Off the Menu

By Clifford Geertz


Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures
by Tyler Cowen
Princeton University Press, 192 pp., $27.95)


Apologetics--the argumentative defense of how matters play out in the world, the formal and systematic vindication of the received design of things--used to be a theological specialty, most particularly a Christian one. The demonstration that, despite appearances to the contrary on almost every hand, our universe is rationally put together, and is good, and that our place within it, if only we would realize it, is blessed: this was the central task of "the science of things divine" from the councils of Nicaea onward. Its success, given the magnitude of the task and the thinness of the evidence, was at best equivocal. Malt, as Housman said, can do more than Milton to justify God's ways to man. But aside from some abstruse philosophizing--Hegel and all that--it was the only game in town.

With the advent of modernity and the decline of other-worldly explanations for this-worldly phenomena, the task of reconciling us to the ordained and the inevitable by demonstrating that what looks like shadow is, when rightly seen, actually light, has fallen into other hands--most notably, this being the age of reckoning, to economics. If you want to argue that some feature of contemporary life that seems unfortunate on its face--income inequality, power imbalances, sweatshops, the terms of trade, the sexual division of labor, spare-the-rich taxation--is both unavoidable and, in the long run, progressive, bracing, and self-correcting, things as they must and should be, then economics, especially neo-liberal economics, is the talk to talk.

Nor is this the case only for the matters of truck, barter, and exchange toward which such talk has been traditionally directed. Economicist theodicy is now employed across the entire spectrum of social life. There is the law-and-economics movement, which extends the rhetoric of utility calculation, cost-benefit analysis, trade-offs, and the bottom line into realms once reserved to prescript, right, principle, and judgment. In sociology, what once was heritage, status, knowledge, or power is now "human capital" or "social capital," accumulated, hoarded, appropriated, or spent. The family is a firm, internalizing costs and manufacturing trust, children, and other durable goods; and marriage is an investment decision. Political science turns away from the solemn abstractions of prescriptive theory to the hard-hat numerical data of revealed preferences, rational choice, Nash equilibria, dominant strategies, and payoff matrices. Even literary critics talk of textual economies; even philosophers talk of transaction costs.

It was only a matter of time before this sort of technically reinforced affirmation of life as it presents itself, thorns, flaws, corruptions, and all, was applied to "culture," and especially to "the arts." The literature of dismay in the arts--that the arts are being commodified, commercialized, homogenized, dumbed down, and generally debased by the imperatives of market capitalism--is by now, a century and a half after Ruskin launched it, both very large and very aggressive. The drawing of virtually all varieties of artistic expression into the scramble and blur of media technology, the commercial "appropriation" of "subaltern" productions by "hegemonic" powers, and, most especially, the American domination of world taste have all been offered as evidence of a precipitous decline in the depth and the quality of contemporary culture.

On the left, the disruptive impact of globalization on weak and undeveloped economies is seen as matched by its subsidization of cultural imperialism, transnational plagiarism, and the throwaway world. On the right, moral relativism and the decline of standards, due mainly to the youth culture and on intellectual loss of nerve, has us all "slouching towards Gomorrah," hellbent on excess and entropy. Rap, Hollywood, Mapplethorpe, blockbuster fiction, poetry slams, the touristification of folk art: the way we express ourselves now is a rich field for anyone looking for opportunities to defend the indefensible and to make the real look right.

Tyler cowen is clearly such a person. A professor at George Mason University of economics and of something called "the study of public choice," as well as the director of the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy and the Mercatus Center there ("the premier university source for market-based ideas"), he is the author of a number of excited polemics attacking what he calls "cultural pessimism": In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998), "Is Our Culture in Decline?" (1999), What Price Fame? (2000). Cowen maintains an ideologized website on ethnic restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. ("Restaurants manifest the spirit of capitalist multiculturalism," he believes. "Entrepreneurship, international trade, and cultural exchange all come together in these communal eateries.") And he has now come forth with a full-throated defense of market exchange--free, expanding, catholic, and cosmopolitan--as an improving force in "the creative industries": music, literature, cinema, cuisine, and the visual arts.

