Growing up in southeast Morocco in the 1980s, I remember how adding a rod and three strings to the empty oil jars USAID donated to the Moroccan government transformed them into a resounding luṭar, which is a three-stringed musical instrument widely used in Morocco. However, it was not only children who engaged in retooling American products the Moroccan government received through USAID for purposes they were not initially made for. Craftspeople also found new uses for USAID’s empty flour bags, which Moroccan villagers turned into saddle covers for their beasts of burden. These two examples reflect the gist of local redirections of American products in rural Morocco in 1980s. Even though necessity, rather than conscious political statement, drove these imaginative repurposings of o American products, which were donated to poor countries in order to imprint an image of a wealthy, powerful, and generous state onto the minds of a mostly illiterate population, the diversion of these products from their initial intentions is a powerful embodiment of the afterlives cultural artefacts can take on after they leave their place of origin. These two examples from rural Morocco also demonstrate that products are more likely to be refashioned, resignified, and even entirely transformed when they leave the place in which they were first created. These memories about now forgotten American flour bags and oil jars were only evoked thirty years later thanks to Brian T. Edwards’ powerful book After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East (Columbia University Press 2016), which speaks directly to the fascinating questions related to the circulation and alteration of American cultural products in the digital age. This masterful study is not, however, just about American cultural production and its place in a fast-changing world, but also largely about the agency of local co-producers who take up American literary texts, films, cartoons and other artefacts and transform them to serve their localized purposes.
In After the American Century, Edwards makes a persuasive argument about Middle Eastern and Maghrebi individuals’ appropriation and redirection of American cultural products. During the act of redirection, the local transformers of American products erase their initial American referent and subvert the link between the product and its origin (1). According to Edwards, who penetratingly demonstrates the logic underlying the relationship between cultural production and the United States’ standing in the world, America’s dwindling status and the advent of the digital age have not only fostered, but also expedited the resignification of American cultural products. The digital age, because of the way individuals access information and engage with it, has become a determinant factor in the advent of an era that Edwards calls After the American Century. While the analog age, always according to Edwards’s definition, coincides with the American century in which cultural products were not dissociated, both in their comprehension and interpretation, from their national origin (15), the digital age, on the other hand, facilitates diverse appropriations of American cultural products in North Africa and the Middle East. Since cultural products’ national origins are erased, the focus in the digital age has shifted to the consumption of these transformed products, rather than on their production. A unique aspect of the digital age is the possibilities it offers the United States’ supposed enemies to access American products, which they also transmute to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis their initial producer. In this regard, Brian Edwards’s inroad into Iran and his insightful analyses of the ways in which Iranians take up American cultural products is a must-read part of this magisterial study.
Weaving anthropological fieldwork in Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran, After the American Century is an insightful theorization of connections between cultural production, political hegemony and individuals’ versatile uses of information technologies to subvert empire and reinvent cultural products in ways that may have never occurred to their original producers. In addition to describing ongoing processes that are also unfolding as technologies of the digital age become more cutting-edge and more available, After the American Century shows also how these transformative endeavors in other parts of the world are challenging American Studies and widening boundaries to incorporate the study of these “indigenized” American products abroad. Edwards urges his colleagues to look beyond the American borders to appreciate how what were originally, but now repurposed, American texts circulate globally from North Africa and the Middle East. In one of the many thoughtful passages in the book, the author makes a case for a new methodology for the study of “traveling texts.” Traveling texts, which are the result of the digital age, “require a kind of cosmopolitan reading, criticism that travels and critics and researchers who will follow these moving texts where they go and will attend to their uptake.” (28) Thus, After the American Century does not just trace the changes of American cultural hegemony in the world, but also addresses the nature of scholarly disciplines that study American cultural production, which is proof of the powerful interventions Maghrebi and Middle Eastern individuals are making in reinventing American products. Not only that, Middle Eastern and Maghrebi individuals’ refashioning of American products, albeit happening in the periphery, is shaping the future of an academic discipline situated in the center.
Like the youth who transformed USAID donation jars into melodious musical instruments and like their elders who used American flour bags to design beautiful saddles for their donkeys, Edwards’s After the American Century offers his readers a well-researched and a look into Middle Eastern and Maghrebi individuals’ reinventions of films and texts produced originally in the United States. While transformers of American products in my childhood village were entirely oblivious to politics, the conversations that Edwards records in his book underscore how American politics in the Middle East and the Maghreb impact the way American cultural products are received, understood, engaged with, and then repurposed locally. Beyond cultural politics, however, After the American Century is a robust scholarly work that uses a multidisciplinary approach to the study of cultural production to cast America for what it is; a nation among nations and a producer of cultural artefacts among other producers, without any pretensions of innate superiority or exceptionalism. Against the backdrop of a toxic political climate in which some depict diversity as a threat and against the backdrop of imperialistic longing to “make American great again,” Brian Edwards make a highly relevant intervention that our scholarly community will find generative and extremely useful to teach students and communities about “another” Middle East and a Maghreb that nonexperts usually fail to account for.
