The fine art of the scathing insult

One of the things I enjoy about writing for BoingBoing is the opportunity it's giving me to learn how to write reviews of books. That's not something I'd ever done before I started writing here. And I'm only now getting around to experimenting with not only describing books I like, but figuring out how to talk about books I find to be flawed. Fair criticism is a difficult skill to learn.

That's why I'm sort of simultaneously terrified and in awe of this 1991 book review, published in the International Journal of Primatology. In it, anthropologist Matt Cartmill expresses his opinions about sociologist Donna Haraway's book Primate Visions. I don't know enough about either scholar, or the book, to have an opinion about whether Cartmill is right or wrong. But, wowow, is that a blistering review.

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor.

This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

Via Evgeny Morozov

Image: Fear and Suspicion, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from alyssafilmmaker's photostream


  1. It’s kind of mean-spirited, but yea…

    This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison…

    it’s got the scathe thing down!

  2. Blistering-ish. To me it reads more like the then-trendy, by now really stale, debates over postmodernism and critical theory. Harraway is a postmodern feminist, posthumanist, transgressive thinker, and scholars like her get a lot of this kind of smarmy bile. The whole “big words make my brain hurt” shtick tips off the critic’s retrogressive agenda.

    1. Postmoderist, feminist, posthumanist, transgressive thinkers (if it’s really possible to think when one has subscribed to so many schools of thought) are not above casting smarm in the direction of those they disagree with, either.

      Of course, my favorite post- paper has to be Professor Alan Sokal’s groundbreaking “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text did us all a favor by publishing it (I just wish they would have had the fortitude to publish the author’s later clarifications).

      1. …and so say all of us. 

        That was a classic example of people publishing something they didn’t even understand themselves, mostly because it was deliberate rubbish.

        It gave post-modernism a bad name…not that there were not enough Derrida-ists out there doing that anyway.

    2. The only reason such debates are stale is because they have long since been won. It is now well accepted that postmodernism / critical theory is nothing more than obfuscated nonsense.

      1. Not really. It’s the still foundation of a lot of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. It has its excesses- and things it is very rightly criticized for- but it’s also a very useful tool, especially for addressing the failures of modernism.

        1. Similar defences were made for Freudianism. That too was openly mocked in a manner similar to postmodernism. It is now almost completely dead even in the disciplines it once dominated.

          The same will happen to postmodernism, even if it takes a generation or two.

          1. The school of postmodern thought was responsible for some of the best things to have ever come out of the academy. Genuine improvements in the rights of women and the LGBT community as well as the support of land rights for indigenous communities in the discussions surrounding post colonialism, such as the Mabo decision in Australia. As well as a deflation of the pomposity of high art and the recognition that just about anything is worthy of study by the academy if approached in the correct manner.  It also predicted much of the hybrid, hypertexted, mash ups that we take for granted in our online existence. There were many extremes in the “discourse” – no argument. But there was a great deal that was good, exciting and hugely influential.  Post Modernism is far from dead. Indeed, I think we’re only just beginning to see it spread its wings as it is finally accepted by the mainstream. 

          2. Synthesizing DeargDoom and papercut: postmodernism was both valuable and all too susceptible to misuse.

          3. Why do you believe it is being accepted in the mainstream?

            Dont you think you are giving a little too much credit to the school of postmodernist thought? There is a difference between some feminists being postmodernists and postmodernism being responsible for feminism. Each of your examples are similarly flawed.

            Is it normal that I have to reply to myself in order to have a discussion with Papercut? This is needlessly highlighting my narcissism.

          4. I don’t know what is up with disqus replies. Also, I really, really, really *@*!%$ hate disqus. I had to try two different browsers before it would both let me log in AND post a comment. I also had to shut down all my anti-tracking add ins (despite having disqus itself whitelisted).

