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Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany. (Reviews).

Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany. By Uta G. Poiger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xiii, 333 pp.).

In this engaging book, Uta Poiger looks at the response of West and East German journalists, politicians, sociologists, and psychologists to the Americanization of German youth culture in the 1950s. Focusing on interpretations of Hollywood movies, jazz, and rock 'n' roll, Poiger dissects the class, gender, national, ethnic and racial anxieties that American cultural imports evoked. The book interweaves a richly-documented discourse analysis with evocative accounts of the excited, even riotous, actions of youth at movie premiers and Elvis performances and the sometimes violent reactions of the police. Poiger shows that each new wave of American music and fashion crashed up against a counter-wave of adult panic about their effects on the morality, sexuality, and national identity of Germans. Commentators feared that the torrid, if often suppressed, sensuality of American films and the openly erotic gyrations of jitterbug and other dances would corrupt innocent German girls. They also worried that Westerns, gang ster movies, and films such as The Wild One undermined efforts to reconstruct, especially, proletarian masculinity as less aggressive, more self-controlled than under the Nazis. On the one hand, they denounced movie violence for coarsening young proletarians into "hooligans" (Halbstarken) and, on the other hand, excoriated popular fashions and hairstyles for feminizing male fans of American movies and bands. Poiger traces the gradual metamorphosis, especially, in West Germany of discourse about American culture. A superb chapter on the evolution of jazz criticism begins with an analysis of conservative racist attacks on swing and bebop as a crude, low, and unwholesome music because of its African roots. By the late 1950s, Poiger explains, a younger generation of West German music-lovers had become jazz afficionados who made much of the "respectability" of jazz and promoted it into the canon of modem high culture.

The responses to Americanization changed over time but, Poiger argues, they were always intertwined with the project of re-defining Germanness in both the Federal Republic (FRG) and Democratic Republic (GDR). This, her major, thesis incorporates several provocative arguments. Despite their intense antagonism to each other, Poiger asserts, Stalinist East Germans and conservative West Germans reacted similarly to American culture. Both perceived Americanization as an integral cultural process that linked mass culture to consumerism and, in turn, to selfish individualism and rampant materialism. Both viewed it through a political lens and, perversely, projected onto "America" and away from German society the social evils that bred fascist barbarism. Though conservatives faulted American "mass society," while Marxists blamed American "imperialistic capitalism," both groups believed that American cultural influence undermined the construction of a non-Nazi, but distinctly German, identity. Using the method and pe rspective of cultural analysis, then, Poiger has uncovered evidence of the common cultural discourse underneath the ideological divide in postwar Germany.

Yet one needs to keep in mind that, depending on their context, similar signs can signify different meanings. Poiger follows a recent trend in cultural studies that sees eugenic discourse as key to understanding European and American politics in the twentieth century. She quotes numerous sources to show that East and West Germans wrote often about the "decadence" of American culture and its "primitive" roots and "degenerative" effects. This language, Poiger theorizes, demonstrates the continued prevalence in the postwar Germanies of classic eugenic discourse and fear of biological degeneration and racial pollution. I am skeptical of this premise, particularly in the case of East German Marxists. Take her discussion of their critique of jazz. Though they eventually came to appreciate "authentic" jazz (blues and Dixieland), they continually denounced "inauthentic" jazz (swing, sweet, and bebop) as "degenerate" and "decadent." She concludes that such language "placed [a prominent East German critic] on a contin uum with those who had promoted racial hierarchies that positioned (white/Aryan) Germans as superior to Jews, blacks, and other groups, like Gypsies" (p. 153). The quotes provided do not warrant this inference. Instead, they suggest, as Poiger herself seems to recognize, that Communist writers (following the practice of Marx and Lenin) used such terms to describe the commercialized cultural products of advanced capitalism--an economic category of analysis, not a biological one. Their reliance on biological metaphors to skewer capitalism may bespeak the ubiquity of eugenic idioms. I cannot agree, however, that their rhetoric represented "eugenic discourse."

