April 6, 2016
by Administrator

Refracted Time

I recently delivered the keynote address at the 2015 Australian Anthropological Society conference. My address, “Refracted Time: From Historicity to Legal Technique in the ‘Comfort Women’ Controversy,” discusses how the controversy can be viewed as an artifact of a legal project of history-making. The video of the the address is below and also available here.


Refracted Time: From historicity to legal technique in the “Comfort Women” controversy – Professor Annelise Riles from Arts Unimelb on Vimeo.

June 16, 2013
by ar254@cornell.edu

Debating the Future of Chinese Legal Thought

Beijing, China

Over the last two days I have had the privilege of participating in a fascinating conference jointly organized by my brilliant colleague Yu Xingzhong on behalf of Cornell Law School’s Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture, and Professor Gao Hongjun on behalf of the Tsinghua Law School, entitled “Comparative Law in the Globalized World: Transmigration and Innovation.” The very project of the conference represented a new level of collaboration between a US and Chinese law school–co-funded, co-organized, and featuring scholars from each in serious debate about the future of law in a globalized world. More than sixty scholars attended each day. The level of discussion was unusually high and energetic. What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm and passion for doing something new, creative, and useful among the younger generation of Chinese legal scholars.
On the second day of the conference these scholars had a fascinating debate about the future of law in China and what models to follow. The young scholars seemed to feel strongly that China needed to develop its own legal traditions instead of constantly borrowing from the West. There was real passion behind this concern and while to Western ears this may sound like inward-turning nationalism, my own initial reaction is that we should not rush to read this through our own lens but should embrace the hopefulness of this project: the desire to do something creative, original and new. All of these young people had experience studying or conducting research abroad and in fact are well-schooled in Western ideas as well.
And this last point was highlighted ironically by some other (generally although not exclusively older) scholars. They pointed out, correctly, that these young people were using Western theories (from Augustinian theology to Marxism to legal imperialism) to critique the importation of Western ideas. They stated, with equal passion and eloquence, that while they understand the desire to support China–a desire everyone who is a Chinese intellectual shares–they questioned why one needs to call an idea “Chinese” or “Western.” Why not just call it a good or bad idea and not worry so much about where it comes from? In response, some of the first group suggested that the encounter with foreign legal theories need not be a process of confrontation or cooptation but might be a process of mutual adaptation and transformation. They also pointed out that what is needed is a more equal dialogue among Chinese and Western intellectuals, rather than one in which Western intellectuals lecture Chinese scholars about the path of modernization. The second group seemed also to be subtly suggesting in response that the younger scholars, whose experience of recent Chinese history is quite different from their own, might have an overly idealistic view of the Chinese tradition.
As an American scholar, I was moved and fascinated by this conversation precisely because I have a sense that I don’t understand it fully. It does not map onto American legal dichotomies of left and right, nationalist and cosmopolitan. I am also envious of the sense of a “debate” here–there is clearly something at stake for all these scholars. To me, debates are hard to come by, and precious moments of scholarly sociality. My own impulse is to strongly resist taking sides or making judgments about this debate for the moment but to see how we as outsiders might support and enrich it as it develops.
If any friends in China or elsewhere wish to explain this conversation or give their own views, that would be fantastic!

May 1, 2013
by Annelise Riles

“New Governance” and Global Financial Regulation

In its latest newsletter, the Tobin Project covered the online publication of my recent working paper in which I examine the relevance of “New Governance” regulatory theory to the challenges faced by the Financial Stability board in regulating systematically important financial institutions.

Tobin Project Newsletter

Direct link to my working paper: Is New Governance the Ideal Architecture for Global Financial Regulation?

March 5, 2013
by Annelise Riles

The Changing Politics of Central Banking

Bank of Japan, Tokyo

Last weekend we convened a quite exciting conference on “The Changing Politics of Central Banks” sponsored by the Cornell International Law Journal (symposium website). The focus on central banks as political actors is clearly timely given the growing awareness of the public of the distributive effects of monetary policy and also the debates taking place in many countries around the world about the proper scope of independence for central banks.  Yet we lack a sufficiently rich vocabulary for talking about this politics. Moreover, this is one of those interesting places where traditional right-left divides do not apply: what do we make of Paul Krugman’s embrace of Abenomics, for example?

