“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”
By Joshua A. Fogel
I take the title of my rebuttal from Humphrey Bogart’s immortal line delivered to Peter Lorre after the latter has been slapped by Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I1Vh-Ru1z0). This is the attitude one should adopt about receiving a negative book review, apparently not shared by everyone. Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider have now written their own rejoinder to my review of their “edited” volume. It is condescending, ridiculing, and mean-spirited, but so what? (At least there are only a few typos.) You need a thick skin in this business, and if you can’t take the heat, you should stay out of the kitchen. The one thing I wish they had done, though, is actually read my review. Would that have been asking too much?
They begin: “We of course take full responsibility for the various typographical and grammatical errors that Fogel points out.” That’s it? Is that all? The dozen or so errors I pointed out were only a tiny fraction of them—and those are apparently the only ones they “take full responsibility” for. Elemental to my critique was the haphazard manner in which they putatively edited the book. That was half of the reason I dubbed it the “worst book” I have ever read in East Asian studies, a view I stand by. This sort of extreme sloppiness reflects, I strongly believe, sloppy thinking. There is simply no way that they can even have proofread the essays that went out under their names. I suppose I should be thankful they didn’t blame Brill, but a little more heartfelt contrition should be in order, I would think. Am I wrong? Am I too tied to an outdated mode of inquiry that privileges details? Does “theory” trump everything? I shall leave it to readers to judge if I am overstating this.
The next sentence takes us right into the meat of their response: “Fogel’s lengthy review brings out another side of him: he seems engaged in a war against theory, which perhaps stems from an insecurity about his own mode of scholarship.” People don’t “seem” to be at war, “perhaps” due to “insecurity.” “Theory”—whatever that might mean here—hardly deserves the harsh language of war, even metaphorically. Had Murthy/Schneider read my review, they would have noticed the extraordinary praise lavished on Haiyan Lee’s essay which I said was one of the very best pieces I have ever read in my forty-five years in the field—and absolutely the best critique of state socialism. It is full of theory but not driven into incomprehensibility by it. I used the metaphor of a light sprinkling of condiments that it employs, rather than a battering ram approach. Also, I should add that it was almost completely free of editorial errors—a sign of clearer thinking.
Ontological security, a theoretical term coined by psychologist R. D. Laing, is “a centrally firm sense of [one’s] own and other people’s reality and identity.” I have no insecurity about the mode of scholarship I employ. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I suppose it is a mixture of positivism guided by the sources, all the sources that I can muster, wedded to the historical experience of the people I am studying. But, this isn’t about me personally—or is it? Murthy/Schneider next dredge up a book review I wrote over twenty years ago of Stefan Tanaka’s first book. I was, indeed, quite critical of that book—both for the heavy-handed use of “theory” and for errors of fact and mistranslations. Tanaka and I have since mended bridges and tacitly agreed to disagree. But, there’s nothing quite like being psychoanalyzed by two people you hardly know. Since when did two book reviews separated by twenty-one years constitute a “war” or, for that matter, the basis for psychological profiling? Are the editors just a bit insecure in their stance on behalf of “theory”—to the extent that they must fabricate an imputed psychology on my part. As “psychologist” Richard Benjamin says to his “patient” Susan St. James in the movie I cited in my initial review, Love at First Bite: “You know what Freud said: If you don’t pay for it, you don’t get better.” I never paid for this silliness and certainly won’t be cured by it. Charles Schultz perhaps put it best:
But, let’s get down to it. Murthy/Schneider claim that Tanaka’s book Japan’s Orient “took the study of Japanese sinology to a new level.” Why? Because he “drew on a huge range of theories to rethink the role of Japanese sinology,” etc. Perhaps he took things in a different direction, but “huge” here is a huge exaggeration. He used a little Said and a little Foucault, mixed and stirred. The fact that neither Said nor Foucault has exactly stood the test of time speaks volumes to building an edifice on the foundation of quicksand. And, as I pointed out all those many years ago, it baffles me that someone could write seriously about China without the barest knowledge of the Chinese language. “Whether we agree with Tanaka or not,” write Murthy/Schneider, “we cannot deny that he made an immense contribution by engaging with theoretical issues.” Huh? How is “engaging with theory” (irrespective of what that theory might posit or where it might come from?) making “an immense contribution”? Since when did “theory” trump basic facts and knowledge of the language of those being studied? And, it’s not just a contribution but an “immense” one. This lead Murthy/Schneider to another psychological conjecture: “Fogel might have perceived his own mode of research slipping into the past.” I was less concerned for my own style of research than I was for scholarship itself—the anti-enlightenment, radical relativism of postmodernism, unreason all dressed up in scholarly garb that was beginning to ooze out of Chicago, Cornell, and a few other places boded ill, very ill, I thought, and it reminded me of nothing so much as late Weimar Germany. Time to dig in my heels, I thought, because the barbarians are back at the gates.
