Ode on a hatchet job

1477972_10152117333520960_2125552055_n Whether a review is nonsense doesn’t depend on whether the reviewer likes the book. After all, nobody is obligated to like anything (and some things, like academic books, are not necessarily designed to be liked). The really worthless reviews are ones where a reviewer’s ideological preoccupations and hobby horses take precedence over the reading, and you get a distorted picture of the text in the service of answering a question that was never asked. Heaven knows why, but Keith Doubt has produced such a review of my book. It is so far off the mark that I feel like I have to reply.

First thing first: the book in question is Guilt, Responsibility and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). If you want to buy it, get it from an ethical supplier – here’s one in the UK. If you want to read it without buying it, ask your library to order it. And if you want to buy it but the price is too high, tell the publisher you want a paperback edition, they are well past due.

And second thing second: I don’t like polemics. They are usually a waste of time. Mostly they are worth engaging only in the rare event that there are two people willing to exchange substantive arguments in a constructive spirit on an issue of genuine interest. In general, “the guy didn’t understand the thing he read” is not a promising motive for a polemic.

But I’m doing it anyway for a few reasons: first because the misrepresentation is fundamental, second because the misrepresenter seems determined to repeat the deed multiple times, and third because while the first effort appeared in a paywall-blocked human rights journal read primarily by lawyers this one appears in an open-access literary journal, and so there is a risk that not just lawyers but also literate people might read it. And that would be a shame, because they would get an utterly inaccurate picture of the book and what is in it.

In particular, Keith Doubt seems to want to give the impression that I am some kind of Serbian nationalist. While it is theoretically conceivable that a less accurate observation could be offered somewhere at some time, the probability of producing one that will as easily get anybody who knows the tiniest bit about me down on the floor laughing is pretty low. But whatever, if you deal with the region you get used to incessant (and contradictory) labelling by non-serious people. This stuff is not important, but substance is. So let’s get to the substance.

The first move that Doubt makes is to invent some motivations and attribute them to me. Here’s what he thinks I am trying to do: Gordy does not seek to lay a ‘guilt trip’ on the Serbian people. Indeed, he seeks the opposite. He wants to block international actors and, in general, the world, from laying ‘guilt trips’ on the Serbian people.” Never mind that this is completely inaccurate; it is also incoherent. What is a “guilt trip”? Sounds like psychobabble to me. And even if we suspend disbelief and pretend that this term describes an actual phenomenon, isn’t a “guilt trip” something experienced by individuals? How can “the Serbian people” (whatever that might be) experience one? And how can I “block international actors and, in general, the world” from doing anything? And on what planet is either “laying” or not “laying” a “guilt trip” a legitimate purpose of scholarly activity? What Doubt has done here is to posit his own ideological orientation as given, imagine I am opposed to it, and use that as a pretext to ignore the actual empirical research presented in the book.

So how does Doubt construct the imaginary world in which his critique is relevant? Like Empidocles, Doubt postulates a universe comprised of four elements. First, he asserts some completely untenable theses about two academic disciplines. Second, he pulls an illustration from the book out of its context to make it appear to be showing something entirely different from what it shows. Third, he indulges in a long, pointless digression about Socrates designed to change the subject. And finally he engages in a little bit of name-dropping where he unintentionally reveals that he knows nothing about the people whose names are being dropped or my relation to them. Let’s look at these one by one.

  1. Habemus Papam positivismi

In Doubt’s mystical universe discourse is bounded by two opposing elemental forces, which he labels “cultural anthropology” (that’s supposed to be me) and “social science” (that’s supposed to be him, but it was nicer in the original version where he called it “social sociology” – my favourite kind of sociology!). His descriptions of these bear no resemblance to the anthropology or social science (By the way, isn’t anthropology a social science? Details.) that are practiced by actual scholars. Here’s “cultural anthropology” under the shadow of Doubt:

