The ghost of 9/11 looms large over the American psyche, says Soumabrata Chatterjee.
As a kid right out of high school, I became a sworn fan of America and everything related to it. I loved its food, its geography, and most importantly, I believed in the cultural topographies that spoke of a certain idyllic mathematic puzzle trying to create more problems rather than solving them. But I can, without doubt, point towards the origin of such an obsession. It was a meagre television series, not one of the best by any standards, yet I lived and died by it back then. What made it so special, now that I look behind and try to understand all that’s wonderful and pathetic about America? Was it the cavalier attitude that most of its action heroes presented? Or was it the deep-seated cultural heterogeneity that it proposed it stood for? Or was it simply about a dewy-eyed kid smitten with what I can now understand is the insurmountable American dream?
The reason I had to go back to that memory is quite simply to tether its unbridled passion for a country to what its ideological underpinning might be in the very present. Over the years, while we have carefully tried to adopt certain facets of modernity, we have always failed as a unit to make it uniform across various parts of the country. While that is true, what is even truer is the fact that a large part of American culture, especially its fast food chains and beverages, have slowly but surely gained a strong foothold in the Indian market. In fact, it is not only in the metropolitan city, where we always look analytically for details regarding changing structures of modernity and borrowed notions of urbanisation, but also in the mofussil, which is probably a little different from the traditional suburb in its peculiarity and cultural insularity.
America has become not just a country but one of the most important cultural influences of our time. It has become an object of obsession and pride that often takes the form of a neo-imperialist structure whose origin is material and geographically defined—it is a country, after all!—but whose implications are largely ideologically invasive. What is more interesting is that such examples of American superiority are played repeatedly throughout its different modes of dissemination, mainly by virtue of different forms of media.
America has become not just a country but one of the most important cultural influences of our time. It has become an object of obsession and pride that often takes the form of a neo-imperialist structure.
It is, of course, not a simple question of maintaining our cultural values and resisting this form of invasiveness. It is also wrong to assume that America is forcefully invading our minds, thereby giving rise to a logic of paranoia and subjugation. This is absolutely not the case. There is a greater interest among different demographics about American TV shows, entertainment, food chains and of course, Hollywood. There is no point arguing that the emergent populace, even though it is still quite a minimal number, considering the economic structure in our country, has accepted American culture (it is, however, not a homogeneous one) as a part of its own upbringing and taste. The success of American “culture”, then, is the way it has seeped into the everyday lives of the people who do have access to it in an uninhibited manner.
In the post 9/11 era, however, the country itself has changed a lot. Multiple school shootings, the obsession with guns, the rise of racism and intolerance in the 2016 election campaign, especially centring and often emanating from people like Donald Trump—Larry Malerba believes that the country and its people are exhibiting the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are viewing threats where there are none existing. The hallowed abode that fosters cultural heterogeneity, or at least the idea of multiple representations, is slowly moving down into decadence. Malerba asserts that the comfort and safety that the average American feels at home is directly proportional to the threat and its intensity which he perceives to be coming from across the seas.
It is no wonder that films like Zero Dark Thirty and London has Fallen keep raking in the big bucks at the box office. The Cold War paranoia is repeatedly played out in numerous DC and Marvel episodes, and what is even more boring is the fact that even the Nazis have to come around again and get beaten up by Captain America, who is nothing but a cheap parlour trick of asserting American preponderance. In an animation film from DC, even Superman had to be held accountable to the White House for his actions and was ultimately used as a bounty hunter to get back Batman from his vigilante days. What is nauseating is that in a place likes the WWE, the premier wrestling entertainment show, there are characters enacting the tension between America and the Soviet Union. There is a loud American nationalism as it clobbers its deviant Russian mate, while of course they share drinks backstage.
In the post 9/11 era, however, the country itself has changed a lot. Larry Malerba believes that the country and its people are exhibiting the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is a discernible change when you look at Masterchef America and you understand that the texture of the show also includes the colour, identity and culture of the participants too. They dress accordingly; they act and speak as if they carry their identity on the seam of their pockets. There is nothing wrong about it, but the fact remains that identity and the supposed cultural heterogeneity keep coming back as a trope in much of American media. There is this tendency in crisis films, where there is a near-dystopia incident, to make America into this superpower that can withstand and fight off anything and save the world yet again. This kind of thing can also be seen in multiple Indian military or guerrilla films where the enemy is either folks from Pakistan or the Naxalites.
The television series I was talking about earlier was Supernatural. Along with Friends, it became a huge cultural influence on our generation. One surrounding mythical beasts and demons, and a story arc which Christian in its religiosity, the other a fun sitcom about friends getting together at a coffee shop, made it possible for me, a person who has never been to the country itself, take a peek into their everyday lives, their burger chains, and long drives, their coffee shops and branded T-shirts, their cultural revolution with colours and their silent racism.
America was more than its geographical contours. The American dream was more than something concocted just to bedazzle people. Steve Jobs made his money off poor children working under minimum wage; their foreign policy often bordered on making slaves out of other countries; and their war policy, including the war on Iraq and earlier the famous containment of communism through the war on Vietnam, everything sutured perfectly in its neo-colonialist endeavours. America was, after all, a dream and its failure mixed in one. And our generation, with our filmmakers grappling for Oscars and emulating every bit of it, including a selfie incident involving Ellen Degeneres, and our food chains, and the idea of Walmarts, and foreign universities and their aplomb, we loved it and we grabbed it all.
What we face before us, around the world, is a revalidation of the formula of what it means to be an American or an Indian or an Englishman. Nationalism has reared its ugly head yet again.
9/11 is considered to be a trigger point, after all. Everything that happened after that is the trauma of such an event, a people trying to grapple and understand itself. After the event, the increased paranoia about Middle Eastern or Arabic-sounding names and people dressed in a certain way were significantly considered to be impediments. Jungian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja believes that guns have had a significant impact on the American collective psyche. Right after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, there were many problems regarding a proper legislation of arms ownership. Just like Auschwitz changed Europe drastically, America changed likewise after 9/11. Guns should not be considered as mere weapons which modernity clumsily thrust upon us and left hastily. It is, as Zoja suggests, a part of the hero complex, signifying masculinity and virility and the ability to control and subjugate. Along with that, it is the most archetypal myth and forms the nucleus of other forms of development of the ego.
What we face before us, around the world, is a revalidation of the formula of what it means to be an American or an Indian or an Englishman. Nationalism has reared its ugly head yet again. Guns, violence, nuclear power, pride and cultural insularity are all tied together in its attempt to create an identity which is pure and considered to be superior compared to others. America is no different; we are no different.