            But yes, post-modernism is a school of thought that has become quite pervasive in its own way. An example that jumps to my mind (because it’s something i’m interested in) is the huge growth in discourse about television (and pop culture in general). There are whole, hugely popular websites that are devoted to applying a level of criticism to pop culture (albeit usually in very humors and referential ways…which is in itself very postmodern)  that would have been derided in past decades as a waste of time. Taking pop-culture seriously…seeing it as an important cultural artifact and then using it to examine both society and a text’s relationship to it…all very post modern.  
            Of course, that’s just the more, hmm, academic side of postmodernism. There’s also the more creative side, which usually takes the form of using a story to comment on stories (think of how self-referential and highly metafictional so much fiction has become), or creating commentary via clever and unexpected juxtaposition (which is basically just the definition of remix culture)

            Then there are the truly academic applications. My degrees are in history, so that’s what I can most easily speak to, but my main interests were almost entirely dependent on post-modern analysis. 

            Post modern studies are not all about talking about… the intersectionality in the heteronormitive aesthetics of sexual difference in the reception of matriarchal societies, or what have you. It’s not always navel-gazing disguised by words and concepts stolen from philosophy and then twisted beyond recognition. 
            Sometimes it’s about abandoning the lie of objectivity and trying to see where your perceptions are being colored by your biases. (This is why evolutionary psychologists are very unpopular among post-modernists, on the whole.) It’s about examining your assumptions and trying to build a structure to help you look beyond them.

          5. @boingboing-683f0b57e1e8ecfcd1c2bf4f4c20f37a:disqus
            I agree with some of what you say. The word postmodern is certainly frequently used in popular culture and in that sense it is mainstream even if I think it is usually just synonymous with self aware. I dont see this as any different to “freudian slip” or “anally retentive” being common phrases though. I may describe someone as being anal even though I am aware of how ridiculous the theory behind the phrase is.

            I also think that trying to see where your perceptions are being colored by your biases is an obviously useful ambition but postmoderism seems to result in cringe inducing phrases such as the following made by @google-029232caa39a9d01356045f830e70ae6:disqus  further down this thread:

            I rather don’t think it’s because she disbelieves in objective reality… postmodern and critical thinkers do stress the fictive nature of facts

        2. It’s about examining your assumptions and trying to build a structure to help you look beyond them.

          Honestly, post-* seems to be more about questioning other people’s assumptions, more than their own. Hence the criticism by Habermas and others — a criticism that I find fairly compelling. IMO there is a performative contradiction at the heart of most post-* writing and thought.

          (That’s not to say that modern philosophy academics don’t have interesting and insightful things to say at times! Hell, I’m even referencing a Critical Theorist in a positive light here!)

          [Sorry I had to reply to the wrong post. Seems the commenting system only allows a certain level of nesting.]

  3. Could have saved quite a few keystrokes by leaving out the “this is not a ____” bits and just put “bless her heart.” at the end.

  4. The reviewed book reminds me of early-90’s grad school talks on the importance of Madonna as an anti-patriarchal “trope.”  Thankfully, much deconstructionism has been defenestrated.

    1. Whereupon it hit the street, freed from the confines of the academy, allowing it to breed and cross-pollinate in the wild, growing ever stronger in the process.

      1. And now, hopelessly disconnected from its serious academic roots (where at least people could argue about it) it has become… the gospel of the Republican party. Haraway wanted scientists and the rest of us to question the authority we automatically grant science over questions of fact and truth. The Republicans, having stripped off the genuine concerns Haraway and others held, are now the ultimate relativists: What global warming? What science?

        1. Dunno, I think that know-nothingism has its roots more in Pappy O’Daniel and Lonesome Rhodes than Derrida or Lacan. Republican hucksterism is more corporate-fascist-nihilist than postmodernist.

  5.  I didn’t realize that was the sort of thing Cartmill wrote.  I only recognize the name because he is the author of one of my all-time favorite quotes:

    “As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life—so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.”

