Friday, September 11, 2009

Tom's America: The Phantom American

University of Washington. "What do you mean you didn't know I was Mexican?", asks one of my oldest friends. "When you first knew me, my last name was [incredibly Mexican]!"
"It just never occurred to me", I shrug. "I just saw you as a Korean-American Army brat".

"Well, I mean, my dad wasn't full Mexican. And I'm actually part Native American as well."

"I didn't know that either."

She pauses for a theatrical little sweep through a doorway. "So, you know", she grins, "I
am America!"

It's often put forward that all of modern life, particularly in gendered and racial spheres, is performance; but in the outposts of Albion, where American cultural colonisation isn't yet openly acknowledged, it's a whole nother thing. I am nursing a theory that a large part of the cultural malaise suffered by Antipodeans, our culture still young and impressionable, stems from a basic identity crisis: we're Americans who think we're still fundamentally British.

But it's not the British who have spent the past fifty-odd years (postdate it from Elvis) dictating directly to our unconscious. The hypnosis is all the more effective for its unintentional nature. American media doesn't mean to speak to us - even the most aggressively prescriptive American media is really only concerned with dictating ontological policy to, and reaping the price of admission from, Americans - and that is precisely why it has worked as effectively as it has.

Do most people in America make American movies (apart from in a hinky psychoanalytic cultural-dreaming sense)? No they do not: but they do consume them if they taste right, and this consumption is a fairly lucrative business, and so we have evolved to a point where America is better at making slick, digestible, articulate mass media than any other country.

And so the vast majority of movies and music and television consumed by a young non-American growing up in the English-speaking West (even one molded by the Tofu Years, on which more anon) gets to be American. And much of the American media worth a damn happens to be media that is concerned with either telling Americans how to be, or pointing out to Americans how they are.

So as to render this process less than totally irrelevant, non-Americans develop a kind of inner American, a Phantom American, which can then be by turns nurtured and chastised by American media. John Wayne was never congratulating us on our frontier spirit; neither Zabriskie Point nor Fight Club were directly chiding us for our complacent commercial slough. So we find the commonalities between Americans and ourselves, that we might get the most from what's on offer. If you're buying an Xbox game, you don't want half the disc locked until you buy extra content; if you're buying a movie ticket, you don't want half the picture's message to be addressed to someone who in no way resembles you.

The Phantom American grows with praise, learns from challenge, and takes criticism on board. By the time the Antipodean reaches adulthood, their Phantom American will have developed its own tastes, experiences and ways of thinking. It starts to have a noticeable influence on some peoples' speech, style, posture, movement. My best friend in Primary School was a guy who spoke almost entirely in the vernacular of American kids' television. He was an extreme - most people will restrict themselves to unconsciously adopting a gesture here, a speech pattern there - but it's rare to meet an Antipodean whose Phantom American isn't starting to peek around the corners of their regular identity, the way Christ's soul is said to have been larger than His physical body.

But the American has none of this. The American doesn't have a Phantom American. The American just is an American. Plenty of people in the US are very enjoyable folks as a result of their American-ness: self-effacing, gregarious, mindful of the best and worst of their country. But even the American who represents everything non-Americans despise about Americans - brash, self-centered, entitled, overly fond of fatty foods - is admirable insomuch as his American-ness has an unconflicted purity to it. Where we're us with a little bit of America on the side, they are America.

Across Seattle and America, flags are halfmasted atop skyscrapers. Flaccid in a gentle wind, they bow toward the Western-setting sun. It takes me a second before my Phantom American reminds me why this should be the case.


Iona said...

While there may be some truth to this notion of an Antipodean "inner American", my experience with them, particularly the one I work closely with, indicates that there are some marked differences in their thought processes. This can be quite jarring at times.

While we've certainly absorbed far more of their culture than is good for us, I don't think our national identity is under threat just yet.

Certainly, isn't fretting about New Zealand's cultural identity a marker of said cultural identity? Lord knows, it wouldn't hurt your Americans to engage in a little navel-gazing of their own.

ontic5 said...

