America as an idea

Img_0128My ethnographic interviews in Hamburg are going really well.  There is "gold on the ground," data everywhere, there for the asking, easy to get, easy to think.  Can this be one of the reasons that the social sciences were largely invented here?  Probably not.

In one happy moment, a perplexed respondent complained that she had learned a new English word, but couldn’t find it anywhere in the dictionary.  What, she wanted to know, does "bleep" mean?  We eventually encouraged her to understand is that is stands for a great many other words, as long as they are rude.  But when you think of it, it’s a fair question: is this a word?  And if it isn’t a word, what in the dickens is it?  This is the kind of thing the God-like Michael Silverman could dispatch in a couple of sentences.  Me, frankly, well, I leave it to the likes of Silverman.

It is interesting to hear Europeans talk about the US.  They have a hard time of it.  America, is that dream factory of Hollywood or a great university like Princeton, is it Las Vegas or hip hop, is it street people or Disneyland, is it Alice Waters or McDonald’s?  What they don’t say (not yet anyhow) is that America is all these things.  You can see them shuttling back and forth between partial accounts.  Apparently, to call America various is to fail the work of description.  Countries can’t be everything. 

Clearly, Hamburg respondents are not the only ones to find America’s plenitude a taxing problem.  It’s a little like the "bleep" problem.  How can one term stand for many terms?  The solution  for the post-modernists is delightedly to declare the death of the category and the ability of the generalization.  But this is as intellectually pointless as insisting on a single-term approach.  We need new ideas here.    

10 thoughts on “America as an idea

  1. Peter

    A word that created similar problems for me in talking to Germans (also, by coincidence in Hamburg) was “widget”. How to explain that it’s a thing, but not just any thing, nor a particular thing, but a certain type of thing? Now, of course, in addition to its usage as a generic word by economists, it is used by computer technologists to describe something very specific (a component of a user interface).

    Hamburg is the most English of German cities. It has been possible, my friends there have told me, to purchase English newspapers in Hamburg a day or so after they were published in London for, oh, about the last 200 years. Hamburgers of my acquaintance would take offence at the suggestion they were in any way typical of other Germans. It’s no coincidence, they say, that this city discovered the Beatles.

  2. Glen

    I’m not sure that the problem is “how can one term stand for many terms?” although that is an important question to ask. The problem is that these words are not in a dictionary. These are words that Americans use in everyday settings, sort of like an elevated common slang. “Bleep” is an onomatopoeia derived from the preferred way of censoring words that the FCC deems inappropriate; and “widget” is a slang term used in American businesses & schools. Words like “bleep” and “widget” have complex etymologies, are idiomatic and are inaccessible to people who are not aware of their context.

    Likewise, America has a complex derivation and exists in a dynamic, heterogeneous and often contradictory state. Also like these words, America is, in the historical sense, very new. A few decades over 200 years in not a very long time to have existed. Perhaps America is still slang. Maybe we haven’t made it into the dictionary yet…or maybe we defy definition.

  3. PBH

    I was in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir on 9/11, in a small town called Leh. This is the Western edge of the Tibetan plateau, filled with a mix of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and a smattering of Christians. It is just out of reach of the violence that plagues Kashmir to the East, and less than 400 miles from Northern Afghanistan, but the gathered troops amassed at the town borders spoke to the threats to the West.

    We were unsure and a little afraid of how we would be perceived as Americans, but everyone we met, to a fault, when discovering we were Americans said they were sorry for our losses and then went on to clarify that they love America and Americans, but hate our government. They were very clear on the layers of what America means to them, and — thankfully for us — were very clear on the difference between Americans and what America does and represents around the world.

    I also lived in West Germany in the mid-80’s. Ask your translater for an English defintion of the word Zwar. I never got a clear meaning out of it, since it seems to describe a variety of things, some of which we don’t have words for in English.

    Travel safely,


  4. jens

    if you want to follow another german word try “Erlebnis” – from my understanding of english there is no real equivalent. it translates as “experience”, but at the same time it is less object related and more inbound – like “sensation” – it is the sensation of experiencing yourself – or the sensation of experiencing yourself through the interaction with something.
    it sits at the place where tom peters set his famous “WOW!”

  5. jens

    and if i am right, this might lead us onto a trace trace why social sciences have such a tradition in my home country.

  6. LK

    I recently had coffee with a colleague who is from Germany and now teaching in the MBA Program at SFU (Simon Fraser University). We got onto the fun topic of words for which counterparts do not exist in our respective languages. How could I not mention chaudenfreude, the pleasure taken in someone else’s misery; a wonderful set of emotions captured in one word. My German coffee-mate volleyed back with ‘yes that is interesting; did you know that in German we have no word for procrastination?’.

  7. LK

    hey, was i hoodwinked? jens? i just checked an online english-german dictionary and it said:

    to procrastinate — aufschieben (schob auf,aufgeschoben)
    to procrastinate — hinauszögern
    to procrastinate — zaudern
    to procrastinate — zögern
    procrastinator — der Zauderer

    The New English-German Dictionary

  8. Daniel Rosenblatt

    Bleep is actually covered quite nicely in both Wikipedia and the Free Online Dictionary. I’m somewhat surprised that it is not in recent print dictionary, it seems to me like its been around for a while.

    As for the question of why people might be troubled by the question of what America means, and feel some need to decide between alternatives rather than recognize plenitude, maybe the real issue is what the question “What do you think about America?” means to them. It seems likely that for many people this is not a question about the country so much as (at least partly) a question about their own political stance: to leave it at plenitude and refuse to decide might then feel like a bit of a cop out to them.

  9. mahalia jalandoon

    I also thought there was ‘”gold on the ground,” data everywhere’ when I was gathering data for my research in Bavaria. I always thought it was because of “Verständigung” in the Grundgesetz (Basic Law) that made it easy to obtain information in Germany. “Verstaendigung” could mean, according to the IFinger program, 1. information notification, 2. communication, 3. agreement; understanding and in telecommunications 4. audibility.

    “Verständigung” in the Basic Law of the land thus creates a culture and society where (the expected) information flows more freely.

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