  6. That’s all well and good, Maggie.  And the review is delicious, in and of itself. 

    But beware the fallacies of “Paranoid Readings,” which are exponentially increasing on the Intertubes; here is a description of the problem:’I have come to wonder whether some its most hostile critics might be engaged in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “paranoid readings.” The characteristic mood of a paranoid reading is contempt toward or fear of the object being scrutinized (as opposed to curiosity about it), and, perhaps, the characteristic critical action is to view the art object as wholly bad, representative of a class, movement, position, or ideology that is both threatening and repugnant to the viewer. Paranoid readings deny any complexity in the art object, and they tend to treat the objects of analysis as static, unchanging. Paranoid readings, too, have a scapegoating tendency, often treating the art object as representative of (or even the source of) all that stands in absolute contrast to the reader’s own ideological purity.’Generally, anything that is popular, at all, is filling some sort of need.  It may not be the best approach to fill that need, but some people believe it is very good at that, or it wouldn’t be popular.  And who are we to argue that it isn’t filling that social/intellectual/emotional/physical/spiritual/what-have-you need for them?  Like most things, there is good and bad in most popular books, movies, songs, art, and what-have-you.  In this case, I can see that the reviewer is aware of the fallacy, and is dancing around it.  But the definition above would seem to reveal the review for what it is.  *In part.*

  7. One of the best insults ever written is in the movie

    The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

    when Roy (Paul Newman) apologizes to the (former) prostitutes.


    1. Was he not apologizing to the marshals wives? 
      “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I’m sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say “whores.” No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize. “

      1. Yes, the marshalls had all married the whores.

        I didn’t remember the entire quote accurately and didn’t want to paraphrase.I think you got it all right, you must have the DVD.



  8. “The Portable Dorothy Parker” includes a number of her book reviews. Wow, that lady could cut someone down…..

    1. Good call – Parker even has something for Cartmill:

      Cartmill:  “The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions…”

      Parker:  “This book is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force. “

  9. I love reading prose like Harraway’s like I love reading Gertrude Stein. The stuff is incredible, but it’s a fools errand to ascribe a semantic meaning to it.

    Of such errands, though, are successful theses made.

  10. I want to hazard a guess that the fact that Maggie hasn’t read the specific book in question, or Haraway in general, is just what makes the review seem scathing.  The review depends on popular prejudice, on received ideas, to make its points.  “Vaporous, French-intellectual prose” is the giveaway: we all just KNOW about that kind of French writing, don’t we?  We don’t even have to read it to know about it.  (Meanwhile, I actually *have* read Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc., and I’ve seen this same invective hurled at it a countless times; there’s nothing original, clarifying, constructive, or free-thinking about such invective.)

    Similarly, “we” all “just know” that those “scientific knowledge is socially constructed” arguments are wrong without having to read them, either.  Just like “we” all “just know” that blacks are lazy and oversexed, Jews are moneygrubbing, and so on.  

    So Haraway “thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor,” eh?  Well, *that* claim about *her* claim is made in plain, homely speech.  But is it true?  Has Haraway ever made that claim?  Or is the reviewer using plain, homely speech to blow hot air?  Haraway is a socialist, after all, and the effect of this review is basically to discourage us from reading her.  Perhaps plain speech is being used, *here*, for just the reason the reviewer states that Haraway believes.  The only way to find out would be to read Haraway.

    1. Here is a passage from the book taken from Cartmill’s review:

      What is too dim [in Goodall’s work] is a dimension problematizing (not erasing) the mythic, scientific, and individual axes; i.e., the historical. By history I mean a corrosive sense of the contradiction and multiple material-semiotic processes at the heart of scientific knowledge. History… is a discipline reworked by post-modern insights about always split, fragmented, and multiple subjects, identities, and collectivities. All units and actors cohere partially and provisionally, held together by complex material-semiotic-social practices. In the space opened up by such contradictions and multiplicities lies the possibility for reflexive responsibility for the shape of narrative fields.

      “Vaporous, French-intellectual prose” is quite accurate.

      1. Having read (and used ) Foucault in my post-grad research I can say I quite like him. Though I think Derrida is a wanker :))
        Seriously, there was a period in much of the post-modern/structuralist  writing appeared itself to be more the focus than the alleged  subject under investigation. Translating into English those French theorists who seemed to be practising to be poets made the matter much worse.  Then the whole dance with relativism merely muddied the waters even further.One of my favourite Foucault quotes comes from a book  “Remarks on Marx” by Duccio Trombadori. Foucault was famous for his questioning of definitions of mental health. Consequently he was approached by one of the lawyers for a man who, having spent much of his life in psych institutions, within two year of release had killed his wife then sexually assaulted and, with a hammer, beaten to death a 12 year old boy.The lawyer asked Foucault to ‘take a position’ in the press on the basis of his knowledge about psychiatric institutions, history and the ‘question’ of mental health. Foucault’s reply (quoting himself) was “I answered no. He was a terrifying head-basher, and I didn’t have the prescription in my pocket…” He then goes on to say that his role has been one of questioning what we know, how we know it and how we come to these ‘truths’.In other words, he’s aware of the limitations of his abilities and knowledge and has no ‘applied’ skills or knowledge to help with specific instances in the here and now.As Dirty Harry said “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

