Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Task of the Reviewer

I began posting book reviews on about a year ago to kick-start the process of writing on a daily basis. My dissertation had suffered long periods of dormancy, and posting book reviews was just one of the ways I thought I could teach myself how to enjoy writing -- any form of writing -- in view of schedules and deadlines.

I was also spurred to enter that virtual universe of reviewing after reading Michael Eric Dyson's contribution to the New York Public Library's series on the seven deadly sins: Pride. I maintain that this is a dreadful piece of writing. I found Dyson's book to be at once self-indulgent and hollow: brash and condescending without any hint of self-reflexive criticism. A good third of the book is devoted to Dyson's own career, and he betrays not an iota of irony when he takes two former students to task (he basically insults them in prose) for supposedly being disruptive in one of his classes. As you can see for yourself, my review reflects my very low opinion of this book.

But having had some familiarity with the defensive nature of people's responses to reviews (especially when it comes to political and social commentary), I added a closing paragraph to my review that revealed my stakes in critiquing Dyson: a progressive myself, I believe public-intellectual showmanship by the likes of Dyson does a disservice to progressive critical thinking. It brings our discourse down to the level of a polemical shouting match, and it touches on only the most superficial layer of social and political understanding (e.g., Dyson hails Halle Berry's and Denzel Washington's winning Oscars as being "good" forms of pride, over and against the KKK's "bad" form of pride).

The very next review I wrote, on Herman Grey's Cultural Moves, was just as critical, but this time I approached my argument from a more "academic" perspective. I again revealed my stakes in this act of criticism: as someone thoroughly invested in black cultural studies and African American cultural production more generally, I think Grey's sociological determinism seeks not to understand black arts on its own terms but to regurgitate the theoretical point that black arts is always "different" from presumably "white" hegemonic cultural production. Cultural Moves, for me, is a book of academic navel-gazing and not a sincere effort to think about what black arts might mean for its actual practitioners and receivers.

So you can see I've been very careful with how I approach reviewing on I'm keen on making critical points, but I'm also aware of the various audiences I'm addressing -- I try to inaugurate a conversation between me and them that makes clear my position (with which they may or may not agree) and my investment in making that position. To be sure, I apply such a degree of care to books that are explicitly "about" social and cultural affairs: Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, to take the most recent example.

Having explained all that, you can imagine my surprise when someone took the time to send me a message, via, to let me know she finds my reviews heinous:

You gave Fukuyama's (!) book 5 stars essentially saying, 'hey please, come line this reactionary's pockets with money' - and Rachel Roy etc. - and you gave Herman Gray's book ONE star? Ugh! Must you review? - can't you go join some neocon think tank or something and stop ruining people's ratings with your lame criticisms? Better yet - write your own book for critique. Thank you."

Well, there goes "writing for an audience"!

First, I'm not sure exactly what this person meant by adding "Rachel Roy etc." (i.e., Rachael Ray) to the mix in such an offhand manner. Is Rachael Ray a political "reactionary"? Or does this person take issue with Ray's admittedly populist (heaven forbid "mainstream"!) approach to home cooking? (There are longstanding debates on about Rachael Ray's "dumbed-down" approach to cooking, with elitist "foodies" taking the masses to task for their lack of "taste," in both senses of that term.) Whatever the case may be, I can only imagine this person was attempting to flash her liberal, hipster, and/or anti-mainstream credentials by denouncing my positive reviews of Rachael Ray's cookbooks.

More important, however, is her claim that I'm somehow a political reactionary myself for giving Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads a positive review. Now the full text of my review clearly states that what I appreciate about this book is the candor and intelligence with which Fukuyama critiques the problem of George W. Bush's war-mongering and interventionist attempt to "spread democracy" the world over. It's Fukuyama's contention that the philosophical roots of neoconservative thinking insist strongly against such interventionism. (And so unlike other reviewers who seem to think Fukuyama is defecting from neoconservative principles, I actually point out that he's lambasting Bush for not holding true to them.) My review clearly states that I disagree with philosophical neoconservativism but that I appreciate the critique of Bush Fukuyama is able to mount in its name. Fukuyama's is a well-reasoned argument, in my estimation, and one way, out of many, of trying to work through the implications of Bush's disastrous, pig-headed foreign policy.