The intellectual integrity of cultural anthropology is based largely on its commitment to cultural relativism as a principled notion. Cultural relativism is the principle from which the discipline achieves its sense of empirical objectivity. Cultural differences are cherished as just that, cultural differences. No difference is stipulated as superior or inferior, better or worse. The commitment guards against ethnocentric judgments, colonizing prejudices, and, worst of all, grand theorizing with metaphysical pretense. This ethos in the discipline of cultural anthropology guides the recent book by Eric Gordy…

Now, anthropology has a long and complex history which includes, especially in the period after 1960, an intensive and rich ongoing debate about the purpose, content and orientation of the discipline. Nowhere in this discussion does the contention that “cultural relativism” is a fundamental principle play a meaningful role. This is some fluff in Keith Doubt’s head (though I wouldn’t want to lay a guilt trip on him about it).

And what’s on the other side of the great magical divide? This is how Doubt defines “social science”:

…social science has a valid knowledge-base and ethical responsibility from which to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others and how some social structures are better for community life. Social science depicts certain normative orientations and collective sentiments as more functional for the vitality of human life and sociability.

This is pretty much nobody’s definition of social science, although it is a pretty reasonable definition of ideological authoritarianism. It goes pretty well beyond Emile Durkheim’s effort to identify “pathological” forms of social order, and that was a proposal that Durkheim made in 1893 and he moved pretty far past it pretty quickly. Moving aside from the jarring politics implicit in the proposal “to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others,” look at what is absent from the definition: theory development, empirical research, engagement with real social environments and situations. If your idea of social science is righteous posturing, it is an enormously opportune definition. If it is entering concrete places, posing questions, and assembling evidence that will help to illuminate those questions, not so much. You might as well be a “cultural relativist,” but that is just a meaningless catch phrase too.

  1. Is it nobler to suffer wrong, do wrong, or be wrong?

Right, so let’s proceed based on Doubt’s definition of “social science”: if you are not interested in theory or evidence and you have some ready-made moralistic conclusions, what’s the next step that will allow you to reach the conclusions that you have determined in advance of / instead of doing research? The problem, as Madonna has clarified, is that we are living in a material world, so you will confront evidence whether it suits you or not. The only option is to misrepresent the evidence and present it out of context. That’s what Doubt does with an illustration offered in the concluding chapter of the book.

So here is how Doubt treats the discussion of the cult cinematic product A Serbian Film:

In the last chapter, Gordy undertakes a New Yorker style analysis of a recent iconic film, a snuff film titled “A Serbian Film.” The analysis is provocative in that it intellectualizes how the virtue of the film is that it does not romanticize the victim. In recent Eastern European cinema, Gordy points out, the victim is depicted as righteous by default, simply by virtue of being a victim. The difference this film makes, according to Gordy, is that it refuses to “essentialize” the victim. When other East European films depict victims as heroes by default, the message becomes that suffering wrong is less base than doing wrong. Although suffering wrong, the soul of the victim remains undamaged; indeed, it becomes stronger, nobler.

To start, I don’t know what a “New Yorker style analysis” is, but let’s assume that, in the spirit of the magazine of the same name, it means a meticulously researched and beautifully written discussion accompanied by strikingly clever cartoons that you want to share with your family and friends. But then we get to the “How’s that again?” department. The argument that Doubt says I am making is one that is in fact made (sort of – Doubt misconstrues this one too) by the director of the film, who is hoping to reply to critics wondering why such a deliberately vulgar and brutal film was made. The film is used as one of two illustrations indicating how societies respond to undone memory work, the point being that to the degree that engagement with public memory is necessary, the absence of it will be apparent in social consequences. One of the consequences is the film in question, a narrative expression of distrust and revulsion directed toward the social environment. The other illustration in the chapter was the REKOM initiative, which expressed the hope that an engaged civil society might be able to accomplish some tasks that political leaders had avoided.

Doubt manages to miss this point completely, attributing to me a nonsensical contention that suffering evil causes victims’ souls to become stronger and nobler. This is an idea that belongs entirely to the realm of ideology and fantasy – honestly, try suffering evil and see how noble it makes your soul feel.

