Politics of reviews
Last fall I agreed to review a book on the basis of its title. It was something about why we should care about the humanities or why the humanities should care about us, I think. Anyway, I read it last November and was surprised to find that it also had a great deal to say about science:
We have nature and only nature. Within this nature we have differentiation in the way that living organisms perpetuate themselves. If we diagrammed this as a series of sets, nature would be the largest circle and within this circle we would have the circle of the animal kingdom (all living life from microbes to Homo sapiens sapiens), and within this smaller circle we would have mammals, and within the circle of mammals we would have humankind. All of these circles are included within the larger set: nature. Within this large set of living nature all living organisms manifest different ways of maintaining their existence (reproducing themselves) over time both individually and as a species. This is to say that the biological self is formed within the social that is a part of this larger set we identify as nature. This is what makes us unique and individual (social beings) as well as what makes us a complete set as individual members that form the same species.
Why talk about all of this? Much of the theoretical formulation of the self fashionable in the humanities today is devoid of a social materialist (historical) purview; many believe that the motor for historical shift is an abstracted movement from one idea to the next; others believe that a performative self can resist oppressive hegemonic master narratives. Rather, the human (higher-minded) self is a self as formed in a society that is itself formed in history, which has been in recent times formed by the class struggle. So even before the self is ethnic or gendered, it is formed in relation to the class struggle (that has guaranteed rights and laws opposite to the interests of a ruling class) within the framework of the modern nation-state. Thus, to understand today’s self is to subordinate gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity to an understanding of it as formed and developed within a capitalist society.
The book proceeds to praise Alan Sokal for revealing “just how reactionary so-called Left theory had become” and how “academic theory had rendered meaningless any real knowledge of the real world that might lead to real change.” And then it offers an innovative proposition or two about the history of science:
Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter or submarine were conceived of as potentially present but not yet realizable because of the lack of technology; following Newton’s scientific explanation of what gravity is, da Vinci saw very clearly that these things could be realized, could be created and produced; at the same time he was extremely aware of the fact that as a subject situated in a specific time and place, he couldn’t make actual a helicopter or submarine; the materials, the knowledge, and the technology present in his society were insufficiently developed for the actualizing of an object that could defy gravity.
Suffice it to say that I had never come across such a book in my life. And there was more! There was a discussion of Edward Said in which I learned that (a) “having rejected Marx as an intellectual guide for his political activity, Said was blind to the realities of the Middle East. He didn’t see, for example, that for over half a century the Middle East has been a powder keg ready to explode precisely because the Palestinian question was never properly solved by imperialism” and (b) “Said’s constructivist and relativist position vis-à-vis reality is irrational and reactionary. . . . [S]uch an approach not only eliminates all the inconveniences of the Marxist analysis of political and historical situation, but also fails to account fully for the concrete case of the creation of, say, the state of Israel on the basis of the expulsion of the Palestinians.” Why, there was even a discussion of my very favorite topic of late, cultural studies:
The study of cultural phenomena began largely in Great Britain under the impulse of Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson. In their studies of working-class youth populations and the analysis of, for example, the mugging phenomenon, they identified sites of subcultural resistance to the adult- and bourgeois-operated mainstream society. Of course, to search for a political potential of resistance and revolution in subcultural groups, as any perfunctory check of the enormous amount of evidence available readily shows, there is absolutely no indication to suggest that a subculture has the potential to alter social reality in a revolutionary fashion. In fact, the opposite has been usually true. For all its radical posturing and anarchic fanfare, youth subcultures have never broken with a capitalist outlook and have been readily turned into massive consumers of goods and services produced within the confines of the capitalist mode of production—music, clothes, Italian Lambrettas, hair products, and so on.
Take that, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson! Though, to be fair, the book also chastises “Williams, Hebdige, Hull, Gilroy, for example” for their “mysticizing of working class and racially disenfranchised groups.”
How, pray tell, does one review such a book? I did not know. So I made something up. The result is now available in the latest issue of The Review of Politics, available at dead-tree locations near you. But it was a challenge, I’ll admit that. What would you have done?