        1. It is not difficult to warm to Foucault as he was at least honest about his dishonesty. The following anecdote told by Daniel Dennett seems quite plausible: 

          John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification.

    2. The thing about postmodern lit is that no matter how content-free it happens to be, it is always more entertaining than a flamewar.

      Plus, poor reviews are like breadcrumbs. You can follow the trail and when you get to the terminus you know that whatever you find there will be exceptional. It may be exceptionally good, or exceptionally bad, or merely consumed by an group exceptionally willing to write poor reviews of things, but it will nevertheless be an outlier.

  11. Donna Haraway is famous for her Cyborg Manifesto. It’s an interesting read and you can sort of understand what she is trying to say. I haven’t read Primate Visions but that critique is hilarious. But ultimately not surprising; there’s been a long history of unease with the kind of obscurantism found in (continental) social cultural studies.

  12. Hat tip to Pharyngula, perhaps? Cf.

    It isn’t the Cartmill, anywhere, complains about the use of big words. It’s that the words are being used in thoughtless or careless ways, in service to (here’s his more debatable point) undercooked or half-baked ideas. I’ve read the book in question, and can attest that the review isn’t off-target, either where he deplores her use of fashionable obscurantism, or acknowledges the excellent insights which appear hither and thither in the text.

    The whole “‘big words make my brain hurt’ shtick tips off the critic’s retrogressive agenda” shtick tips off a commenter’s pettifogging agenda.

    Self-blog link alert: in which I connect the Cartmill review to similarly pitched jeremiads from a pair of poets:

    1. Zachary, when did the reviewer acknowledge “the excellent insight which appear hither and thither in the text”?

      Also, my review of your post:
      2/5 for clarity

      1. Fair enough — I was wary about sharing the post, since it is from a commonplace and not really a formal blog,  more a staging area for what might later become essays —  but I thought, hey, neat, I just was thinking about that same review, look, here’s what I was thinking.

        As for those excellent insights (that above should have been plural), I see two acknowledgements of such on page 71:  “… even those that […] strike me as completely wrong-headed are laced with provocative insights” and “There are real insights and intermittent flashes of brilliance scattered through this book”.

    2. It’s certainly not pettifogging to state that Cartmill and others woefully misrepresent Haraway and postmodernity in general. Haraway is an obscure, difficult, often unclear author, but I rather don’t think it’s because she disbelieves in objective reality or wants to willfully practice academic obscurantism. While postmodern and critical thinkers do stress the fictive nature of facts and scientific narratives, the contingent social constructions of truth, and all the rest, it’s rather a broad swipe to blame academics or critics or anyone laboring under the broad umbrella of postmodernity of denying objective reality outright.

      It’s rather important, as one of Cartmill’s general points is that Haraway misrepresents her subjects because of her theoretical leanings: which is ironic, as Cartmill misrepresents those theoretical leanings, thus misrepresenting Haraway, etc., etc., endlessly recursive if you want it to be. So while he’s often right in his humorous attacks, he’s really simplistic and reductive in his theoretical take on her and her project. Dunno, I generally enjoy a criticism that takes greater pains to understand and represent its subject’s intellectual millieu, if only to make fun of it savagely. 

      1. I’m afraid I can’t agree. Here I’m only addressing Cartmill’s assessment of the book, and not also trying to judge the validity of his “theoretical take on her and her project”. But then, I’m a close reader, whose experience wading through the intellectual milieu of postmodernism has not persuaded me that there is any there there. I don’t believe Cartmill anywhere stated that Haraway wants to willfully practice obscuratism. That she might be doing so unwittingly is a point I imagine Cartmill, Sokal, and other critics would likely concede. I concede it.

