The idea of cultural imperialism does not come up very often any more. If anything, it seems to be about exporting ideas, than anything else– think, America making the world safe for democracy. And in a way, that’s right: cultural imperialism is the deliberate imposition of one society’s values/practices/beliefs/culture on another. In extreme cases, its done with acts of violence or focused on suppressing the subject culture.
There is never a 100% success rate though. In the process of trying to make someone else you, something called syncretism occurs. A hybrid of subject’s culture and the imperialist’s culture is usually the result. Most notably, this happens with religions, languages, and political systems. Examples are abundant: the various sects of Christianity, especially in Latin America, or the transformation of practicing Buddhism as it spread around the world. The ideas of Karl Marx as they were implemented in the USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam experienced the same sort of bastardization. As for languages, you get the various Creole and Pidgins — a pidgin being a simplified language for basic communication use between two groups that don’t share a language in common (think, simplified english), and a creole is a pidgin language that has become stable and used in its own right: for example, Jamaican creole uses an English vocabulary and a West African grammar– a creole is distinguished in that it is also taught to children in schools, becoming the native language.
Side note: remember George Orwell’s 1984? Languages and religions and political systems are the most effective tools of control, and most imperialism starts with superimposing them on a subject. Language controls the way you think, while political institutions (both governments and enforcement agencies) and religion control the way you act.
But once again, aside from America’s disastrous and late foray into conquering nations, this stuff seems awfully old. King Leopold no longer controls the Congo, France has left Vietnam, and the English stopped exporting opium to China, they keep it for their own rock scenes. Mind you, imperialism has simply morphed into something else– by no means is it gone. Instead of being a national project (one nation annexing another), it has become capitalistic. And that’s not as weird a thought as you might think.
Capitalistic cultural imperialism is like a fog that settles into a landscape and makes you think that it is the landscape. Its a big project that business has snuck into our lives without us noticing and changed the way we live. So what is this, then? Like national imperialism, cultural imperialism is still the imposition of values on someone else. However, the values and the reasons change. Capitalism has changed the dynamic of this: no longer are nations imparting their ideals on a people because they think they are right (see the Christian church’s missionaries) or because it is their duty (see Rudyard Kipling’s “the white man’s burden”), it is now done by companies looking to maximize profit. It works by turning culture into a commodity and people into passive participants (consumers) rather than active participants (producers). Companies work hard to influence your decisions to have you continue buying stuff and defining yourself with products, and these cultural commodities carry no intrinsic value. You may say, ‘sure, I know that, that’s what advertising is,’ but you probably don’t know how deep this goes into changing how we think and look at the world and how we live our lives.
However, I’m only going to cover a limited portion of what this is and how it works: there are three basic ideas I’ll discuss: characters, public space, and games. Especially with characters and games, this will probably not be how you generally think about them. To get a full idea, I’ll jump around a bit but I’ll try to keep it easy to follow.
First, games. If you followed the links around that Slava posted earlier, you’d have come across a talk called “Seth Priebatsch: The Game Layer on Top of the World“. It’s a really good discussion of how a layer of games is being constructed on top of our social world. He starts off listing credit cards, airline mile programs, coupons, things that aren’t really fun but use game dynamics to create loyalty in users– like in a videogame, you have credits and rewards, you can upgrade to better deals by sticking around, and are rewarded for doing certain things. And guess what? This influences your behavior. Being a college student in New York, and unemployed as of a month ago, I’ve found myself kind of poor, but I have these ‘game’ devices with which I can still participate in society. I have a credit card and a debit card, but instead of using the debit card and the money I actually have, I find myself using a credit card more. This is because it has rewards– another couple thousand dollars, and I can fly to Hawaii for free, maybe, with the points I’ve built up. Such a reward has drawn me in to the corporate world, and althought if I don’t manage my credit-money well (and I don’t, unfortunately), I’ll end up a slave to bills and bad credit, I’m still able to participate in buying things and getting rewards. By having a credit card that allows me to do this, I’m actually influenced into buying more things and spending more money than I have. Whereas a friend of mine would rather pack a lunch or modify old shirt into a new one, and not get caught in the trap– a credit card or a coupon influence you to spend more money than you actually have or should, because you can.