What would you have done?
Backed out, begged off, dropped the ball, passed the potato, anything, really, to get out of writing the review.
Circles of nature?
Within this nature we have differentiation in the way that living organisms perpetuate themselves.
Which thought leads to circles, and particularly an anthropocentric conception of nature, how? Do humans perpetuate themselves in some unique way that I don’t know about? Did Mom and Dad drop the ball, pass the potato, etc.?
Sheesh.Posted by on 10/21 at 12:40 PM
I would point out that da Vinci predated Newton by more than 100 years.Posted by on 10/21 at 12:40 PM
...and that calling Leonardo “da Vinci” is like calling Philly Joe Jones “of Philadelphia.”
Done? Returned the book un-reviewed, on the ground that the editorial decision to review it was a departure from the journal’s policy:
“The book review section is one of ROP’s major strengths. Books reviewed--about 60 per year--and reviewers are selected with care.” I can’t think of any way that this title passes the “with care” test, even for purposes of Stuffed Owl-type mockery.Posted by on 10/21 at 12:57 PM
Framed my review as a lost Monty Python sketch, of course, complete with the intermittent chanting of vikings:
“Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam . . .”Posted by on 10/21 at 01:04 PM
Submarines defy gravity? I have a Mr. Archimedes on line two; I think he’s selling vacuum cleaners.Posted by on 10/21 at 01:08 PM
...and that calling Leonardo “da Vinci” is like calling Philly Joe Jones “of Philadelphia.”
Yet, you knew I was referring to Leonardo da Vinci. Miraculous.Posted by on 10/21 at 01:12 PM
Available, it would seem, here. Who could say no to a “commonsense approach”?Posted by on 10/21 at 01:23 PM
...within this circle we would have the circle of the animal kingdom (all living life from microbes to Homo sapiens sapiens)...
“Living life”? Really? I guess I can stop watering those trees I planted, because they’re already dead. In fact, they were never alive in the first place. And why bother with the pneumococcal vaccine and antibiotics, since bacterial infection is just a Sokolian hoax?Posted by Gary Oxford on 10/21 at 01:41 PM
Karl @ 1: Backed out, begged off, dropped the ball, passed the potato, anything, really, to get out of writing the review.
Oh, but where’s your sense of fun? and adventure?
Aaron @ 2: I would point out that da Vinci predated Newton by more than 100 years.
I did indeed. You know, because Mr. of Vinci was “a subject situated in a specific time and place.” And yes, mds, I acknowledged that submarines do not require the development of the space-age anti-gravitron. True fact!
rootlesscosmo @ 3: I can’t think of any way that this title passes the “with care” test, even for purposes of Stuffed Owl-type mockery.
But I have the sinking feeling that RoP chose me to review this ... with care.
lostin @ 4: Framed my review as a lost Monty Python sketch, of course, complete with the intermittent chanting of vikings
Oh, but I only had 1250 words. I didn’t want to waste any of them on spam, or eggs and spam, or egg and bacon, or egg sausage and bacon, or egg bacon and spam, or egg bacon sausage and spam, or spam bacon sausage and spam, or spam egg spam spam bacon and spam, or, for that matter, spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam.Posted by on 10/21 at 01:46 PM
Gary @ 8: yes, that’s right, you can stop watering those trees and vaccines. Because there’s the circle of life, and then there’s the circle of living life.Posted by on 10/21 at 01:48 PM
To be fair, Mr. Maverick, Commander Aldama apparently had a lot of other things on his mind while he was working on his book.
And yes, mds, I acknowledged that submarines do not require the development of the space-age anti-gravitron.
