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An interview with Jaap Kooiman



Jaap Kooimans, senior lecturer of Media and Culture studies at Amsterdam University, gave a talk yesterday afternoon called ‘Karaoke Americas’. In it, he argued against the idea that “The West” is falling apart. According to him, the idea of “America” is one that will remain dominant in global (pop) culture, even after the United States of America have long since been overshadowed politically and economically by China, India, Brazil and others. He makes the essential distinction between “American”, culture produced with American codes that reinforces American ideals, and “the United States”, the country.

Kooimans shows that there is such a thing as Americanisation by non-US entities. As examples, he names IKEA, which is Swedish, and The Voice of Holland, which is Dutch. This television program functions on very ‘American’ interpretations of meritocracy and talent, even though it’s not from the US itself. Kooimans goes on to show that pop culture from around the world now tries to play by American rules, even in countries such as China and India. He goes into more detail about this argument in his new book, Fabricating the Absolute Fake, which can be found here (for gratis! Add this to your reading list, Impakters, it’s good stuff). I sat down with Kooimans after the talk for a flash interview about the internet, culture criticism, and age.

Impakt: On the internet, more than perhaps any other medium, the discourse is decided upon by American multinationals. Could it be said for my generation, the digital natives, there is no such thing as a non-Americanized culture in the way there was for your generation?

For the entire post-war generation, American pop culture has always been omnipresent in the Netherlands. So I grew up with American culture as much as you did, even if I’m a pre-digital person. In one way, you could say that the digital age is less Americanized, since mass media has become more diverse. It’s more more difficult for one form of pop culture to be dominant, since there are so many outlets. In my work, I have kind of avoided the digital, since I still see cinema and television as very dominant mass media.

But I don’t think there’s much difference in generations. One of the things I do in my courses on this topic is make students write an autobiographical essay based on Chris Keulemans The American I Never Was [a piece in which the artist describes his life by way of the American pop culture he consumed on the way - red.]. You get really different forms of essays. And there you see that what is considered American is actually really subjective. I gave the example of the talk that for my generation blue jeans were a form of Americanness, and they’re really not anymore. Now there are other things that are signs of Americanism. And yet, for my students, for myself, and for the generation of my parents, it’s very likely that the first film they ever saw was a Disney movie.

Impakt: How do you think that artists can get their message across in the over-saturated media landscape these days?

They have to think about the bombardment of signs, Baudrillard’s term. He argued that this would implode, not explode, because we have such an overload of meaning that it becomes meaningless. And we do have that. But I don’t think we can get out of any system, except if you go live on a deserted island. It’s always a very difficult question.

When I teach my students about neo-Marxism, I think I am preparing them to become independent, critical thinkers. But at the same time, all those media-savvy people that I teach end up working to make the media more savvy. All the people working at multimedia companies all know how to analyze media. They know how it works. And they’re using this to make better films. I’m not saying you have to be cynical, but you have to be realistic.