        1. How can you address Cartmill’s assessment of the book while not judging the validity of his theoretical take on of her and her project . . . when his painstaking attempt at demolishing her project(s)–a cultural reading of the sciences, a skepticism of scientific objectivity, a general postmodern-deconstructivist reading of culture, science, and history–is arguably the cornerstone of his review? That word you used, “pettifogging,” who’s doing that, again?

          Regarding “willfulness,” again, more pettifogging. His veiled assertions that Haraway is willfully obscurantist are present in most of his critiques of her postmodernism: the snark about her belief (how determined? where attested?) that plain speech is a conspiracy to oppress the poor, the handwringing about pomo dominating the MLA and other rival academic fields, the backhanded “this book is flawless” line–all of these directly imply Haraway’s consciousness about what she’s doing, and portray her subtly as a bad, mean pomo obscurantist who’s hellbent on fucking up plain truth for poor scientists. That he hints and shades and suggests this, while not having the courage to fully articulate his beliefs, undermines your claim that he doesn’t state this: he states it all over the place by use of some subtle and not-so-subtle dogwhistles and weasel words and phrases, all of which position Haraway in the way I described.

          And if she weren’t willful, as your condescending concession imagines, we have Cartmill on the perils of suggesting that authors don’t know what they’re doing (at least on some level, pace Barthes’s death of the author and all that), which Cartmill (rightfully) dismisses (i.e., attributes it to Haraway only to blame her for thinking this and only then to rush in, Socrates-like, with the “right answer”) as :

          a literary convention adopted for political ends, amounts to saying that scientists do not understand what they are doing, and if they did, they would stop doing science and start doing the sort of thing Haraway demands of Goodall. I think it is fair to describe this contention as hostile and contemptuous.

          Physicians Cartmill and Zachary_Bos, heal thyselves? You’re either left with subtle arguments that she’s purposefully out to ruin science from some departmental-philosophical-field specific imperative, or that she just doesn’t know what she’s doing, and I’d borrow Cartmill’s words to suggest that both interpretations, as well as yours, are “hostile and contemptuous,” again with the tragic irony being that that’s what you’re accusing Haraway of.

          Close reading generally has ado with the language of the text under discussion, BTW, not one’s predetermined ideological constructions and manipulations of the same–these are indeed inevitable (cf. pomo generally, deconstruction particularly) but they do need to be weighed against the actual words of the text and what these can reasonably (and sometimes not-so-reasonably) argued as meaning. Dismissing decades of human work as having no there there =/= close reading, nor does arguing about texts without bothering to interpret them, as I’ve tried to do in my rebuttal. I’m a close reader, you see.

          1. You’re either left with subtle arguments that she’s purposefully out to ruin science from some departmental-philosophical-field specific imperative, or that she just doesn’t know what she’s doing…

            That’d be a false dichotomy. It may be that she is (well, was), in part, purposefully out to identify the limitations of this discipline as it is practiced; and is in part offering substantive insights (as acknowledged in the review); and is in part practicing an unwitting form of academic obscurantism. That a particular text is in parts knotty, unclear, flimsy, or unpersuasive doesn’t mean the author doesn’t know at all what she is doing.

            I can’t apologize for my general impatience with postmodernism. When I say there is no there THERE, I don’t mean that the body of texts comprising post-modernism are devoid of meaning or value. I am dispatching with the fashionable (in some circles) view that post-modernism somehow corrected or revolutionized our intellectual culture. That’s my judgment, and I’m willing to defend it; I don’t think I need to spend any time defending the view that I’m “dismissing decades of human work”, as I didn’t do such a thing.

            I used the term “close reader” not to suggest my reading and comprehension skills as more attentive or astute than, say, those of your average post-modernist, but to identify my methodological belonging to a particular school. It was a disclosure, not a gloat.

            Can it seriously be argued that all the elements of a text are the product of the author’s deliberate handling of its materials?

          2. Huh, so no there there means not that it’s without value, but that you don’t think pomo has been a transformative influence in art and culture? I’m sorry, but “pomo hasn’t been a transformative influence in art and culture” = “pomo hasn’t been a transformative influence in art and culture”: say what you mean, not some vaporous, ambiguous alternative whose reasonable meanings you deny having meant.

