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GB and US: How far? How close?

John Atherton


John Atherton

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1Ungrateful offspring on one hand, unnatural and tyrannical parent on the other - the United States and Great Britain retain in their relationship something of the love/hate quality characteristic of family ties. In choosing as the topic of its 1985 colloquium (held at the Château de la Source on the 27th and 28th of September) "US and GB: How Far? How Close?" the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur la Culture Anglo-Américaine de l'Université d'Orléans was inviting the participants to analyze the nature of the "double bind" that has linked the two nations over the past two hundred years. The present publication, edited by the Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours, contains a number of papers given on that occasion - marking in this manner the continuation of a policy of cooperation between (to extend the family metaphor) the two sister universities, a policy inaugurated by the establishment in 1985 of a doctoral program run jointly by Tours, Orléans and Le Hans.

2How far? How close? But with what sort of a yardstick does one go about measuring the distance between two cultures? It would seem that three sorts of measuring are at work. The first is the very act of registering similarities and differences; before any explanatory schema comes into play the process of comparing and contrasting exercizes its fascination, each culture acquiring its distinctiveness by what it seems to have left out as well as by what it contains. This approach appeals to the eye (the cut of a figure, the lay of the land) and to the ear; its privileged locus is the voyage abroad. The second measuring attempts to weigh influence, to assign origins, to assess the degree of domination that one country exercizes over another. The issues in this case are those of relative strength, of precedence in chronological terms, of model and imitation. The tone is more tone is more combative; imperialism and resistance are the opposing poles of the debate. The third aspect is more complex since it introduces the dimension of the collective imagination: the idea that one culture forms of another and the ways in which this image functions within the given society reinforce the sense of its own identity. Here we deal with expectations, projections, and (inevitably) with misinterpretations - in short, with the ways in which differences are managed and lived. The papers in this volume, wide-ranging in terms of focus, touch on all three of these modes of taking stock of distance.

3The first three contributions trace the relationship an individual figure (British in each case) and a culture (American). Richard Martin chronicies Matthew Arnold's aversion for the United States, the "immense Victorian condescension" with which he approached a nation mired (already) in a midriff culture. If Arnold's voyage to America did little to change his mind it is because of his prior assumption that democracy and culture were (in Martin's words) "antithetical elements in an unwilling dialogue." Not even Emerson escaped Arnold's strictures; yet in the very terms that the Englishman used to criticize the American thinker Martin detects a reluctant admission of likeness that belies the initial distaste. Jean-Paul Pichardie evokes quite a different America, D.H. Lawrence's "continent of the soul" that served as grounds for the projection of has many-sided desires. We are struck by the constantly shifting richness of these imaginary explorations in which intense internal struggle, utopian social currents, and religious imagery vie for ascendancy. The promise of the New World is incorporated into a highly complex mythology, at once cosmic and personal, a mythology of excess and hyperbole, a mythology to which Lawrence comitted his whole being but which ended by terrifying him. Francoise Marqueriot's concerns are of another order; convinced of the underservedness of Herbert Spencer's reputation in the United states she first challenges the very notion of "social darwinism" which cannot be considered as referring to a coherent body of doctrine since from the start it has been used in exclusively polemical terms; and she the invites us to set aside caricatural images of Spencer as the father of a philosophy of unbridled capitalism and to read his works with a new eye.

4Jean-Claude Sergeant's paper, tracing the evolution of the Anglo-American dialogue in the domain of politics and defense serves as an excellent introduction to the contemporary problems that the major portion of this volume will deal with. His analysis lays bare the fragility of the concept of a "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain, concept that is repeatedly sacrificed once the political and military chips are down. Yet his reading of the Anglo-American dialogue also reveals the strategic uses to which this "convenient myth" is put and its central role in the history of understanding - and misunderstanding - between the two nations. The two papers that fallow deal with business and economic policy. Françoise Pavlopoulos ("Le Monde des Affaires au Royaume Uni et aux USA") finds that despite the apparent contrasts between American dynamism and Britisch laggardness (Contrasts, which, she points out, require considerable qualification) there exists an under-lying "economic complicity" within which both systems operate, herald perhaps, of a new world economic order. Christopher Leeds focuses on governmental policies, on those economic doctrines made up of right-wing belief in the virtues of market forces and the rationality of monetary theory personalized by political leaders in the two countries as Reagonomics and Thatcherism. Although more than aware of the differences in the political and social contexts, in which these two doctrines evolved, he nonetheless argues their essential similarity one proof of which he notes with what an American would characterize British sense of irony is that neither produced the expected results! The statistics that Robert Tatham brings to bear on the question of American influence on British broadcasting are all the more welcome in that he has first taken pains to distinguish three separate areas - broadcasting policy, financial Investment, and programming. If his conclusions are guardedly optimistic (American, interests have not swamped British broadcasting it is not only because there exists in England a healthy preference for financial and cultural autonomy but because as his analysis brings safeguards against takeover were early on built into the system. The lesson is a timely one.

5The examination of British-American crosscurrents ends on a comparative analysis of police practices. How were the n the two countries to reply to the challenge of the 1960's characterized on both sides of the Atlantic by the emergence of militant ethnic urban communities intent on claiming their rights and the demand from the majority for more crime repression? Roland Voize-Valayre analyzes how the British police unwilling as yet to face up to changed conditions have allowed professionalization and centralization to work to limit their community function a function that pradoxically has been a traditional component of the bobby's performance Outside pressures, for reform will have little chance for success until the police themselves become convinced of the failure of their present policies. Laura Maslow-Armand is more sanguine about the American case Black political strength in the cities has after a period of hesitation, forced the choice of cooperation over that of confrontation; but the principle of local responsibility that has in recent years operated successfully to bring citizen and policeman together is not without its dangers. As public demands for reform ease off there may well remain within the country "an anarchical patchwork of varied police conduct."

6How far? How close? The replies are as varied as the gamut of approaches here is broad. In the last analysis it is up to the reader to judge. Yet I think that throughout these papers we can detect - to twist a phrase used by Edmund Hilson as a title - the "shock of unrecognition." So much is assumed to be held in common by the two nations that share the same language and many of the same traditions, that the rifts when they do occur appear as sudden chasms. It is perhaps this passage from similarity taken for granted to startled awareness of difference (and back again) that best characterizes GB-US relations. (Are not family relations at once the most intimate and the most unstable?) Certainly the comparative perspective adopted in these papers enriches our understanding of what, for want of a better word, we could term the in-betweeness of two cultures. "Comparaison n'est pas raison," wrote Etiemble, but his is not the last word.

7Following on "Protest and Punishment" and "Strategies de la Métaphore," this volume is the third issue of the annual review G.R.A.A.T. launched in 1984 on the initiative of Pierre Gault! our pages intention is to open our page to a wider circle of participants - to encourage work on interdisciplinary topics and to serve as a sounding board for new theme and new approaches to the study of Anglo-American literature and culture. The next issue will be devoted to papers from the 1986 colloquium organized jointly by Tours and Orléans: "Le Sport en GB et aux USA: Faits Signes et Métaphores.

8In the preparation of this volume Ahmed Daraou, Maryvonne Menget, Andrée Shepherd and Jean-Paul Régis rendered valuable editorial assistance, and Annick Seigné has contributed bilingual typing skills - for all of which I am grateful.


Université de Tours

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1986

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