Um, if anti-gravitons exist, they exist regardless of any “space-age” development, unless you think particle physics invents rather than discovers. Oh, god, Sokal was right all along… Wait, anti-gravitron? As in, a space-age device for generating antigravity? Never mind. We’re good, as long as you switch your straight fold to a four-point.Posted by on 10/21 at 02:15 PM
You’re telling me you’ve never seen an antigravitron?Posted by on 10/21 at 02:17 PM
It’s pretty conventional, I think, to say that an airplane “defies” gravity, even though it’s technically just as much subject to it as any maple seed or anvil. And a submarine behaves just as strangely with respect to gravity as a plane does. So I’m inclined to cut him a little slack for that. But not for the illogic and inconsequence of his prose style! Try any given paragraph, and ask as you pick your way through it what follows from what....Posted by on 10/21 at 02:22 PM
(...strangely, that is, with respect to our expectations of floating, sinking, falling and flying.)Posted by on 10/21 at 02:23 PM
No. No slack. Not if you’re talking about Isaac Newton’s influence on Leonardo da Vinci.Posted by on 10/21 at 02:32 PM
What’s the problem? It’s not any stupider than most of what I read in the “respectable” humanities.Posted by on 10/21 at 02:38 PM
Not if you’re talking about Isaac Newton’s influence on Leonardo da Vinci.
People widely assume that the future cannot cause the past. However, it can.Posted by on 10/21 at 02:38 PM
I was so all “o wow” reading about the circles circling the circle of life.
Circle . . . Sokal . . . aha! It’s even more clever Sokal hoax.Posted by David J Swift on 10/21 at 02:47 PM
Why talk about all of this?
Unfortunately, the author’s internal dialogue answered this pivotal question incorrectly.
captcha: ideasPosted by on 10/21 at 02:47 PM
People widely assume that the future cannot cause the past. However, it can.
Sort of like the latest theory on the ongoing failure of the Large Hadron Collider to detect the Higgs Boson, which involves one or more Higgs Bosons traveling back in time to
kill Sarah Connorsabotage the LHC.
So maybe Newton invented a Higgs Boson-powered, gravity-defying, time-traveling submarine to go back and
make sure his parents had their first danceinfluence Leonardo?Posted by Gary Oxford on 10/21 at 03:21 PM
What’s the problem? It’s not any stupider than most of what I read in the “respectable” humanities.
I was waiting for just some guy to say this. And not just any guy—just some guy.Posted by on 10/21 at 03:59 PM
I would probably have written “extraordinary” a few more times.Posted by on 10/21 at 04:00 PM
Yeah, I settled for three. I should have thrown in a “V is very very extraordinary” for good measure.Posted by on 10/21 at 04:19 PM
@7: Any book can generate odd strings of key words and phrases in Google books, but I did find this sequence quite arresting:
“literature little Eichmanns lumpenproletariat Malcolm X Marga Gomez Marxism”Posted by on 10/21 at 04:21 PM
Oh, good grief, Mr. Oxford, I come to postmodernist cultural theory blogs to get away from claptrap like that spouted by those Temporal Anthropic Cosmic Censorship blatherskites.Posted by on 10/21 at 04:22 PM
It’s not any stupider than most of what I read in the “respectable” humanities.
In fact, If I read that Crooked Timber thread correctly, Alan Sokal proved this.Posted by on 10/21 at 04:24 PM
mds@25: It wasn’t my intention to pass along blatherskite claptrap (by the way, can I use that for my next album title?). I just thought I was coming up with the plot of the next Dan Brown novel.Posted by Gary Oxford on 10/21 at 04:27 PM
I was going to ask if this thing was self-published - the quotations have that auto-didact feel, elaborately rehearsing the obvious and then jumping bewilderingly to completely unrelated and bizarre arguments - until I discovered to my amazement that it’s a university press book by an actual professor at a reputable institution with blurbs from other actual professors at reputable institutions all of whom presumably spend their days in front of classrooms of thousands of impressionable students!
That’s when I got depressed.Posted by on 10/21 at 04:32 PM
I come to postmodernist cultural theory blogs to get away from claptrap like that spouted by those Temporal Anthropic Cosmic Censorship blatherskites.
What’s the problem? It’s not any stupider than most of what I read in the “respectable” Temporal Anthropic Cosmic Censorship blogs.
