October 26, 2011
Question: What’s it like to participate in an academic conference taking place in China and on the topic of contemporary capitalism?
Answer: An academic conference.
Which is to say that you have to do the work to create human connection/conversation outside the rigid conference structure of one person after another lecturing. It’s hard work, especially when you don’t speak the language of 90% of the participants! But it’s well worth it in the new friends you make and the new learnings you gain.
This past weekend I was one of four non-Chinese guest speakers (the “Western Marxists”) at the Third International Conference on Contemporary Capitalism Studies in Hangzhou, China. The sponsors were the Center for Studies of Marxist Social Theory, Department of Philosophy, and School of Marxism at Nanjing University, and the Center for Marxist Studies at Hangzhou University, About 70 people were there in total, “senior” and “junior” scholars, postdocs, and graduate students in philosophy, social theory and Marxist studies. While the presentations were all over the place with regard to topic, the challenge many of the Chinese presentations tried to engage was understanding how China is (and/or should be) facing capitalism: Do Marxian concepts shed some light on this question and, if so, which ones? What role do traditional Chinese values play in China’s growing economy; are they hindering or helpful, both or neither? Are we witnessing capitalism ‘s (“inevitable”) collapse; if we are, then what’s next?
My presentation, on Fred Newman and the Practice of Method introduced Newman to the Chinese scholars and explicated our development community’s work as the postmodernizing and therapeutization of Marx. The other Westerners—Neil Harding from Wales, David McNally from Toronto and Ian Parker from Britain—introduced new conceptual tools as ways of seeing current class struggle, building socialism and engaging in resistance.
Unfortunately, there was little dialogue that might have led to us creating some new understandings. But informally I had some wonderfully lively and moving conversations with “the younger generation” who were eager to explore what it means to practice method (and not just do theory), to create emotionality, and to build community. Some of these took place at the spectacular West Lake and the park that surrounds it, and at extraordinarily delicious banquet meals.
From Hangzhou we went to the city of Nanjing, where I led a class for philosophy postdoc students on Marx, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein and Social Therapy. I began with a brief introduction of how I came to Marx, philosophy and therapy as a political organizer (and developmental psychologist). Then I asked them to perform part of the play, “The Myth of Psychology” in which Vygotsky and Wittgenstein are in therapy and talking about Karl Marx. Just as participants in my Thought Leadership of Fred Newman class in NY, those in Nanjing really got into it. They asked how could we speak of fetishization outside of political economy, what Social Therapy looks like, what to do about “objective” unhappiness in the world, and the relationship between changing the world and changing ourselves.
I thank the students for their willingness to create a playful and open learning environment with me and for their great questions. Professor Huaiyu Liu and Dr. Jing Wu (who translated for me) were fabulous “completers” of my thinking and my English words. All in all, a great time was had by all! I later found out that I had given No. 88 in the Marxist seminar series of the Center for Studies of Marxist Social Theory!