Does America still make the world go round?

The United States has ceased to be the bearer and emblem of modernity. Cultural imperialism is ending. It is time to remember that this culture, as adulated as it is reviled, is itself the result of countless crossbreedings, as in the rest of the continent.

In 2016, invited by a major Chinese university, I was waiting for the elevator on campus. In the lobby, a television screen kept replaying the opening of the Disney park in Shanghai. Triumph of Americanization over Mao’s China, a few steps from a building dedicated to the study of his thought, or, to borrow the phrase of the Brazilian Mario de Andrade, Chinese-style “anthropophagy” in the process of appropriating the mythical universe of my childhood and that of millions of Westerners? The question is major because it affects the near future of our planet. So major that we cannot leave it in the hands of think tanks from all sides or sociologists of culture, usually insensitive to the historical perspective without which both the rise of Americanization and its visible decline escape analysis.

What is Americanization? In this work, Ludovic Tournès, professor of international history at the University of Geneva – to whom we owe a handful of notable works on music and the United States – offers us a set of clear and precise answers in which he explores the meaning of the overused word, probes its material foundations, explores its political, mythical and artistic expressions by reviewing painting, music, cinema, areas often neglected by general historians. Hence his questions: what are the relationships between Americanization and globalization? How does democratic messianism embody the American model? How does it spread and what is its cultural impact? Let us add the relevant reflections on the idea of ​​mass production, Fordism andAmerican way of life which lead to the question: “Is the world’s culture American?” and the conclusion: “The XXIe century will not be American.” The United States has ceased to be the bearers and emblem of modernity. The failure of the announced cultural submersion, a prestige eroded since the 1960s, the correlative rise of a “structural anti-Americanism” (p. 169), linked to the international disengagement initiated by Obama and accelerated by Trump, largely account for this.


We will remember the importance of crossbreeding in the emergence of American “cultural dynamics”. The case of jazz is well known, that of painting with its comings and goings between Old World and New World is less so, but just as convincing. Let us take the case of film production and the film industry to illustrate the relevance of these analyses. The internationalization of American cinema provides a precise illustration of a process which passes through different stages during the XXe century by operating differently depending on the continents and countries. At a time when China has just risen to the forefront of this activity, it is good to look back on this past which concerns us all since it forged the Western imagination of the last century. Still haunted by the memory of the Americanization of France (The Beautiful American by Robert Dhéry, 1961), we forget or ignore that Hollywood penetration followed other paths in our neighboring countries. Thus “the films made in Hollywood-on-Tiber, as Cinecittà was then nicknamed, largely contributed to the popularity of Hollywood cinema (during the Cold War) as well as to the prosperity of Italian cinema as a whole.” With the triumph of the peplums and the vogue for spaghetti westerns has raised Italian film production to second place worldwide.

In other words, there can be no study of Americanization without an analysis of its reception and the strategies of relocation that it implemented to circumvent the defenses put up by governments, strategies that often consist of counting on the collaboration of colonized countries. The Hollywood offensive can also come up against a total closure (Mao’s China) or, more exceptionally, a cinematographic response that matches the pressure exerted by the Californian studios: this is the case of India. But it is the examination of the mechanisms of China’s opening and its capacity to domesticate the Hollywood monster – to the point of having now, it seems, overcome it – that will attract more attention, as the way in which the Middle Kingdom neutralizes the most spectacular and penetrating expression of the Western imagination prefigures the action that could be its own in other equally crucial areas.

Europe’s contribution

But if the work confronts us with the mechanisms that operate within the intercontinental mixes that mix traditions and creators, it also reminds us of the mixed origin of the forms that appeared within the United States. Before exporting its productions, Hollywood benefited from the influx of European filmmakers. It is, in the words of Ludovic Tournès, “the hybridity of Hollywood cinema which allows it to create both Americanness and globality”, adding that the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is ” the perfect illustration of the mixes made by the studios.” Behind the words “patchwork”, “DIY”, “concatenation” or “composite”, we easily restore the multiple mechanisms which are at the origin of American cinema: adaptation of European genres and graphic styles, standardization and industrialization of production, vertical concentration, technical innovation. The complexity of the crossbreeding which affects most expressions of the existence of this nation – but which also operates at the heart of the formation of all Latin American nations – is carefully described to us through a number of examples which allow us to follow its mechanisms, turns and outcomes.

What about the rest of America?

One cannot exhaust such a subject in 450 pages. And it would be easy to point out gaps in the analysis and the journey. Let us simply indicate a few avenues that could extend this reading and renew our perspectives even more. First, on the notion of Americanization. It is always approached from the angle of the United States while we observe another process of Americanization, this time of continental scope, centuries before the creation of the United States: we think of the way in which, from Tierra del Fuego to California, the Spanish and Portuguese colonizations ended up suffering the backlash of a process of Americanization triggered by the waves of crossbreeding that responded to the multiple forms of Iberian expansion. Let us admit that we ignore this prehistory even if we realize today, in the context of a global history, that it marks the start of the globalizations that have followed one another since the end of the XVe century.

But why, since this is a “world history,” not extend the investigation by delving deeper into the effects of Americanization outside the United States? If “the hybridity of American cultural objects is an undeniable factor of Americanization” (p. 94), this hybridity appears in all the countries of the New World. How can we not think of Afro-Brazilian music when talking about American jazz? Are Iberian crossbreeds different from American crossbreeding? While today the original population Latina occupies ever more land on the soil of Gringolandia we want to question the impact of this progression on the destiny of Americanization. Rightly, the author devotes numerous analyzes to cinema. In a world history, the barely outlined trajectory of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu could have judiciously extended and updated the analysis of the transformations of cinematographic production by going off the beaten track (from Kurosawa to Sturges) to evoke the progress of Mexican filmmakers from the 1930s to the present.

Finally, it is possible that by comparing Americanization and Americanization, in other words phenomena as distant as the Americanization of Mexico in the 1950s and the Americanization of France or Belgium, we obtain a finer image of the processes involved. works to USA and the various modalities of their local reception. It would also be an opportunity to better distinguish what is “cultural” from the political, economic and financial issues that we usually associate with American imperialism.

In fact, seriously considering all these issues and mechanisms would have doubled the volume of the work and it would have been necessary to mobilize other skills and move away from the angle chosen by the author. The planetarization of theAmerican Way of Life and its impasses are complex processes that require the consideration of multiple dynamics and temporalities on five continents. This work has the merit of opening the debate by providing us with a quantity of materials and reflections, without ever ceasing to be an enjoyable read or imposing on the reader the often emaciated jargon of the social sciences in their “Americanized” version.