— Cultural Sources of Newness

Culture, horizontal and vertical

The blog may have been dormant for a while, yet it has found a firm place in my mental household. Attending a conference of cultural economists only strengthened the feeling that this is an event I just have to report on, like it or not.

The conference took place in Kyoto, Japan. Organizer was the Association of Cultural Economics International (ACEI) which has held similar conferences biannually since 1979, this being the 17th event. I have attended all these conferences since 1986, and organized one in 1994 in Witten. Traditionally, the venues alternated between Europe and North-America, this was the first one held in Asia. About 300 people attended, almost all of them presented papers, the majority were young scholars. This was the largest attendance ever, mainly due to two reasons: one is the extension of academic interest beyond the traditional cultural field to all the branches of the creative industries and beyond, for instance tourism and gambling. This is a development which was criticized by some of the older speakers, because they see a dilution from the original focus of the association. The second one is the interest of economists in Japan, China and Corea in cultural economics, even though the meaning given to that term is distinctly different from the meaning used in Western – well – culture. For instance, I heard the report of an offical from the Japanese ministry of Trade and Industry on the development of a statistical framework for monitoring the creative industries. Not only do the Japanese intend to include the food industry, they would even like to go further and include products with any kind of experience characteristic, like motorcycles, as long as they are made in Japan, and thus products of Japanese culture. That, of course, would constitute a much greater dilution of focus. On the other hand, given my wider interest in the notion of culture, it prompted some insight which I would like to share.

I had been asked to comment on the plenary presentation of an internationally well known regional economist, Prof. H. Fujita. Fujita’s question, in a nutshell, was the effect of effortless digital communication on the innovation rate of economies. In his model, he assumes regional „knowledge economies“ or „cultures“. The less differences exist within a culture, or the more common knowledge accumulates, the less probability he sees for innovation. The model itself is of limited interested, at least in this context. What became clear to me, however, is a fundamental distinction which seems to be at work: when Fujita and other Asian scholars speak of culture, they have a conglomerate of a stock of knowledge and a flow of communication in mind which is distinct, apart from other such regionally situated cultures. Their differences are, quite literally, horizontal. When Western scholars – and not just scholars – speak of culture, they have a subset of the knowledge-communication conglomerate in mind that is distinct because it reflects on the rest of society, it is about a society that extends worldwide. The difference, then, is vertical in nature, as these cultural communications are perceived as high points, as vantage points hovering above the rest of all the meaning-making that makes up society. That would give meaning to the strange notion of „Arts and Culture“: it includes, besides artistic expressons, identity-producing activities like traditional practices, popular cultural genres and the theoretical and empirical efforts of the sciences.

Both interpretations, evidently, are successfully used in everyday communication – in different places. However, they get into each other’s way when used interchangeably. Just as evidently, each regional culture has a distinct variety of high culture – Japan being a particularly pronounced example – , and each high culture has a long-standing historical and regional foundation. But it seems, at least to me, that it makes a considerable analytical difference how one starts a sequence of observation – with horizontal cultures or with vertical culture.

Needless to say, I spent my free days after the conference like most academic tourists – visiting and trying to appreciate some of the emanations of high culture accumulated in a city which was Japan’s capital for 1.100 years – which meant mostly gardens in my case. But even that appreciation, to my mind, was made easier by applying the newly found double distinction.