Crossley on Fogel review and response

Those who have been eagerly following this saga will surely also enjoy Crossley’s recent commentary. (hat tip to Maggie Greene who shared it.)

Matthew Robertson <>

Source: Crossley Comments (6/1/15)

By Pamela Kyle Crossley

When you are given a platform by CASS to criticize American historians of China, you can clearly say anything. Nothing is over the top or under the belt, and nothing is beneath the dignity of the speaker or the target. Sort of strange as some of us–well, me–are going through this, nastiness of an apparently unrelated sort has broken out in our own ranks, yet the connections are intriguing, perhaps even disturbing when they hint that the dynamics of denunciation in our profession might be unintentionally imitating those of the CCP/CASS: The question is, when is trashing a person a good substitute for refuting their interpretations or conclusions?

MCLC had apparently asked Joshua Fogel to review the book The Challenge of Linear Time edited by Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider, and when he completed the review, they published it. Fogel said in the first lines of the piece that he hated the book but intended to provide an honest review. He then proceeded at length to harshly criticize the editing, the writing, and the conception of a majority of the book, while ardently praising the essay in the volume written by Haiyan Lee. A few writers were criticized for vapidity of thought and incomprehensibility of expression. The review ended with the conjecture that “postmodernism” and what many writers contend is “Marxism” may have some kind of reciprocal relationship. Postmodernism, according to something or other Fogel read (we don’t know what) and reported to Fred Wakeman, emerged in “1972;” at that, Fred exclaimed that Marxism had died at just the same time. Perhaps now, with postmodernism moribund or dead, whichever the case, a re-animated but inauthentically constituted (“zombie”) Marxism was bound to stalk the theories people attach to East Asian studies again.

The essay was studiously gutted of all the polite nothings that conventionally stuff book reviews, and was vibrating with the author’s outrage at what he clearly considered the pretentions and pointlessness of most of the book. It was so vividly negative that when Fogel used the phrase “[t]o his credit” in relation to one of the editors, the words were fairly wreathed in neon. I admit he got me curious about the book and I read it when I otherwise would not have. What the review was not was ad hominem. Fogel explained the reasoning behind all his objections, and I found that he got through the exhausting exercise without offering a single assessment of any author’s psyche, ulterior motives, personality quirks, dress sense or credit rating. That is not to say that he did not wax satirical about what he considered the posturings and sometimes limited erudition of individual writers. But any of them could show up at the next AAS with dignity intact. This is a profession, populated by adults. Intellectual give and take is part of the enterprise–maybe the essence of it. If you contribute to the universe of published research and commentary in the field, somebody will stick the knife into you sometime. The only safety lies in refraining from contributing, and waiting for the chance (usually a book review) to stick it to those who are doing the work.

Some readers were shocked at Fogel’s harshness. Rebecca Karl posted a characterization of the review as a “hatchet job,” saying twice that she had not read the book in question, but condemned Fogel’s review as written in the “most sarcastic, most ungenerous, most uncollegial way possible.” It was indeed a review that was touched here and there (mostly not) by sarcasm, and was not outstanding for generosity. Does that make it uncollegial? Is unvarnished criticism, even when delivered with no particular consideration for the feelings of the author(s) criticized, really uncollegial? At my university, “uncollegial” is a fighting word. People can get fired for it. And it is generally understood to mean making an individual, and not his or her work, an object of rejection and criticism, perhaps by promoting falsehoods that discredit him or her. It means creating an environment in which professional intellectuals are deliberately obstructed from doing their best work or receiving a fair hearing.

As for hatchet jobs, I have a little idea what they are, having recently had one slice into me from the hands of Professor Zhong Han under the encouragement of CASS. A very small number of individuals have been busy in the social media making sure that this screed is circulated as widely and as often as possible; let us assume that it never crossed their minds that they were doing the work of the PRC academic commissars for them. One of these people is actually called Axel Schneider; he not only gleefully tweets and retweets, but makes a point of prominently displaying passages he particularly relishes. By a small irony, they relate precisely to questions of incidental errors (an allegation that Axel is unlikely to know is justified or not) of the sort the Axel says don’t matter in his book (and i do agree), but justify repeated amplification when directed against me. I don’t know Axel and he doesn’t know me, but I regret to say that he has given me the sense that ad hominem –or in this case ad feminam– attacks are something he finds very entertaining when perpetrated at the expense of somebody else, even (or especially) when relating to subjects he evidently knows very little about. [note: Tweets can be made to disappear by their author, and I expect these will, but they remain in timelines, out-quotes from Twitter, and searchable Twitter archives.] So being acquainted with actual hatchet jobs and their celebration by colleagues who so far as I know I have never harmed, I will probably betray some skepticism regarding whether a reasoned, evidentiary-based review of a whole book is actually a hatchet job.

