“Civilization” is a hard term to define. But while every society has a distinctive culture, authentic civilizations must offer those they subjugate an attractive way of life. Their imprint outlasts their imperium.
A century ago, Debray argues, there was a European civilisation of which America was an outlying culture; but today the relationship is reversed. “In 1900, an American of taste was a European in exile; in 2000, a trendy European is a frustrated American—or one waiting for a visa.” Characteristic of American civilization are its three overarching fetishes: space, image and happiness. America is a civilisation of space and image, whereas Europe was one of time and writing. And its kitsch infantilism blinds itself to the tragic complexities of human life. A measure of America’s success is how its “globish” jargon has so successfully infiltrated European languages.
For Debray, the dominance of American civilisation is a historical fait accompli, yet he sees a model for Europe in Vienna after its exclusion from the German Reich. For decades to come, Europe still offer a rich cultural seedbed. “Some will call it decadence, others liberation. Why not both?”