Now, this, I am told by Murthy/Schneider, is really just a comment on myself, as if my scholarly writing is being created on the analyst’s couch. They cite an aphorism I had never heard before to that effect, and it all goes to show that I am really trying to defend my breed of scholarship and area studies itself (and hence the whole Cold War narrative) from “theory”—there’s that word again. Let me be clear about this. I am a dyed-in-the-wool believer in area studies. The critique of area studies by theory-mongers strikes me as a sly way to insinuate the ideas of DWMs into East Asian studies, bypassing identity politics, circumventing cultural imperialism, and a host of other crimes against the state. If that spells essentialism—a bizarre word if there ever was one—then so be it.
Murthy/Schneider claim that where once I attacked postmodernism, I now single out Marxism, and it’s all because I’m at war with “theory.” The image of Sancho Panza comes to mind. But, let me ask: Is it so wrong to entertain doubts about a philosophy that buttressed the state-sponsored mass murder of so many people? I know that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung and many others were not the sophisticated thinkers that Karl Marx was. Tens of millions of people were sent to their deaths for no rational reason at all, save the perverse “logic” of Marxism. Mightn’t it be time to throw this baby out with the bathwater? I have not heard any sane voices in the academy suggest that Adolf Hitler did, after all, overcome Germany’s fiscal crisis; so, maybe there’s a kernel of value in his thinking that we should return to now. Plenty of people have been active trying to revive Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. Can the Austrian corporal be far behind?
Relying on the old hackneyed phrases of Marxism is simply lazy. Constant reference to the evils of capitalism is, by any other name, sloth. It provides an easy way for scholars and pundits not to have to think for themselves. What makes area studies superior in this regard—and this has absolutely nothing to do with the Cold War and the CIA and any other imputed evil—is precisely the fact that it provides no easy answers. It’s scholarship without a safety net—bravo! It tells scholars young and old: Think for yourself. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and others lived for centuries in an “area” of the world largely, though not completely, out of touch with the West and elsewhere. They used the Chinese script—in their distinctive ways—practiced and studied a panoply of philosophies and religions, interacted via the written literary Chinese language, and thus formed a universe unto themselves. Area studies drops this in students’ laps, but it doesn’t tell them how to make sense of it. Dare to think for yourself!
The more I think about it, I firmly stand by a pro-area studies stance, but vigorously reject the insinuation of adopting anything resembling a Cold War position. That said, though, just what about the Cold War do Murthy/Schneider not like? They don’t tell us. I think they simply assume that calling something you don’t like a name widely rejected is sufficient, but I’m curious. Did they prefer the Soviet side of the equation? Do they, thus, not like the Cold War’s outcome? Do they reject the government’s funding of scholarship? If so, I would suggest that both Murthy and Schneider would have to quit their jobs.
