In Freudian terms, both the option of making oneself ‘one with everything’ and the availability of Beethoven in spray cans – the market substitute and the technological substitute for what are essentially spiritual endeavours – represent a major Aufwandersparnis, a saving in terms of psychic energy. According to Freud’s theory of the joke, the release of the surplus energy triggers laughter. Substituting a market solution for the long and hard work of the spiritual quest would certainly represent such an Aufwandersparnis. Assuming that he understands irony and is self-ironic enough to laugh about himself on occasion, it is hard to see (from a Freudian point of view) why the Dalai Lama is not laughing.
One could argue that both in its structure and in its failure to translate beyond the confines of Australia (or the realm of Anglo pizza culture), the Dalai Lama joke points to a deeper problem – one that would be worthy even of the attention of my German colleague from the philosophy department. Both in its structure and in its failure to communicate, the joke plays on a tension between unity and diversity, between ‘one’ and ‘everything’, framed in terms of choice. In his influential 1990 essay, ”Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy“, Arjun Appadurai wrote that the “central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogeniziation and cultural heterogenization“.  Similiarly, the American economist Tyler Cowen wrote in his 2002 book Creative Destruction: ”Trade, even when it supports choice and diverse achievement, homogenizes culture in the following sense: it gives individuals, regardless of their country, a similarly rich set of consumption opportunities.“ Globalised trade, particularly in the age of computerised container shipping, may have many downsides, but it does provide for more choice. To quote Cowen again: “Trade liberates difference from the constraints of space“.
Yet the trend towards homogeneity, which was at the centre of the Frankfurt School’s critique of commercialised culture, remains in place: more diversity often means the same kind of diversity everywhere we go. Back in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still alive and well, Andy Warhol said that the most beautiful thing about Paris, Florence, Rome and London was McDonald’s, while Moscow and Beijing did not have anything beautiful yet. Even before the advent of McDonald’s in Moscow and Beijing, most major cities in the world had their choice of Chinese, Italian, Greek and other ‘ethnic’ restaurants that served a similar menu of “typical” dishes everywhere. At the same time, as the critique of the cultural homogenisation wrought by global trade became commonplace, McDonald’s had to adapt and acquire some local flair in the process, adapting their menus to local preferences or dietary rules. “They got the same shit over there that we’ve got here, but it’s the little differences that matter”, says John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction (1994); but the little differences now go beyond re-labelling a quarter-pounder with cheese as a Royale with Cheese to replacing the standard cheese with local cheese varieties, as in the Netherlands or Switzerland, or doing away with the main ingredient of the hamburger sandwich, i.e., beef, as in India.
Trade, then, not only liberates difference from the constraints of space but, through what we might call the dialectics of homogenisation and heterogenisation, reinforces and, to a certain extent, even produces local or regional specificity. Globalised markets, then, are indeed making us one with everything, through a multi-layered dialectics of homogenisation and differentiation. However, where the spiritual quest of becoming one with everything holds the promise of inner peace through a loss of self, the processes of homogenisation and differentiation of global cultural trade induce anxiety – not least through a perceived threat of loss of self. One way of defining identity, and cultural identity in particular, is in fact through the absence of choice: I am what I cannot not be; the residue or core of my identity is that which I cannot chose to be, but am. At the same time, that which I cannot chose to be may become an object of choice for others. Commodifying identity is, in fact, one of the keys to success in the trade in cultural goods: trade liberates difference from the constraints of space, but to a large extent difference becomes transferable and tradable to the extent that it is perceived as a desirable trait of cultural specificity, and thus a form of identity by others.
Why expressions of cultural identity become tradable forms of difference varies according to the situation, but one of the strongest motivators is probably that being acquainted and at ease with cultural difference signals sophistication – a quality with which many people outside of certain parts of the United States want to be associated. At least from a Western point of view, cultural products have to be, or should be perceived to be, either new and original or authentic in order to be tradable. The idea of the art work – as distinguished by its novelty, originality and uniqueness – is dependent on the idea of the artist as its creator, an idea that first appears in late antiquity and reestablishes itself in Renaissance Europe.  According to the Western conception of art, the value of a painting in trade, for instance, is directly related to the novelty, originality and uniqueness of the work; and on the standing of the artist as acquired through a significant body of work, certified by critics, museums and other instances of critical discourse. In this system, copies – even well-executed ones – are relatively worthless, while forgery, i.e., the creation of supposedly original works by individuals who are not the artist to whom the work is publicly attributed, is a lucrative proposition, and has a history as long as the history of the modern idea of the original art work itself.  In its focus on novelty and originality, the Western system differs from the conception of art in other cultural areas, such as Japan, where honka dori or “taking up the melody”, i.e., the allusive variation and emulation of the work of great predecessors, ranks among the most prestigious techniques in painting and poetry. However, in areas where the Western conception of the artist and the original work appear to fall short, perceived authenticity can serve as a perfect substitute for artistic innovation. A piece of furniture or a hand-woven rug are considered to be valuable as a function of the artistry of the craftsmanship, but also as a function of the perceived authenticity of the work as an expression of a specific culture. Where the idea of the artist can be traced back to the Renaissance and late antiquity, the idea of culture and cultural specificity at work here is traceable to Giambattista Vico and (German) Romanticism, and is to a certain extent co-extensive with the substantialist idea of national culture discussed above.