Seth Priebatsch continues: “We joke at SCVNGR that with 7 game dynamics you can make anyone do anything, so we are only going to show you 4 because we want to keep a competitive advantage”. The four he gives are:
- Appointment Dynamic — to succeed, you have to be at somewhere at a predetermined time and make a predetermined action.
- Influence and Status — the ability of someone to modify anothers actions through social pressure.
- Progression Dynamic — where success is granularly measured and displayed through the process of completing itemized tasks.
- Communal Discovery — where the entire community rallies together to solve a challenge.
I recommend watching the talk itself to fully understand these points, but you can figure most of it out from the description. Far from being features just in games, you’ll see this as you upgrade credit cards, go to job interviews, get diplomas and grades from school, and work on projects. Mind you, these are just dynamics– they can be used for both good and bad– not many people would argue that having grades to encourage you to learn better in school is a bad thing, but the pressure put on someone to become a doctor or lawyer could very well be– no one wants to be treated by a doctor who would rather be drawing a face than performing surgery on it. So think about how this works to influence our decisions, and how this will connect to how companies influence our culture.
Next, I want to bring up a “total culture” and “public space”. Though this can be a topic all of it’s own, here’s the gist of it: if you live in a suburb, think about where people generally gather. If you live in the city, think about the streets you walk down. Maybe 30 years ago, you’d find crowds a lot more parks, squares, and open spaces and people gathering there. In the suburbs you generally will find only two or so people in a park, hidden somewhere away from the rest of the community. In the city, walking down the street you’ll be hard pressed to find benches nowadays, a place to sit down and gather, a place that isn’t anywhere per-se. If not stores, you’ll find private homes or apartments that similarly discourage loitering. So what does this mean in terms of cultural imperialism, how does it connect?
Here: by removing traditional public space and discouraging grounds to gather on, a public culture is forced to participate in a capitalist element. That means, if you have no parks, you’ll go to the malls. If you have no neighborhood cafes, you’ll be herded into chains or the more profit-driven restaurants, all that have a philosophy closer to ‘get in, get out’ than ‘come and stay a while’. Starbucks is the perfect example of this: when it first opened up as a neighborhood cafe, even after spreading its first few stores, each one would be individually designed, with easy chairs, couches, nice tables, decorations. However, the owners found that people would often come in and not leave– after drinking the coffee, they would just lounge around and take up room. This was what was supposed to happen– people came and stayed for discourse, but in terms of business, as Starbucks spread, this was not profitable– comfortable chairs and tables were replaced with generic and mass produced seats that encouraged you to stay only as long as you had a drink. Mugs were almost done away with in favor of disposable cups which you could leave with and enjoy your coffee somewhere else. But where did that somewhere else go? Gradually a public space disappeared where people could gather and communicate and was replaced with profit driven stores that focused on getting you in to buy something, and then ushering you out. Most importantly, the emphasis became on consumption rather than anything else.
Once again: if there is no ‘free’ place to gather, enforced by the minimum rules of public behavior, an outlet for expressing personal culture gets replaced with an outlet for expressing capitalist culture. Capitalism suppresses you from participating, forcing you to consume. Or, if it doesnt outright do that, it segregates and discriminates, discouraging free social integration. In “The Great Good Place”, Ray Oldenburg writes: “Third places, however, serve to expand possibilities, whereas formal associations tend to narrow and restrict them (24)… the individual may have many friends, a rich variety among them, and opportunity to engage many of them daily only if people do not get uncomfortably entangled in one anothers lives (22)… even poverty loses much of its sting when communities can offer settings and occasions where the disadvantaged can be accepted as equals. (25)”. Certain social clubs do pop up nowadays, but they are exclusive: a club for the rich, or a club for a people of a certain interest group– they still lack open conversation and mingling that a space like a park would do.
Last, the bulk of what I was getting at, and one of the main evils I’ve been working at getting to, is about “characters” and how they get around and influence us. In Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s Instructions on How to Become a General in the Disneyland Club , a ideas among ideas is brought up about how adults create children’s books based on the idea of what children should be, not what they actually are. In doing so, adults try to create a refuge for themselves in the idea of an ‘innocent child’ (an idea going all the way back to Adam and Eve)– they thus end up influencing kids, creating simplified ideas about what the world is like, creating basic rules and guidelines that kids will often carry into adulthood. Look back at your own childhood: most likely, you will also have a book or a movie you watched as a little kid that influenced yopu a lot. And especially in America, this would have been made by Disney. So lets talk about how Disney is evil.
