Launched in early June 2011 by Professor Annelise Riles (Cornell Law School), this forum challenged Meridian 180 members to reflect briefly on the changing place of intellectuals in an increasingly cosmopolitan and global society. The initial questions posed were open-ended: what are the most pressing international issues at the current moment? How should academics and other professionals respond? How can transnational intellectual exchange contribute to these goals? What emerged was a series of diverse and thoughtful responses:
· Professor Grace Kuo (National Cheng Kung University) focused on the need for intellectuals to embrace their mobility not only across national borders, but also between positions in universities, governments, think tanks, and public media outlets. During these movements, Professor Kuo explained, scholars must actively strive to maintain the “sober perspective” of self-reflection that is necessary to uphold their “privileged observer” status. Relating these notions to her own experience, she reflected on various encounters she has had with notions of “transparency,” and how these experiences shaped her own response when a government official called on her to serve as “a scholar who has an international perspective.” In closing, she reflected on how pursuing a broader, more holistic intellectual sensibility by conversing with professionals from a variety of different fields, industries, sectors, and intellectual cultures may help reveal the limitations and strengths of various bodies of knowledge.
· Ryan Sayre (PhD Candidate, Yale University) questioned intellectuals’ prevalent “over-eagerness” to focus disproportionately on “pressing” issues through the lens of the “problem-oriented terminology” provided by the dominant social theories of the current moment. Exploring these questions in dialogue with his own ethnographic research on the orientation of earthquake disaster preparedness measures in Japan, Sayre contemplated Meridian 180’s capacity to “prepare the ground for new modes of investigation and understanding” by adopting a commitment to reflectively questioning the promises and constraints of contemporary modes of thought and inquiry.
· Professor Yu Xingzhong (Chinese University of Hong Kong)emphasized that a global intellectual must have knowledge and experiences that extend “beyond” his or her own culture: he or she must engage fundamentally “global” issues ranging from international development to environmental conservation to religious faith, and must approach a host of new problems that defy national boundaries – from concerns about public health to nuclear waste – from a uniquely “global” vantage point. Bringing these emerging ideals into dialogue with those of ancient Chinese intellectuals who strove “to rectify hearts, to cultivate persons, to regulate families, to govern states, to tranquilize the whole kingdom,” Professor Yu reflects on the relevance of these nostalgic “traditional” ideals in a globalized world society. Concluding, he laments briefly that the “intellectuals who purely seek knowledge” and who strive to endow the world with “pure spirits, independent thought, and great wisdom” are at risk of irrelevance in a world in which knowledge is increasingly used as an instrument to reach state, policy, or otherwise pragmatic goals.
· Professor Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne) reflects on the power for scholarly values of “critical thinking” and “reflexivity” to give us “access to forces that are outside of us but that are acting on us causally, continuously constituting us into what we are.” Critical anthropological thought, he suggests, reminds societies that “regardless of what and who we are, we, as individuals and as a society, can dwell in the world in a completely different way from the way we dwell in it at any given moment”—it demonstrates how “we can be radically other than what we are,” and how we can see spaces of “otherness in our midst.”
· Dr. Amanda Snellinger (Seattle University)engages Ryan Sayre’s critique of the pervasive “problem-orientation” among intellectuals by invoking the urgency of America’s debt-ceiling crisis and its potential effects on vulnerable populations. For her, dismissing real-world issues as “mere problems” can have “dire consequences.” Instead, she suggests, the academic spirit of communicating and understanding diverse perspectives has much to offer the conventions of adversarial political discourse. For one, global intellectuals’ capacity to reveal the strategies that underpin various rhetorical or logical strategies can help empower publics against politically motivated deployments of facts. Reshaping public debates by projecting the scholarly ideals of “communication with the goal to understand,” she urges global intellectuals to “make our problems once again shared problems rather than divided crises.”
· Professor Zhu Suli (Peking University Law School) stressed the necessity for intellectuals to remain “frank” and “responsible,” even in the face of new attitudes in global media cultures and academic worlds that valorize “political correctness,” and that deter frank conversations about ideas that might “offend certain groups.” The result, Professor Zhu suggests, is a global context in which intellectuals are incentivized to present information that “might be misleading.” Exacerbating this problem, the rise of an international “specialization of labor” within the academy leads scholars to speak to ever smaller circles, severing the connection between “knowledge and practice” that is central to academics’ ability to hold wider influence. Finally, reflecting on a contemporary academic culture in which scholars are increasingly incentivized to shoulder less and less responsibility – one in which the constituents of academic “responsibility” are increasingly difficult to define – Professor Zhu ends on a more pessimistic note: “becoming a ‘global intellectual’ is no easier than becoming God.”