Brahim El Guabli conducted the following interview with Brian Edwards about his book After the American Century. The book was released in paperback in May 2017.
Brahim El Guabli (BEG): What inspired you to write After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, and what do you seek to achieve by writing it?
Brian T. Edwards (BTE): The idea for After the American Century emerged from my first book, Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express. As the subtitle hints at, Morocco Bound examines American Orientalism from the 1940s through the mid-1970s. In some ways, After the American Century is a sequel to my first book. But it is also a shard that broke off from it—or rather a discovery as I completed it. In Morocco Bound, I had claimed that Orientalism after the 1970s requires a different method of analysis because cultural products and representations circulate in dramatically new ways in the digital age. In After the American Century, I needed to show what that method was and put it into practice.
The immediate goals here are to offer an extended argument about what it means that American popular culture is so ubiquitous in the MENA region even while the geopolitical reputation of the United States has plummeted. How do creative individuals from the region negotiate that apparent contradiction? This was a topic that was on a lot of people’s minds over the past decade. During the time that I was writing this book, I was occasionally contacted by journalists who were writing about one phenomenon or another in which some element of American popular culture showed up in the region—say the arrival of Starbucks in Arab countries with long histories of café culture or the rise of hip hop in Morocco. But rather than use any one of these as a “hook” for a journalistic story with a quick and predictable answer, I wanted to step back and look at the situation more holistically and recognize that a fuller answer required taking on the question itself.
I was writing against popular books such as Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, both of which make an argument about how American culture circulates globally and what it means. Of course, I do take up a number of particular cases in the book, the popularity of Shrek in Tehran, the “Innocence of the Muslims” YouTube video, comic books and cyberpunk in Cairo – but the book is also about trying to develop a means by which to examine culture in circulation, even while the ground kept changing.
BEG: In the book you seem to move between disciplines – literary studies, film studies, cultural anthropology. This makes think that an argument is being made about “disciplinarity” itself”?
BTE: I’ve also been long obsessed with the ways boundaries around academic disciplines delimit what scholars feel they may write about. For me, the operative disciplines are literary studies and sociocultural anthropology. My work as a literary scholar leads me to want to pause and take apart particularly rich “texts,” whether they are graphic novels, feature films, or digital mashups. I believe in close reading. But close reading as it is usually practiced in literary studies presumes some sort of delimited public, and given that the digital age allows texts to circulate far outside the bounds of publics, close reading needs to be contextualized in radically different ways. As I began this project, the richest discussion about what sorts of meanings accrue to cultural objects in new locations was taking place, I thought, in anthropology, and I actually took a year off in the middle of this project to study cultural anthropology, an experience that had a major impact on the project.
At the same time, I was interested in putting American Studies and Middle East studies— the two interdisciplinary fields that I have been involved with—in much greater dialogue. I don’t mean simply “American studies” and “Middle East studies” as area studies, or studies of particular regions of the world, but rather the kinds of pressures on the idea of disciplinary knowledge that both fields exert. This has been particularly rich in the field of American Studies, though that field is notorious for having difficulty in recognizing knowledge outside the US (I have written about this extensively in Globalizing American Studies, a collection I co-edited while doing the research for this book). Still, Middle East studies can derive many good lessons from the debates about disciplinary knowledge that American Studies has been working through from some decades. So one of my goals is to put these fields in dialogue.
BEG: How does your first book Morocco Bound relate to After the American Century? What were the discoveries of that project and how did they lead to this book?
