The struggle of British culture and society against what has been dubbed “Americanization” is the internal strain of the individual against the impersonal, mass-produced, ‘plastic’ culture associated with industrialization, urbanization, and, inevitably, capitalism. As the “capitalist society that is most closely associated with [mass production and consumption]” (Hoggart 22), America, as a contrast to the “more organic” (Turner 35) folk culture of Britain, is, especially for the purposes of this paper, equated not only with mass-produced uniformity—and the homogeny associated with such—but with “the traditionless…[and] the material, not the cultural” (Webster 180).
Such contrasts cannot be highlighted sans proper definition. Therefore, what defines the essence of American culture as mass and, also, popular, must be prefaced with an examination of mass culture. Within An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Dominic Strinati argues that:
“…mass culture is popular culture, which is produced by mass production industrial techniques…it is commercial culture, mass produced for a mass market” (10).
Commercial is the key word of Strinati’s above definition. The ability to commercialize—even something stemming from the intangible, for example, an unspoken social contract of societal etiquette—remains a quintessential aspect of American capitalism: to organize and evaluate a mass-produced, and ephemeral culture in terms of a commercial profit (Williams 188). In America, all things are a brand—packaged goods which bear “unsettling anonymity” (Klein 6) which lack aesthetic value (Turner 35), a direct result of a commercialist and capitalist society borne of industrialization and, particularly, urbanization. The London Underground, as a form of mass transportation within an industrialist capital, perfectly exemplifies the effects of urbanization; as more and more people begin to densely populate an area, a form of transportation for the homogenous mass—homogenous primarily in that these masses would be those working in the urban areas: effectively, the working class.
The working class has been historically associated with popular, and, thus, mass culture as such culture is seen “from the point of view of the people rather than from those seeking power over them” (Strinati 6); the opposite of the high and learned culture. Refined tastes of the intelligentsia and upper-class reverse and, instead, tastes must be brought to the point that there is “no depth of feeling” (Orwell 25). A true “failure of the organic cultural life” (Leavis 181) comes with this descent from high culture, resulting in a near-total homogeny. As the “prime homogenizing agent” (Webster 183), America and working-class mass culture are, therefore, closely tied.
Mass culture, here, as Strinati proposed, to be equated with popular culture, represents the reduction to the lowest common denominator (Hoggart 8) from “culturally specific values” (Barker & Beezer 178); to be made “brash, crude, unsubtle, [and] mindless” (Arnold 180). It is therefore unsurprising that a phrase such as “Mind the Gap” would be commercialized—brought down to an even baser form from its ephemeral existence as a sign, and made popular via “branding” upon shirts, magnets, and other forms of consumerist products. Signs, in and of themselves, are not wholly mass and popular culture. In the study of semiotics, “a sign can be thought of as the smallest unit of communication within a language system” (Turner 14), ranging from a single word to an image on a screen. With respect to “Mind the Gap,” the phrase alone is nothing without the pictorial representation for the London Public Transportation system as its backdrop, following in the vein of Roland Barthes, in which:
“…this culturally enriched sign itself becomes the signifier for the next sign in a chain of signification of ascending complexity and cultural specificity” (15).
“Mind the Gap” and London public transport become almost synonymous, thus leading to the acquisition of the image’s commercial value, due to its high level of recognition to a mass public, especially the tourist public.
Here exists what can colloquially be called the “clincher”: these products associated with the London, and, therefore, “British”, Underground are marketed and sold, not so much to the English public, but to the tourist population. This merchandise is not sold in an organic independent store, but in the impersonal, chain-like tourist shops which litter the London streets. The view being presented of “British” culture via this image is not “British” at all, as it has been “composed from a repertoire given to [the public], not produced by [the public], so that [the British] are the subjects, not the authors of [these] culture processes” (Lacan 21).
Therefore, is the “Mind the Gap” phenomenon truly an Americanization? If Americanization, as presented by this paper, is to be equated with a “commercial culture, mass produced for a mass market” (Hoggart 10), especially featuring the commoditization of ‘cultural’ signs and signifiers which lack inherent aesthetic value, then, yes, the existence of something such as the “Mind the Gap” and the London Underground symbol’s prevalence can be seen as an Americanization. After all:
“American culture is seen to embody all that is wrong with mass culture…because mass culture is thought to arise from mass production and consumption of cultural commodities” (Hoggart 22).
America’s consumerist and commercial tendencies and culture have infiltrated the British consciousness to the point that it cannot even be recognized, necessarily as strictly American; it hides within the British popular culture itself.
Arnold, Matthew. “Culture and Anarchy.” The Complete Works of Matthew Arnold. (Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 1965). qtd. in Webster, Duncan. Looka Yonder!: The Imaginary America of Populist Culture. (London Routledge, 1988)
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. (London: Paladin, 1973). qtd. in Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. (Oxon: Routhledge, 1990)
Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. (London: Penguin, 1992)
Klein, N. No Logo. (London: Flamingo, 2000)
Lacan, Jacques. The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968). qtd. in Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. (Oxon: Routhledge, 1990)
Leavis, F.R. Nor Shall My Sword: Discussions on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972). qtd. in Webster, Duncan. Looka Yonder!: The Imaginary America of Populist Culture. (London Routledge, 1988)
Orwell, George. “Decline of the English Murder.” The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. (London: Ams Pr Inc, 1965). qtd. in Strinati, Dominic. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. (London: Penguin, 1992)
Reading into Cultural Studies. ed. Martin Barker and Anne Beezer. (Oxon: Routledge, 1992)
Strinati, Dominic. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. (London: Penguin, 1992)
Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. (Oxon: Routhledge, 1990)
Webster, Duncan. Looka Yonder!: The Imaginary America of Populist Culture. (London Routledge, 1988)