One is bound to observe that Murthy and Schneider appeared far from inhibited or accepting of what they considered an unfair hearing. It is unusual for any platform to permit authors to respond to reviews of their books; the byways of print would be quickly clogged by the protests of every misunderstood, maligned or genuinely misrepresented author. Even the victims of plainly dishonest reviews are rarely given space to correct false statements, let alone debate the critical or philosophical points of the reviewer. But MCLC not only permitted the editors to respond to Fogel, they actually distributed the attempted rebuttal with the preface “MCLC and MCLC Resource Center are pleased to announce publication of Viren Murthy’s and Axel Schneider’s response…” Such a showcase is rare indeed. And what was it that MCLC was so pleased to present?

In concept and in content, the response was one long and extraordinary personal attack on Fogel’s mental balance. Not only was he engaged in a “war against theory,” but his compulsion for being engaged in this ostensible war was “an insecurity about his own mode of scholarship.” To provide the most searching analysis of Fogel’s newly-diagnosed insecurity, we travel back in time to 1994, and Fogel’s review of Tanaka’s Japan’s Orient. Attempting to score rhetorical points for oneself by forcing unrelated authors into the ring to relive past punches is new one for me. Stefan has nothing to do with what is going on, he was not an author of the volume that Fogel reviewed, he is entitled to the quiet enjoyment of the reputation his book has earned in the past twenty-one years without gratuitous reminders of anything unflattering said about it at the time of publication. For all I know he was sitting at home eating oatmeal when Murthy and Schneider decided to take him hostage in what they were quickly turning from substantial, if harsh, professional exchange to a food fight. They make the breezy and, to anybody who knows the scholarship involved, bizarre charge that Fogel’s criticism of Tanaka’s book was motivated solely by the fact that Fogel must have been worried that his study of Naito Konan (I didn’t feel like writing in the omicron there) of a decade before could be losing traction. To the authors of the rebuttal, this would be the only credible basis for Fogel criticizing Tanaka (even though, when one reads the review, one finds statements of substance behind Fogel’s judgments). Be warned: If you review a book on a subject on which you have already written a book yourself, anything short of lavish praise will be interpreted as some secret terror that your own work will be annihilated by the force of the new contribution.

The authors scold Fogel with the aphorism I last heard used by a kind of tired teacher with a lot of kindergartners: “Each time we point, we simultaneously point three fingers back at ourselves.” (They are paraphrasing, nobody is likely to hear it put quite like that). They further develop their theme that Fogel’s criticisms are all amenable to interpretation as evidence of deep anxiety; this partly accounts for Fogel’s apparently unprecedented practice of criticizing both postmodernism and Marxism simultaneously, a patent symptom of mental decompensation. This, they imply, is the root of the hysteria that drove Fogel to criticize Japan’s Orient: Despite Fogel’s best efforts, both postmodernism and Marxism, along with a lot of other theories, had survived as of 1994, when “he began to lash out at books attempting to bring theory and scholarship together.” And then we get deep: “In his reactive fervor, Fogel apparently internalizes the Cold War and Area Studies zombies.” In his delusional ravings, Fogel lost sight of the fact that theory still lives, and is not dead. He became “not able or not willing” to appreciate the significance of the Murthy and Schneider volume.

The deficiencies of Fogel’s understanding of theory are enumerated, though he gets half-credit for invoking Marcuse, which in the view of the authors shows that he is aware of “new [sic] interpretations of Marxism.” Alas, his unhappiness with one of the essays in the book betrays his faulty command of Lukacs (no acute there, don’t feel like coding it in). Further on, we learn that Fogel’s delusional zombie-haunted world prevented him from analyzing the “core theme” of the book, linear time; had Fogel but perceived the the book’s heart, he would have heard it beat out the news tthat Liu Yizheng’s critique of progress “had to fail” because he “wasn’t able simultaneously to argue for a theory of history based on Confucian ethics and bring forward concrete plans for China’s political and economic modernization.” How an idea as pedestrian as that could get by anybody, even dissociative and zombie-addled Fogel, is not explained.

Next we learn that Fogel’s neuroses also extend to a defense of area studies, and that Fogel is frantic to promote “its essentialism.” All the hidebound interpretations that can be found anywhere relating to early twentieth-century Japanese thought are, we are told, licenced by Fogel’s area studies enthusiasms, and Fogel evidently collapses in a nervous heap if invited to “engage the philosophical complexity of Ienaga’s, Maruyama’s, or [Naoki] Sakai’s arguments,” leading him into pitiable naivety. Lest this simple-mindedness afflict us all, they helpfully instruct us that “We do not experience time in terms of discrete now-points or linear time, but rather in terms of a narrative or story.” If you’ve never heard of Bergson or Poulet, or for some other reason you need this idea repeated more slowly, it is there to be savored.

