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Dec 01 2011

So he didn’t like the book then?

How to write an academic review: Cartmill on Haraway. It’s a fine lesson on scholarly knife-fighting, and I think I’ll have to use it as an example next time I teach our scientific writing course.

(Also on Sb)

30 comments

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  1. 1
    Hungry Heathen

    Nice. I’ve felt compelled to write several journal reviews in a similar tone, or, as similar as possible for a mathematical paper.

    One I had to unleash that I was recently reminded of was: “A funny thing happens when you take a change-of-variables that other authors have used and give it a new name – it tens to retain the same properties.”

  2. 2
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops;

    bwwwhahahahaa

  3. 3
    a different phil

    Ow.

  4. 4
    Mara

    ::snerk:: Cartmill is also the man who once said “As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life—so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.”

    I’ve always admired Matt Cartmill and this review only cements that fact.

  5. 5
    Luc

    I take it the guy who wrote the review is a political conservative who doesn’t like a lot of embarrassing biases from macho culture getting in the way of research then?

    If Donna Haraway writes about how language and tradition color research, it deserves mockery; if a decade later Frans de Waal says the same thing, then it deserves press releases and thorough praise.

  6. 6
    shouldbeworking

    Ouch. I wish I could write like that. The reviewer ranks up there with the best put down artists such Churchill, and Mark Twain. My favorite part ” bumps accidentally into its index”.

  7. 7
    Luc

    ^ I meant to write “who doesn’t like to know of a lot of embarrassing…” etc

  8. 8
    Sastra

    The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

    Not a bad approach for pseudoscience in general, I think, since the rational or scientific veneer is just used as ornament for profoundly flawed fundamental assumptions.

  9. 9
    Nick Gotts

    I take it the guy who wrote the review is a political conservative who doesn’t like a lot of embarrassing biases from macho culture getting in the way of research then? – lucmoreno

    No idea. But as a socialist for the past 43 years, and a feminist at least as far as I can overcome the prejudices a sexist society has engrained in me, I once tried to read Primate Visions and gave up in disgust. It’s unmitigated pomo bilge. How denying the distinction between truth and falsehood helps either women or the poor overcome oppression has never been explained; it is, after all, objectively true that the world is run almost entirely by rich men for their own advantage.

  10. 10
    nathanieltagg

    I clicked through and read part of the review. It’s fascinating: the reviewer claims that the author believes that all writing, scientific writing included, is political in nature and only tangentially connected to an external reality. Facts support theories, which are really stories, which are really just narratives with the purpose of supporting or undermining dominating cultural factions.

    The amazing thing is that the subject is primate research. Primates – who, as I understand, primarily developed complex thought in order to deal with more complex social relationships.

    In other words, the ape that wrote the book believes that all apes do things only for social reasons, because that’s the only thing apes do.

    It’s so twisted, I can’t even express how twisted it its.

  11. 11
    stwriley

    I clicked through and read the whole review too. I’ll say for those who can’t that the intro is the mild part.

    What Dr. Cartmill really calls her to task on is, well… her embrace of deconstructionism as a valid way of analyzing scientific writing. It seems almost impossible that someone claiming to be a scientist would do this, but apparently Haraway did. The very ideas that you can interpret a text’s meaning better than its author (or even in opposition to its author’s intent) is one of the sillier ideas every to come out of literary criticism, but applying it beyond that to non-fiction is simply ludicrous. It makes anything else she says suspect.

    My father (an English professor for 46 years) used to tell a great story about deconstructionism. He was in Oxford, Mississippi for a conference on Faulkner’s work while Faulkner was still alive (yes, I’m that old) and the man himself was in attendance at some of the sessions. After both he and my father sat through one rather silly deconstructionist paper outlining some idea about his intent for a work (I can never recall which one, not that it matters), one of the panel asked Faulkner what he thought of the paper. Faulkner replied that while that interpretation was interesting, it really wasn’t what he’d been thinking or intending when he wrote the work. At that point one of the other panelists leapt to his feet and exclaimed “No! Your wrong!” That was when, my father said, he swore off deconstructionism forever.

