Sat 20 Mar 2010
About two and a half years have passed since my Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid was published by the University of Washington Press. Being an academic book, as opposed to a short-life trade paperback written for anyone who might have failed Middle School English, the reviews have come in a trickle rather than due to a publisher’s promotional media torrent the week of launch. One of the first reviews came in the TLS from Robert Irwin, one of the most qualified reviewers and an astute student of Orientalism himself. Irwin found that my book is “closely argued” and “makes for exhilarating reading,” despite the annoying (intentionally so) stream of puns. I appreciate a thorough German review by Siegfried Kohlhammer, who was kind enough to remark: “Jede Verteidigung von Orientalismus wird sich mit dieser sorgfältigen und präzisen Summa der Said-Kritik auseinandersetzen müssen.” In Common Knowledge, David Cannadine continues sweet music to an author’s ear by concluding that my book “is an important and impressively documented work, which deserves a wide audience.”
But now along comes a review that is breathtaking (I tend not to breathe when I am convulsed in laughter), however, one that I am honored to receive. The venue is telling: the Middle East Forum, which is affiliated with the websites of Campus Watch, Daniel Pipes and Islamist Watch. Were I to receive a favorable review from this forum-idable group, I could only conclude that my book was an utter failure and would be tempted to buy back all the existing unsold copies for a large Obsession-triggered book burning. I can now breathe a sigh of relief that a site defending the offensive opinions that I set out to counter has seen fit to dismiss my book as an uninformed and witless screed.
The Middle East Forum dug deep into their pool of experts for an English lecturer who appears not to have ever published anything substantively on the subject, apart from attacks on anyone who does not find terrorists and anti-Semites running wild in our academic halls. I suppose the reviewer’s stated interest in English Romantic Literature is reason enough to assign my book. Why bother finding someone who has actually studied the Orientalist texts Said critiques? I suspect the reviewer might have been desirous of reviewing the book (like Glenn Beck inviting Rep. Eric Massa) because it is billed as a critique of Said’s Orientalism. But alas, instead of throwing stones at Said because of who he is or his political views, I preferred to critically analyze the rhetoric of his text. I did indeed have no qualms at throwing rhetorical barbs in the direction of the ad hominizers of Said, especially Martin Kramer and Ibn Warraq (whose vitriolic hatred of Said spews out of their texts). This appears to be reason enough for the author to conclude that my book “attempts mightily to buoy up Said’s sinking reputation as the sage of post-colonialism.” Or is this a misspelling in the review? Did he mean “Said’s stinking reputation”? Or would it matter to the reviewer?
I do appreciate the honesty of the reviewer’s dishonest positioning as anything but a neutral observer of the issue. Consider the following: “Varisco seems convinced that he has written a very important book.” Mea culpa. Yes, I am outed at last. I actually have written a book that I think has something important to say, indeed even something new to add to the debate over Said’s work on Orientalism. I can no longer disguise the fact that I am the kind of author that likes to write books about important things. I could of course write the mundane kinds of attacks on Islam as a religion of violent terrorists that Islamist Watch is all about. I could simply dismiss Said as a supporter of terrorism and hold him responsible for just about every major problem in the Middle East since the publication of his book (oh, but then Professor Kramer has already made that argument, so I might be guilty of plagiarizing his prejudices). Still, I do take decidedly un-deconstructive criticism seriously, so I vow to someday write a book that is not important at all, that is triumphantly trivial and will be chock full of dull wit. No doubt such an unimportant book would receive high praise from this same forum.
I am chided by the reviewer for never defining what I mean by “satirical criticism.” I can only conclude that the copy of my book sent to the reviewer was badly bound and was missing p. 499 of the index where there are 20 pages of text (and 8 separate footnotes) referenced for “satire.” This poorly bound copy no doubt failed to put p. 23 in it proper place where I call on the muse of Horace to explain why I am choosing satire as “a more lighthearted approach” to serve as “an alternative iconclasm to the politics of blame.” For a reviewer who is only too ready to blame Said for just about anything, this is obviously the wrong way to be subversive of faulty rhetoric. I am grateful for the clarification provided by the reviewer that “Naturally all satire is critical, but not all criticism is satirical.” I am not sure if the reviewer considers his own review an example of satire, even in “the post-Menippean context” he cites, but if so then the first clause of his sentence is incorrect. But then, as the reviewer is quick to note, “the problem with satire is that it can go over the heads of its audience.” If indeed, this is the case, then I am truly at fault. Because my aim was not to go over the heads of those I disparage but kick them in their literary “butt” with my verbal attack. In the future I shall refrain from using words over four letters in length. The fact that the reviewer failed “to determine the butt of Reading Orientalism‘s satire” must mean that I did not kick hard enough or with pointed enough shoes on that part of the anatomy of those who delight in kicking Said simply because he is a Palestinian.