“Of course our book does not offer a sustained argument,” claim the editors comparing their work to Tanaka’s. Why is that, I wondered—aren’t books (“of course”) supposed to offer sustained arguments? Yet, this absence was something I noticed while reading the chapters of the book, and clearly in jest I suggested the zombie motif, à la Haiyan Lee’s essay and my own frustration with such a mess of a book. The more I thought about it, though, the undead quality of Marxism was quite an intriguing notion. Murthy/Schneider turn the tables on me and suggest that what actually animates my putative animosity (my “war”) is anxiety about models which, they claim, must be close to my heart: the Cold War paradigm (and anti-Marxism) and Area Studies (“with all its essentialism”). I have already stated my anti-Cold War bona fides, and I proudly affirm my attachment to area studies. I’m still not sure why “essentialism” is such a crime, but it must refer back to some “theorist” who offered an Olympian decree to that effect. I have read many of “the many critiques” raised against area studies and find them universally unconvincing.
The next paragraph of their rejoinder is beyond annoying: “In the early 1980s, Fogel could pretend as if Marxist and postmodern theory did not exist, but by 1994, when such theories became salient in the study of Asia, he began to lash out at books attempting to bring theory and scholarship together.” Neither Murthy nor Schneider have any idea what I was doing in the early 1980s—where do they get off assuming that I was pretending such “theory” didn’t exist? In the late 1960s and 1970s, like so many of my fellow students at that time, I was consumed with reading Marx and Lukács and Marcuse and others of the Frankfurt School and countless other thinkers on the left; in the 1980s I wrote a book on Chinese Marxism (based roughly on my Masters thesis of the 1970s). Apparently ignorance in the defense of “theory” is no vice—to paraphrase you know whom. With the invasion of what one scholar has dubbed the “storm-tropers,” I confronted postmodernism and genuinely disliked it, but more importantly I dislike what I saw being done in its name to scholarship—in both the Chinese and Japanese historical fields. I saw incredibly shoddy scholarship getting published and wasn’t pleased. “In his reactive fervor, Fogel apparently internalized the Cold War and Area Studies zombies.” More silly psychology. Since they have no idea what they are talking about, they can impute anything and add “apparently.” This is akin to: When did you stop beating your wife? Murthy/Schneider know nothing of my politics; those that do will find this utterly risible. “Because Fogel misrecognizes these zombies, his review of our book reveals that he is either not able or not willing to engage carefully with the core themes of the volume.” Gee, I must have got the wrong zombies. More importantly, as I noted in my review, there are no core themes in their volume, except the claim that the title theoretically makes. The essays are a hodge-podge, most of them poorly written and completely unedited.
I’m given a few points because I mentioned Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man at the end of my review: “By invoking Marcuse, Fogel shows that he is at least aware of new interpretations of Marxism.” Marcuse died thirty-six years ago, so how is this “new”; and Marcuse’s relationship with classical Marxism was shaky at best. Everyone of my generation read everything he wrote that we could get our hands on, but ultimately I also think that many of us saw that it was time to move on from these DWMs of Central and Eastern Europe and later the Boul Mich. But, how can I have enthusiastically read Marcuse and been so dismissive of the return of the undead Marxism? Because, they claim, I can’t possibly have understood what I read. So, that would mean that I’m just plain dumb.
One Dimensional Man is one of the few books I have actually read twice. I’m sure Murthy was not even born when I first read it. My attention to the shortcomings of Murthy’s own essay was not because I’m fixated on zombies or zombie Marxism. I honestly believe that zombies do not exist in the real world, really, just as I believe that Marxism’s day in the sun has passed. Whatever critical capacity it may once have afforded a serious scholar has returned now from the grave, not as a critical approach but as a series of tropes, of shibboleths, of slogans invoking the evils of capitalism (or neo-liberalism), no longer of any service to the human mind. If Murthy/Schneider want to genuflect before its idol, fine, but I believe in a radical separation of church and state. If it is a system of critical thinking, then shouldn’t it be prepared to endure criticism itself? The editors doth protest too much, methinks.