In fact, If I read that Crooked Timber thread correctly, Alan Sokal proved this.
Indeed, with differential calculus. Which makes Aldama’s approving citation of Sokal all the more juicy and delicious, I think.
I discovered to my amazement that it’s a university press book by an actual professor at a reputable institution with blurbs from other actual professors at reputable institutions
That is ... extraordinary, no? And one of those blurbs is from Timothy Brennan, who doesn’t ordinarily sign on to arguments about how Edward Said was ignorant of the history of the Middle East.
I still want to know one thing: in the lineup of Williams, Hebdige, Hull, and Gilroy, are we talking about Brett Hull or Bobby?Posted by on 10/21 at 04:44 PM
I would hold the book up as an example of why academics should be writing less. If this is one of the 7 books you’ve written before you’re forty, you’re doin it rong. Also, I would blame society.
I’ve encountered FLA’s stuff before. His headdesk per paragraph ratio makes it seem like he has something against furniture.Posted by on 10/21 at 05:00 PM
His headdesk per paragraph ratio
Described in a publisher’s blurb as “colloquial yet multifaceted prose”. And that’s why people who write blurbs for books make the big bucks.Posted by on 10/21 at 05:41 PM
I thought the first selection was odd, but my jaw dropped when I read “following Newton’s scientific explanation of what gravity is, da Vinci saw very clearly that these things could be realized.” Let me try: Dante, following Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, described knowledge of the Divine as something one could have, but could never express in words. Wow! It writes itself! I can only second Bloix and lurklurk’s comments otherwise.
Catcha: wish. I wish people wouldn’t write crap like that.Posted by on 10/21 at 07:09 PM
Oh, but where’s your sense of fun? and adventure?
I’ll get it back after tenure. Then it’s all speedos and capes.
I’m reminded of a cultural studies book on pigs I once read, that mentioned, inter alia, “Geographic environment tends to shape human and animal species similarly; the curly-haired Neapolitan pigs mirrored their masters as much as the white-skinned pigs of Britain did theirs.”Posted by on 10/21 at 07:25 PM
I may be too charitable, but I think I can pick out a point, weakened by careless editing than by a lack of close argument. We’re rescuing dialectical analysis, right? That means saving the project of natural science.
I’m down with that, even from a Marxist.
Nation? What kind of captcha programme generates these?Posted by on 10/21 at 09:50 PM
And careless editing can strike any of us.
Sigh. Police. It’s the captcha anvil.Posted by on 10/21 at 09:52 PM
Asked the author to watch this lecture, and then get back to you (in the vein of take two of these and call me in the morning):
So here is the talk I gave on Saturday night — a public-level discussion of entropy and how it connects to the history of our universe.Posted by on 10/21 at 09:58 PM
I asked teh google to help me identify this book by pasting in the glorious first two sentences you excerpt here—and lo and behold, an entirely different book pops up, also containing the very same sentences but in what appears to be a radically different context. I point you to:
http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exaldbro.html, about two-thirds of the way down the excerpt.
Beyond this, regarding possible questions of attribution, appropriation, and the like, deponent sayeth not one little thing.Posted by on 10/21 at 10:28 PM
Ah. But now google books informs me that the author is merely reproducing his own text. Never Mind.Posted by on 10/21 at 10:33 PM
This sounds like an undergraduate paper by a fairly bright kid who just couldn’t be bothered to do the reading. Consequently, He skimmed the wikipedia page, picked up on the usage of some of the vocab, and started writing. His complete lack of real understanding betrays him pretty instantaneously. Actually, this sounds like a series of dozens of such papers, strung together until something roughly book-length is obtained. So, in addition to the hilarious lack of understanding of every individual topic, you have to deal with the fact that it’s 300 pages of non-sequitor. Awesome.Posted by on 10/21 at 11:11 PM
Oh Professor. This can be the only option. A particular 3.3.Posted by Pinko Punko on 10/22 at 12:54 AM
“Certainly, I fret over my students pulled toward the flatus voci of poststructuralism and other dead-end, idealist and spiritualist paths. I’m distraught because we live in a world governed by a socioeconomic system that mutilates our cognitive potential and dwarfs our human capabilities.”
