America: Paradoxical icon of the new

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

Blaming the American Way of Life for the ills of post-industrial European society is a poor excuse for Europeans’ own partiality to consumer pleasures, writes Petr Fischer. On a positive note, American individualism could teach Europe a thing or two about social solidarity.

“Business–Answer–Solution” reads the advertising banner of the subsidiary of a foreign company in the centre of Prague. At first sight, the banner is not particularly interesting, in this case meaning that it is not particularly surprising. Surprising things are those that capture our attention, that shock us in their particular way. This corporate motto repeats the famous, infinitely repeated mantra of aggressive global capitalism, its focus purely pragmatic: give us a problem and we will come up with a solution that profits both you and us. “Win-win capitalism”, one could say in today’s international newspeak.

What is interesting – in other words disconcerting – is the fact that the banner covers the window of a small shop situated directly behind the National Museum, a building that – as in every other European city – symbolizes a certain perception of historicity cultivated on the old continent at least since the nineteenth century. The National Museum preserves the history of the Czech nation, and the people who work in it analyse and reflect on Czech national existence, its peculiarity, uniqueness, difference or connectedness. This activity is not governed by the pragmatic slogan of performance, of completed things, of faits accomplis; rather, it is ruled by a different three words, directed at thinking and its incessant, uncertain movement: Discussion–Question–Searching.

Both slogans represent two sides of the same coin of western civilization, two sides that, so far, have been more or less separate. The first represents the straightforward American way, leveraging everything along the way, everything at hand that can help business; the latter represents the difficult, reflective way of the old continent, left by its American child so that it could later be changed according to America’s picture. The fact that the multinational company’s motto is located just “behind” the building that, synecdochically, expresses the basic historic orientation of all European nations, is symbolic. “Behind”, meta in Greek, describes, in the European tradition, something that transcends everything we can arrive at though normal reasoning. In Aristotle’s canon, so the philosophical legend has it, such was the name of the texts found in the library behind the thinker’s treatise on physics. However metaphysics has since come to signify a system of thought that transcends the world of tangible facts and things, that represents some invisible internal order of the world. Business–Answer–Solution, the catchword of American pragmatism, is, as its location behind the National Museum suggests, perhaps the only really functioning metaphysics of today’s world.

New is always better

Since its discovery, America has been referred to as the New World. But what exactly is new about it for the Europeans? In De la démocratie en Amérique, Alexis de Tocqueville – one of the first to systematically analyse American institutions, republican political systems, and above all what today is called the “American way of life” – concluded that the newness of America consist mostly of a kind of neophilia, a love of all that is new.

“The Americans live in a country of wonders, everything around them is in incessant motion, and every motion seems to be progress,” says de Tocqueville. “The image of the new is closely connected with the image of the better. They see no limits set by Nature on man’s efforts; in American eyes, that which does not exist is what no one has yet tried.” In this extension of the purest Enlightenment optimism, the new is associated with a higher, moral quality. The gaze of the man turns toward the future, the past ceases to be important because, in the rush towards the new, the better, it loses its value, becomes inferior. The essential is what will be, or rather, what part of the future can be realized “now”.

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