Further on, we find that “Fogel and the zombies” (unnamed, but surely the reader is now curious) are preventing us from getting sophisticated about our studies of postwar Japanese texts. They point out that when he writes “Your guess is as good as mine” –in reference to the incomprehensibility of sentences he quoted in full– this is “an excellent example of negating the heterogeneity embodied in ‘you,’ the reader(s)” because it is a teaching moment for the authors to point out to you that Fogel is dishonestly conflating himself with the reader (“you”), at which point he has “receded from the Sakai statement in despair” and implicated the unsuspecting reader (“you”) in this violation. This is because Fogel is not able to understand the “negativity” of the theoretical intervention here, and instead continues to ride his “positivist essentialism.” They proceed to serial refutation of Fogel’s criticisms of the use (or non-use) of German by the authors of the volume (Schneider aside), attributing this misdirected criticism to Fogel’s unhealthy fixation on positivism. They close with the theoretically weighty comment that their volume is the product of a conference, and so its ideological unity may be less than obvious, but it is hoped that readers will enjoy the “variety of styles” in the book.

Let me be as honest as Fogel was. When it comes to criticizing typos and lapses of formatting, I’m not with him. Why bother detailing goofs that in today’s world will all be fixed in a subsequent edition, an instant digital edition, a hybrid online-offline errata mechanism, whatever; everything is a work in progress, that’s our world. I’ve even had reviewers waste valuable space bagging errors that were long gone from the available edition by the time their reviews appeared. As Joseph Fletcher liked to say, “I read past all that.” What matters is the substance. And when it comes to Fogel’s opposition to Marxism and postmodernism, I’m not with him either. But having an ideological position, and developing it consistently, is a basic part of the intellectual enterprise. Every one of us is entitled to inject it into whatever venues we like, including book reviews. Indeed not doing so could be dishonest, since nobody is capable of truly objective, disinterested intellectual evaluations and it would mislead the less experienced to suggest it is so. I haven’t encountered a response to Fogel’s review that reveals a befuddled reader asking, “So is this guy sympathetic to Marxism and postmodernism or not?” Everybody knows Fogel’s inclinations, including MCLC when they asked him to review this book. Why does everybody know that? Because Fogel has had a career of rich productivity, encompassing an unusually wide range of topics in intellectual and political history, and a virtuosity with texts in both Japanese and Chinese. He is a known quantity, because he does the work. He is legible by virtue of his known ideological signature, and it is the job of professionals in the field to incorporate that legibility into their reading of him, not to demand that he become a cipher.

I would suggest that everybody who has the time read the book (it is online) and read Fogel’s review. They will find much of the book interesting and informative (which happens to be what Fogel says about the material in toto), and they will find Fogel’s review focused on substance, even if occasionally leavened by irreverence. Fogel gives his evidence for disagreeing or even denigrating, and he confines himself to the content of the book and the acts of writing and editing it. He does not drag in bystanders as collateral damage. He does not offer totalizing psychological explanations of the writers’ or editors’ motivations or failings. And the charge that he cowers in terror before “theory” is either myopic or fearful of theory itself. There is more in the theory universe than Marxism and postmodernism; Fogel is particularly exercised about the questions, for instance, of fascism and its critique. And in any case, a suggestion that this historian of thought has a fatal allergy to theory is easily disproved by the facts of his achievement. This raises of the question of which side is really practicing the more egregious disrespect and uncollegiality.

Is ideological consistency–even if founded on positivist essentialism–a mental illness? Can one dispel its effects by purporting to expose the writer as delusional, ignorant by design or defect, neurotic, anxiety-riddled, or haunted by zombies? Is it rhetorically devastating to use fake psycho-analysis to refute accusations of faulty editing, writing and thinking in a volume of conference papers? These may all be questions for the ages, but when I sense a lack of mental balance here, it seems to emanate more from the indignation of writers who by their attitude and actions want it known that severe criticisms of their edited volumes, especially if tinged with sarcasm, will not be tolerated. They will be met with personal broadsides intended to expose not the faulty reasoning, not the incomplete erudition, not the inconsistent analysis of their critics, but what are claimed to be those critics’ private fears, their pathologies, their inabilities to grasp reality. It is something like the Chicago way (everybody has to cite movies): You deliver a hit to their book of revised conference papers, they tear your identity down to the ground. You get uppity, they beat you into silence. It is not the way I hope my profession will live. This is just a suggestion: It is a real advantage that in our online world there is room for author responses to reviews. Those pleased to present such responses might take care that they are providing a platform for specific intellectual exchange on the substance of a book and its reviews, not providing tools for vengeful authors to punish reviewers they deem guilty of lese majeste (oops both an acute and grave missing).

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