BTE: In Morocco Bound, I made an argument about how a distinctive American Orientalism emerged during World War II’s North African campaign, putting cinema, journalism, and popular culture at the center, but also novelists like Paul Bowles and anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and his graduate students, including Paul Rabinow. I began in 1942, with the U.S. Army landings at Casablanca led by General George Patton, which brought huge numbers of American GI’s to the Maghreb, followed by journalists and Hollywood. The Warner Bros. film Casablanca premiered later the same month, as if predicted by Patton’s comment in a letter to his wife that the scenery he “would be worth a million in Hollywood.” That mix of military occupation and cultural representation was striking to me—it evoked Edward Said’s work with a twist. In Morocco Bound, I argued that American Orientalism differed from British and French patterns of representing the region, both because of the importance of Hollywood and the logic of cinema and in that Americans were forced to negotiate their relationship to a region with respect to the European empires that were there prior to American interest. Morocco Bound ended its American examples with what I called “hippie Orientalism,” at around 1973, a turning point in American geopolitical confidence (failure in Vietnam, Watergate, mass domestic unrest). But this was more than a shift of geopolitical fortunes. I claimed that it also represented the beginning of a new episteme. It was tempting to call this episteme “globalization”— after the Bretton-Woods agreement was allowed to expire in 1973, the shift away from the US dollar as international standard marked the advent of free floating capital—but I preferred the term of “circulation” in order to place greater emphasis on the technological revolution that undergirded both the financial and ideological aspects of the emerging paradigm.
Whatever the term, I felt that representations must function differently in the context of the rapidly accelerating transnational flows of culture and capital than they did earlier. Said’s Orientalism was premised on a different mode of circulation than we could see emerging after the 1970s—the relationship between author and audience were increasingly less fixed in the digital age. But what would it look like to show how this worked? And given the rapidly changing political and technological environment, how could I even do the research that I felt was required? This was the impetus to launch a multi-sited research project—originally based in four cities (Casablanca, Cairo, Beirut, and Tehran)—and to imagine a research methodology for what I came to think of as fieldwork in literary and film studies.
BEG: You make the case for "the importance of following cultural products when they find themselves diverted from their prescribed pathways (increasingly the case because of the technologies of the digital age) and of attempting to read those unexpected responses carefully for what they explain about "politics" more broadly understood." (19) You include piracy, parody, resignification and repurposing of U.S. intellectual products to make a political or aesthetic statement. What can you tell us about the localized purposes served by these "diversions" and who are their addressees: is it the US or the local creators of value?
BTE: One of the most important shifts from the analog age to the digital age is in how cultural products make their way through the world. The title of my book refers, of course, to the controversial idea propounded by media mogul Henry Luce in 1941, that the twentieth century would be an “American century.” Luce argued that American culture and its products could help create the conditions within which the United States would achieve a role of global supremacy, what would later be called America’s “soft power.” And whether Luce was right or wrong, the idea itself was extremely influential, and undergirded many of the Cold War cultural projects and what would come to be called cultural diplomacy.
Now of course as a magazine publisher and at the head of a media empire, Luce knew a lot about circulation, but I consider the logic that undergirds Luce’s idea of an American century to be a logic of broadcasting, by which I mean an idea that American culture and cultural products are broadcast out to the world, which is imagined to receive it and its purported messages of democracy and freedom of expression uncritically or passively. I associate this logic with what I call the analog age.
Of course even during the Cold War, or the analog age, audiences were not so passive they did not critique the U.S. even while consuming American cultural products. But what’s important is that the Lucean logic of an American century is closely allied with the concept of American exceptionalism: namely that America had a message to share with the world.
Just as there is much that survives of the colonial period in the postcolonial era (a lesson derived from thinkers such as Frantz Fanon), there is much of the analog age that survives in the digital age, and vice versa. The point, however, of distinguishing the technologies of the digital age which allow audiences around the world to sample, pirate, remix, mash up, or appropriate global cultural products is that there is a changed geopolitics that emerges in the late-twentieth century and twenty-first century that I think should be attached to what I’m calling the logics of the digital age.
The decade that it took me to research and write the book was of course a tumultuous one in terms of my topic. But not just because of the rapidly changing geopolitical context, from the changing fortunes in the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan to the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, to the Arab uprisings in late 2010 and 2011, and all that has followed. It was also a tumultuous decade in technology. When I started the first research for this book, YouTube had just been launched, Facebook was a year old, and Instagram was five years from being launched, and yet by the time the book was published, these platforms had become a part of the fiber of daily life. There is clearly a relationship between the technological changes and the geopolitical tumult of the period, not simply determinative but not incidental either.
BEG: If you were to give us one example from Morocco, Egypt and Iran in which you demonstrate the "ends of circulation," what would these examples be? How do these three contexts "deracinate" some specific American texts from their context?
BTE: I selected these three contexts deliberately because their relationship to the United States is so different and because they are so different from each other with respect the region referred to as the “Middle East” (itself of course an influential fiction). Morocco, the oldest ally of the United States—Morocco was the first nation in the world to acknowledge the sovereignty of the U.S. in the 18th century—is a place where up until 2003, people generally expressed felt attitudes toward the U.S., in part because it served as an alternative to France and Spain, both former colonial powers. Egypt, the primary recipient of U.S. financial and military aid among Arab nations and an alleged ally of the United States, was itself a global culture with a major cinema and television industry. Iran was at the other end of the spectrum, officially hostile to the U.S., and vice versa, with “marg bar Amrika” a sort of nationalistic rallying call, and yet a place where American culture was hugely popular.
