positions: east asia cultures critique 12.1 (2004) 247-259
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Responsibility and Politics:
An Interview with Mark Selden
Tani E. Barlow
Mark Selden teaches sociology and history at Binghamton University and is professorial associate in East Asian studies at Cornell. A founding member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, he served for many years as coeditor of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (now Critical Asian Studies). He currently edits book series on Asia and world social change at Rowman and Littlefield, Routledge, and M. E. Sharpe publishers, including the War and Peace Library and Critical Asian Scholarship. He is the coordinator of the Japan Focus Web log at http://www.japanfocus.org.
His research interests span the fields of revolutionary change, agrarian society, comparative regional development, social movements, war and terror, and imperialism with particular reference to China, Japan, East Asia, and world social change. He is the author or editor of Chinese Village, Socialist State (1991); China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited (1995); The Resurgence of East Asia: Comparative 500-, 150-, and 50-Year Perspectives (2003); [End Page 247] Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance (2000, 2003); Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States (2000); and War and State Terror: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century (2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tani E. Barlow: Mark Selden, thank you for agreeing to this e-mail interview on the topic of intellectuals and social movements. Let me begin with a general question: what does the phrase "intellectuals in social movements" mean to you?
Mark Selden: Intellectuals are people whose work places them in close juxtaposition to ideas, concepts, and information. They enjoy the luxury of reading widely and thinking critically about the world around them, even as they confront the seduction of serving power. By the nature of their work, intellectuals are particularly susceptible to considering the gap between dominant ideologies and social praxis. Historically, in all societies I know about, some intellectuals have chosen to challenge reigning orthodoxies and create alternative approaches to theory and "business as usual." It can take the form of writing and speaking, something that fits well into prevailing, even orthodox, work. Or it can take the form of working closely with social movements such as civil rights or antiwar movements. These activities may jeopardize their professional status, and they involve political risks, yet they also hold out the highest possibility for uniting theory and praxis. That is the idea of the activist-intellectual or intellectual activist. Howard Zinn, who at seventy-nine is perhaps as good an example of the lifelong activist-intellectual as we have, recently ruminated that he began work as a teacher with a modest hope: to change the world. Few others have been successful in sustaining that commitment, and when the war or campaign ends, most turn their attention to other matters.
TEB: How would you characterize your work and yourself in this context? What sort of intellectual would you say that you are?
MS: I have always been attracted to the possibilities that open up when you work at the interface of ideas and social activism. Like many of my generation, I was initially drawn to the civil rights movement. From the mid-1960s I focused on the Vietnam War because it posed issues closely related to the [End Page 248] research I was doing at the time on the Chinese revolution. For Asianists of my generation, the Vietnam War was the decisive moment defining the context of Asian scholarship and, for some, of American politics, at least until 9/11 and the Iraq War. Questioning the relationship between thought and action led me to interrogate dominant state ideologies as reflected in scholarship. It also led me to aspire to find ways to stop illegitimate violence and contribute to social justice. The possibility that these issues might somehow be fused in my work as a historian, and that my historical work might be transformed in the...