If there's anything I'm guilty of, at least based on my review, it's the belief that the project of democratic reform must first take root in the actual communities supposedly in need of democratic reform. This is the belief, over and against interventionism, of the need to buffer civil society with strong institutions and shared power structures. It's a belief shared by conservative realists, liberal socialists, and NGOs alike. Now it may not be the "utopian" post-power structure that many of my colleagues in graduate school advocate for, but it is, in my opinion, a real, viable alternative to the pressing issue of U.S. imperialism acting under the guise of "spreading democracy." Where I differ radically from Fukuyama, then, is in how "institution-building" as such is conceived: I reject neoconservative principles and support Western European-style socialism, where civil society is strengthened by the state not letting market capitalism run roughshod over the interests of the people, especially the poor and working classes.

Of course I doubt my critic actually read my review: it seems she only compared my star ratings among books (especially Herman Grey's, for whatever reason) and made up her mind that I belonged in a "neocon think tank." As for her claim that my review "line[s] [Fukuyama's] pockets with money," I would simply point out to her that if one were to live life divesting from supposedly reactionary causes and businesses, we'd have to give up most, if not all, of the commodities and amenities that infuse modern society. It's not just Fox News and Wendy's I'm talking about here. I also hear the Coors family is rather conservative (that's an understatement, by the way), and who really knows what Whole Foods is up to these days (for the record, I like Whole Foods)? (On Whole Foods and this ideology of "organicism" in our supermarkets, see Michael Pollan's widely celebrated The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

In the end, I'm quite happy to have provoked a response from my critic. I doubt she'll ever want to hear what I have to say here, but then again critical debate in general is somewhat lacking on the Internet, owing to the medium's immediacy and tendency to evoke knee-jerk, defensive responses. Perhaps we'd do better speaking in person.

As for my future as an reviewer, I'll carry on just as I have carried on: making critical points, saying what I liked and disliked, reviewing books both popular and obscure, "academic" and mainstream, and always being wary that I'm writing for an audience.

The one thing I will refuse is heeding to some sort of ideological litmus test, of which my critic and many of my professional colleagues are equally guilty. For my critic, I'm not liberal or progressive enough. For some of my colleagues, I'm not radical or "utopian" enough. My task as a reviewer is not to meet any ideological standard that demands an "enough." It is simply to be this: insistently and self-reflexively critical.


Bill Barnes said...

Hi Kinohi,

You're tight about Fukuyama and your critic is wrong. Here an excerpt from something of mine that you may be interested in, it gets to Fukuyama near the end.

Bill Barnes

Unrealism on the Right:
Explaining the Parallel Failures of Reagan Doctrine “Democracy Promotion” in Central America and Bush Doctrine “Democracy Promotion” in Iraq