A very interesting essay.
Here are some thoughts I had upon reading it:

I have never ever heard of ontological policy. Do you mean it in the sense that a policy tells the people how things are or in the sense of how things should be?

Your Phantom American as described in the sixth paragraph seems to be some kind of Tamagotchi.

I cannot say much about the influence of american culture on New Zealands own one, as I haven´t been there yet. There surely will be some degree of influence as there is an american influence nearly everywhere. Exemptions will probably be only North Corea or other rather closed societies. It´s reasonable to presume that american influence will be bigger in english-speaking societiees as the exposure to american culture will be much more directly there. It may also be bigger in societies that have a rather "young and impressionable" culture as you put it. But there´s also other things to considerate.

For example, is there anything like "the" american culture? From my viewpoint you can break down american cultures in many parts that haven´t much to do with each other. Compare for example the lifestyles of a midwestern farmer with that of a wall-street banker and both of them with that of a L.A. shop-owner of asian descent.

Personally, I find many different things in Hollywood movies. Some that I like, and some that I dislike. And I don´t think that it will be much different with New Zealanders.

After all, if you compare the laws/institutions of New Zealand, they resemble much more european ones than american ones. Prime example would be social security. So long as the (some) people in your country just talk in an american style/accent but don´t want to change the core principles of your society, I wouldn´t rate the american cultural influence as that big an issue.

someonefromsometime said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
someonefromsometime said...

-I deleted the comment the first time because i made so many spelling/grammatical error it was ridiculous. :)-

Firstly: Ontic5's comment is fucking amazing! not only do I think you hit the proverbial nail on it's head but this:

"Your Phantom American as described in the sixth paragraph seems to be some kind of Tamagotchi." -Ontic5

...was hilarious and true!

Any way,

My views on the subject (if I understand it correctly) are: "Modern" culture for english speakers stems basically from post colonial times upon which the English way of life split in two. Thus were created the North-American-culture and the English(England)culture.

"Back in the day" England had a larger "empire" and it influenced the -Traditions- and cultural roots of all the English colonies from South Africe to NZ and Australia among many others. So the English established the cultural background of what you call "the antipodeans".

OK then, now the American culture is transmitted through visuals, be it TV,media,pictures, most any modern means of communication.

So to sum up what I'm trying to say:

The English may have molded the basic cultural outline of many countries, but American culture-spreadage is not limited to that, It's limited to the amount of time you expose yourself to it through movies, TV, etc.

Thusly the Phantom America that people create within theirselves is a product of exposure to the American culture itself.

I hope someone can make sense out of what I said.

BTW Tom, the article was cool and I like your "phantom america" idea!

all the best,


Homage said...

@Iona: There are massive fundamental differences in our thought processes. That's what makes being here so weird: on the surface, things are basically the same, but underneath at the roots, there's massive differences. For instance, light switches go up to turn on!

Homage said...

@Ontic5: "Ontological policy" as in dictating what frames to view reality through. Your question brings up questions of prescriptivity vs descriptivity, which is a very good division through which to view American-influenced media, and I wish I could point you at a good starter text for that cause it's fascinating stuff. I first encountered the terms in Chris Turner's Planet Simpson, which I heartily recommend.

zwandy said...

that's me. I'm the Mexorean. :D
this post was nice, Tom, in the I'm-not-entirely-sure-I-understood-it kind of way. I've had a lot of interesting things to say on the subject of americanized Koreans, which also usually results in a lot of stuff being said that isn't entirely understandable. at any rate, it always makes one think, and this post made people think.
it was all the more enjoyable for the commentary that it inspired. I wonder if your readers are mostly Kiwis or from the states?

Homage said...

@Zwandy: Well, comments are from a Kiwi, a German, a Mexican and a Mexikorean, and there was an RT from a Kiwi ex-pat in France. My fans are a cosmopolitan bunch!

ontic5 said...

I just ordered "Planet Simpson" from amazon, will probably report on it and the whole topic you brought up here in my own blog shortly. The whole topic of culture is really something I´m interested in.

Homage said...

@Ontic I'm so glad you're looking into this sort of stuff. It really is a fascinating area. If you like Planet Simpson I can probably find some more stuff you ought to peep.