Globalized culture, Cowen asserts, far from representing the triumph of consumerism or the debasement of taste, is, as Schumpeter said of capitalist production generally, "a gale of creative destruction," blowing away the obsolete and the outworn to make room for the robust, the novel, the various, and the re-fashioned:

A typical American yuppie drinks French wine, listens to Beethoven on a Japanese audio system, uses the Internet to buy Persian textiles from a dealer in London, watches Hollywood movies funded by foreign capital and filmed by a European director, and vacations in Bali; an upper-middle-class Japanese may do much the same. A teenager in Bangkok may see Hollywood movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Austrian), study Japanese, and listen to new pop music from Hong Kong and China, in addition to the Latino singer Ricky Martin. Iraq's Saddam Hussein selected Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as the theme song for his fifty-fourth birthday.

It's a wild, wonderful, disorderly world; melange and creativity technologically enhanced.

Cowen's argument is that what looks to the anti-market mind like kitsch, humbug, pretension, or decadence is in fact vital and innovative, the cutting edge of world creativity. His main tack in arguing this case is to apply to such phenomena the same frame of judgment that he applies to his ethnic restaurants. What is important is not whether they meet some arbitrary standard of imagined quality, but whether they significantly increase the range of choice. It is only the magnitude of the menu that matters, only the variety of goods on offer:

Most critics of contemporary culture ... use diversity as a code word for a ... particularist agenda, often of an anticommercial or anti-American nature. They care more about the particular form that diversity takes in their favored culture, rather than about diversity more generally, freedom of choice, or a broad menu of quality options. In response ... I [take] a more optimistic and more cosmopolitan view of cross-cultural exchange. The "creative destruction" of the market is ... artistic in the most literal sense. It creates a plethora of innovative and high-quality creations in many different genres, styles, and media ... cross-cultural exchange expands the menu of choice, at least [if] trade and markets are allowed to flourish.

Availability is all, and it is clear that "trade between cultures" adds all sorts of things to what there is to be bought and consumed: Inuit carvings, Jamaican Dub, Caucasian carpets, kung fu cinema, Naipaul and Mahfouz, Chaplin and Bunuel, the Beatles, Star Trek, and Wolfgang Puck, not to speak of foie gras and mee krob.

The net effect, in Cowen's happy opinion, is to make us all aesthetically richer--in general, on balance, globally speaking. "An individual can be a fan of Madonna and television soap operas while contributing to the ethos behind rave music and cyberpunk." "The number of artisans in Mexico is now at an all time high." Gandhi notwithstanding, competition from Manchester textiles did not undermine Indian homespun, "it spurred improvements in its quality ... as handweavers focused their attention on finer grades of production and design." Even the English language "has more words than ever before," a clear sign of progress. And it is an ill wind that blows nobody good: "if [it were] not for maritime trade, including the lucrative slave trade," the Cape Verde Islands would never have been settled and the unique synthetic music--Portuguese, African, and Brazilian--produced there today would not have been created.

The Leibnizian quality of all this, Pangloss in the marketplace, is not lost on Cowen. Indeed, the bulk of his book, a stream of small examples and large pronouncements sewn together by insistence and reiteration, is devoted to showing that although there is naturally a downside to everything, there is no reason to worry. Whatever negative effects commerce may have on culture, they are limited and transient, the simple and necessary costs of progress. For the neoliberal apologist, as for the Christian one, the real test comes in dispelling doubt as to the worth, on net, of the merely actual.

Consider the case of cinema, because of its capital-intensive and mogul-centered nature "one of the hard cases for globalization," to which Cowen devotes his only somewhat sustained discussion, in a chapter titled "Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care." (The book has a kidding-on-the-level epigraph from a former chairman of the Australian Film Commission, apparently a fellow believer: "A country that makes a film like Star Wars deserves to rule the world.") The "clustering" side of this problem, why the industry is so strongly centered in southern California, poses no particular problem. It is readily accounted for by the usual considerations of location theory: an enormous domestic market, the external economies of geographical concentration, the snowball effects of early success, and the like. One can explain Broadway, Lorenzo's Florence, or Periclean Athens in the same sort of way. But the global, "imperializing" side of the question, why the dream factory's export prowess is so much stronger than anybody else's--why world taste runs to Die Hard, Titanic, Mickey Mouse, and Jurassic Park rather than to Bergman, Godard, Kurosawa, and Ray--presents rather more of a problem. "Hollywood movies have become so publicly visible as to occasion charges of American cultural imperialism," Cowen observes in wonder--especially from Europeans, especially from the French. More than eighty percent of box office revenues in continental Europe goes to American films. The typical European film has about one percent of the audience of the typical Hollywood film. Even the United Kingdom, with the advantage of English, "has never seriously rivaled Hollywood as a movie-making power." And since Hong Kong, "arguably the world's most ... imaginative cinema" in the 1970s and 1980s, has been returned to Chinese control and much of its creative talent has moved to Hollywood, the United States, for a while out-competed there, has again captured more than half the local box office. Why does America so dominate world cinema markets? By virtue of its monopoly power? Its dumping capacities? Its devotion to lowest-common-denominator production values, to slaughter and slapstick? "There is," Cowen says gravely, "no simple answer to this question." But he gives one, anyway: "no."

