Friday, February 02, 2007

Questions to Accompany a Reading of Chapter Four of Nick's Book, #1

Hello. Couscous Kid here. I've been silent on this site, ever since I overdosed on Paul Berman's book last Easter. On the whole, though, I think I am a bit more temperamentally suited to dealing with books rather than with newspaper columns, and that may be why I really haven't contributed much to a site that concentrates on newspaper columns. Anyway: time to break the silence.

Now, I don’t think any of us Aaro Watchers (incorporating Nick Cohen Watch, though probably not for much longer) can bear to do a full-scale review of What's Left? It’s too depressing, and, anyway, most of what we would say we’ve probably already said in these pages over the last couple of years. Anyway, Nick says we’re all concentrating too much on the bit that was serialised in the Observer, and that we should pay attention to the rest of his very serious book. So in that spirit I thought I'd generate a few questions for you to think about, to accompany your reading of Chapter Four, pp.92-126, which isn't on the anti-war movement at all.

Q1. Nick doesn’t like Perry Anderson, and refers to him as an “Old Etonian” [p.93]. Nick doesn’t like Douglas Hurd, either, and calls him an “Old Etonian” a bit later, too [p.140]. Why do you think he doesn’t tell us where George Orwell went to school elsewhere in the book? (For example on p.246, where you might also want to ask yourself why he calls the Information Research Department the Information Research Bureau, or indeed why a writer interested in the politics of anti-semitism chooses to remain silent about the annotations to Orwell’s famous list which identified which of the names on it were, in his opinion, Jewish?)

Q2. Thinking of Perry Anderson, do you think this article is accurately characterised as “a piercing howl of regret for the lost world of his youth” [p.93]?

Q3. Why do you think Nick describes the Bad Writing Contest as having started in 1996 [p.99], and having awarded its prize to Judith Butler in 1999 [p.100], when the correct dates are 1995 and 1998 respectively?

Q4. Why do you think Nick calls Judith Butler a “Marxist and feminist” [p.100], when she isn’t a Marxist? [See also p.110, where she is a “Marxist-feminist.”]

Q5. Given that the sentence of Judith Butler's writing that Nick reproduces on p.100, has, on closer inspection, a relatively simple structure – “The move from A to B brought C into D, and marked a shift from E to [a form of theory] in which F inaugurate[s] G” – where A through G are all tolerably comprehensible notions for anyone who’s studied a bit of recent social theory - do you think that this passage – of all the passages in contemporary Humanities scholarship that one might single out for attention – really deserved to win a “Bad Writing Contest”?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you think Nick calls Judith Butler a “Marxist and feminist” [p.100], when she isn’t a Marxist?

I suspoect that what we have here in not fully digested form is that famous right wing trope, the "cultural marxist"...a seal of Dacre no less.

Once more, the Frankfurt School - apparently a very big school - is opposed in the name of robust common sense.

2/02/2007 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Marc Mulholland said...

Nick's 'translation' of passage by Azfar Hussain into 'common bloke' speak (a passage itself, confusingly, reviewing a book by Uma Narayan) was pretty shabby. Nick's translation ends with 'It is racist to oppose sexists'. There is no warrant for this at all in the Hussain passage, which in fact is pretty straight-forward. (Original passage, p. 102, cod-translation, p. 104).

It's doubly appropriate for Couscous the book-reviewer to address Nick's book, because What's Left itself is basically a string of book reviews - to put it charitably - strung together: Ferdinand Mount, John Carey, Geoffrey Whatecroft etc etc. Some of the cribbing is pretty outrageous.

2/02/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely the translation of p102 is quite simply "An awful lot of US feminists appear to have assumed that Indian dowry-murders are an intrinsic part of Indian culture and therefore justify a generalised attack on that culture. Actually they should be seen as normal domestic violence, and if the US feminists weren't inclined to swallow a whole lot of racist stereotypes more or less uncritically, they'd have seen this"

My answers to the questions would be:

1. Nick has never really had all that much of a hard-on for Orwell in the way that Hitchens and Aaro have, he doesn't really care apart from mining for a couple of quotes.

2. No. I suspect the problem is that Nick is relying on secondary or tertiary sources.

3. Almost certainly because these were the dates of the secondary sources where he read about it.

4. Because he's relying on secondary sources.

5. Because he's relying on secondary sources.

2/02/2007 11:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funnily enough I read a bit of chapter 4 just last night and, though the structure of the Butler extract could probably be improved, it was actually perfectly understandable so long as one knew the meaning of all the words she used.

2/02/2007 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Q 5: Honestly? Kind of.

