I began posting book reviews on Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com. 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 Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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.
Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.