Speaking from my position in the Humanities/Social Sciences here…
Last night I went to the World AIDS Conference to wander around the part that’s open to the public, the Global Village . I must admit that sometimes I am envious of people who do work that demands thought and rigor, but also carries with it a sense of urgency, and indeed a great need to get right down to things immediately. There are 26,000 delegates from all over the world at this conference. It is more truly international than any conference I will ever attend. I know from glimpses of the politics of the thing that this world of AIDS research and activism I walked into is not perfect. It is riddled with cynicism over promised yet never forthcoming money, the appearances of the Bills (Clinton and Gates) at this conference, frustrating fights about treatment vs. prevention, wars with pharma companies, the neo-colonial status of afflicted African countries… But still. There was energy there. There was commitment and purpose. There were people really talking to each other across constituencies and cultures.
I compare this feeling to the one I get when I attend conferences, which are always just so…blech, really…just pulsing with people’s anxieties about jobs, appearances (on many levels), relationships. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me there’s much less room, in a conference like AIDS 2006, to worry about jobs, appearances, relationships. Because the stakes are so high, the consequences of not getting down to business too devastating.
This isn’t an anti-intellectual rant. The things I write and teach are theoretical and historical, and I’ve reconciled myself to what that means. I think it’s important, and I am a staunch defender of theory’s place in the academy and the world. But damn. Sometimes I miss the feeling that things are moving, that the intellectual work I do is will have immediate, concrete benefits in people’s lives.