Between the Lines: September-October 2006

There's an interestingly counterintuitive assumption behind the cover story: that American popular culture is no longer uncontested. A critic, consumer, world traveler, and observer of culture, writer Edward Gomez '79 says, "at this point, the great mass of American-produced pop-culture product has become predictable and boring." Many of the cultural high points in recent decades--the British punk movement, the mix of Japanese fashion, industrial design and architecture, the border-straddling "world music" scene--weren't explicitly or primarily American, he says.

The U.S. will continue to be a major player in the international marketing of pop-culture ideas and products because it is such a diverse society and home to so many media centers. But other countries have also become multicultural and media-minded, Gomez adds. Many Japanese corporations have developed sophisticated marketing campaigns to enter international markets. At the same time, basic centrifugal forces are at work: Tokyo has evolved into "a major media, culture, and communications center, and infinitely many ideas are projected out into the world from that hub."

Gomez was an obvious match for this story. He studied Mandarin Chinese at Duke, and, later, Japanese language, culture, and history. As an arts journalist, he found it remarkable that "the field of Japanese modern art had not been written about in depth in English." In the mid-1980s, having learned Japanese, he received a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Japan. He researched Japanese art movements in the post-World War II period. That research flowed into numerous articles published in Japan and the U.S.

"As long as Japanese producers don't fall into ruts and start imitating themselves," says Gomez, Japan will play an increasing role in shaping the world--at least the world of pop culture.

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