I guess it’s a coherent view if “idealism” means any and all denials of biological reductionism. So has Aldama just transposed laments about “capitalist mass culture” into sciencey terms? Sweeping denunciations of pop culture can be grafted onto almost any damn thing.
There’s a kind of Marxist who has never forgiven poststructuralism for doubting the primacy of teh class struggle. It’s entertaining that the above recognizes no distance between Said and, say, Plato, but this has been a longstanding move in these rants—anything that troubles a simple class-centered politics is objectively reactionary. Not that these people have much idea about Marx.
How to review, indeed. There has to be a rule that the louder the claims to occupy the high ground of knowledge and reality, the looser that standards of logic and evidence.
But maybe it’s an elaborate put-on, a reverse Sokal, and the time-traveling submarine was meant to be the key.Posted by on 10/22 at 02:38 AM
Gaaack!Posted by Hattie on 10/22 at 03:31 AM
Aldama? Did you reading the book at Strarbucks, and write about Cylerons?Posted by on 10/22 at 07:41 AM
Sweeping denunciations of pop culture can be grafted onto almost any damn thing.
True dat. I blame the human genome, with its infinite capacity for generating sweeping denunciations. Stupid genome.Posted by Michael on 10/22 at 12:36 PM
“...having rejected Marx as an intellectual guide for his political activity, Said was blind to the realities of the Middle East.”
Well, that’s certainly the strangest sentence I’ve read today.Posted by on 10/22 at 02:09 PM
I have a marvelous disproof of the Temporal Anthropic Cosmic Censorship hypothesis which this comment box is too small to contain.Posted by on 10/22 at 04:32 PM
P.S. I read your review last night, and I’m still laughing.Posted by on 10/22 at 04:33 PM
I’m sad to admit my (private, rich, big-football-program) university doesn’t subscribe to Review of Politics. I’ve checked its website but, alas, no dice. Is there some other way I could get a look at your review, Michael? Not that I’m suggesting anything illegal…
On another sad note, I’m a former member of Aldama’s (public, rich, big-football-program) university. The School of Arts and Sciences published its little periodical last year around the time Aldama’s book was being published, giving it way more attention than it was (apparently) due. Me, I stop paying attention as soon as someone cries afoul of (or publishes yet another book on) “Left theory”.
CheersPosted by on 10/22 at 05:46 PM
re: Elliot’s excellent #46:
See, this is why the “two cultures” thing is bogus, at least nowadays. This site is Lit Crit central, but here someone makes a witty reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem, in full expectation (presumably) that those of us in the cheap seats will pick up on it. But OTOH you don’t have to have seen the Simpsons to deploy the “new X overlords” line, so what do I know.Posted by Dave Maier on 10/22 at 09:25 PM
I’m long out of academial, but it was my impression that the proper way to handle something like this was simply to say that the book did not rise to the level of a work that could have a serious learned review.
I am a little bit reminded of a story I heard from a long dead professor who was called upon to (pre-publication) review an edition of a putative Menander commentary on papyrus and realized fairly quickly that the scholar who had prepared it had lost both his eyesight and his faculties and had made up what he hoped to see on the basis of stray marks on the photos of the papyrus.Posted by on 10/22 at 10:06 PM
I have a marvelous disproof of the Temporal Anthropic Cosmic Censorship hypothesis which this comment box is too small to contain.
Uh huh. And you think it’s a coincidence that the comment box is always too small… retroactively?
I blame the human genome, with its infinite capacity for generating sweeping denunciations. Stupid genome.
You can thank Exon-Mobile for that.Posted by on 10/22 at 11:40 PM
I guess the comment box dwarfs some human capabilities but not others.Posted by on 10/23 at 12:13 AM
I found a link to the review here.