William Barnes
August 2006


True realism means recognizing that we live in a world of increasing inequality not only of material resources and standards of living, but increasing inequality of existential security and dignity, of opportunity and capacity for learning, aspiration, and agency (reference Amartya Sen and Arjun Appadurai; Moises Naim, “The Five Wars of Globalization”). More and more people face a lifetime on the defensive, from childhood on. Realism means recognizing that globalization, whatever its merits, increases uncertainty, precariousness, the experience of powerlessness, throughout the majority of the world’s disadvantaged populations. Realism means acknowledging that we now face a coming half-century of increasingly catastrophic environmental and public health disasters, increasing criminal, predatory, and socially destructive behavior, amidst unrelenting poverty in much of the world, which, unless dramatic steps are taken, will likely result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. These realities accentuate the need for moral and political authorities, educational institutions and public spheres, social capital and modes of its politicization, that can help people make sense of what is happening to them and arrive at coping mechanisms and survival strategies that are not anti-social or self-stultifying (or proto-fascist) but linked to larger projects and meanings in line with the higher ideals of humanitarian, democratic Liberalism. Weak states, failing states, predatory states neither provide nor nurture nor protect such resources, authorities, projects, or political cultures. If the rich societies and their powerful, quasi-democratic states do not devote themselves to heading off the approaching catastrophes, they will find themselves surrounded by radical populisms and “fascisms” and subjected to unrelenting terrorism — and perhaps succumbing to “fascism” themselves. The immediate problem is that, by these standards, the recent policies of the richest and strongest of these states have been, on balance, highly dysfunctional. [**Note]
The current degree of Bush administration, Neocon, and Liberal Hawk focus on and absorption in the “long war” against “Islamic fascism,” entails criminally negligent inattention to the foregoing problems, and thus huge opportunity costs. Of course, these opportunity costs are of ultimate concern only if you are serious about actually realizing the goal of universalizing liberal democratic capitalism, and if being serious means paying attention to reality on the ground, beyond Potemkin formalities. If a lack of such seriousness, a disinclination to pay attention to the “gap problem” (the gap between norms/ideals and practice) is constitutive of your political identity, then all of this matters much less. Thus the actual achievability of the goal that you say justifies your means is much more important for Liberal Hawks than for people like Dick Chaney and Don Rumsfeld.
** I am not advocating that the rich societies and strong states engage, wholesale, in forceful humanitarian intervention or democracy promotion (though limited forms of such might be included in some circumstances). I would emphasize rather programs along the following lines: (1) the power of example of domestic budgeting, tax, and regulatory reforms and R&D initiatives prioritizing public health, public education, environmental protection and reclamation, sustainable development; (2) support for international programs and NGOs in public health, nutrition, environmental reclamation and protection, disaster preparedness-warning-relief-reconstruction, universal primary and secondary education; (3) funding and advocating reorientation of higher education everywhere in the world toward encouraging and preparing young people for careers in, and/or solidarity with, the foregoing kinds of efforts; (4) professional and scientific societies and associations all over the world advocating the foregoing and delegitimizing work on behalf of any entity, including one’s own nation-state, involving WMD, torture, terrorism, war crimes, recklessness toward the environment; (5) commitment to deliberation within an open, reality-facing transnational public sphere.

Sociologist Michael Schwartz writes:

"Media coverage of the Iraq War has generally portrayed the current quagmire as the result of an American failure to achieve a set of otherwise admirable goals: ... U.S. failure, then, resides in its inability to halt and reverse the destructive forces within Iraqi society [that U.S. forces recklessly let loose, and that make positive achievements much more difficult].

"This rather comfortable portrait of the U.S. as a bumbling, even thoroughly incompetent giant overwhelmed by unexpected forces tearing Iraqi society apart is strikingly inaccurate: Most of the death, destruction, and disorganization in the country has, at least in its origins, been a direct consequence of U.S. efforts to forcibly institute an economic and social revolution, while using overwhelming force to suppress resistance to this project. Certainly, the insurgency, the ethno-religious jihadists, and the criminal gangs have all contributed to the descent of Iraqi cities and towns into chaos, but their roles have been secondary and in many cases reactive. The engine of destruction was–and remains–the U.S-led occupation."

“How the Bush Administration Deconstructed Iraq,”, May 18, 2006.

Schwartz then goes on to emphasize that U.S. policy was informed by "a larger American project of economic reform that involved demobilizing Iraqi state enterprises...and so bringing the Iraqi economy into the global system on its knees. Modern equipment and infrastructure, introduced everywhere by largely American-owned multinational corporations, would then have to be maintained by those same corporations."