The perspectives of the conference participants–academics and central bankers, mainly–varied considerably.  Keynote speaker Dan Tarullo pointed out that while independence make sense in the realm of monetary policy there is no reason for independence with respect to the central bank’s regulatory role, since in that space it acts very much like other kinds of administrative agencies which are subject to various forms of oversight (press coverage of Dan Tarullo’s remark: 1, 2, 3, 4).  Peter Lindseth, an administrative law and EU law specialist, spoke of the need for precisely this form of administrative oversight. Anna Gelpern pointed out that given what she called “the big blur” of monetary and fiscal policy, we need to begin to reeducate the public about what political legitimacy for central banks should look like.  Katharina Pistor argued that the focus on central bank legitimacy was not the entirely right question–that we should be asking “what kind of global financial system do we want”–because as long as we have this system, central banks can do nothing other than what they are currently doing.  Bob Hockett argued for an international central bank that would better address the needs of the global financial system than can a network of national central banks.  I took the opposite approach to Bob to the same problem: I suggested that the field of conflict of laws, with its rules for determining “who is in charge” in any particular situation, could better coordinate regulation transnationally than can global institutions.  Doug Holmes presented the findings of his extensive research on how central banks communicate with their various publics and constituencies in order to demonstrate that central banks are in fact more in touch, and more accountable, than the formal institutional structure would suggest.

What was resolved at the conference? I think we clarified a few points:

  1. Central banks are indeed political institutions that can and should be analyzed as such.
  2. Given that the genie is out of the bottle and there is indeed a “big blur” between monetary and fiscal policy, we need new ways of talking about the political accountability of central banks.
  3. There are nevertheless interesting variations in this politics from one state and market to the next, and even in any one context, the processes of accountability are far more complex and multivocal than they appear at first site.
  4. All of this impacts on the ability of central banks to cooperate in order to forestall future financial crises.


Sounds like a mandate for more research.  Stay tuned!

September 8, 2012
by Annelise Riles

The emerging academic consensus on the future of financial regulation

I am in Freiburg, Germany for a conference at the Max-Planck Institute on Regulation and Law Enforcement after the financial crisis.  Freiburg is the greenest city in Germany, I am told proudly by our hosts: 100% of the energy used in the city comes from renewable sources. Everywhere you see small systems installed in the streams to collect little bits of energy that are pooled to supply local energy needs.  Even visitors are supplied with a public transport pass on hotel check-in and advised to take the tram, bicycle or walk to our appointments. The air is clean and crisp and, in marked contrast to my own country, people look remarkably fit and relaxed. If Freiburg can do it, why not Ithaca?


At the conference, I can sense a palpable shift in the way scholars are beginning to think about the financial crisis as compared to several years ago. There is a breadth of approaches–geography, sociology, anthropology, experimental psychology, criminology–and scholars are engaging in direct, detailed and fruitful conversation with practitioners.  Everyone seems to have far more patience for approaches and perspectives different from their own–perhaps we have all been chastened by the limits of our own disciplinary viewpoints! The practitioners themselves are more diverse in their views than in the past.  Some think the government is doing a great job, but others (including former government regulators) have an extremely dark and pessimistic view of how things are going on the inside, and they are not afraid to say so. The consensus of the conference was clearly that, four years after the start of the financial crisis, we have not made nearly enough progress in making the kinds of regulatory and institutional changes needed to prevent the next one.  We joked that each of us outdid the next in our presentations with ever-darker pictures of the political impediments to regulatory reform, the structural problems such as a lack of self-confidence and incentives against forceful action among regulators and prosecutors, and the limits of the securities and criminal laws for addressing problematic behavior. I talked about a different level of problem–the rise since 2008 of a new mode of state managerialism I call Market Totalitarianism (which gives you a sense of what I think of it!) More on that in a next post.


But the real reason I am posting here is that I met a remarkable young legal anthropologist, Johanna Mugler, who is just beginning her teaching career at the University of Bern and working on the politics and epistemology of taxation.  She told me what this blog means to her and her students and chided me for not posting more frequently as of late! It’s an honor to have a conversation anywhere with imaginative young scholars like Johanna–and if this blog can be a venue of that kind of conversation with so many readers like her, well, that is all the inspiration I need to get cracking again. Thank you, Johanna!

March 5, 2012
by Annelise Riles
1 Comment

Japan One Year Later: How Can We Bring Closure to Crisis?