In the first place, though the United States is a large producer of movies, it is not the largest. India, with upwards of eight hundred films per year to our two hundred fifty, is the largest producer, and "in a typical year the Western European nations make more movies than America does." Second, American domination of other peoples' markets is quite recent. In 1936, the six most popular French films were all native products, and of the seventy-five most popular films there, fifty-six were French. In those same years, domestic cinema "blossomed in Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and Mexico"; even the Argentines "held their own against Hollywood imports." And third, Hollywood has so deeply penetrated world markets not because domestic consumption subsidizes its foreign pricing or because its production costs are artificially low (they are, of course, high, and rising), but because it gives the international audience what it wants: "The American values of heroism, individualism, and romantic self-fulfillment are well suited for the large screen and for global audiences." We have, in this country, adopted "that which can be globally sold" as part of our national culture, have decided to emphasize our international triumphs and our ethnic diversity in our national self-image. In something of a Faustian bargain, we have "traded away the particularistic strands of [our] culture for success in global markets." Indiana Jones travels better than Tennessee Williams. Bogart, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis, Madonna: the world devours American self-caricature.

Cowen has other arguments, one tacked on to the next like disjunctive "moreover" clauses in a lawyer's brief. State subsidies, on average seventy percent of a film's funding, bureaucratize production and weaken the capacity of European cinema to compete. The American film industry responded more quickly and more intelligently to the coming of television. (In the United States, "theatrical revenue ... drives both video revenue and television revenue.... In Europe, in contrast, television revenue is more likely to be a substitute for theatrical revenue.") American film schools are like business schools, trained on profit, efficiency, and technical innovation, but European film schools "have become more like humanities programs, emphasizing semiotics, critical theory, and contemporary left-wing philosophies." European directors are older. Hollywood, where many of the leading directors are non-American by birth and most of the major studios are now foreignowned, is a highly cosmopolitan, globalized place to start with.

Anyway, Cowen adds in his worryless way, the dominance of American trash is good for diversity. Shut out of world markets, European movie-makers have been set free, rather like those Indian hand-weavers, "to focus on nuances of language and culture," thus expanding the overall range of choice. And besides, plagued by rising costs in advertising, special effects, and celebrity salaries, Hollywood's market position is far from invulnerable: "Witness the history of the once dominant American auto industry."

And so it goes. The same strategy--raise all the objections in parodic form and then shoot them down with quips and instances--is pursued throughout Cowen's book. Does industrial technology stifle creativity? The steel bands of Trinidad reached their peak when the indigenous percussion technology of bamboo was abandoned in favor of fifty-gallon oil drums providentially discarded by the multinational oil companies, allowing "the basic ideas of the xylophone orchestra" to be applied to the properties of metal to produce a sound "that is more shimmering and susceptible to greater variations in pitch and attack"; and anyway, they last longer. Did pre-spun and pre-dyed yarns, obtained by dismantling industrially manufactured cloth, cheapen Navajo rug design? The garish, convoluted Eyedazzlers, "considered corruptions by some critics at the time," have risen greatly in esteem and value as they have been marketed "to distant American consumers, rather than local trading partners." Does mass marketing destroy traditional creativity? While "we cannot understand freedom without tragedy," including the loss by non-Western cultures of their force and personality, this is offset globally by "The Minerva (`the owl flies at dusk') Model." It is often precisely when a particular culture is starting to decline--the Hawaiians in the nineteenth century, the Canadian Indians after the coming of the fur trade, the post-conquest Mexicans--that it blossoms and enriches the world with ukuleles, totem poles, and Moorish serapes. The Minerva Model implies that it is worthwhile to "cash in" the potential creativity embedded in a culture. "By accepting the eventual decline of a culture," Cowen writes, "we are also mobilizing its creative forces, at least for a while."