In the absence of any effective oversight or regulation, favored U.S. corporations proceeded to steal the country blind, never completing most of the infrastructure and reconstruction projects for which they had been paid on no-bid contracts.
It seems to me that Schwartz goes too far in effectively discounting the idea that many U.S. policy-makers really believed that the Iraqi exiles working with the Bush administration were the leaders of an Iraqi modern middle class which, once the Baath regime was out of the way, would rally to, and partner with, American and British actors in this larger project of political and economic reform, bringing much of the Iraqi population with them. In other words, whatever else they were, such U.S. policy makers were also vulgar modernization theorists who believed in the chimera of a neo-liberal “big push” toward capitalist economic reconstruction and development, in which foreign actors would substitute for a non-existent national bourgeoisie, in the process coalescing a wider modern middle class, and stimulating American-style petty bourgeois individualism throughout the Iraqi population. And they thought (in so far as they thought at all) that U.S. and British enterprises could be trusted to play this role in good faith without any strict oversight or regulation by a national state, and that from their example, Iraqis would learn modern economics under the rule of law. They really believe in the New Right’s mythological history of the development of Anglo-American capitalism and its universal applicability. The corollary theory of democracy promotion is that all historical and material preconditions and requisites of democratization can be substituted for by the combination of (1) the Cold War victory of the New Right and the consequent niversalization of abstract attraction to and approval of “democracy” American-style (as shown by survey research), and (2) the injection of democracy-bearing human and social capital in the form of the U.S. democracy industry, and the subsequent well-fertilized, greenhouse-growth of its in-country proteges. No progressive national bourgeoisie? No broadly-based, democratically-minded political parties or well-rooted progressive popular movements? No professionalized, non-sectarian governmental institutions effective over at least most of the national territory? No Problem! Once the bad guys and the utopian fools are out of the way, capitalist democracy can be jump-started anywhere, because all rational human beings are, potentially, petty bourgeois individualists, leaning, if given half a chance and a dose of demonstration effect, into something like the American way of life (see Louis Hartz). This is the unrealism of the Right – including gross failure to “know thyself.”
If we take the foregoing as the context and background, then Bush administration failure and wrongheadedness regarding Iraq are not unprecedented, but rather represent the extreme of a kind of failure and wrongheadedness that has been waxing and waning in the American polity for at least half a century – particularly on the part of certain elements of the right, but with some responsibility shared across all points of the political spectrum. This is, in important respects, an epistemological failure – a matter of hubris and blindness – an inability and unwillingness to look reality in the face, to recognize and admit mistakes, to learn, to assimilate knowledge, to properly blend realism and idealism – not just on the part of particular leaders or political parties, but on the part of a polity and the authors and managers – the intellectuals and professionals – of its hegemonic political culture. We see versions of such failure in the “Cold War Liberalism” of the first 15 years after WWII, in “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson years, and, in particular, in the New Right reaction to the 1960s and to the Vietnam war, in the Reagan administration’s Central America policy, and in the early 1990s neo-liberal and neo-conservative triumphalism. (But failures and wrongheadedness, utopianism, lack of realism, lack of proper melding of idealism and realism, on the left have also contributed to the American polity’s learning disabilities.)
What invalidates Francis Fukuyama’s Liberal triumphalist vision of world-historical evolution (with its particular melding of idealism and realism) is not just that Liberalism contains greater internal contradictions and essential contests than he allows for, and not just that we cannot say anything definitive about the universal or lasting viability of any particular ensemble of institutional incarnations of Liberalism (particularly given the likely need to confront a long epoch of increasing natural and man-made disasters). More fundamentally, the essential reality is that separate-but-equal national liberal-democratic capitalisms (in anything like the form we know them) can never be achieved in much of the world – at least there will never come a point where such can co-exist everywhere all at the same time – and there is no sign that those now occupying sofas will ever be willing to play musical chairs with those who have yet to achieve more than precarious perches on three-legged stools. The sofas will have to be down-sized if there is ever to be decent seating for everybody. That some of the ideals and insights of democratic liberalism may be in some sense universal and permanently true says nothing about their universal realizabilty in practice in any of the real worlds that may ever actually be available. In other words, while things might be different had the world taken a different course beginning 100 or 200 or 300 years ago, given the world that has been made by the history that actually happened, with its profound inequalities, traumas (and consequent mounting epidemics of post traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression), resource depletions and accumulated environmental insults (and consequent mounting health hazards and natural disasters), you just can’t get to Fukuyama’s end of history from here (not to mention to Marx’s), or from any future world that is within the horizon of realistic imagination. There is simply no reason to believe this will ever change. [Footnote on the “preconditions” of democracy debate, the earlier debate re preconditions for “the transition to socialism,” and the new debate on the possible non-transitional status of “hybrid” regimes and the invalidation of developmental teleology. The utopianism of Ron Inglehart’s modernization theory. Engage John Gray? Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy?]
Even if Liberalism were universal and true, even if the polling data that hows “democracy” to be preferred and supported by majorities almost everywhere were reliable and meaningful, even if the right ideas and leadership – strength and perseverance of will -- can make it possible for liberal democracy to grow, mature, and consolidate in virtually any soil, even without anything close to what used to be thought of as the material preconditions – even if all that is true, it says nothing about the feasibility of ever realizing democratic capitalism all over the world at the same time. Even if the political conflicts and problems could be resolved, the resource endowments and environmental elbow-room for such universal “coexistence” simply do not exist.

