Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

New Lealand culture?

William D. Routt


Review: Geoff Lealand, A Foreign Egg In Our Nest?: American Popular Culture in New Zealand (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1988), 126 pp.


Geoff Lealand must have been aware from a very early age that six sevenths of his name was the same as the latter part of his homeland's. Perhaps even today he imagines a place called 'New Lealand', where people are a bit more reasonable and not on your case so often about liking American movies and TV and rock 'n' roll. In New Lealand there would be calm and considered debate about cultural issues instead of paranoid chauvinist hysteria. People would want to preserve the small, simple things which spoke to them of who and what they were - but they would also want to enjoy the excesses and extravagances of imaginary entertainment, no matter where that entertainment came from. And they would be able to do so without the fear of losing their True Identity which seems to infect New Zealanders, and so much of the rest of the world, today.

This, at any rate, is the state of things toward which his book, A Foreign Egg In Our Nest?, seems to be pointing. It is, in other words, a reasonable person's version of the issues raised by 'cultural' or 'media imperialism': that probably local cultures are stronger and more resilient than most media analysts and cultural guardians seem to think, that colonial and dominion culture is still in the process of being created (so also is the rest of the world, but no matter), that the appetite for local culture and the resources needed to make it flourish are much smaller and much larger respectively than is usually acknowledged, and that the evil effects of American popular culture are much exaggerated.

The book contains several interesting statistical charts, culled from sources readily available in New Zealand but not so easily accessible elsewhere, showing the national sources of television programs, popular recordings and feature films available in New Zealand over recent years. The percentage of material of US origin in these categories only rarely tops 50, which should not be surprising, but is. When he can, Lealand includes figures for Australian material, since one of his points is that Australia also has an impact on New Zealand's popular culture. I found the figures for Australian singles in the New Zealand top 40 in the early eighties - usually only 2 or 3 over the whole year - particularly suggestive, in the sense of leading to endless productive speculation.

The numbers involved are pretty crude ones, as Lealand himself acknowledges. They do not say much, and he does not try to make them say any more than that. When, for example, on page 85 he tells us that of the 116 feature films originating from 'Other' in 1960, 91 came from 'China', this is all he tells us: nothing about New Zealand's Chinese population, the international folding chair circuit, Taiwan and mainland China as 'film producers, the maintenance of cultural identity through alternative cultural channels, or indeed any other topic which this evocative figure might suggest.

Certainly such reticence may be commended as discretion, if reticence it is. But I rather suspect that reticence is not the explanation for such lacunae as this, and that instead something like forgetfulness or inattention is at work. Lealand's argument, if that is not too rigorous a word for the set of assertions which make up this book, never seems to go anywhere. It veers from topic to topic, skittering over the surface of things, more often than not merely summarising the positions of others rather than subjecting those positions even to cursory analysis.

More than this, a certain wilful ignorance is deployed here in a cause that I, for one, wish was supported with more substance. In the Introduction Lealand claims to be taking account of "British cultural studies . . emphasis on the ideological role of popular culture" (10-11), but in the book he spends most of his time huffing and puffing at the strawpeople erected by the silliest and least interesting of the cultural imperialism positions (Schiller and Tunstall, for instance) and drawing counterpositions from the 'uses and gratifications' approach which, although it is still not nearly as well-known as it should be in a culture as saturated by the United States as we commonly suppose, does not represent an effective answer to cultural imperialism - or, at least, not in the form of calls for further empirical research or caveats about the multitudinous influences on people's lives these days, which is how Lealand chooses to use it here.

At one point Adorno is mentioned, but, when you look, neither his nor Horkheimer's names are in the bibliography. In effect this citation, like much else in the book, is simply a condensation and necessary simplification of what others (presumably Hebdige and Frith in this instance) have said, a kind of nod in this or that direction as it seems appropriate. Perfunctory lip-service of this sort really ought not to happen nearly so often as it does in media writing.