The hijacking and misattribution of the example serves two purposes for Doubt. First, it permits him to twist cultural critique into stereotype. The film then becomes, in Doubt’s view, an illustration of a contention that he advances but erroneously attributes to me: In the context of Serbia, the collective sentiment appears to take no offense to crime, according to Gordy.” Beyond not being “according to Gordy,” the contention is patently false, not just in the context of Serbia but in the context of pretty much any social environment in the world. Even to the degree that the producers of A Serbian Film created a cultural depiction of that sentiment, they were able to do it relying on the assumption that the sentiment did not describe the audience – it was a film designed to shock, not to entertain.

The second purpose it serves is to allow him to run with his “noble soul” conceit, and to pretend that the discourse in Serbia was about his pet theme, rather than what the evidence says it was about. So Doubt cherrypicks examples that appear to him to illustrate answers to the question “Is it better to suffer wrong or to do wrong?” There are two problems with doing this: one is that empirical evidence shows that this was absolutely not the theme around which debates in Serbia revolved. The other is that the narrow and simplistic character of the question functions to exclude both the context in which discussions took place and the genuine theoretical complexity of the issues. This is the problem with Doubtovanian “social science”: it is both impossible and unproductive to try to impose onto an environment the illusion that the issues of contention are something other than what evidence says they are.

  1. You take back that thang you said bout Aristittle Onaisis

So that is where Doubt brings Socrates on board. Hi, Socrates! Or Plato, actually. Or Gorgias, actually. In fact, none of them, but a thirdhand interpreter. Doubt glosses a little more philosophy too, including somebody he calls “Karl Jasper.” Anyway, there is a passage in the review that is quite long, horribly unclear, and of doubtful relevance. The point of it seems to be to elucidate (kind of) an exchange in Gorgias where Socrates demonstrates the utility of shame. A bunch of other stuff gets dragged in there too, including the “war on terror,” perverse American gun laws, and “American exceptionalism.” Did Socrates really talk about all those things? Of course not, but in any case, what’s the point?

The point is to elide the point. Gorgias has about as much to do with the topic at hand as Gorgeous George. Its purpose in the review is to deflect attention away from what the book is about and toward a topic that Doubt would prefer to talk about, which is apparently the valence of (in his elegant phrasing) these facts, facts that are inconvenient facts. This exquisite construction refers to political grievances that are sometimes raised by some participants in discussions over public memory from Serbia, whereby it is pointed out that non-Serbs were not the only victims of the violence of the 1990s.

The book addresses in some detail, particularly in chapters 1 and 6, strategies of comparative victimisation, tu quoque argumentation, and dilution of memory of victimisation. These are a part of the story, but they are not the whole story. As I hope to have shown in the research, it is very difficult to reduce a process taking place over time in a complex political environment characterised by visible social divisions to a few formalistic questions that have answers readymade in principle. This is why scholars do research rather than parachuting into environments equipped with prescriptive behaviour describing itself as “social science” or mining ancient philosophical and theological texts for tangentially related discussions that are posed in the abstract. If Socrates had genuinely resolved questions faced by actual contemporary living people back in classical Greece, the world would be very different indeed. And he would have been, for his own part, much better protected against hemlock.

  1. The goalie’s anxiety at the name drop

Doubt’s final effort involves dropping a few names. He rues that The works of Ivan Čolović and Radomir Konstantinović, two contemporary Serbian intellectuals and cultural critics, are neither acknowledged nor discussed,” and concludes the section with an excursus on the nobility of the souls of the human rights activists Nataša Kandić, Sonja Biserko and Staša Zajović (I don’t know why he excludes the late Biljana Kovačević-Vučo, who is also mentioned in the passage that he misrepresents, but it could just be another sign that Keith Doubt does not read very carefully). We can take the names in order. The first two are people who did not participate in the discussions that make up the empirical material in the book, and the agency of the last three (plus the phantom fourth) is obscured in Doubt’s dubious Platonic retreat.