            And you probably need to know that most definitions of obscurantist speak of it as being willed, deliberate, purposeful: Merriam Webster and the OED both fail to record the word as having unwitting or otherwise non-deliberate meanings. So you possibly mean “unclear,” but since I suspect you of obscurantism, you probably wrote what you meant to write, but I’m not sure . . . the no there there thing again. Dictionaries, you can close read them.

          3. OED: Obscurantist, A) “A person who opposes reform and enlightenment” and B) “opposed to enlightenment”. A person may oppose, and that is willful. A person may also be opposed to — be opposite to — and that may be willful or not.

            I don’t understand your hostility, Timothy, and don’t see a need to address it. I meant what I wrote, and meant neither of the two alternatives you laid out. Some things are not either or. In this case, my view of Haraway’s work is not either entirely dismissive, nor entirely enthusiastic. Likewise my view of postmodernism.

          4. Where’s the hostility? That’s your word. If you’re uncomfortable with my pointing out your misreading of Haraway, words, the OED, etc., then that’s your issue, not mine, and one I similarly see no need to address. I will take note, though, of your not taking note of my calling you out for being obscure: I accept your tacit admission, thanks.

            And look up the OED’s other obscurant- words, like, well, obscurant, “a person who strives to prevent inquiry, enlightenment, or reform.” Without dipping into psychoanalysis, “strives” fairly denotes willful effort, so, yes, “willful,” your pettifogging aside.

            And finally, you’ve gone from there’s no there there to well I don’t think it was all that influential, to now saying you hold a moderate view of pomo, neither dismissive nor overly enthusiastic. Really, what do you think? Like More says to Roper, “I can only hope when your head stops spinning it’s facing frontways again.” Really, your tacking and veering about like this, it’s hard to debate with you!

          5. Well, right: I’m not debating with you, so I imagine you’d have a hard time doing so.

            You might disagree with my characterization of Haraway’s book, or her larger body of work, or of post-modernism, but that is a different thing from calling me out for a “misreading”. You don’t know how I’ve read these things, since I haven’t told you. Somewhat relatedly, you’ve incorrectly concluded that you know what I mean by my use of the idiom “there’s no there there”. Seeing that I hadn’t made the point clearly, I explained the mismatch between what I’d meant and what you’d understood; now you are insisting that your misreading is correct. Alright, have it. I concede the debate.

          6. Discussing something =/= debating? Really? Again, those words you use, I don’t think they mean what you think they mean.

            Put kindly: I have a sense that you think you’re being nuanced and subtle, where the effect for me is a kind of endlessly drawn out, “that wasn’t what I meant to say, nor what I said.” Perhaps I’ve been too blunt, or not direct enough, in stating this.

            And sorry, but there’s no there there really only has a stable set of meanings: this sucks, this is worthless, there’s nothing of worth here, nothing to see here, etc. It cannot reasonably bear the other meaning you’re trying to assign it (“I’m unsure about its historical-cultural effects”), anymore than it can bear the readings of, say, “Green Martians” or “soap.” Limited ambiguity is a cornerstone of close reading, which you should know, following your claims to be a close reader: Frost’s lovely woods, “dark and deep” could just be woods, a metaphor for death, a reference to Dante, but they can’t mean “Green Martians.” Anyhoo, it’s been fun wrecking the nested Disqus thread with you: the thinner the columns, the thinner the goodwill and arugments, perhaps? I guess we’ll just have to disagree to agree, or whatever the saying is….

      2. Haraway is an obscure, difficult, often unclear author, but I rather don’t think it’s because she disbelieves in objective reality or wants to willfully practice academic obscurantism.

        Maybe she just disrespects her readers? Or perhaps she believes in the Foucault quote (“… to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense”) above?

  13. You know a book really sucks when it makes you start questioning fundamental assumptions about the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science…Fucking French-intellectual prose is fucking bullshit!  