There is literally no end to this sort of thing. Homogenization is re-described as "universalization," which is "a word with more positive connotations." "Channel surfing" is turned into "quality monitoring." The reduction of "the number of truly distinct societies," through trademarks, franchising, and standardization, "may help cultures understand each other," and so avoid ethnic conflict and the clash of civilizations. But after a while the same form of argument endlessly repeated with a new factoid plugged in begins to pall, and one starts to wonder whether the restaurant menu is really such a good metaphor for cultural richness after all. Two from column A and three from column B expands choice all right, at least so long as you are content with the columns and you have the price. What it does not do is give you much in the way of guidance as to whether the game is worth the candle in the first place, whether what is on offer comes to much.

Like restaurant food and life in general, what art most needs is not apology but critique; and critique--and the standards to guide it--is precisely what the narrowed language of economics is unable to provide. It is not that Cowen is without aesthetic views, which he calls, uneasily, as though he had no right to them, "value judgments." It is that he makes no attempt to justify any of them beyond the sheer fact that he happens to hold them. If you disagree, fine: de gustibus, to each his own, it takes all kinds (except perhaps "pessimists") to make a world.

Cowen says, en passant, that "the serialist music of Pierre Boulez" provides him with great joy, that Andy Warhol's "Last Supper" paintings "are masterpieces in their own right," that Salman Rushdie and Pramoedya Toer "are world class writers, comparable to the best of Europe and the United States, if not better," and that if he were going to be stranded in a foreign country he would take along Spenser to while away the evenings because his writings "merit multiple careful readings." But he does not say anything about the works involved or why he is drawn to them, or what sort of principles might hold such variousness together. Not a line of poetry, not a passage of prose, to say nothing of a musical phrase or a painting detail, is excerpted and analyzed, or even referred to, in his entire book. What Boulez is all about, wherein Warhol's genius lies, who the American writers Pramoedya surpasses are, or what he makes of The Faerie Queen remains mysterious. Even the cinema, where his attention is less wandering, and his competence probably greater, receives only generalized, indeterminate praise: John Woo is "energetic," The Blair Witch Project is "innovative," Jaws is "exciting."

To have critique, of course, you must have critics. But Cowen is so bent on justifying globalization as such, and on forestalling any sort of governmental resistance to it, that he has quite forgotten--if he ever knew--what criticism is in the arts. He sees it not as the close examination and the intense response to particular works, styles, or traditions, the setting forth of reasons, beyond "a lot of people like it," why this is valuable or that vacant, and the drawing of others into the force fields of the deep, the original, the serious, and the powerful. He sees it, simply and wholly, as an ideological matter: either you are for free markets everywhere and always, or you are not. "Critics"--a term apparently interchangeable with "pessimists," "elitists," and "anti-Americans"--are just so many naysayers. "Influenced by Marxian economics and Continental philosophy," critics, in Cowen's view of them, are like the twelve thousand arts bureaucrats defending France against Disney and Coca-Cola, consecrated to spreading "skepticism about market-driven culture." Whether they are "structuralists," "post-modernists," adherents of "The Frankfurt School," or "Canadians" ("Margaret Atwood coined the phrase `the Great Star Spangled Them' to express her opposition to NAFTA"), they are determined to save us from what is seen as "a bloodless economics of profit." About the legion of practical critics, writing here, there, and everywhere about particular movies, paintings, books, dance, and music, we hear nothing at all. Edmund Wilson and Pauline Kael, Leonard Feather and Clement Greenberg might as well never have lived, and there is apparently nothing in scholarly commentary, Vendler or Varnedoe, Barthes or Bazin, worth anyone's attention.

If we are to come to any conclusions about "how globalization is changing the world's cultures," other than the simple fact that it is indeed changing it and profoundly, we need a language of perception and sensibility capable of sorting it out and guiding us through it. It is not clear that economics can produce that. What it seems likely to produce, on the evidence before us, is the higher complacency, and a great many all-for-the-best accounts of loss and upheaval.


Off the menu, in: The New Republic, vol. 205 (2003) (= no. 4596), S. 27-30


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