Characters, generally speaking, are symbols or placeholders for ideas, values, for something. The use of characters as symbols goes back two ways– literary, where a philosophical discourse was presented as a story, and through propaganda, where characters were used to simply someone or something to make them easier to deal with. Look at biblical stories, and look at propaganda posters, such as the ones during the ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ scares in America, with certain types of people caricatured into easy to deal with characters. That’s where the they come from– but where do they go? We’ll talk about three types of characters as carries of ideas: colonial, transnational, and global.
- Colonial characters — these are representative of nationalist values. America’s Uncle Sam is one such. Belgium’s Tintin is another. Tintin represented the good western person, traveling around the world, being compared to other cultures and people. See this article about how one of Tintin’s adventured was recently banned for its portrayal of, in this case, Africans in the Congo as simple minded and like monkeys. Then think about how this would have influenced someone, especially a kid. These sorts of characters rationalize a nation’s actions in a positive way, justifying actions.
- Transnational characters — of this sort of character, there does not have to be any nationalist values. Often enough, these characters carry some sort of moral or ethical value and often cross borders. Look at our fairy tales, collected from all around in Germany or France or Russia, and adopted for every language.
- Global characters — are similar to transnational characters, but do not have to be adopted for any differences in place– these are world accepted characters, created specifically somewhere by someone to cross borders, composed with something very specific in mind. They can be wordless like “Tom & Jerry” or motionless like “Hello Kitty” or symbolic like those of Disney or Hayao Miyazaki.
Global characters are the ones that present a big problem. They are created to be spread, much like a meme or a word virus spreads through you. Where creators like Disney and Miyazaki can infuse values (even positive ones!) in their characters, many characters are created with minimal value in them. They becomes tools instead, for spreading capitalist culture. In one instance, you have a character being created to humanize a product– look at the Marlboro Man, or Lucky Charms cereal. I mean, cowboys are cool so I want to be like them, and I sure would be less inclined to eat stale wheat and marshmallow puffs if it wasn’t the same thing Leprechauns ate.
Or, when not being used as branding, characters are created to be used as a self expression. Have you heard about all these anime conventions? Call it escapism, but people dress up like their favorite characters out of books or movies or games and pretend to be them. That’s cosplaying, where you can become someone bigger than yourself. Moreover, characters are not created as almost real people like you would find a novel by Virginia Woolf, but as character types, simplified so that more people relate to them. In his book “A Theory of Fun”, Ralph Koster points out that people will generally choose the same type of characters though different games. A business knows this, and will market this to you: as long as you will keep identifying with something they make, they will keep providing you with it and adopting to you. You begin to identify and define yourself by those characters, and on a larger scale, by the products you use. Gone is you defining yourself as a producer, replaced with you as a consumer.
Meanwhile, something like Hello Kitty accomplishes this slightly differently– you get an infinitely mutable character, able to be applied to anything, anytime, anywhere. It carries no meaning, a placeholder for both nothing and everything. Such a character works because it is like Thomas More, “a man for all seasons”. Furthermore, an entire industry of character mutation is moving in this direction. Japan come to mind, with it’s endless permutations of the same characters, whether simplified into chibi expressions, created into endless toys and costumes, adopted for any circumstance, adopted from any source. Concerning characters and transformation, Japan is like Las Vegas– where anything can become anything.
This sort of global character creates a different type of global culture than the one I mentioned earlier with private space. As I’ve already said repeatedly, once you start identifying yourself as something other than you, you have fallen into a foreign culture, a business scheme. Not to say that you can never identify yourself with anything else, but that it should not define you.
