I have an ambivalent relationship to academic conferences. On the one hand, I find them physically exhausting because structured to produce the largest amount of intellectual work in the most efficient way. Sadly, intellectual efficiency, like all forms of efficiency is a statistical concept that can only be represented through quantification. The success of an academic conference tends to be measured in numbers of participants, sessions, and published proceedings — measurements which effectively transform intellectuals into academic line workers and make conferences just another station in what might be described as toolpath control over knowledge production. Thus, I experience diminishing returns in a conference’s progression; early on, I am able to listen more actively and participate more fully simply because I’m rested and able to engage a diversity of theoretical positions and claims. In contrast, as the conference unfolds, I become physically tired and often find myself aware that my only contribution is the effort to engage a presenter’s work; I try to listen and understand.
On the other hand, I attend academic conferences because I yearn for intellectual conversations with people I do not meet in the general unfolding of my life. I have colleagues and friends in Shenzhen with whom I debate and discuss various issues. But in order to be inspired and challenged, or simply unsettled and honed, I need both the stability of familiar conversations and the jolt of unexpected encounters. Consequently, I continue to see old friends and opponents, while making new at conferences, which are by and large international and place me in proximity to scholars working both in and beyond Chinese borders. Thus, the conference format, especially when funded by academic and public institutions, offers opportunities to nurture and grow intellectually — precisely through intellectual companionship — both during and in the off time between
In other words, both the strengths and limits to Fordist knowledge production are relentlessly human; international conferences provide opportunities to be surprised and inspired outside the paths of everyday life, however, tired bodies can only do so much, even and especially when we are going through the privileged motions of academic conferencing.
On Oct 18-19, I had the pleasure of participating in the Masterplanning the Future Conference, which was organized and hosted by the Department of Architecture at the recently established Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in the Suzhou Industrial Park. Organizers, Austin Williams and Theodoros Dounas’ attempted to address the inherent problems of academic conferences through a schedule, which started late enough in the morning and ended early enough in the evening to allow for conversations about and around the the question of high-speed development(s). Moreover, the conference structure attempted to open discussion to the widest possible audience, including a local audience for these ideas. On day one, for example, the public sessions raised general issues, their lay representations, and potential representatives, while on day two, the academic sessions provided more detailed analysis and examples of these issues. Finally, the conference itself was small enough to allow for participants to leave with a sense of the whole, satisfied that if someone were to ask me, “So, what was the conference about?” I could confidently answer, “English language efforts to come to terms with how China has shaped post Cold War thinking about and experience of urbanization. With a few divergences.”
That said, my interpretation of the point and purpose of the Conference differs importantly from the full title of the conference which was Masterplanning the Future: Modernism — East, West & Across the World. The aim to generalize at this scale meant that during sessions we inevitably stereotyped both ourselves and our interlocutors. All too often, the conversation reduced to statements that began with “The West this” or “China that”, rather than staying focused on more specific examples or standpoints that might allow for the negotiation of similarity and difference as shifting aspects of human experience, rather than as identifiable characteristics of mass populations. In this sense, the underlying assumptions of the academic sessions did not differ significantly from that of the public sessions, or even from a more general representation of China and The West at the university itself.
And there’s the rub: this tendency to stereotype distresses me not only because it seems intellectually dodgy, but also because it invariably reduces international relations and cross cultural understanding to semiotic match-making, in all senses of the term. Romancing the factory, so to speak. After all, the conference did take place in an industrial park, with an eye to global knowledge production and consumption.
Outside the XJTLU conference centered where we convened, for example, was a sculpture of a Tang lady and an English gentlemen playing polo (image below).
Both ride culturally appropriate horses and wear culturally appropriate costumes. Both the Tang Lady and English Gentlemen are stylized representations of a recognizable elite, which in turn represent English and Chinese cultures, while glossing internal hierarchy and inequality within the United Kingdom and People’s Republic of China; Tang Ladies and English Gentlemen may represent the current elite of each of these countries, but in no way do they represent the lives of contemporary workers. Moreover, while I’m willing to entertain the idea that contemporary Sino-British relations are simply a game played by elites from the PRC and UK, nevertheless, the gendering of this statue is itself so stereotypically neo-colonial that I don’t know where to begin my critique.
(But really, if we insist on representing international relations through figures of hetero-normative couples, might we not consider a male Chinese zither player and a female British mandolin player, aiming for musical harmony rather than competitive sportsmanship as a unifying metaphor of international intercourse?)
All this to say: I think that these stereotypical elites and their games continue to echo throughout cross cultural conversation because leisure is one of the predicates of meaningful conversation. Here I mean leisure in all senses of the word — as unstructured time, as non-productive time, as pleasurably engaged time and the resultant inspirations, solidarities, and new beginnings. We know that we need to play together in order to create more meaningful relationships and concomitant social orderings; children do it everyday and, unlike us adults, they do it well, creating community out of mud pies and whatever else is at hand. However, unless we restructure the inequalities built into contemporary chains of production and consumption, including cross cultural production and consumption of knowledge, we will remain nostalgic for forms of elite leisure that we cannot have experienced, even as we mistake this deluded nostalgia with the necessary realization of leisure in society.