Criticism and critique: On academic books

I have grown increasingly annoyed at a prevelant tendency in my corner of academia: judging a book by its promises rather than its achievement. The phenomenon jumped out at me most forcefully with Zizek and Milbank’s Monstrosity of Christ — people were so excited by the very idea of the debate between the two that they ignored the fact that the book itself was a poorly-edited, virtually unreadable monstrosity. Indeed, they ignored the fact that the debate was very obviously a missed encounter. No, no — this book was an exciting, field-changing work! Let me tell you about how I imagine such a debate playing out and how important that would be….

One can see a similar phenomenon in the reception of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory. Either Agamben has demonstrated the theological roots of economy, full stop (and isn’t that exciting, because it shows how important theology is!) — or else Agamben must be wrong because he’s addressing the economy in a non-Marxist way. The response is almost completely extrinsic. Meanwhile, there are very serious questions to ask about the book as book. The structure is disjointed and very difficult to discern. The framing around the Schmitt-Peterson debate is questionable for a lot of reasons. Etc., etc. I would never consider assigning the book in a class, except perhaps a very advanced graduate seminar, because there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to get a handle on what Agamben is even trying to do, much less figure out whether he’s actually done it and where he might have gone wrong.

A final example: David Graeber’s Debt. It’s a really interesting book, but its popularity seems to be determined by extrinsic factors: debt is a very important political issue currently, and Graeber is a left-wing political activist who helped to spur the Occupy movement. The good thing about it is its sheer existence as a left-wing book about debt. What about the book itself? Oh come on, don’t be nit-picky.

I’m not saying that extrinsic factors are unimportant or that it’s even possible to judge books purely “on their own merits.” Yet it seems that in academia, we very seldom judge books as books. They’re vehicles for a thought-provoking idea, or examples of a methodology we like or don’t, or have political consequences we like or don’t. The book itself — the artifact that results from laborious cobbling-together of concepts, evidence, and arguments — somehow gets lost.

A conservative critic might say that this shows how academia is lost in postmodern relativistic identity politics or something, but I’m more worried about the aesthetic implications. Perhaps we’re inattentive to books as books because we’re inattentive to the craft of writing — and so, I might venture to say, to the craft of reading as well. We want to skip past the disposable husk of the text to get at the ideas and presuppositions and politics. And that’s a strange attitude to find coming from my corner of academia, where we’re so often accused of producing nothing but endless commentaries on texts.

8 Responses to “Criticism and critique: On academic books”

  1. anonymous grad Says:

    This could be in part the result of people feeling the need to weigh in in books to show that they know what’s going on, without actually taking the time to read them carefully. But that’s cynical.

  2. j. Says:

    we want to be freed of the burden of having to read our contemporaries as if they merited as much care as our predecessors.

  3. Evan Says:

    The Habermas-Ratzinger volume is another one.

  4. Charles R Says:

    Perhaps writing a book in a philosophical setting takes thinking of the argument as having the narrative arc of a five season television show, complete with main characters each with thematic leitmotifs and color associations, characters who grow into nuanced positions after major events in progressing through their inferences, recurring secondary characters who act as comedic or ironic commentary, out-of-character jokes and easter egg references, dramatic locales, and cliffhangers between major chapters.

  5. stuartelden Says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    An interesting post on how books are received for their promise rather than read and appreciated, with some good examples.

  6. Clint Burnham (@Prof_Clinty) Says:

    this may be accurate (misprisions of MoC, Agamben, Graeber), but presumes a certain modality of reading. Skimming, parsing, not-reading (muslims not having read Satanic Verses – but who of us has read Ayn Rand, except SZ?), are all forms of reading. Reading YouTube comments on a lecture – making those comments – surely is a form of textual/performative activity. When Althusser said (accurately or just depressed) that he hadn’t read much/enough of Marx (in his memoir), George Steiner jumped down his throat- of course.


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