Much more serious, because much more intellectually inept - and ultimately futile - is the book's sidestepping of Althusserian ideas of ideology/ideology as consciousness; and reality. This is the place where media imperialism notions are most seductive and where they appear to have most bite. It is pretty clear from one or two remarks late in the book that Lealand does know what these positions are, and for that reason the yawning gaps in the very eloquent paragraph which closes out the first chapter are particularly deplorable: We do have a popular culture of our own. It is small, understated, and sometimes unrecognised. We have our own little ways of doing things and seeing things . . . the list of things that make life in New Zealand in some ways different. But there are not enough for us and we have too few original stories to tell. If we are to build a more visible New Zealand identity, by enlarging our own popular culture, we must also meet the demands of popular culture by incorporating our own dreams, myths and fantasies into forms that are not invented here. The messengers are already abroad; we need only to place a New Zealand 'stamp' on the messages they carry. (36) I like this paragraph. I even, somewhat gingerly, accept what I take to be its basic position. But even the simplest neo-Althusserian would say that the key omission in it is whether New Zealand actually does have its own dreams, myths and fantasies, or whether, like the dreams, myths and fantasies of the rest of the world, they are all not simply American. And others would extend or alter that perception to say that 'the forms' of popular culture cannot be so separated from their 'content' as Lealand implies they can: that 'forms not invented here' will necessarily transform 'our own' into 'their own', New Zealand, like the rest of the world, into the United States. So long as objections of this nature are not taken into account, so long will books like this remain unconvincing and futile. Thus I find that in order to review this book properly I must go over some rather well-trodden ground. What we turn up here will, I fear, necessarily be commonplace and simple, since we will be sloshing through concepts which everyone knows in a mudhole characterised by exceptional intellectual simplicity. And yet it does seem that this phrase which everyone uses and everyone understands is a strange one, a great deal more evocative and metaphorical than it is precise and denotative. Just how are we to understand the imperialism of cultural/media imperialism? Originally 'imperialism' signified political domination, denoting 'empire' (evil empire, indeed); power maintained by monopoly of the means of violence for the purposes of economic/military advantage; physical control of land and people. And originally, the culture or 'civilisation' of an empire, more surely even than trade, followed its imperial banner. That culture is commonly portrayed as an inevitable lagniappe, or perhaps quid pro quo, for the economic and military advantage enjoyed by the empire. It is also usually portrayed as, on balance, a Good Thing. This is at least partly because the civilisation of the empire tended to produce people opposed to the excesses of imperialism, or to imperialism holus bolus. Imperial culture was not quite in line with imperial government: to be a citizen of the empire was a privileged state, whereas to be a subject of imperialism was not. In spite of the contradictions, imperialism in this sense is fairly easy to comprehend. 'Cultural imperialism' is rather more complicated - although everyone knows what it means. Cultural imperialism is the conquest of one culture by another. No, this is not strictly the case. The common usage of the term restricts it a bit more: it is, as Lealand points out, the conquest of other cultures by that of the United States of America. Cultural imperialism is a term rarely, if ever, employed in discussions of Great Britain, France, China, Japan, India - not to mention the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. How does one culture conquer another, when it is not done physically? The answer which is accepted these days is that 'the consciousness' of people is conquered, colonised. Their mental universe is invaded and transformed from one, presumably indigenous and positive state, to another, presumably foreign and negative. We are talking mind control here. Pod people. What is the benefit to the imperial power? Imperialism's motives are economic (and military) advantage. Economic advantage is gained by obtaining the goods and services of the conquered people at a bargain rate - including their service as a market for imperial products. Military advantage is gained by controlling their territory and, often, using the people as cannon fodder. The economic motive is dominant - that is, that military advantage is not sought for its own sake, but rather for the sake of obtaining or maintaining economic advantage. Does cultural imperialism lead to economic advantage? That is, does it foster in its subjects the desire to provide goods and services to the conquerors at bargain rates? Well, this would seem to have partly to do with the content of the imperial culture in question. What I would call, no doubt simplistically and retrogressively, 'totalitarian' culture would tend towards that end. It would lay stress upon the importance of subordinating individual action and desire to the desire of the (conquering) state. It would portray a mental universe in which the greatest satisfactions came from merging with the collective, with being a crowd.

Another sort of imperial culture, however, would exalt the action of individual heroes. In the world of this culture a person would be in conflict with groups and institutions, and the greatest satisfactions, material and mental, would come from defeating that kind of opposition. The subjects of this culture would not take kindly to accepting orders from abroad or to providing goods and services to anyone, aside from themselves, at bargain rates.

They might also prove difficult to convince to support the imperium militarily. 'What's in it for us?' they might ask, instead of, 'What's in it for the Good Guys?'

Which of these cultures, he asked just as rhetorically as his brainwashed creatures had asked in the paragraph before, sounds like the one we usually associate with the United States of America?