If Poiger, to my mind, interprets eugenic discourse too loosely, she does adheres closely to her criterion for its dominance--the prevalence of biological metaphors--and carefully documents their gradual disappearance from critiques of American popular culture. This decline, she argues, charts the waning of cultural pessimism and eugenic thinking after the mid-1950s. In West Germany, this paradigm was thrust aside by a theory of cultural flux that emphasized the benign, indeed, stabilizing, features of consumerism and its cultural effluvia. Moreover, American-influenced sociologists adopted a psychological theory of young Germans non-conformity, experimentation, and rebelliousness. These behavioral signs, according to these academics, did not signify cultural devolution but a universal and harmless stage of life: adolescence.

Poiger acutely analyzes the shift to philo-consumerism and the psychological paradigm of youthful dissent. Again, though, I am not persuaded by every part of the argument. According to Poiger, politics was behind it all. She labels the friendly interpreters of Americanization as "Cold War liberals" who, she maintains, were intent on establishing the FRG's place as an American ally and a military power within NATO. Relinquishing the long struggle of the elitist German Mandarin to save his Kultur from the dangers of international capital and/or cosmopolitan civilization, these younger academics redefined West German culture as part of an international bourgeois way of life. In depoliticizing culture and consumption, Poiger asserts, they actually instrumentalized them for political purposes. Thus, they pointed to the lack of consumerism and cultural diversity in the East as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of Communism. They normalized, privatized, and defanged the rebellious, gender-bending, antimilitarist ten dencies among young Germans. Youth were no longer controlled by denying them their fashions, music, and alienated heroes but by denying the political meaning of their behavior and styles.

This 'primacy of politics' argument bothers me on several scores. Most fundamentally, it reverses the numerator and denominator in the theoretical equation that Poiger set up in her earlier discussion of the discursive affinities between Stalinists and conservatives. There, she boils down discrete ideologies to the same sticky cultural residue. Commentators might exploit a shared cultural discourse to political effect but--I read her as saying--that discourse was not an artifact of politics but a grammar for politics. Thus, I expected Poiger to look for the cultural foundations of the shift in discourse that, she convincingly posits, began in the late 1950s. Instead, she portrays the "Cold War liberals" as consciously oriented toward the political agenda of the West German state and bourgeoisie. She does not explore the ways that Americanization may have already modified what it meant to be German--or how that change affected the terms of the debate.

Not only do I question whether the reevaluation of Americanization was only or even mainly politically motivated, but I even agree with the Cold War liberals that the cultural habits of 1950s youth were, by and large, apolitical. Aside from references to occasional opposition to military service, Poiger does not demonstrate that the kids who raced motorcycles, wore ducktails or tight sweaters, and rioted outside Bill Haley concerts saw themselves as rebels against the political system, gender norms, or reigning cultural hierarchies. One can strip the fifties of its illusive aura of dull conformity without inflating cultural dissidence or generational muscle-flexing into political resistance. Political was the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Any tendency to collapse the two eras into each other risks obscuring an historical riddle that Poiger's evidence poses: what transformed a youth culture that reveled in mass-produced American culture and fashions, to the horror of German parents who worried about m aterialism and the corruption of Germanness, into a youth culture that excoriated Konsumterror, capitalism, and Amerikkka, to the outrage of parents who had gone over to consumerism and the International Style lock, stock, and barrel?

Poiger has produced a clearly-written, indeed, extremely readable, study about a subject central to the evolution of postwar German culture. Her work is to be commended for its insightful comparisons of discourse about Americanization in the two German states and its careful tracking of change over time. Though I do not accept all of Poiger's hypotheses or conclusions, I obviously found the book intellectually stimulating and was deeply impressed by its scholarship and theoretical sophistication. It can be profitably read by Germanists and all students of popular and youth culture.
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Author:Harsch, Donna
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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