In the book I describe in detail what I call the “ends” of circulation, where American cultural products and forms jump publics (I don’t use the term “deracinate” in my work), which means they end up in places far from their imagined reach and get reimagined, reinterpreted, borrowed, or dubbed, to the point where their origin doesn't even matter any more. In Iran, the way CGI films such as Shrek were dubbed and redubbed, translated and localized meant that the Iranian Shrek was no longer legible to outsiders, something that goes beyond the logic of being lost or found in translation. In Morocco, cinematic films such as Laila Marrakchi’s Marock took the formula of a Hollywood teen pic, with its social problem, car chase, and pool scenes, and created a highly controversial film that essentially only spoke to Moroccan or Moroccan diaspora audiences, or the YouTube videos such as those posted by the so-called “sniper of Targuist,” which riveted Morocco in 2007, took an American platform that at the time was being used for light home video and created a major domestic controversy. In Egypt, Cairene cyberpunk by Ahmed Alaidy or the graphic novel Metro by Magdy El Shafee combined Chuck Palaniuk’s Fight Club, superhero comics, and noirish graphic fiction to represent a generation with nothing to lose on the verge of the Arab uprisings, and yet the mix of Egyptian ‘ammiyya and “standard” Arabic (fusha) and the localized references have made these works less accessible to American audiences than melodramas such as Alaa Al Aswany’s enormously popular Yacoubian Building, even when they have appeared in English translation.
BEG: I am struck by your description of the cultural multidirectionality that permeates Morocco, Egypt and Iran on page twenty-nine of the book. Does this transformed American culture ever return home enriched from these contexts or is its circulation only unidirectional, from the US to the rest of the world?
BTE: This is an important question because all three countries and cultures—Moroccan, Egyptian, and Iranian—are familiar to Americans too, but often for different reasons. Morocco has long been a place popular with American and other tourists, and its couscous, mint tea, and argan oil products are ubiquitous in American stores, often marked as Moroccan. Iranian cinema, especially the art house cinema of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, has long been a staple of film festivals. And Egypt’s TV and film industries were global, even if less well known in the U.S. except to Arab speaking populations. But when you take the elements of American culture that travel and are transformed in the Middle East and North Africa and try to translate them back to the American context, too much has been altered for them to be understood. That’s what I mean by the “ends” of circulation: they have hit a dead end, and they don’t make it back. This is to offer a counter argument to the idea—always a bit of a myth—that globalization means the endless circulation of ideas and images. No, there are many endpoints and dead ends in the circulation of culture. We can wonder why some cultural objects or memes travel and others do not. I am asked frequently in places like Morocco or Iran or Egypt what Americans know about their culture, religion, etc., and young people are frequently dismayed how little texture or cultural particularity travels outside stereotyped meaning. For example one of the first questions I was ever asked by a student in Iran was “Is it true that in the United States people think Iranians are Arab?”
BEG: Finally, how do you assess the afterlife of the American century in a context in which Donald Trump's project is to "make America great again"?
BTE: My book was published during the early months of the presidential campaign. I happened to be in Morocco giving lectures about the book in December 2015 just when Trump started speaking of what we would later call the Muslim ban. As I spoke with young Moroccans about Trump and tried to contextualize his rise as a real estate magnate and reality television star, I learned that young Moroccans were quite familiar with Celebrity Apprentice. Trump’s role as a television entertainer—and programs such as Celebrity Apprentice and other reality competition shows of course had their Arab counterparts and interpretations—and his use of digital technologies such as Twitter represents yet another chapter in what follows the “American century.”
Donald Trump’s political rhetoric during the presidential campaign of 2015-16 produced international dismay, bewilderment, and apprehension, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. But it also ruptured the division between American popular culture and US politics which had been operative during the Cold War, and which Luce had relied on in his American century essay. And if that distinction allowed American cultural products to proliferate in places where U.S. politics were unpopular or rejected, it was now being erased.
In other words, if during Bush II and Obama administrations, a new generation in the MENA region had differentiated between the cultural products and political system of the U.S. and creatively recoded, incorporated, and localized a global American culture, now the rupture of that divide portends a postscript to the American century. In the age of Trump and Twitter, the American political system itself had become a horrible form of global entertainment. How devastating the effects will be remains to be seen.