  14. I find it more succinctly devastating when Cory tells someone that their argument doesn’t parse.

  15. Aw, this ain’t nothing.  Anyone interested in a scathing review should take the time to read the essay by Nietzsche called “David Strauss:  the Confessor and Writer” which is collected in the book of essays “Untimely Meditations.” It’s not too long of a read.  This isn’t the musical Strauss by the way.  He rips his work up and down in a very masterly way.  I like the end where he says “This is the German language, in which men have spoken, in which great poets have sung and great thinkers written.  Keep your paws off!”  Bonus points if you can find a translation that includes in the end notes the 70 examples of passages from Strauss’ work which have further scathing commentary which supports in detail the prior essay.  Strauss later committed suicide and Nietzsche felt guilty for the rest of his life (though maybe he was a bit vain in taking much credit for Strauss’ death).

  16. “How are love, power, and science intertwined in the construction of nature in the late twentieth century? . . . In what specific places, out of which social and intellectual histories, and with what tools is nature constructed as an object of erotic and intellectual desire? How do the terrible marks of gender and race enable and constrain love and knowledge in particular cultural traditions, including the modern natural sciences? Who may contest for what the body of nature will be?”

    So I take it that nobody in this discussion finds any of the questions above interesting? Because that is what Haraway’s book is about; the quote is taken from the review itself. I am not a huge fan of post-structuralist writing, because I have a hard time understanding a lot of it. I sometimes think the writers ought to be able to make their meanings more clear, using everyday language. But couldn’t we say the same thing about scientific language? Yet we know that the scientific register is there because we need specialized terms to talk about non-everyday phenomena. Although I find post-modernism difficult to follow (without putting in the time to immerse myself in the discourse), I at least hold open the possibility that the post-modernists are intentionally not using everyday language because they are trying to dislodge the reader from deeply embedded ways of looking at the world and interpreting words….which, I think, is in part what BoingBoing is also about.

    1. Scientists sometimes use esoteric language because they need it BUT sometimes they do it to make themselves sound more impressive. It gets especially annoying in taxonomy, when you are working your way through a key, choosing between couplets of written descriptions. There are times, after you have struggled your way through a poorly-written key, when you yearn to ambush the authors in a darkened alley, blunt instrument in your hands. 

      I love words. I love specialized language. I like precision. I like elegance. I don’t like it when language is used as fog or distortion, to hide the fact that not much is being said or to make the writing seem more profound than it actually is. It happens all the time in zoology and it sure as shit happens in post-structuralist social criticism or whatever the hell this is. And I don’t think it is anti-intellectual to say so. We can critique the communications skills, the writing, without being experts in the subject matter.

      1. Scientists sometimes use esoteric language because they need it BUT sometimes they do it to make themselves sound more impressive.

        Within any domain sometimes specialist language is required, as often there exists no easy or non-convoluted way to say it otherwise. But while in the hard sciences a paper is considered poorly written if it uses more argot than necessary, in the social sciences this often does not seem to be the case, as far as I can tell.

    2. So I take it that nobody in this discussion finds any of the questions above interesting?

      As the subject of the original post was on writing — and not the content of the writing per se — you seem a little disappointed that the thread didn’t veer far enough off-topic.

      That may be a first for BoingBoing!

  17. My favorite scathing review is here:

    It’s by Fields Medalist Robert Langlands, of a pop math/physics book, and starts out “This is a shallow book on deep matters, about which the author knows next to nothing.”

  18. I can’t get through the paywall (at least not without going to the office and it’s too late for that) but I sure hope the rest of the review is better than this excerpt because it is pretty damn shitty. It essentially commits all the sins it accuses the book author of committing.  Ok, the book made him angry. Therefore he should not be reviewing it because he really can’t be objective.

    You said you wanted to learn fair criticism. This is not it.

    1. It essentially commits all the sins it accuses the book author of committing.

      Perhaps in the journal in question this is considered more of a feature than a bug, an ironic statement of post-post-modern semantic recursion within a deeply Chomskian semiotic grammar. Or some such.