As a former Ohio State faculty member I am deeply embarrassed. I do think that calling the book “extraordinary” was a wonderful move. The tone of incredulous “admiration” works perfectly--much better than the outraged indignation that would have been my first choice.Posted by on 10/23 at 12:00 PM
If the link doesn’t work just google the phrase
following Newton’s scientific explanation of what gravity is, da Vinci
It should be the first item that comes up.Posted by on 10/23 at 12:03 PM
53, 54: Ah, a pay link for me. I guess Big Academia wants to keep me in the dark.Posted by on 10/23 at 12:26 PM
@55 - my thought exactly. I wonder how many millions they’re earning by locking us out.
Captcha: fiscalPosted by Vance Maverick on 10/23 at 12:32 PM
Yes. I’m probably getting it for free because I’m in my office and connected to a university network hooked up with Big Academia.Posted by on 10/23 at 01:26 PM
Thanks for the link, Jonathan. Like you, I’m deeply embarrassed. Loved the review, Michael, and I think 1250 words was more than enough to tackle this nonsense. I especially like the bit about music and Stuart (Brett?) Hull. Is it ironic that the book was published in Texas? (No offense, of course, to anyone who’s published with UT press.)
CheersPosted by on 10/23 at 02:41 PM
Sorry I couldn’t help on this one, folks—I’ve been in committee meetings all day. (MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities. Much discussion of Garcetti and shared governance and also intellectual property issues.) Good to see that the review is on the Intarwebs! Behind the usual paywall, of course.
Gene @ 50: it was my impression that the proper way to handle something like this was simply to say that the book did not rise to the level of a work that could have a serious learned review
This did occur to me as I made my way through the book—but then I thought that maybe it would be a Bad Thing if no one stepped up and called this nonsense by its proper name.
And now I want to start a faux-wingnut blog called Big Academia.Posted by Michael on 10/23 at 02:54 PM
Come and see the lack of access inherent in the system!Posted by on 10/23 at 02:57 PM
Come and see the lack of access inherent in the system!
Or rather, fail to see.Posted by on 10/23 at 04:25 PM
Help! Help! I’m being corrected!Posted by on 10/23 at 04:35 PM
And now I want to start a faux-wingnut blog called Big Academia.
A new floating Airspace header for sure…Posted by on 10/23 at 05:02 PM
Michael, my brain hurts after reading the excerpts. This is the closest I’ve come to an “Eye of Argon” for the humanities. I think it’s broken. My brain, that is.
Taking a step back, this does look painfully like the undergraduate paper Hunter @39 described. A few years ago I decided that this type of writing was “confectionary thinking,” in the sense of jumbling lots of things together that really don’t belong together, cooking it up, and hoping for the best. Sort of like Tang with vanilla pudding.
But wait! What do I hear? A man in chain-maille or at least something that looks pretty good with that stained white sundress (I know you all think it’s a dashing little outfit for fighting medieval battles in), in the middle of Scene 27:
No, no, sweet author! Stay here! I will send help as soon as I have accomplished a daring and heroic review rebuttal in my own particular... (sigh)
And I still think it’s a sundress.Posted by Sherman Dorn on 10/26 at 12:05 AM
I was just reading a discussion somewhere else on the internets about play-in-the-car type games (e.g. “20 Questions” etc.) Someone mentioned George Carlin’s game of ‘Make up a sentence that has never been uttered before by anyone in the history of mankind.’
I’m just mentioning that randomly of course, but based on the excerpts in the post, I am wondering whether the author thanks Mr. Carlin in his acknowledgements?Posted by on 10/29 at 12:10 PM
Wonderful efforts Susan, I am imeessprd by your work and you are doing for Pakistan in your own capacity. I don’t find any accurate word or sentence THANK YOU as a common Pakistani.I wish I could be one of like you to help and create something wonderful for any other people even I have never been in and never got interaction physically.THANK YOU SO MUCHPosted by genotyping by sequencing on 11/08 at 02:43 AM