April 29, 2013
by Annelise Riles

A Chinese Translation of Collateral Knowledge

I am really honored that thanks to the hard work of my colleague Yu Xingzhong, a Chinese translation of Collateral Knowledge is forthcoming very soon from the China Democracy and Law Publishing House.  I am very grateful to Professor Yu, to Pang Congrong, the editor of the book, and to the four translators Jiang Zhaoxin, Yu Ming, Qiu Zhaoji and Wang Guojia for this wonderful edition.

Professor Yu also organized a wonderful discussion of the book at the  East Asian Law and Society Conference in Shanghai, on March 22.  We were really fortunate to have comments by translators Qiu Zhaoji and Wang Guojia, by Pang Conrong, the editor of the edition, and by Luke Nottage and Fleur Johns, both of Sydney law faculty.  It was a fascinating discussion for me.  One of the highlights was Wang Guojia’s discussion of what the book’s themes about the interrelationship of public and private spheres might have to say to the Chinese experiments with privatization.

Chinese readers may also be interested in this very substantive discussion of the Chinese translation of collateral knowledge prepared based on the discussions of a March 13 meeting of a researcher study group at Northwest University of Politics and Law under the guidance of Professor Qiu Zhaoji, who translated one chapter of the book:


March 7, 2012
by Annelise Riles

Launching Meridian 180

One of my early memories of my childhood in 1970s France, with summer vacations in the Midwestern United States, crystallizes why I am an anthropologist, and what I see is the hope of comparative and international law. The memory  is in two scenes. In the 1st scene,  my 4th grade social studies teacher is teaching us about America. America is a country so polluted she tells us that on every street corner are meters that look like parking meters. When a certain alarm goes off, everyone grabs their oxygen mask from their handbags put the quarter in the parking meter like machine, obtains a dose of oxygen and wears the mask until the sirens tell them that it is safe to remove them. The other students are fascinated, and I go into internal tangles. Should I try to protest that this is utterly false? Should I try to point out that the image of selfish hedonists the teacher is painting does not correspond to anyone I personally know? no, everyone is enjoying the story too much to care.   In the 2nd scene a few months later, I join a bunch of American kids on the playground as they throw rocks across the puddle, declaring that  we are quote bombing France unquote. What follows is a chain of stereotypes of French people explaining why they deserve to be “bombed”, all negative of course, and presumably all drawn from popular media sources since none of these kids have ever been to Europe. My own recollection of all these episodes is not so much outrage as utter confusion: how can people I like and respect have so little awareness of how little awareness they have? As I grew older, of course I had plenty of opportunity to learn how that same question applied in so many ways to myself and my own myopias.  The blinders become fancier, more professional, more technologically sophisticated, more entrenched in complex institutional and cultural relationships, but just as hard to notice, let alone remove, as on that fourth grade playground.

A year ago this week, Japan was hit by them massive tsunami and earthquake, and also suffered one of the worst nuclear crises in history. In the terrible days after that incident, as each of us reflected on what we could contribute, some of us began to think that perhaps we  also needed to confront our own personal and professional and cultural myopias,  and  to find new ways to build relationships that would help us think in new and hopefully more transformative ways about the policies and choices of our societies. We wondered if understanding better how, for example, our own policies look for the point of view of another society, might help us to avoid disasters in the future, and also how we might find ways to work closely on problems that are transnational in character.

The question  of course preceded Fukushima: many of us had a longstanding sense that the intellectual conversation across the Asia-Pacific Rim region about law and regulation broadly conceived is far thinner and less substantive than it could be, and needs to be to satisfy the needs of the current moment. In thinking about the causes, it seems that some obvious ones are persisting language difficulties and difficulties reading and writing in particular, the problems and costs associated with getting very busy people to be able to spend substantial amounts of quality time together so that they can reach a deeper understanding of one another’s positions, and some degree of lack of comfort or trust.  And perhaps among some colleagues a lack of a sense that the conversation is worth investing the large amounts of time that it requires in current formats.

At the same time, many of us feel that the existing venues and formats for serious intellectual discussion are not satisfactory.  How do we encourage a far more substantive dialogue between different forms of disciplinary expertise and between thinkers in different societies?