The more the large population segments of our world that are left endlessly disadvantaged and treading water, and ever vulnerable to catastrophe, recognize their fate under the existing dispensation and its future trajectory, the more they will insist on a different world.

Unless “Liberals” world-wide, of all different kinds (left and conservative, but sharing approximately the right mode of blending realism and idealism), can learn and work together to make radical redistributive, public-regarding, Green reforms politically viable, so as to head off the disadvantaged world’s descent into disaster, many in that world (generally from its better off, not its destitute) will be driven to frenzy and some to revengefull martyrdom, whether as part of messianic religious movements or fascistic movements or otherwise. It is the refusal to look this reality in the face, blind hubris and blithe utopianism in the face of mounting mass insecurity, resentment, and defensiveness-gone-wrong, and the tendency to scapegoat the bearer of bad news, that are most politically debilitating. This is exemplified by the Bush administration’s combination of blindly crusading foreign policy, domestic war against environmental science, and corruption of the public sphere and electoral politics by the mobilization of anti-intellectual religious fundamentalism and the promotion of the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.


Kinohi Nishikawa said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Among the many sound points you make here, I want to highlight one: "This [the worldview of vulgar modernization theorists] is, in important respects, an epistemological failure – a matter of hubris and blindness – an inability and unwillingness to look reality in the face, to recognize and admit mistakes, to learn, to assimilate knowledge, to properly blend realism and idealism."

I couldn't agree with you more. The New Right's pie-in-the-sky worldview ignores the profound role strong institutions, civil society, and a "progressive national bourgeoisie" play in the formation of democratic communities. As you note, this is an epistemological quandary: vulgar modernization theory *assumes* the "universal applicability" of "Anglo-American capitalism" and that any "rational" agent would naturally incline to Western-style bourgeois individualism (regardless of race, gender, citizenship, class status [!], and so forth). Your description of this view as "jump-start" modernization captures the essentially unrealistic, utterly condescending, nature of New Right foreign policy: to paraphrase Shakespeare, "some have democracy thrust upon 'em."

Your critique of Fukuyama's End of History is thus spot-on. His earlier work is blind to liberal realist tenets and the variable ways in which democracy can be achieved in different nations and cultures. Each "case" is different, and a true realist would defer to the particularities of each case rather than foist a dubious ideological worldview onto the lot of them.

In sum, your comment helps me realize that the New Right has in fact divorced itself from the key epistemological questions of modernization and U.S. foreign policy. The New Right has replaced epistemological deliberation with what's proven to be a disastrous article of faith.