  12. 12
    ibyea

    @stwriley
    When I first heard of deconstructionism, I thought it was fun but stupid. One of those things you did to troll people. Which is why I tried to do one in my AP English class. Say, do literature people subscribe to that, or is it just a minority of them?

  13. 13
    stwriley

    Yes, I’m afraid that it is still quite popular in scholarly literary circles. It even encroaches on my own field of history, where it colors the works of too many social and intellectual historians. As you can imagine, the idea that there is no objective set of facts at the base of historical analysis is about as counter-productive an idea as it is in science.

  14. 14
    victimainvictus

    All postmodernists should be invited to jump from 10th story windows. If reality is a social construct, then a trifling thing like gravity shouldn’t be a problem for them.

  15. 15
    steve oberski

    “The covers of this book are too far apart” – Ambrose Bierce.

    Shorter version of the review.

  16. 16
    Stacy

    I take it the guy who wrote the review is a political conservative who doesn’t like a lot of embarrassing biases from macho culture getting in the way of research then?

    1) Political conservatives tend to be fine with biases from macho culture.

    2) Many critics of pomo are left-liberal (Frederick Crews, for one.)

    If Donna Haraway writes about how language and tradition color research, it deserves mockery; if a decade later Frans de Waal says the same thing, then it deserves press releases and thorough praise

    1) The book is not being mocked because it says language and tradition color research. It is being mocked because it is self-contradictory, distorts and cherry-picks historical evidence, written in the prolix, deliberately obfuscatory style of the French deconstructionists, and poorly structured.*

    2) Frans de Waal doesn’t write like that^.

    * Points taken from the actual review (so far as I was able to read before I hit the paywall.)

  17. 17
    ramaus

    And christians think they are the only ones at the butt end of criticism.

  18. 18
    jt512

    I’m in the process of reading the full review. The reviewer does a great job explaining what post-modernism/deconstructionism actually is. I’m finally starting to understand what it is that post-modernists think, though I still have no idea what happened to their brains to make them think it.

  19. 19
    ChasCPeterson

    Donna J. Haraway…is currently a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, United States. Haraway has been described as a “feminist, rather loosely a neo-Marxist and a postmodernist” (Young, 172).
    She completed her Ph.D. in the Biology Department at Yale in 1970 writing a dissertation about the use of metaphor in shaping experiments in experimental biology titled Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology.
    Haraway has taught Women’s Studies and the History of Science at the University of Hawaii and Johns Hopkins University. In September 2000, Haraway was awarded the highest honor given by the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), the J. D. Bernal Award, for lifetime contributions to the field. Haraway has also lectured in feminist theory and techno-science at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

    yeah, not a scientist, then.
    In fact, as the full review points out, she is “hostile and contemptuous” “to the scientific enterprise in general.” Nice attitude for a historian of science (or, for that matter, consciousness).
    And she taught Women’s Studies. I’m sure none of her hostility and contempt for science rubbed off on her pupils of feminist theory.

    bah

  20. 20
    tyroneslothrop

    Funny review. Not terribly useful and certainly not terribly accurate about Haraway. Some of the review could be recycled for a review of Pinker’s latest garbage (“systematically distorts and selects historical evidence”), but in Haraway’s defense, at least she only “clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops.” Pinker’s pseudoscience nonsense (Better Angels) rambles around–painfully–for much longer. At least Haraway was honest about her project; Pinker less so.

  21. 21
    itinerant

    Worth reading the whole review, here:
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/993887380658p195/

    Note that it doesn’t slam the book entirely, and identifies some portions as well worth the cost, but does critique postmodern approaches to science, and the rather poetic approach to making connections, without testing if these connections are mere story-telling. Great first paragraph, but an even better review. (and 4 citations for the review, which is unusually high).