I next learn from Murthy /Schneider that I not only don’t understand Marcuse, but I really don’t understand Georg Lukács either. I questioned if a critique of capitalism, à la Lukács, had anything at all to do with Zhang Taiyan and Tan Sitong. Murthy/Schneider believe that these Chinese intellectuals’ wish to make China rich and strong necessarily ropes capitalism into the picture. But, but, didn’t Li Shimin and Zhu Yuanzhang and probably Hanfeizi, and many hundreds of others before and after them also want to make China rich and strong? Did they read Lukács? Lukács was thirteen years old when Tan Sitong was executed, and it would be two more decades before History and Class Consciousness appeared in print. Maybe Lukács is one of those figures so important in history that he influenced everyone before and after him. It has been a long time since I read the essay in question, having been so thoroughly turned off by Lukács’ subsequent resignation to Soviet Marxism and later to Stalinism and adopting in toto the Cold War model—only he was on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Murthy/Schneider might read or reread Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism, the most devastating intellectual criticism of that system of thought I, for one, have ever read. And, if Marxism could survive that evisceration, it could only be in undead form.
In fact, I would be so bold as to aver that I have read just as much or perhaps even more Marxist “theory” than either Murthy or Schneider, and I am prepared to accept that there is more than one way to understand it. But, they both believe I am so trapped by Cold War ideology that I could not understand Murthy’s essay with its Marxist framework in their volume. That’s an incredibly condescending thing to say, but (again) who cares?
As Murthy/Schneider note, I did question the citation in Murthy’s essay to Aristotle as any sort of guide to understanding the machinations of capitalism, because (and I may be wrong) Aristotle lived in an age long before capitalism spread its tentacles over the globe. Murthy/Schneider claim that, pace Lukács et al., the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle “were conditioned by the partial prevalence of commodification in ancient Athenian society.” Not to beat a dead horse, but there was certainly “partial commodification” in the age of the Phoenicians, probably even among cavemen—does that mean we can use theories of the influence of capitalism to help understand them? Is this really as ridiculous as it sounds?
When it comes to my reading of Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik’s essay on the anti-Confucius, anti-Lin Biao campaign at the end of the Cultural Revolution, my latent cold-warriorism apparently has gone too far for Murthy/Schneider. I objected to her repetitively over-intellectualizing what was clearly (from my perspective) an effort on the part of the Great Helmsman to retain control over a regime by killing off those close to him. Think of all those figures who devoted their lives to the repressive North Korean regime, only to be summarily executed shortly after Kim Jong-un came to the “throne”—among other reasons for not clapping enthusiastically enough (Jang Song Thaek) when the “supreme leader” entered a room. I was a bit frustrated by Weigelin-Schwiedrzik’s not saying what was the obvious conclusion—in so many words—to her essay. I’m told that I didn’t take the “intellectual discourse of the 1970s” seriously enough, but was there any intellectual substance to it? My point was, obviously, that there wasn’t. If this campaign had anything to do with “history and time,” if it offers us anything intelligent that complicates our conception of those ideas, it’s entirely in the mind of the author. I saw her effort to look at linear time vs. circular time—I just thought it was nonsensical in the context of 1970s China.
Time now for a brief respite in this rebuttal, as we look at how a group of four Englishmen assessed the issue of linear time roughly fifty years ago:
I think I really got under Murthy/Schneider’s skin with my remarks about Naoki Sakai’s essay. Good for me! I stated that his essay was—sadly, this is not the first time—incomprehensible. Many fellow scholars who are not sympathetic to “theory” claim that it is beyond them, that they just don’t understand what those people who are under its spell are saying. I take a different tack. I don’t think many of the purveyors of “theory”—not all by any means, just the majority—have any idea themselves about what they are trying to say, except something vaguely political. So, Murthy/Schneider respond that Sakai is really “theoretically sophisticated” and I suppose that makes me an ignorant Luddite. I’m also condemned for being “condescending and partly insulting.” Being “partly insulting” is like being partly pregnant. It’s fully insulting. I found Sakai’s essay insulting—horribly written and largely unintelligible—and I just responded in kind. They use a variety of negative adjectives to describe my motivations—ultimately, it’s because I can’t think theoretically and am trapped in a Cold Warrior’s body—and sum it up with a Latin phrase. Gentlemen, dropping a six-bit Latin phrase is not an argument; it’s a retreat from argument. “The Romans had a saying…”—what does that have to with anything? I could have written a narcotic review, a 600-word sleeper that would quickly be forgotten like so many others I and others have written, but this book was so profoundly annoying and so typified the sloppy, unthinking direction of much that passes as scholarship that I felt I had to write something a bit more engagé.