Capitalism, all the best analyses tell us, carries with it a bourgeois culture of individualism. 2 Such a culture is positively necessary for capitalism to function. Human beings have to be indoctrinated into capitalism by absorbing that culture virtually from birth. And it is easy to see how bourgeois individualism feeds capitalism: how it keeps the poor dreaming that there is a way out of their poverty, for example. It is even easy to see how it might function in that way, even for the majority, in a land dominated by foreign capitalism.

But it is not easy to see how it would function that way for the dominant few, the ruling class, the elite, the capitalists in such a land. For those, the culture of bourgeois individualism will engender a sense of competition, division, opposition. They will seek economic and personal advantage, perhaps even, or especially, in opposition to foreign domination. They will want independence.

Because the word 'imperialism' is used in the phrases 'cultural imperialism' and 'media imperialism', we conjure up images of people conquered and imprisoned. But culture does not work like that. Culture is not hermetic, not machine-tooled, not for sheep. Instead, culture is leaky, jumbled together, fit for rats and cockroaches. Culture is made up of conflicts and contradictions in tension, positions and viewpoints are in constant motion: there are always crow's nests and lifeboats and materials for making other craft.

And on this death ship it is difficult to know in what sense 'our own' is meant. I listen to Frankie Lymon singing 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love?', read Natalie Sarrault's words, or see Geoff Murphy's wonderful Utu, and feel as I have those experiences that they are 'my own'. But if I am not adolescent nor black nor female nor French nor a Pakeha, is this possible? (Better to ask, how is it not possible? how can anyone ever have seriously declared that it was not possible? But those are questions impossible to ask seriously these days, so I shall not ask them here: my lips are sealed with their kiss).

And surely Geoff Lealand, although he does not say it, feels that some of the experiences of American popular culture which he so much values are also 'his own'. He continues to think of them as 'American', however, which is a pity, because it obscures the point he lives and which his book illustrates: the internationalism of that culture. Popular culture marks itself off from local ('folk', 'national') cultures precisely in its ability to cross boundaries, to make itself available globally. American popular culture (if by this we mean popular culture produced in the United States) seems to me to be a grab-bag of identities, doubtless because of the historical heterogeneity of the place coupled with its relatively recent cultural ascendence and the peculiar tolerance engendered by popular culture's demand for novelty. Over time the variety has tended to increase even as the geographical source of that culture has become more and more dispersed.

In high culture, internationalism is a virtue. This is because high culture is accepted as the repository of the best humanity has to offer. It is likened to a magic land in which one seeks identity, not to invading hordes out to impose it. For high culture, local or national identities are lesser ones, insofar as they do not partake of what history has bequeathed to all of us, not merely to some. Yet high culture, as we well know, does not welcome the internationalism of popular culture any more than it does the localism of folk and national cultures - indeed, rather less. For it is precisely in that aspect of popular culture that high culture faces its most serious competition: both claiming to be cultures of and for humanity as a whole.

In high culture, inevitably the best of a national experience is rapt up in the best of human experience, and the internationalism of high culture is signified by its lack of a national modifier (it is called 'Culture', perhaps, or 'Art' or 'Civilisation' or another name). Yet surely your and my high culture is first of all the high culture of one or another nation. For most New Zealanders, as well as for many others including me, presumably that nation is England. Shakespeare is more familiar to me than Dante, Dickens than Hugo. More than that, the taste which tells me what serious music and serious painting and serious thinking set the standards for the rest are tastes which can usually be traced back to England and English culture, even when the practitioners of those arts are not themselves English.

But do I feel myself thereby a prisoner, enslaved by Pommy cultural imperialism? Or do I find that the very prejudices of English culture set the terms of multifarious ways out of national cultures and into someplace else? Surely the latter. And surely it is the case that the prejudices of 'American' popular culture are just as capable of shifting one out of what is, after all, a tenuous and ill-defined national identity of very little substance and conviction, despite its sometime shrillness and self-righteous posturing.

If I stop here it is because I have already roamed too far afield, hopping from furrow to puddle, hillock to bog. This book, which should be of great interest to anyone claiming to be concerned with the culture in which we live, seems merely to have served as the excuse for a polemic on certain matters which inform it. My disappointment with Lealand's theoretical armature should not be taken as criticism of the very real value of the book: what it tells us of New Zealand's popular culture, the commonsense stand that it takes, and the thought it provokes about our own situation.

Notes

1. Poor Dick Hebdige has his name misspelled in the bibliography. He must be used to it by now.

2. Or, rather, all the best analyses today tell us. In the fifties, when I was an undergraduate, bourgeois culture was the culture of conformity, that is, of collectivism in the extreme.


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