  22. 22
    csrster

    A very good review, written 20 years ago near the high-water-mark of pomo-idiocy. There are many good things to say about Cartmill’s review, including his charitableness about some
    of the better moments in Haraway’s book, but what struck me most were his concluding remarks about the dangers of Haraway’s thesis being adopted by precisely those she identifies as the enemy – the heteronormative white-male imperialist hegemony. I don’t think things are quite as bad as that, but it’s also not so far from Haraway’s epistemological relativism to “teach the controversy”.

  23. 23
    octopod

    Hm. I’ve got other stuff to read so I didn’t read the whole thing yet, but based on the first two pages my reaction is to get my back up and defend deconstructionism…admittedly I may have been conditioned into this by too many years of speaking with people whose only reference point for literary criticism at all was the Sokal hoax, but so far I don’t think it’s particularly effective. Pretty, yes, but not effective, unless the intended effect was to convince me the author of the review is a pretentious George-Will-style ass.

  24. 24
    jimbobboy

    No, no, octopod — do go and read the whole thing. Cartmill despises the book for a host of reasons, it is true, but he explains those reasons candidly. In my view, he argues in good faith, and not from reaction, throughout the piece. Indeed, he is most generous to Haraway when she points out the failings of primatology as a profession, and his criticism is sharpest when he takes Haraway to task for failing to understand her subjects in context:

    There are real insights and intermittent flashes of brilliance scattered through this book, and all primatologists will benefit from reading it and getting their preconceptions shaken up. Haraway’s challenging analyses of the social, political, and empirical factors that have induced and guided the growth of feminist ideas in contemporary primatology are worth the modest price of the book all by themselves. But the book’s virtues are outweighed by the faults that arise from Haraway’s postmodernist epistemology. The worst of these faults is her refusal ever to deal with the past on its own terms, to give an account of people’s actions in terms of their own ideas and intentions. Because she is not really interested in the thought of the past, but only in poking holes in it to reveal the scandalous Thing lurking within, she does not hesitate to caricature it into unintelligibility, leaving out vast sectors of the primatological tradition and distorting others to make them fit her picture. This approach may be appropriate for Haraway, who believes that reality is an artifact constructed for political ends, but it makes it hard to take her seriously as a historian of ideas.

    The review would lose its punch if its author could be dismissed as a right-wing curmudgeon still bent out of shape over Jacques Derrida — in fact, Donna Haraway should have been so lucky. Instead, she ran afoul of an honest reviewer who uses the English language like a straight razor.

  25. 25
    davidstarner

    The very ideas that you can interpret a text’s meaning better than its author (or even in opposition to its author’s intent) is one of the sillier ideas every to come out of literary criticism

    Really? Here on Pharyngula, posters interpret other posters’ messages as being sexist all the time, over the objections of the authors. Authors can lie to the world about a text’s meaning, can lie to themselves about a text’s meaning, forget the text’s meaning (especially for literary works being discussed decades later), or can simply not have the self-realization to understand why they wrote what they wrote.

    I’ve written things that didn’t say what I intended them to say. What a message means to its readers is often as important if not more important as what the author meant by it. Looking at Isaiah, Romeo and Juliet, or Twilight through their author’s eyes can be interesting, but limiting. The people for whom Isaiah is an important work do not see it through the eyes of the Jewish authors of 2500 years ago; modern Christian interpretations would be incoherent to those authors. To understand what Isaiah means to people nowadays requires putting aside what the authors meant by it. Twilight is a less dramatic case, but I’m much more interested in what the readers are seeing in the book that makes them so interested and how they are responding to the text then by what the author meant by the book.

  26. 26
    mikecoutu

    Davidstarner points out the obvious.

    So many critics of “pomo” sound like Creationists criticizing Evolution. It’s remarkable to me how people who are otherwise so careful in their thinking are willing to criticize a significant slice of contemporary philosophy without actually, you know, reading any of it.

