The Bishan Plan is Not Elitist

Is an intellectual automatically elitist? How should a scholar engage in activism and should he or she analyze, categorize and conceptualize? What if some critique that the very conceptualization of activism creates economic inequality?

One of Ou's presentation inside the bar
In Harvard sociology PhD Ms. Zhou Yun's critique. Ms. Zhou believes that the Bishan Project in its current shape and form is an elitist one for several reasons. This claim occurred last month, in which I wrote a thought-piece acknowledging aspects of both sides of the argument. This post will target the specific issue of the language Ou Ning used when explaining the execution of the Bishan Plan. Ms. Zhou pointed to several instances in which Ou Ning distanced himself from "the people," such as conducting the presentations in a bar. Ou Ning explained that the size of the audiences required that venue. He presented the talk in the bar for pragmatic reasons rather than aiming for a bourgeois affect. Zhou Yun also critiqued Ou Ning's conceptual words such as "civil society." To quote the Chinese text,"绍理念PPT是全英文的,满是civil society、social engineering、party politics等等大词." Zhou Yun also sees this symbolic boundary between the intellectuals and the Bishan people, which recreates economic inequalities.

The latter claim that cultural boundaries recreating economic inequality cannot be substantiated in this particular case due to the lack data. This post aims to tackle the issue of the "elitist" language allegedly used by Ou Ning during Zhou's short visit organized by Nanjing University. In the presentation Ms. Zhou heard, where Ou used words such as "civil society," he was speaking to a group of out-of-town observers and scholars, not the "people of Bishan." He also explained that he did not see the need to update the English Powerpoint he used for NYU a while ago.

I believe that while some intellectuals spend a lot of time conceptualizing rather than action (which is often portrayed as the opposite of social change), using concepts during activism and projects should be encouraged rather than labeled as "elitist." Zhou is calling for what Gayatri Spivak would term as "clamoring for anti-intellectualism, a sort of complete monosyllabification of one’s vocabulary within academic enclosures." This quote is from the interview titled "The problem of self representation" collected in The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues.

Here is the excerpt from the illuminating exchange between Dr. Spivak and Dr. Walter Adamson. While Spivak calls for intellectuals' unlearning for better communication, she cautions us of anti-intellectualism. I think provides a comprehensive defense of Ou Ning and other intellectuals wishing for social engagement with the peasants or subaltern, while also using big, "fancy" concepts depending on the situation. 
Spivak: ... There is an impulse among literary critics and other kinds of intellectuals to save the masses, speak for the masses, describe the masses. On the other hand, how about attempting to learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard as bullshit. When I think of the masses, I think of a woman belonging to that 84% of women’s work in India, which is unorganized peasant labour. Now if I could speak in such a way that such a person would actually listen to me and not dismiss me as yet another of those many colonial missionaries, that would embody the project of unlearning. ... What can the intellectual do toward the texts of the oppressed? Represent them and analyze them, disclosing one’s own positionality for other communities in power. ... 

Adamson: Does speaking to marginalized groups and yet not “deskilling” oneself mean anything about the kinds of texts that one ought to speak about?

Spivak: When I said that one shouldn’t invite people to de-skill themselves, I was talking about a kind of anti-intellectualism that exists among academics and counter-academics. One ought not to patronize the oppressed. And that’s where the line leaves us. Unlearning one’s privileged discourse so that, in fact, one can be heard by people who are not within the academy is very different from clamoring for anti-intellectualism, a sort of complete monosyllabification of one’s vocabulary within academic enclosures. And it seems to me that one’s practice is very dependent upon one’s positionality, one’s situation. I come from a state where the illiterate--not the functionally illiterate, but the real illiterate, who can't tell the difference between one letter and another--are still possessed of a great deal of political sophistication, and are certainly not against learning a few things. I'm constantly struck by the anti-intellectualism within the most opulent university systems in the world. So that's where I was speaking about de-skilling. 
Spivak continues to explain that literary analyses of subaltern voices also depend on the situation even if she is read as "giving a voice" to the subaltern subject of study. Granted, Ou is not a literary scholar, but I find this issue very common among circles of intellectuals aiming for social change. While the flow of information and proscribed norms have been predominantly controlled by the intellectuals and distributed to the subaltern, should all efforts to communicate ideals be criticized? I think not; intervention of this flow of information, as Spivak aptly put it, depends on circumstances. The Bishan Plan may pander to the urban / bourgeoisie aesthetics in its execution, but the specific act of explaining the project in academic terms does not make it "elitist" in the sense that creates more inequalities.

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