So you have a rough idea of what this cultural imperialism is all about, and how it gets its work done. The sum up and draw some conclusions: modern cultural imperialism isn’t capitalism, but it is an effect of capitalism. And when we talk about capitalism, we really mean big businesses– they engage in this imperialism not because of any outstanding values, but to create a mindset, to influence the people into buying more, into making more profit. It makes culture into a product and makes the product define who you are and how you interact with the world. This is because capitalism has the power to supply, and buying something is easier than creating something for yourself. However, this makes people passive consumers. But even a product that straddles the line between producing and consuming is still a product with certain goals– something like the phone application “Foursquare” can connect people and map a city, but it maps a city based on its consumable products, and connects only similarly situated people (ie, statistics are that most people using a phone app are middle to upper class white young males, quoted in this article about the rise of using phone applications). By removing an arena for free and open gathering and public purpose, this imperialism leaves us with little choice but to participate in it, with all of it’s own rules which are generally unlike how society really works. Culture begins to manage you, instead of the other way around, limiting your freedom, if not physically then mentally. By simplifying the world, society becomes a spectacle of generalizations forcing you to fit yourself into some preconceived shape.
So, what can be done? Maybe you read this far and think, “I agree but it seems pretty hard to do anything, cause business has a lot of power and control”. Or maybe you disagree (and we can argue it out then!), and say “things aren’t as bad as you make them out to be. This is all fine.” Maybe I would agree with the second one; maybe I do make things seem very bleak and dark for people, but I do think there is a big problem with how business manages our culture.
So then I saw, how do you rebel or change things? A friend of mine, talking about a crazy church somewhere said “well instead of counter-protesting it, why not just ignore it?” This line of thinking, if we ignore it, it will go away, works only for small things. You can ignore an individual here, or a group of crazy individuals there, but when it comes to giant powers trying to manage our lives (and succeeding), this doesn’t work at all. Especially because there is no way to escape culture: as John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” We must participate in culture, but we can also set our own rules how:
Where this capitalistic imperialism was once resisted by second world countries, namely communist ones like the USSR, China, or Cuba, isolated in themselves, like John Donne wrote, they can’t work forever because they are isolated. The USSR collapsed, as Reagan liked to think, under the weight of western capitalism. Cuba too is suffering. And China decided to open it’s border and play with capitalism as well, albeit more slowly and in a more controlled manner. But instead of being resisted by nations, capitalism is now being resisted by individuals and groups of people, communities. You have grassroots movements to create self sustaining communities. You has small art communities that make all of their own things. Yes, you have communes and communists, but you also have small time entrepreneurs with no thoughts to growing huge and rich and dumbing down their products. You have localized farms going against big business practices.
Instead of falling prey to the big and the generalized culture, people begin to react. This movement away is not a protest, simply a choice made by people to live life as they want to, not as pressure or status or business wants them too. Its a movement back to creating instead of consuming that fights this cultural plague. Capitalism is great in many ways and offers us tools to shape our worlds, but it’s up to us to actually use the tools.
Likewise, you have movement back to tradition, anti-colonialism. Outside of America, many countries have strong movements back to nationalistic identity, back to old folklore and practices and ideas and ways of life, as opposed to the global, modern, non-national ways. While I don’t agree with this (I think we should always move forward, not back– the past can teach us a lot, but lets not be stuck in it, lets use it to move forward), it is still a form of protest.
Public space still exists– I saw during my travels many streets, squares, cafes where people would gather without buying anything, where the rich and poor were together. People would sit and talk or play cards or backgammon all day if they wanted to, everyone equal in the public realm. Likewise, characters can still have values and not try to force us into types. Depth exists in literature, where we identify with parts of a character, where we can take a little big here and there– but we take philosophies and ideas for literature, not stereotypes and caricatures. And game mechanics can be used for good– as Ralph Koster also writes in his “A Theory of Fun”, games can be used for education– you actively participate in learning something because as opposed to a lecture or just reading, you learn by doing things. So in addition to whatever the subject matter is, you also learn how to teach yourself and work for something. Home schooling, outside of a traditional classroom governed by all sorts of biased politics, you get the same results: Kevin Kelley writes about teaching his son: “For the most part, learning at home is more demanding than learning in a classroom because it requires more self-direction. On one particularly long day, with books piled up and papers spread out, my son was slumped in his chair. ‘Is everything O.K.?’ I asked. ‘It’s hard,’ he said. ‘I not only have to be the student, I also have to be the teacher.’” (the link to the article).
So that’s that, both the short and long of it. Think about how media, capitalism, business, trends, social pressure all affect the ways you interact with the world. Examine what it means to participate in culture, and where you stand in it. Examine what has formed your self image, what has made you who you are. Culture is our reality, and do your best to make it personal.
Thanks if you made it this far,
Roman KudryashovRead More