  27. 27
    Nick Gotts

    It’s remarkable to me how people who are otherwise so careful in their thinking are willing to criticize a significant slice of contemporary philosophy without actually, you know, reading any of it. – mikecoutu

    I have made several attempts, inclucing Haraway’s book, and on each occasion have concluded that whatever insights are there, are too deeply buried in in-group jargon, and a multitude of references to a self-contained postmodernist literature, to be worth the effort. Much postmodernist work appears to be deliberately obscure and convoluted. Here, from someone who appears reasonably friendly to postmodernism, is an analysis of why it has failed and largely vanished in a specific discipline, medical sociology. I suspect much the same could be said of many other disciplines.

  28. 28
    mikecoutu

    KG, the author of the article you linked to cites another writer:

    Powell (1998, pp. 6–7), in an extreme example, translated the sentence ‘The way white guys treat Third World women as sex objects is shallow and disgusting’ into its postmodern version as ‘The hegemonic (mis)representation and de/valorization of the always-already multi-(de)gendered plurivocalities and (de)centered de/constructed and dialogically problematized ludic simulacra of absent/present postcolonial female subject-positions, by hyperoticized and orientalized phallocratic and panoptic (in the Foucaultian sense) Dead-White-Male subject-position discourse, is a textually (re)inscribed praxis of pre-disseminated, (counter)subversive depthlessness.’

    In other words, Powell made shit up. Come on, at least when Creationists quote-mine, they rarely make things up wholesale.

    Yeah, philosophy is hard to read, but Christ, any math or science beyond an undergrad level is completely Greek to me. You’d sneer at me if I cited that as a reason for not beliving in evolution, right?

    There is indeed a lot of shit out there.

  29. 29
    mikecoutu

    Forgot to finish that thought: there is indeed a lot of shit out there, but that is a lousy reason for dismissing the best of a field.

  30. 30
    jimbobboy

    In my view, mikecoutu called it correctly. Here’s a quote from Powell (1998) with a bit more context:

    But wait a minute! If Post-modern thinkers have some really new ideas mapping the contours of our times, why haven’t I heard of these ideas before?

    A major reason is that Postmodernese is such a difficult language to understand-and most books on Postmodernism are written in this particularly obscure tongue.

    For instance-let’s suppose you live in the 1970s, and you want to say “The way white guys treat Third World women as sex objects is shallow and disgusting.”

    The next thing you have to do to translate it into Postmodernese is to make the sentence stop making sense. You do this by substituting mysterious Postmodern buzzwords or phrases for ordinary words that do make sense. For instance “white guys” can profitably be replaced by the phrase “phallocratic and panoptic (in the Foucaultian sense) Dead-White-Male subject-positions.” This is because, in Postmodernese, guys no longer exist. They have become “subject-positions.” The same goes for women. Therefore the phrase “Third World women” needs to be gussined up to “postcolonial female subject-positions.” The phrase “the way” could properly be rendered as “the hegemonic (misrepresentation and de/valorization of.” As you can see, Postmodernese relies upon using as many slashes and hyphens and parentheses and whatever other kinds of marks your computer can make as possible. Thus the word “shallow” should correctly be rendered as “a textually (re )inscribed praxis of pre-disseminated, (counter) subversive ‘depthlessness.’de/valorization of the alwaysalready multi-(de)/gendered plurivocalities and (de )centered de/constructed and dialogically problematized ludic simulacra of absent/present postcolonial female subject-positions, by hypereroticized and orientalized phallocratic and panoptic (in the Foucaultian sense) Dead-White-Male subject-position discourse, is a textually (re)inscribed praxis of pre-disseminated, (counter)subversive depthlessness.”


    What!!??

    And if anyone asks you what all that means, you just behold them with a gaze of infinite bewilderment. Then you look them in the eye, compassionately, and tell them that the plurivocal ambiguities of (non)meaning inherent in their question obviously subvert the possibility of your delivering to them the kind of cheap and low-down phallocratic, and logocentric patriarchal hogwallow of an answer which they are capable of understanding.

    OK; so it’s a fucking joke. Is that a problem? Probably not, but the knowledge that Powell was just goofing should color your opinion.

    And, by the way, I am still on Team Cartmill, because he seems to have taken Haraway seriously before he ripped her to shreds.

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