Monday, May 19, 2008

Viral Culture - Mono- and Multi-

The subject of American culture came up the other day. Actually, one of my staff here in Ireland made a bit of a joke about it:
Question: What's the difference between America and Yogurt?
Answer: After 400 years Yogurt would develop a culture!

It's actually quite a cute joke and I laughed hardest...but then I came back with, "If we have no culture in America, why are folks on this side of the Atlantic so keen on importing it?"

He had to concede that there was truth in the implication.

First, let me be clear: No offense was intended or taken by either party to this little dialog. We joke about our respective cultures around here a lot.

But I started thinking about it. We Americans actually take a lot of ribbing for our so-called lack of culture...from the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the English, the Irish, and it seems, everyone else in the world. We are constantly told that America has no culture. I've heard this off and on for 30 years of traveling the globe. I've never given it much thought beyond the "oh yeah, then why do you keep importing our fast food" stage.

And then I think I came to a sudden realization the other day:

The reason America seems to have no culture to other parts of the world is that we don't have A culture...rather, our name is Legion, for we are many (please feel free to insert snide biblical comment here).

When we look abroad, Americans see Irish culture, English culture, French culture, Japanese culture...all nicely monolithic. In fact, one can describe it as seeing a monoculture (to borrow a term from agribusiness)

But when you look at the US, you see eastern culture, midwest culture, california culture, southern culture, Mexican-American culture, African-American culture, Japanese-American culture, Chinese-American culture, Italian-American culture, German-American culture and Irish American culture. To name just a few ... go to Minnesota and discover Scandinavian-American culture...drill down a bit and discover Norwegian-American culture versus Swedish-American culture.

These are more than just politically correct ethnic labels. They attempt, perhaps clumsily, to capture the amazing and improbable fusion of a distinctly US culture (with its fascination for mobility and fast food, casualness and aggressiveness) and the culture of peoples who came into the US bringing and preserving aspects of their original culture. The result is a strange metamorphosis that is understandably difficult for outside observers to grasp.

Tex-Mex food is NOT, repeat NOT, Mexican food. Tex-Mex culture is NOT Mexican culture. it is a synthesis of two tastes, flavor sets, attitudes and points of view to create a third point of view that is new and different.

It is culture imported, sampled, modified, re-contextualized, and shot back at you. And consequently, there is so much of it, in myriad combinations, that it can be hard to see and recognize.

Our US culture is so Multi- that recognition of it is an NP-hard problem, perhaps. And when we look at other nations and cultures, we see an interesting, entertaining, but ultimately mono- culture. This is not necessarily a fair assessment, but, seen through American eyes, each country seems very ethnocentric in style and language and music and art and thought.

As compared to the diversity of culture I have to consume and respond to in a city such as San Jose, CA where there literally is no ethnic majority, walking down the street in Galway is a purely Irish experience, not a japanese-indonesian- mexican-californian-american one.

Galway prides itself on being culturally diverse as evidenced at a major parade this year and that is true. And it is very accepting and inclusive of other cultures, but the volume is so much greater in the US that it is suddenly understandable to me why non-Americans look across our land and fail to see an identifiable American culture. Is it Disneyland? Or Chicago? Las Cruces or Las Vegas? Salem, MA or Salem, OR?

All I can say to my friends on this side of the Atlantic is that you must look for an American Culture in the bizareness of our being. we ARE Tex-Mex and Philly Cheese Steak, Grunge and C&W, McDonald's and The Four Seasons, KFC and Sardi's.

We are the Kennedy Center and the Caesar's Palace, Falling Water by Frank Loyd Wright and Dancing Frogs in Carl's Corners.

So when you say America has no culture, what you mean is that it has no single culture. What it has, my friend, after 400 years, is myriad cultures, blended, stirred, sliced, diced, confused, and convoluted. Actually, it's a bit like that Yogurt would be; chaotic and VERY messy.

But a hell of a lot of people around the world seem to want a piece of it...and we happily export it. So feel free to take it up, import it, sample it, modify it, re-contextualize it, then shoot it back at us...and we will build a neighborhood around it.

ain't it cool?