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Can capital, technology really create global cultural prosperity?

By Chen Zhongyi | 2015-12-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The film Transformers: Age of Extinction directed by Michael Bay debuted on June 27, 2014.


Former US President John F. Kennedy once remarked in a speech that the US must be known for its culture rather than its military power. Over half a century has passed since the speech, and US culture has blossomed worldwide. Some scholars even consider globalization to be more a process of “Americanization.”

Commercialism, global culture
Today, globalization has become an established fact that is not merely confined to the economic sphere.
McDonald’s, KFC, Plants vs. Zombies, as well as the Harry Potter series and Transformers are becoming common memories of children all over the globe. The disparate values and aesthetic orientations of the young are converging worldwide. At the same time, a sense of membership in the “global village” is intensifying.

The trend of urban integration and the abandonment of the countryside is irreversible. At the same time, national consciousness and moral responsibility are fading away. Unoriginality and nihilism plague literature much like poisonous food and counterfeit products threaten consumer health and safety. Still these attitudes are even worse because they are the means by which human consciousness is subdued and stunted. Classics are replaced with cartoons, and gourmet cuisine is substituted for  fast food.

First, what needs to be pointed out is that the biggest manifestation of nihilism is infinite pluralism and relativism, the essence of which is consumerism. In response to Western European classical culture and the ideology of the former Soviet Union, the US offers mass consumer culture as its countermeasure.

Frederic Martel, a notable French scholar who specializes in American culture, once pointed out that America’s cultural influence is derived from the entertainment industry and public culture, in particular Hollywood films, popular music, Broadway plays and bestselling novels. Second, transnational corporations pay sufficient attention to the demands of different nations, groups and individuals when manufacturing products. Cross-border capital is also the material means by which American mass culture is decentralized and stripped of its ideological character.

At the turn of the century, the business fable Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson became a bestseller, popularizing the slogan “moving with the cheese.” In the book, the moving cheese serves as a metaphor for change and adaptability.

There are two points that we need to think about. The first can be found in The Learning Revolution by Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos. Commercial operation is clearly a type of commercial behavior. To be more concrete, it refers to commercial hype that could be conducted through stock or negotiable security, or any other product, such as a car, household appliance, clothing, slimming lotion or breast-enhancement cream. It seems that each of the products could be the target of commercial hype as long as there is a disconnect between its real efficacy and the advertised trait.

The second is the practical significance of the “cheese” concept in Johnson’s book. We are indeed living in an era of transformation, in which things change rapidly and drastically. People can become wealthy or poor overnight. Every day, people go into business, get laid off or change positions. This is also a theme in Chinese writer Mo Yan’s collection of short stories Master, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh. Thus, people have become desensitized to the hustle and bustle of life.

No one knows what tomorrow holds. Today’s world is a far cry from pre-modern society, which was relatively static and stable. The lifestyle of getting up at sunrise and going to bed at sunset is no longer a guarantee of a worry-free life.

In a world that is constantly changing, no one can rest easily. And this is the cultural background of Who Moved My Cheese?

Who Moved My Cheese? is merely a simple didactic story about change and how the four characters deal with it. And from the perspectives of a parable, it seems too simple and naive, lacking the literary value of traditional parables. The Ant and the Grasshopper by Jean La Fontaine is smarter. And though it is only a few sentences, the old Chinese allegory of “waiting every day under the tree in hopes that a hare will kill itself by crashing into the tree trunk” transcends the story of Who Moved My Cheese? in profundity. It’s unfortunate that such a simple story is offered up as a panacea for the world’s problems.

Hollywood films, American politics
In addition, some artistic and film researchers have summarized the way that American feminists criticize the Hollywood model. First, Hollywood is an audio-visual world with masculine discourse at its core. In this world, what plays the decisive role is men’s perspectives, while female images, which are depicted as stylized and sensual, are visually objectified. Women in film are meant to be visually stunning and to create emotional impact while serving as the subjects of the male gaze to satisfy the sensual desires of men. Second, as objects, they are always an accessory or appendage of male heroes as well as the tools by which men realize their objectives. Third, the mode of the mainstream Hollywood creation basically rejects heroines because they are usually just filler in stories.