Beginning in March, 2011, we began to pull together a special group of visionary thinkers–scholars, policy-makers and professionals–and to address some of these communication difficulties by creating a closed, online platform where people can write in their own languages and have their text translated within a short period of time by postdoctoral fellows.  Two Postdoctoral Fellows (one Japanese speaking and one Chinese speaking) are available to take any projects, research questions, or interventions that might surface out of these conversations forward. We called  this emerging conversation and community Meridian 180, after the anti-Meridian, or international date line, that divides the Pacific.  The goal of this project is to invest in the cultural and intellectual infrastructure for the next generation of trans-Pacific relations.  Through a long-term multi-lingual conversation, the project seeks to make connections and facilitate the development of relations of trust among individuals who together have the capacity to generate the new ideas and to lead the publics in their respective societies to face the significant challenges of the current moment.

Meridian 180 is a project of the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at the Cornell Law School.  It is a non-profit, non-political project funded through private donations and with support from Cornell Law School.  It is comprised of Senior Fellows and of Members in law, the academy, private practice and policy circles who meet regularly via an on-line platform supporting multilingual conversation, as well as periodically in face to face conferences.  Ideas that emerge from these conversations are then incubated and developed, with the help of Postdoctoral Fellows based in Ithaca, NY, into forms in which they can make a difference in each individual society–ranging from policy papers to academic books, blog entries, and individual conversations with policy makers.

Our current forum, “How can we bring closure to crises,” marks the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan by reexamining this particular disaster and reconstruction project from various perspectives and by putting the issues in the context of other similar disasters around the world.

After a year of work, we are thrilled that Meridian 180 is now finally official! We still have many challenges, from finding long-term sources of funding to finding a way to convince busy elites to make room in their minds and their schedules to broaden their own cultural and disciplinary horizons.  But what is really encouraging is the progress we are making on complex legal and policy questions like “what is the scope of privacy rights in the digital age?” or “what is the role of the central bank in today’s markets?”  What is even more encouraging is the commitment many of our members have to the project and the sense they have that it serves a purpose in their lives.  For more information please see here.

February 9, 2011
by Annelise Riles

The Gift Economy

It’s the Chinese New Year, and the financial press has been full of stories of massive Chinese purchases of gold (for instance here and here), as gold (molded into rabbits to signify that it was given in the year of the rabbit) has emerged as this year’s gift of choice. Chinese buyers are purchasing gold in quantities the market has never seen before not as an investment in the traditional economic sense, but for purposes of satisfying their obligations in the gift economy.

The gift economy is something that economists don’t talk much about. It is for the most part treated as an evolutionary precursor to the market economy.  The simple story most economic historians tell is a tale of progression from status to contract–from old fashioned relationships built on gifts to modern markets made up of arms-length transactions among strangers.  Where the reality of the significance of gifts to modern markets just can’t be avoided, as here (because the price of gold is skyrocketing), the gift economy is usually treated as a cultural oddity, just a little aberration to the general rules of economic action.  But anthropologists have amassed generations of data on how gift economies and market economies interact in many societies around the world–how economic tokens like money can become the stuff of gifts, and how gifts (from whales’ teeth in Fiji to sexual relations in New York) can become marketable commodities.  It turns out that gift economies are extremely complex and variable phenomena that require as much data and as much theory to understand as market economies.  (It would be impossible to even begin to summarize that literature here, but it begins with Marcel Mauss’ classic, The Gift, written a century ago, and after that just about every serious anthropologist has wrestled with the subject in every part of the world.  For a great literature review, see Hiro Miyazaki’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, Oxford University Press, 2010).

Now that the Chinese economy is number two though, it is probably time for the world to start paying attention to what economic anthropologists know about gift-giving: any serious China expert knows that markets don’t work in China without gifts, and that it is through gifts (as well as markets) that every kind of relationship that is significant to markets, from a company’s relations with regulators, to relations among investors to obligations between employers and employees gets built and maintained. Moreover, as the legal scholar and former dean of Peking University Law School Zhu Suli is currently finding, in research to be presented as the 2011 Clarke Lecture at the Cornell Law School, much of the astounding profits of Chinese enterprises are now being funneled into fulfilling stakeholders’ gift obligations–such as the massive resources a young man’s family must hand over to the family of their son’s prospective spouse in exchange for the “gift” of a wife.  And it turns out that there is astronomical  inflation in the price of brides these days in China, as people become richer, and the supply of daughters becomes ever more limited as a result of the one child policy and families’ preference for sons.  You simply can’t understand the logic of Chinese markets, or for that matter of Chinese actors’ investment strategies and economic activities globally, without understanding the theory and practice of gift-giving.

Skip to toolbar