  19. The boingboing science editor doesn’t know the work of Donna Haraway. sadface.

    Donna Haraway fucking rules and is vital reading for anyone who is interested in: 

    1) Science
    2) Feminism
    3) Technology

    The most immediate take-away from Haraway is also important to this discussion: she encourages feminists to step away from the fear of science and technology and to engage with it, understand it, and make it their own. Though technoscience may seem closed to critics and sociologists who want to study and understand it, though your colleagues may pen scathing reviews of your books, you should not turn your back on science – as many second-wave feminists did by turning to totalizing goddess myths and the like.

    Donna Haraway (and Bruno Latour, if you truly want to get French) are not trying to destroy science, they’re trying to contextualize it and explore what it means when people DO science.

    I look forward to reading Maggie’s review of Haraway’s The Cyborg Manifesto. For Great Justice.

    1. Donna Haraway fucking rules and is vital reading for anyone who is interested in:

      1) Science

      3) Technology

      I find this a little hard to believe. She may be vital reading for people interested in the contexualization of science and technology within post-modern conceptual frameworks,  but interested in the science itself?

      I could be wrong, of course, but such questions are amenable to empirical research. One could, for example, select a group of working scientists or technologists (chosen perhaps from gaging their professional recognition) and see how many of them list Haraway as an important influence in their work. My guess is that amongst the hard scientists (what Maggie focuses on) the number would be pretty close to zero, but that’s the great thing about science when the relativism isn’t extended too far: you don’t have to guess!

      And then the social theorists can debate the suitability of the operationalized measurements of professional recognition when judged from feminist or post-Marxist perspectives, and everybody wins!

      1. Well, I’m an archaeologist, which you probably wouldn’t consider a science, or at least a vaunted HARD SCIENCE (trumpets blaring, etc), but the original author of the critique, Stillman, is a Physical Anthropologist, so perhaps it is moot. Asking any HARD SCIENTIST if they’ve read social theory is sadly a fool’s errand…happily I can read both and incorporate them into my work as I see fit. 

        I still remain fairly shocked that people interested in technology would not know Donna Haraway. She was in Wired, for chrissakes. 

  20. I think it’s possible to appreciate the vicious art of the hatchet job even when it’s utterly wrong-headed. A negative review that stands out in my memory is this 2003 review of a John Le Carré novel in which Daniel Johnson insinuates that Le Carré has gone senile, is an anti-Semite, has lost his talent, is too old, suffers from class envy, is projecting his own failures onto his targets, and so on. A brilliant demolition job, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Le Carré was dead right and the reviewer looks very foolish.

  21. Not a review, but a response I got after asking someone who once worked for OC WEEKLY (Orange County CA)–and a then-major figure on the Southern California poetry scene about why I never heard back from him after submitting a chapbook of my early poems:
    I DO remember your chapbook. I still have it, in the piles of several hundred that I dutifully carried with me cross-country when I moved. Terry, it was dull. Very dull. Not bad, but there was little of interest going on there. I don’t recall if I had read it yet when I saw you in Redondo, but even if I had, I doubt I would have said much. What was I supposed to say? “Sorry, it bored me to tears.” But as I recall, it took me awhile to get around to it, because, even now, I get a ton of chapbooks very month. I’ve not thrown one away, and I try to read them all, but no, I can’t review them, and I really had nothing consequential to say about it, for good or bad. As to my “wisdom would be something of value,” Whatever. I don’t recall volunteering to be your mentor, and while I’ve taught poetry in high schools and colleges, I don’t recall you being in any of my classes. The sad fact is, Terry, I thought you were a nice guy,and always tried to be friendly to you, but no, I didn’t care much for your writing. Would you have preferred that I said that? I can’t see what good that would have done. It’s not like I walked out of the room when you were on the microphone. Maybe you’ve gotten better, I don’t know.

    1. Terry,

      That’s a bullshit review of your poetry that amounts to saying, “In my tiny little world I’m still bigger than you. Let’s keep it that way.”

  22. That is one hell of a scathing review, but it’s justified. “Post-modern” literature is the product of pathetic people with inferiority complexes, not intellectuals. A truly insightful, bright mind is able to explain its ideas with clarity and simplicity. Richard Feynman springs to mind.

    1. Translating mathematical-based science into clear language is easier than translating the mechanisms of linguistic meaning into clear language.  There is an inherent flaw in using the system to explain itself. 

Comments are closed.