European disdain for mechanization and standardization (“Fordismus”), for the shallowness and banality that are the consequences of mass-marketing—in contrast to individuated craftsmanship and authentic artisanship. Kroes does not seem to mourn a bygone era, before citizens became consumers. Nor does he make conformism, which dismayed so many visitors to the United States, the keyword of his reflections. Instead it is “bricolage,” as contexts are ignored for the sake of rearrangement and something new is formed. As opposed to “the European sense of organic cohesion and integrity,” he writes, the United States can be envisioned “as a country of blithe bricolage, irreverently taking apart and recombining at will what to Europeans appears in the light of wholeness.” Creativity is revealed in reconfiguration, not through some pristine originality operating ex nihilo. He refers to a “characteristic American bent for disassembling whatever presents itself as an organically coherent whole, only to reassemble it differently.” Such “modularizing and recombining” propensities are not unlike the creolization that results when grammatical and syntactical rules no longer govern the languages spoken in places that are distant from mother countries. Or, as Indiana Jones announces in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “I’m making this up as I go along.”

Kroes’s essays are specimens of cultural studies, informed by semiotics rather than by social science. What fascinates him are values rather than interests; he diagnoses the force of myth rather than the myth of force. In If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall, the focus is upon what Marxists call superstructure, how “consumption goods can freely change their meaning, appearing in ever-changing configuration . . . turning into simulacra at the hands of the wizards of advertising.” The locus is Western Europe, with special attention to the Netherlands. Two influences are apparent in the text: the “myth and symbol” school that tutored at least one generation of Americanists by specifying distinctive national images and ideals; and the Frankfurt School, especially Walter Benjamin, who himself fancied the rearrangement of disparate objects and pioneered consideration of the reproductive rites of modern culture. Kroes’s method is rather unmethodical, however; and he permits himself few “close readings.” Even the phenomena that are least impressionistically inspected (such as the Seven Arts magazine’s notes toward the definition of American culture, the Farm Security Administration photographs of the 1930’s, the tabulation of the “Four Freedoms” during the Second World War, the vernacular debts that Godard paid in A bout de souffle, and the cinematic depiction of the Vietnam War) are presented in a manner that is tantalizingly brief. Of course no book on such a subject could pretend to be comprehensive, but the author is not quite ambitious enough. Kroes’s manifestly keen powers of observation, his breadth of reading, plus a linguistic virtuosity that no homemade Americanists can command (citations are also to works in Latin, German, French, and Dutch) all signal a missed opportunity to tackle topics more thoroughly than If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall displays. Because only mass culture is addressed, neither fiction nor poetry is explored, though the literary figure who is most frequently mentioned is predictable. “In one broad sweep of democratic catholicity,” Walt Whitman “embraced all and everything: the sublime and the mundane, the high and the low, the holy and the profane.” The bard of bricolage was, Emerson quipped, “a remarkable mixture of the BhagvatGeeta and the New York Herald.”

Because Kroes is Dutch, he can see quite clearly the subtle continuities and the gestures of resilience within his own culture, which is not merely a receptacle for powerful messages from abroad but is in fact interactive, sifting through and altering the foreign images so that Harlem isn’t merely superimposed on Haarlem. Holland’s relationship to American influence is not submissive but more like call-and-response, since this book is so attentive to what his fellow citizens have done with the inescapable music and movies and the merchandising that have been injected from overseas. That is why Kroes’s subject is not so much America as the European invention of “America,” which is a metaphor rather than the first modern, mass society. His America is not a society built on the place that Columbus found on the way to Cathay and Cipango, not something that was “discovered” but instead is something that is invented. It is not so much a continent as a construct, mediated rather than directly experienced. A Malaysian scholar has informed me that Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, is enormously popular in a city like Kuala Lumpur, where a joke nevertheless circulates that, if only Colonel Sanders had added the sensational and delightful local curries to the fast food he dishes out, he would long ago have been promoted to General. Hollywood occasionally knows better. According to film scholar Jon Boorstin, the original ending of Fatal Attraction was retained when it was released in Japan. For having tried to shatter Michael Douglas’s marriage, Glenn Close is not shot by Anne Archer but instead commits suicide, an act that has ritualistic reverberations. Whatever can be transmitted can be transmuted too, adapted to local sensibilities.

Kroes himself is of two minds, however, on the thoroughness with which foreigners have resisted the first modern (or even postmodern) culture. He can claim that “non-Americans will always find themselves in the position of people looking in from the outside, attending rituals of cultural consumption where the Americans are the only true connoisseurs,” and yet assert—three chapters later—that “we have acquired a set of cultural codes that allow us to understand American cultural products, to appreciate them, and to consume them as if we were Americans. We have no more trouble deciphering American messages . . . than does the average American,” whose rambunctiously democratic ethos the European aesthete might find vulgar and the European socialist might find exhilarating, whose landscape has been exalted as terrestrial paradise or feared as a howling wilderness, and whose institutions have been praised as progressive models for humanity or at least categorized as prefigurations of its future. Yet it is now doubtful whether any Western European would come to the United States, as Tocqueville did, to get inspired by domestic ideas for prison reform; nor would such a visitor fail to notice decaying and dangerous neighborhoods that hardly make “thine alabaster cities gleam.” To become modern (or postmodern) does not imply a yearning merely to imitate the condition of being an American, and how such distinctions have been negotiated in the Old World can be discerned in this sprightly guide-book.


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