Inside the review there is a brief excursion on the lack of satirical critique in academic writing due to the proliferation of “queer theory and fecal studies.” I must admit that even with my anal compulsion to read whatever I could lay my hands on about Said’s Orientalism, I find it a bit queer on the part of the reviewer when he seems to relegate my work to the slowly emerging field of fecal studies. I was unaware that fecal studies had already been constituted, thinking it was only a loosely constructed series of fart-out ideas. Unless this is the reviewer’s own euphemism for post-colonial (which gives the colon in colonial a critical role) studies, I am not sure if the fecal material in question is only to be hurled at homosexual writers or if the reviewer considers anything written as post-modern to be a load of crap. But on to the climax of the review, the crowning blow of his critique of my work: “So where is the joke, the satire in Varisco’s ‘critical satire?’ In truth, I am not sure. It is possible that I am missing something, which would spell satirical failure due to a lack of wit on the part of the audience. The opposite could be true too, however—the fault may lie in the wit of the satirist.” Yes, it is indeed possible that the lack of wit is with me, the author. Obviously if the reviewer finds the puns and neologisms to be annoying, it must be due to the one creating them. Annoyance could not possibly be in the mind of the beholder, no matter how happy I might be as an author that a reviewer with such views is annoyed. Perhaps some in the audience lack wit as well. I did not insist in my contract that only readers with a certain IQ level be allowed to purchase my book, which indeed makes it theoretically accessible to a wider range of reviewers.
Then there is the contentious issue of truth. The reviewer is clearly annoyed at the kinds of truths both Edward Said and I write about certain kinds of exploitative power. So the reviewer provides his own power to truth trope: “The truth is that Varisco has written a defense of Saidism that he pretends (or perhaps even believes) is a critique.” Here is the kind of statement that needs no satirical retort, nor can any parody outweigh its absurdity. The only content of the book that the reviewer cites is my critique of his heroes: thus writes the reviewer, “He [meaning me as the witless author] dredges up one Mustapha Marrouchi to indict Daniel Pipes’s allegedly ‘weak scholarship.’ While he expresses praise and admiration for Rashid Khalidi and Juan Cole, there is none for Ibn Warraq or Fouad Ajami. He displays nothing but condescension for Samuel Huntington.” Let’s take these challenges one at a time, so my position is clear. Yes, I admit that I did use another person’s estimation of the “weak scholarship” of Daniel Pipes when in fact I firmly believe the same without any need for corroboration. In fact I would go beyond characterizing the work of Pipes as “weak” to “pathetically prejudicial.” I do indeed respect the work of competent historians like Rashid Khalidi and Juan Cole; in this I do not think I am alone. I offer no praise for Ibn Warraq, because there is nothing in his work to praise. Nor am I an admirer of Fouad Ajami, although I did note in my book that even Fouad Ajami found Huntington’s “crash” thesis to be wanting and wrong. As for Samuel Huntington, I will not condescend to praise an absurd thesis that only instills ethnic and religious discord without any historical merit.
As for the author of the review, I must admit no knowledge of his own scholarly research on the issue of Orientalism. But, the internet being what it is, I did find at the top of a Google search list the comments on his Rate My Professor ratings. Among the anti-accolades are the following:
“Biased, opinionated, and doesn’t know when to stop talking about random topics.”
“He is the worse professor ever. He doesn’t grade well at all.He is opinionated at everything he grades.”
“He is incredibly conservative. While he does not force his views on the class directly, he only provides one-sided, misleading material from questionable sources for you to use on essays. He went on long rants during class criticizing the Obama admin that were off topic and very unprofessional. Easy A, miserable class.”
“I found him to be incredibly intolerant. He said things that really bothered me. So-so teacher, but runs off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re working on in class.”
Since there is no “Rate My Reviewer” website that I can find, even on Google, apart from the personal privilege of one’s own blog, enough said.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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