This coming weekend, at Cornell, we will be holding a very special conference. The conference marks the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan. The title of the conference, which will bring together economists, lawyers,
anthropologists, policymakers, literary theorists, and many others from Japan, the US and Europe, is “How can we bring closure to crisis?”  The program is here: http://meridian-180.org/3-11-2012_symposium_schedule

As many of you know, the events on and since March 11, 2011 have had quite a profound impact on me personally and professionally. It’s no exaggeration to say that my own vision of my scholarly and professional mission, and even of what is important in life, has been transformed by the events of the year ago. This conference will offer a chance to reflect on the enduring policy questions but also the more personal aspects of all of this, and also to consider what we had his academics and professionals can do to address the continuing political, economic, environmental crises of the moment. If you are in the Ithaca area and have an interest in attending part or all the program, please let me know. You would be more than welcome.

June 20, 2011
by Annelise Riles

Japan: The country that can’t cooperate

There was a truly saddening story on the front page of the New York Times on June 13 about events surrounding the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima crisis in the days immediately after the earthquake. Prime Minister Kan rightly mistrusted the nuclear industry and the government’s own nuclear experts, the article says, and hence relied upon a small group of close advisors, none of whom had expertise in the problem. The officials in the relevant
government ministries with material information that could have saved lives didn’t bother to try to get this information to the Prime Minister because, they said, he didn’t ask for it. The company hid information from the government. The academic experts obscured the issues. According to the Times, these people only started actually speaking to one another when the Americans came in and demanded information–and hence they all had to get on the same page about what to tell the Americans at their daily briefing. As I was discussing this over lunch with a senior bureaucrat today, he sighed–Japanese are people who don’t take any responsibility. And indeed, the only person (save perhaps the Prime Minister and his crew) who took any personal responsibility in all of this to do what they could for the welfare of their fellow-citizens was the manager of the Fukushima plant, did so by actually disobeying the orders of his superiors (and thereby probably saved many lives).

We often think of Japan as a country in which people know how to cooperate, and indeed the foreign news media has been full of wonderful stories about how much cooperation there has been among the citizenry in the aftermath of the earthquake. But at least at the policy and corporate levels this was a case of failed cooperation of an almost unthinkable magnitude with disastrous and enduring consequences.

Although readers of this blog know I am a big defender of Japan against Western stereotypes of all that is wrong with the place, I have to say that the Fukushima incident has given me pause. Japanese may be able to cooperate in certain settings–they know how to work together within the family or the company or how to line up for the subway–but what does this disastrous failure of cooperation and lack of will on the part of politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives to sacrifice for the public good, or at least take responsibility to do all they can in this case, say about the Japanese cooperative ability? What kind of response is it, for a ministry bureaucrat questioned by the Times as to why he did not inform the Prime Ministry that they had a warning system available to let the public know the radiation risks they were facing and thus possibly avert tens of thousands of future cases of cancer, to say “well, he didn’t ask”?

My own country certainly has its sickening examples of government officials failing to live up to their public responsibilities or work together collegially. But in Japan too, perhaps, there is a need for some serious reflection on how to build a more cooperative culture.

June 14, 2011
by Annelise Riles

A Japanese Perspective on American Markets

There is an old stereotype of Asian markets that goes like this: Asians don’t really have capitalism, they have relational capitalism. Relationships are what matter first in Asia.  And then the standard critique follows: and that is why their  markets are inefficient, because they care too much about relationships.

In this light, I found the following observation by a Japanese lawyer over dinner the other night about what is wrong with US markets deliciously challenging to the standard dogma: Why, he asked me, when Americans meet in the market, do they insist on pretending they are friends? “When I hire a taxi to take me from point A to point B,” he said, “it is because I want a ride, not a conversation.  Why do I have to engage in the farce that what I am really after is a chat about the weather with the driver? Or when I go to get my haircut, it is because I actually want a haircut.  Or if I want to buy a sandwich, it is because I am hungry, not because I want to make friends with the waitress.  I talk all day long for a living, and yet I find that in America in addition to paying a fee you get charged another kind of charge–you have to do the work of making small talk too.”

He has a point–we Americans seem to need to dress up our capitalism as if it were relational capitalism.  In Japan, at least, in contrast, when you pay for a service, you don’t have to pretend the seller of the service is your new best friend.

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