disingenuous men write disingenuous reviews

Alternative title: a too-long angry rant about how people (or the editors of people) with easily identifiable bugs in their bums when they write mean reviews should identify said bugs when they publish said reviews

I got an email today from Shakha forwarding me a link to this review in Dissent by Russell Jacoby of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. The review is really mean-spirited. It includes, for a example, a random bit of snark about Erik’s wife, ostensibly justified because EOW thanks her for suggesting he use the word “interstitial” — a word RJ condemns as obscurantist.

I’m not writing this post, though, (just) because the review is mean spirited. I recognize that mean-spiritedness is part of the game. EOW is well-established, he’s been attacked before, and can certainly handle it. And I’m certainly not writing this (at all) because the review is negative. Negative reviews are even more a part of the game (de gustibus and all that; read the book and see what you think for yourself). I’m writing to defend EOW from the rank disingenuousness of Jacoby’s review, which I think is so far beyond the pale as to be unethical.

I’ll start by doing what Jacoby doesn’t do. I’ll make clear, honestly, where I am coming from. I know Erik, and I like Erik quite a lot. He was one of my advisors, and I felt like he performed that task not just well but kindly. I did like his book, but I’m also not a Marxist and have no dog, pony, or horse in the internecine fights entailed by that particular identity. I place myself on the left, and though the label itself is not a huge part of my identity, I do find “our” propensity to play “lefter-than-thou” as though it had deep moral stakes to be really tiresome. And, like I said, I have no problem, per se, with mean or with snark. While EOW is never mean and while I try not to cast the first stone, I have no problem throwing the second and the third — and I do so in what follows.

Anyway, on to my point. Jacoby leads his review by suggesting that he came to the book hopeful. He thought a book on “utopias by a Marxist sociologist [seemed] promising, perhaps even courageous.” He thought it seemed more promising still because “Everything suggests Wright has the talent to pull it off.” EOW is, “after all … no old-school Marxist crank or outsider.”

Alas, the hopes of poor Prof. Jacoby were soon dashed. This poor aging leftist was startled (startled!!) by a book that is “startling and depressing evidence of what has happened to American academic Marxism, at least its sociological variant, over the last thirty years.” And on he goes. He writes that Wright has not produced ideas, that Wright has not written these not-ideas in English, and, perhaps worst of all, Wright “seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives.” Indeed, “Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it.”

Prof. Jacoby snarks that Wright “has read all of his [own] works and finds them remarkable.” Clever. My riposte: If Prof. Jacoby was in fact “startled” by what EOW wrote, then Prof. Jacoby has either not read all of his own works, or has perhaps found them unremarkable (which, I concede, I understand).

He might have mentioned, oh, that he’s been going after the “new left” (including EOW), with exactly the sort of attack he makes on Envisioning Real Utopias, for at least a good quarter century. In The Last Intellectuals (Basic Books 1987: p. 187), Jacoby finds it “perhaps … laudable” that Wright (1978) “wishes to ‘engage in debate with mainstream social theory.” And yet, poor Prof. Jacoby lamented then, EOW 1978 ultimately failed because his “theoretical preconditions derive from the French Brand … in which vapid definitions and pronouncements decorate occasional examples and baroque diagrams.”

Prof. Jacoby, from his own positions at UCLA and similarly high-profile places, has made many a broadside against those left intellectuals from the 1960s who ensconced themselves with tenure in the academy and — unlike the Startlingly Startled Prof. Jacoby — have turned inward and gotten self-referential (and remembered their own work). He has also written his own book about real utopias, er, pictures imperfect — which, unlike EOW’s book, does cover the history of Utopian thought (and which does give attention to a Kibbutz movement, that, btw, is now oh-so-utopianishly encouraging demobilized soldiers to “settle” in the occupied territories; I’ll prefer EOW’s Mondragon and its problematic expansion into the supermarket business, thank you very much).

Perhaps Prof. Jacoby just thinks such (self-referential?) disclosures are unnecessary. No need to mention that he’s a near lifelong antagonist of the author he is reviewing. Perhaps he thinks he is so famous that everyone who might read Dissent knows just who the Startlingly Startled Prof. Jacoby is and where he is really coming from. No need to mention that he wrote a book that might be a competitor — he can just complain that EOW didn’t do what he did, while not mentioning that he did it. After all, Jacoby’s book is no competitor; it’s in a different class. It’s not turgid, not inward looking, (and, despite its self-proclaimed accessibility, not a best-seller). The only real risk is that it might be *thought* a competitor, and a reader of Dissent, mystified by titles, might buy the wrong book instead!

Prof. Jacoby, after all, is the last left intellectual, his motives are pure and in his “about the author,” he need only list his forthcoming book (which I’ll kindly advertise for him as well).

3 thoughts on “disingenuous men write disingenuous reviews”

  1. I had a basement seminar with Russell on the Frankfurt School when he was visiting at UCSD. He is generally visiting, and although the letterheads are impressive I suspect he generally teaches in the basement. In short, he’s made a relatively good career out of hustling, which is not conducive to measure and nuance. So all of this rings true. But in a distracted, hired-gun kind of way I did find him thoughtful, even kind. I suspect he doesn’t think of himself as having the weight to do much damage to a guy like EOW.


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