In the 1940s, US President Franklin Roosevelt pointed out that film is the best weapon for affecting people’s ideology and notions. Based on such an understanding, he required the American film industry to be aimed at publicizing US policy and the government’s efforts, which had become the consensus among American leadership as early as the 1920s. Before Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson had commented that film should be counted as the most important media through which public information can be transmitted because it is able to effectively convey and display the country’s politics. Similarly, Herbert Hoover deemed that the significance of film not only lies in its commercial value as a commodity but also in its ability to represent the American lifestyle and influence. During World War II, there were no battles on American soil, providing favorable circumstances for America to vigorously develop its film industry. The industry was further boosted by President Roosevelt, who believed it to be a good vehicle to publicize the war effort.

In 1947, Barry Meyer, a member of the board of directors of the Motion Picture Association of America, said that modern American films are incomparable exported goods that have important economic, cultural and political significance. In 1953, the escalation of the Cold War prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to establish the US Information Agency (USIA) and its affiliated broadcast and television divisions. The goals of the agency, which was dissolved in 1999, were to explain and advocate US policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures and to provide information about the official policies of the United States, and about the people, values and institutions that influence those policies. In addition, it is also aimed to give the world a view of the United States that counteracted negative portrayals of America in propaganda as well as to help people better understand American politics through its culture.

Post-modern consumption
So now let’s come to the commonality between Hollywood and capital. Propelled by two driving forces, both of them are sweeping around the world: one is pseudo-multivariate and the other is popularization.


The so-called diversification and internationalization of Hollywood films, in essence, is Americanization. Richard Pells, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Texas who specializes in art, music, movies and globalization of American culture, once commented that as early as 1930s, the world began to know about American products and its lifestyle, behavioral mode and values of its people through Hollywood films. The rich and inviting Hollywood films gave Europeans the desire to drive American cars, smoke American cigarettes, eat American food and dress in American attire. To some intellectuals, Europe is now losing interest in its own culture and traditions.

The strong appeal of American films is a source of strong anxiety for French writers, who worry that the possibility that the chic of Paris and its role as the world center of art will gradually be overshadowed. Their fear of the impact of Hollywood films is no doubt exaggerated, but this attitude is not confined only to France but has also spread across the whole European continent, causing intellectuals to worry that Hollywood is disintegrating their national identity.

Moreover, popularization is an important tactic adopted by Hollywood films. In terms of the box office, Hollywood films, which account for merely one-tenth of the overall global film output, now account for 70 percent of total world movie  earnings. The American ideology and lifestyle are woven into many moving stories with various topics, such as The Shawshank Redemption, Gangs of New York, True Lies and Saving Private Ryan, which seek box office earnings from the audiences. They advocate themes central to the American spirit, like the triumph of justice over evil and the primacy of human rights over government authority. Dances with Wolves and other films are original and ingenuous displays of multiculturalism and peace. Braveheart, however, inherited the traditional American spirit of independence and freedom. Titanic and other films adroitly borrowed from the story of Cinderella. All this, while providing sensory delight and spiritual pleasure, instills American values, aesthetics and conceptual styles into world audiences while skillfully promoting the American lifestyle and commodities across the world by advertising their internationally known celebrities’ food and clothing. But admittedly, it is such smartness that makes Hollywood outstanding.

Therefore, such “universal values” not only meet the demand of a dominant culture, facilitating the transnational flow of capital and globalization but also satisfy the general public. In the context of modernization or post-modernization, such multivariate culture directed at popularization and recreation complies with the proneness and preference of the general consumers, or as Neil Postman put it, we are “amusing ourselves to death.”

Chen Zhongyi is the director of the Institute of Foreign Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.