2/02/2007 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Calling Butler a marxist is just pure laziness. All he had to do was read her essay 'Merely Cultural?' I have no intention of reading his book, but it sounds like in this chapter he's seriously out of his depth, and just rehashing all the usual middlebrow shit that gets written about continental theory - he's obviously read Francis Wheen's book, and that's about it.
This blog has definitely stepped up a gear with these detailed engagements - keep it up!

2/02/2007 06:29:00 PM  
Blogger splinteredsunrise said...

Once more, the Frankfurt School - apparently a very big school - is opposed in the name of robust common sense.

It's a seal of Dacre in the very literal sense. From the Mail on Sunday, 19/6/05, clock this:

The Tories have failed in all these things because they have neither an ideology nor an instinct. They measure success by the length of time they spend in office, not by what they have done while they were there. Once, being a disposition rather than a movement might have sufficed. But in these revolutionary times, faced with opponents wholly committed to political correctness (or Frankfurt School Marxism, to give it its more serious and frightening name), it is not enough.

Who wrote this? Nick Cohen? No, Peter Hitchens.

It's especially nice that a couple of lines down Bonkers Pete comes out with:

They cannot even understand patriotism properly. It was clearly never in British interests to join the American invasion of Iraq. The bitterest opponents of this adventure have been traditional conservative types. Yet, precisely because it is not instinctively patriotic, the Tory Party grasped at the war as an attempt to prove that it still loves the country it sold to Brussels in 1972.

So I would guess that, on Planet Nick, Hitchens Minor never left the SWP, cheered Slobo to the rafters and is now an apologist for Islamofascism.

What's left? Apparently Bonkers Pete is to the left of Nick these days.

2/02/2007 06:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The standard (if unacknowledged) reference point for the decent left on continental philosophy seems to be the Sokal book. It seemed to be the only thing that Francis Wheen had read for example.

Mind you, Judith Butler is a terrible writer.

2/02/2007 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In whose world is the Stalinoid phrase "political correctness" less frightening than "Frankfurt School Marxism"?v

2/03/2007 12:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just noticed the following on pp. 106-107:

"You have to judge people by the burden of proof they present: the burden of proof they offer by way of explanation. If they say 'of course I oppose the burning of women/the "enormities" of communism/Saddam Hussein/Guantanamo Bay', and then spend the rest of their time in passionate polemics against feminists, democracy, the American invasion of Iraq or the gullibility of critics of the US administration, you can reasonably doubt the strength of their opposition and convict them of rhetorical throat-clearing."

Leaving aside points 1-3 and focusing on point 4: 'If they say I oppose Guantanamo Bay, and then spend the rest of their time in passionate polemics against the gullibility of critics of the US administration, you can reasonably doubt the strength of their opposition and convict them of rhetorical throat-clearing.'

Doesn't this refer pretty much exactly to the penultimate paragraph of the 'elaborations' section of the Euston manifesto, the one criticising Guantanamo Bay before more vehemently attacking those who compared Guantanamo to the Gulag?

There are odd bits like this peppered through the book (well, the chapters I've read of it). While there's no doubt 95% of its content is thoroughly Decent, there seems to be a remnant of Indecent Cohen trying to escape.

2/03/2007 02:46:00 AM  
Blogger splinteredsunrise said...

I liked the Sokal book. But it's important to remember what Sokal says in his intro - he isn't attacking French philosophy, just trying to point out some trendy absurdities and so save French philosophy from itself.

Wheen OTOH takes the line that modern French thought (or any French thought?) is ipso facto bunk. This ties in with the underlying thesis of Mumbo-Jumbo that the punters are stupid and will buy any old tosh. For instance, Emma Brockes will buy Wheen's critique of Chomsky, which to a big extent relies on claims debunked by the Dude 20+ years ago.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if, as opposed to misrepresenting him, Nick honestly doesn't understand Baudrillard. Even Alex Callinicos doesn't, and Alex is a very clever man. Had him in the back of my cab once...

2/03/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well regardless of what Sokal's intentions were, he didn't understand at least two of the thinkers he was criticising (Latour and Foucault). Ophelia Benson's book (On Truth) has the same problem, incidentally.

Wheen's book was unbelievably stupid.

2/03/2007 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bet Nick Cohen hates Sokal and Bricmont's politics...

I like Francis Wheen, I must say. Hooh Hahs and Passing Frenzies and Karl Marx are both well worth reading.

2/03/2007 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Me, I don't understand Alex Callinicos. I've got Making History and if I ever get as far as page five I'll make a little history of my own.

2/04/2007 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Actually, though, isn't the assault on Baudrillard et al all about Reality? If we say that we doubt that Reality can always be known, we come into conflict with the Decents' image of themselves, which is that certain things (enlightenment and democratic values) must always be defended in all places and that this must always be said without qualification. One view is plain common sense, the other involves smoke and mirrors. Something like that, no?

2/04/2007 08:48:00 AM  

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