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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Does America Have Any Culture?

" ... Here's what happened: I'm teaching a class on twentieth-century popular culture at the University of Leipzig. I don't know why the school asked me to do this, but it did. And it turns out that any seminar on U. S. consumer culture is extremely attractive to every non-American kid majoring in American studies, because ninety-six students signed up for the class in the span of three days. Due to the size of the classroom, I was forced to immediately reduce this number to twenty. I was unsure how to do that fairly, so I decided to give them a competitive online essay test before the first day of class. The question was this: "Who do you consider the most interesting twentieth-century American -- not necessarily the most historically important, but the individual you find most personally compelling?" The responses were well written, habitually understated, and devoid of any pattern whatsoever.
Since my arrival in Leipzig, I have continually been reminded about the way many Germans view American culture. They essentially feel it does not exist. One grad student only half jokingly told me that an entire semester of American cultural studies "should probably take about twenty-five minutes." But this, of course, is crazy. Now more than ever, I feel certain that the United States is as good at manufacturing culture as the rest of the world combined, probably because we often do so accidentally. A lack of culture is not our problem. The problem is we've become too effective at distributing that culture -- at the same time, in the same way, and with the same velocity. It all ends up feeling interchangeable, which makes it all marginally irrelevant. As it turns out, my initial question was beyond impossible. There are no interesting twentieth-century Americans. There can't be, because they all are."

Chuck Klosterman (for Esquire) goes to Germany to teach a class. His students teach him a lesson about how the world views us: Does America Have Any Culture? (via Unpop)