Notes on "Amerikaexperten"
On a very particular breed of (German) storytellers about the United States ... and on being one of them
We have just passed Greenland, with four hours to go to Frankfurt Airport. I’ve been making flights like these for 27 years now, and there is a moment on every a transatlantic flight where I suddenly become aware of how much German is spoken around me, where I finish the book I bought back at the airport and start trying to sneak a look at what others are reading. And where I inevitably catch wind of a bestseller or publishing trend I had been previously unaware of. Some kind of self-care thing, or a new Scandinavian thriller series, or a new essay collection about how we don’t have x or y anymore. For someone who reads and writes a lot of German texts, it’s a fun but disorienting moment. It’s when you realize that you’ve been away for a while again and that life which seemed preserved in the amber of memory, improbably enough, has gone on. Given that I contribute (pretty obsessively) to the same print culture that always surprises me with the mere fact of its existence somewhere over the ice caps, it’s also an odd moment of self-recognition.
I have no idea if reflections about that moment are of any interest to my subscribers, but I am hoping that in the aggregate my observations can get at something about Germany’s (maybe Europe’s) relationship to the US that has preoccupied and disquieted me for some time. I should point out at the outset that I won’t be able to reflect on that relationship in the sense of taking a step outside of it, coolly assessing it. I have endeavored to do that elsewhere, but as I head to Frankfurt, it would be absurd to pretend that I could divorce myself from the participation in these circuits of cultural exchange enough to coolly reflect on them from some abstract repose. Put simply: the existence of these circuits is the only reason I’m here in the first place, waiting for the plane to begin its descent.
So let’s start with context: I’m here to give talks around a book – Cancel Culture Transfer – and a few additional lectures having to do with an earlier book – What Tech Calls Thinking, which was published as Was das Valley Denken Nennt in German. Two books in two years that, at least in the German reception, became very much about the relationships Germany, France, Europe in general have to the US and its cultural influence. When the tech-book came out in the original US edition its question was mainly: why has the US public become so fixated on Silicon Valley, and how is it rearranging its conceptual arsenal under the spell of that fixation? Once the German and French editions came out, I realized that Europeans were asking a related but different question: “why are we as Europeans so fixated on Silicon Valley, and what does that fixation say about our relationship to US culture, and in particular US cultural dominance?”
In What Tech Calls Thinking I tried to describe the “imaginative capture” by which Silicon Valley had come to stake a solitary claim to the future — as though the only thing that future years could bring were zippier gizmos and technical solutions to big human problems. Europeans were asking those questions too, of course, but they were superimposing them with another, comparatively timeless set of questions. The dominance of Silicon Valley’s narratives about progress and disruption, success and failure, communication and community were for European readers just one more way of seeing the world that came to them from the US unbidden, pre-formed and insensate to local questions and concerns. Like Hollywood narratives, like consumerism, like Disneyworld, like suburbanization, like DriveThrus, like social justice discourses, like, like, like.
When this comes up at events or in interviews I hasten to add: to some extent that perception is almost invariably wrong. Silicon Valley solutionism didn’t trickle into Europe independent of the wishes and preferences of Europeans. Whether or not they ascribe to Silicon Valley almost preternatural creative energy and idolize its founders, or whether they assume that all these founders do is part of a carefully calculated dystopian vision, Europeans often seem to like seeing themselves as the passive recipients of what in point of fact powerful interests among them are quite consciously adopting. Just as an example: much of the European fixation on Silicon Valley strikes me as ideologically motivated, a libertarian fable for publics that have very little actual appetite (or experience with) libertarianism.
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