In defense of Sakai, Murthy/Schneider claim that his “path-breaking” work shows that prewar Japanese thinkers were influenced by European modes of thought. Yes, and 2 + 2 = 4. Who would ever deny it? I’ve read plenty of Maruyama and Ienaga, in Japanese and in translation, and met Maruyama several times. I think Maruyama often thought in German categories; he often summed up a Japanese thought, such as in his work on Neo-Confucianism, with a German term. If this is the extent of Sakai’s contribution, then it’s simply stating the obvious. Believe me, I tried to “seriously engage” with his essay. It is gibberish masquerading as profundity. But, apparently, I am so foolish and so unwilling to “engage” with the “philosophical complexity” of Maruyama, Ienaga, or Sakai that I am left to making “embarrassing comments.” Dear readers, there is a world of difference between engaging with Maruyama and Ienaga on the one hand and with Sakai on the other. The former two were utterly brilliant scholars. I published, as editor, several essays by Maruyama in translation in the journal I edit, Sino-Japanese Studies, and was thus forced to confront the great difficulties of his writing. I may be wrong but seriously doubt if Murthy/Schneider ever have. Sakai, I’m sure, has, but if he has some ideas to convey, he has as yet not figured out a way to say it clearly. In his review of an earlier work by Sakai, cited above, Herman Ooms casts doubt on all this, too.
When I expressed bewilderment at what Sakai was trying to say, and then wrote “your guess is as good as mine,” Murthy/Schneider concoct an elaborate conspiracy whereby I am trying to lure you, readers, into my frustration. But, they’re wrong once again. I really didn’t understand the phrase in question—“The second problematic is that of the negativity in terms of which they articulated the issues of subjectivity to the formation of historicist consciousness”–and was asking readers to figure it out for themselves. If this sentence is transparently clear, then I must be ignorant. But, when they go on to suggest that I don’t know the meaning of “negativity,” they are not only wrong, but they are insulting. But, who cares? It was my sense that Sakai completely misread Maruyama and Ienaga. Is that not allowed? If, as Murthy/Schneider claim, Sakai was trying to argue that “neither Ienaga nor Maruyama could avoid the pitfalls of positivist essentialism.” We never learn what those pitfalls are or why they’re pitfalls—nor for that matter why “essentialist positivism” (or “positivist essentialism”) is so evil. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “Prof. Sakai [and Murthy and Schneider], you’re no Maruyama Masao or Ienaga Saburō.”
Let’s deal with this issue of “essentialism” right now. I fearlessly leapt to the conclusion that Schneider might know German much better than Sakai or Murthy, because he is a native speaker. I never said that “only native German speakers know German,” nor that they “have direct insight into German philosophical terms.” In fact, the more I ponder their response, the more I’m beginning to doubt that Schneider, despite his native German, understands what he is talking about. Among those I count as friends, I have known plenty of extraordinary scholars who are not native German speakers and who have written brilliantly about modern German history: Martin Jay, Harold Marcuse (grandson of Herbert) with whom I taught for over a decade, Albert Lindemann, and many, many more. Then, in italics no less: The zombie of essentialism strikes again. This is clearly meant to be a damaging body blow, but we still have not been told what the problem with essentialism is: where’s the beef?
