Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reading Literature Makes You More Cosmopolitan

"Openness is the real motor force of economic growth. Recognizing this means we have to rethink the way that culture affects economics." -- Richard Florida, "The Flight of the Creative Classs" 68

Florida then goes on to argue that "The economic importance of culture"

lies in its ability to absorb and harness human talent. Since every human being has creative potential, the key role for culture is to create a society where that talent can be attracted, mobilized, and unleashed. All of this turns on an expansive, open, and proactively inclusive culture (72)

In other words, it depends on cosmopolitanism. And cosmopolitanism is something one typically finds in cities, and is also something that is encouarged by free markets -- indeed, Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger's main complaint about capitalism was that it was cosmopolitan, and was thus "unrooted."

But let me propose something more in line with our concerns here, which is that literature itself is able to create a more cosmopolitan individual, and thus could act as a driver of economic growth. This is something I suggest on my blog Interdisciplinary World, but let me reproduce some of that argument here.

Literature allows you to inhabit the life and world of an other. This is how it helps one to become more cosmopolitan. Men can experience what it's like to be a woman; women can experience what it's like to be a man. I've experienced being an African-American woman through Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, being an African-American man through Langston Hughs, being an African tribal priest through Chinua Achebe, being Hispanic through Gabriel García Márquez, being a Czech expatriot through Milan Kundera, being a Czech Jew through Kafka, being French through Andre Gide, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Stendhal, de Beauvoir, Camus (really, French-Algerian in this case), Balzac, Michel Houellebecq, etc., being German through Goethe, Hesse, Rilke, Celan, Gunter Grass, Heine, Holderlein, Nietzsche, and Thomas Mann, being an Indian woman through Arundhati Roy, being a Japanese man through Kawabata, being ancient Greek through Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, and being a contemporary Greek through Kazantzakis, just to name a few. I have inhabited these in the only ways actually possible, and it has made me more open, cosmopolitan, and creative. (I have even been described by a few Europeans as the most European American they had ever met.) This opennes, this cosmopolitanism, contributes to creativity, by opening up new ways of thinking. New ways of thinking do not occur just among disciplines, but among cultures as well. These cultural differences have resulted in geographically distinct economic developments. There were cultural elements that contributed to these patterns. If a person can tap into these different ways of seeing the world, different ways of thinking, different world views, that cannot help but contribute to their creativity. The more perspectives one can bring to a problem, the more creative solutions can emerge to solve it. Or even discover the problem in the first place. From this stems entrepreneurship and, as a consequence, economic growth and an increase in wealth.

It seems likely that increased cosmopolitanism is what in fact drives economic growth, as Florida suggests. This drives economic growth, creating opportunities more people from more places are attracted to, creating even more cosmopolitanism. It's a virtuous circle. Literature has its place in that circle.

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