Tyler Cowen on the global exchange of cultures
Monday, January 30, 2006
In a previous post, I made a glib statement which I did not try to substantiate:
Look at any culture close enough and you'll find that the search for what is "authentic" in that culture can be very elusive.
Well, there couldnt be a better exposition of that idea than this lecture (pdf) that Tyler Cowen gave at New Zealand, called "The Future of Culture in a globalized world".
What makes a cultural product ‘count’ as being from a certain region? New Zealand has two very well-known opera singers, Malvina Major and Kiri te Kanawa. Now, both Dame Malvina and Dame Kiri have sung in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, among other famous operas. When you look at Don Giovanni, you know it is not New Zealand culture, and certainly it is not Maori culture. But what is it? The language is Italian. Mozart was from Austria, although not the Austria we know today. The libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian Jew. It is believed the story came originally from Spain and the opera Don Giovanni enjoyed its greatest success in Prague. Of course, you can trace many other influences, for example where the instruments came from – often from the Arabic world and also from China, further east. So, again, we have this idea of a cosmopolitan product.
Tyler Cowen has written a book on this subject, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Here's an interview he gave to Reason about the book some time back.
On what drives cultural protectionism (from the interview):
reason: If this sort of hybridization [of cultures] is so striking and central to cultural production and exchange, why isn’t it more widely acknowledged, much less celebrated?
Cowen: I think a lot of it is pride. People want to take pride in either a country, an ethnic background, or a place of origin. In order to construct an identity, a story, a sense of pride, you need tales about how your group, your region, your nationality -- your whatever -- is somehow special, different, apart, and imbued with a particular kind of meaning.
I think these stories are actually quite useful. Such beliefs motivate people; they give people comfort. I don’t wish to strip them away from people. But if we take those stories too literally and start basing policy on them and forget about this other truth, then we’re in deep trouble. We’ll start thinking that the nation or the group is special and that you need to protect the group.
I particularly like that last paragraph.