They Murthy/Schneider claim that I committed the same essentialist crime with respect to Sun Ge. She and Nakajima Takahiro each wrote essays on the idiosyncratic Japanese scholar and critic, Takeuchi Yoshimi. I thought her essay was basically a waste of everyone’s time, not least the translator (Murthy) who provided a stunning mess of an article; the piece is so bad, I mercifully hinted that maybe she just didn’t understand what she was reading. I am prepared to bet that Nakajima’s article never came within ten miles of a red pen. No Anglophone editor could possibly have passed on it—is that essentialist of me to say? But, again in my typically merciful manner, I suggested that at least we cannot blame the gibberish of his essay on an inability to read his native language. I never claimed that Nakajima understood Takeuchi better than Sun because he was Japanese and she not. That Sun has written extensively, we learn, on Takeuchi is certainly very interesting, but it doesn’t change her essay in their book. Perhaps, if Murthy/Schneider had written an introduction worthy of the name, they could have explained the place of this essay in her larger corpus of work on Takeuchi.
But, wait, there’s more, for next they claim that I don’t understand Takeuchi—and here they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. I have been using Takeuchi’s work on Sino-Japanese cultural relations, his biography of Lu Xun, and his autobiographical writings since the 1970s. The reason it is “difficult for Fogel to understand the content of Sun Ge’s essay” is because Sun Ge’s essay is a mess. “The fault lies not in the stars.” Associating Takeuchi with the right wing, calling him a fascist as some “scholars” have in China is inane. I don’t care if dubbing him a fascist strikes some as a viable conclusion. My view is that it’s simply nuts.
A few final thoughts and questions. I am lambasted throughout their rejoinder for clinging to area studies, but did not the editors of this book limit the topics within to China and Japan? Seems a little disingenuous. Does the rejection of one’s views as an outmoded system of thought—namely, Marxism—necessarily mean that one is a CIA dupe? As noted above and spelled out in my original review, the zombie metaphor was beautifully drawn by Haiyan Lee in her critique of state socialism and the horrors visited on ordinary Chinese people. I thought it brilliant and adopted it as a way of criticizing the fact that Marxism refuses to die, despite the cataclysmic horrors it has caused nearly half the world’s population. Apparently, it will take a silver bullet to finish the job. Finally, Murthy/Schneider never tell us what they mean by “theory.” They suggest that it meant postmodernism in the 1990s and means Marxism now, but that is hardly the whole show—not by a long shot. I have long been attracted to the work of Jürgen Habermas, especially in this context The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, which provides the most thoroughgoing evisceration of post-structuralist thought I have seen anywhere. Despite the fact that Habermas still thinks of himself in a Marxist lineage, neither The Philosophical Discourse nor anything else by Habermas is mentioned in Murthy/Schneider’s book. Perhaps the authors were unfamiliar with his work; more likely they cannot stomach his impatience with the drivel that passes for Marxist theory in China. Same goes for Leszek Kołakowski whose work I have long admired greatly. In the final volume of his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism, he remarks that Mao’s thought is so puerile as theory that, in comparison with even such an inept thinker as Stalin, the Soviet mass murderer comes off as an intellectual titan. Seems to have been some theoretically cherry-picking going on in the Murthy-Schneider book.
In their final sentence, Murthy/Schneider “look forward to further dialogue about our volume.” I hope the foregoing fits the bill.
 R.D.Laing, The Divided Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 39.
 See, for example, Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and the Mystic East (New York: Routledge, 1999); Andrew Scull, “Scholarship of Fools. The frail Foundations of Foucault’s Monument,” The Time Literary Supplement (March 23, 2007), pp. 3‐4.
 Herman Ooms, no stranger to theory himself, has written the most thorough-going critique of Sakai’s work of which I am aware—and with a fine dose of humor to boot: “Tokugawa Texts as a Playground for a Postmodern Romp,” Journal of Japanese Studies 22.2 (Summer 1996), pp. 385-400. This is a review of Sakai’s book, Voices of the Past: The Status of Language in Eighteenth-Century Japanese Discourse.