It’s kind of ironic that Doubt should mention Ivan Čolović, who is one of my dearest friends and closest associates in Belgrade, and who is my neighbour during the times when I am doing research there. Anybody who is familiar with Ivan’s work also knows that he has since 1971 published Biblioteka XX. vek, which is universally recognised as the most distinguished series of anthropological texts (including, I’m afraid, “cultural anthroplogy”) in the region. If you go to the website of XX. vek, you will find a section in which synopses and some excerpts from recent editions are provided in English. Those are my translations. I am richly compensated for this work in free books, wine and dinners when I come to Belgrade. When I was writing on cultural conflict and nationalism in Serbia, I drew heavily on Čolović’s work, as his work concentrates heavily on those themes. He has not written a lot on the themes discussed in the current book, so I haven’t used his texts as much. If it is any consolation, his spouse Dubravka Stojanović touches on those themes a bit more, so her work is cited a bit more frequently.

As for The Terror of Culture, it is a work I know intimately well. In preparing the English language edition, Čolović relied on his usual English translator, our mutual friend Vladimir Aranđelović. For several reasons, but mostly because Vlada’s specialty was literary and not social scientific translation, I was brought in to review and revise the manuscript, particularly to assure that social-science terminology was rendered into English as it should be. As it turned out, this book was Vladimir Aranđelović’s last translation and our friend is no longer with us. There is no formal role of “deputy translator,” but if there were, that would be me. Anyone who has read the book will find that fact duly acknowledged. I can save you time: in the English edition, it is on page 9. I can say two more things about the book: the first is that the essays in the book deal mostly with the symbolic construction of “national” cultural space and are not directly engaged with the issues I was researching. The second is that it had not come out when I completed my manuscript. I know this well because I was working on the translation and writing the concluding chapter at the same time. Doubt is, of course, trivially correct in observing that I did not review a book that I was involved in producing.

As for Radomir Konstantinović, he is indeed a major figure in philosophical thought in Serbia, and one who did not write about the issues that are engaged in my most recent book. His political reputation is based partly on Filosofija palanke, and partly on his engagement with the antiwar Belgrade Circle in the 1990s, about which he wrote a small number of minor texts (which I drew on in my earlier work on political culture in Serbia in the 1990s). Konstantinović’s work is challenging – it is hermetic, hews closely to issues of language that are often obscure, and stylistically very much in the model of Gyorgy Lukacs (or possibly Adorno, but the one from Negative Dialectics, not the clever one who wrote aphorisms and light essays with Max Horkheimer). It requires a firm grounding not only in the kind of theory that developed in that part of the world over the twentieth century, but also in the Serbo-Croatian language in which the work is written.

Readers can judge Doubt’s grounding in theory on the basis of the quality of his theorising. As for his grounding in Serbo-Croatian, he has never displayed it in any of the ways that would be traditional for a researcher, for example by citing work published in that language in his own published work. It kind of seems like his mention of Konstantinović is more by way of saying “I have heard of Radomir Konstantinović” than of bringing forth any substantive way in which Konstantinović, in particular Filosofija palanke, contributes to the discussion.

Indeed Doubt’s unfelicitous translation of the title (as Bumkin Philosophy) suggests an engagement with the work that is less than superficial. A “palanka” is a small town; the meaning of the term is not pejorative as we can easily observe from many small towns that include the word in their names – Bačka Palanka, Bela Palanka, Smederevska Palanka, I could go on. The discussion in Filosofija palanke refers to a theme that was dominant in much social science in the region during the last century, the rapid and large scale shift of population that led to the decline and disappearance of rural villages and the failure of cities to integrate new urbanites into urban culture (this is discussed in the works of Jožo Tomasevich, Josip Županov, Andrej Simić, Vlasta Ilišin, Joel and Barbara Halpern and, as anyone familiar with the literature will know, hundreds of other people). One of the consequences was a growing dominance of a hybrid culture that had lost many ties with the rural environment, but played a prominent role in an urban environment it did not fully understand. There is a little bit of snobbery in the argument, but it is not the kind of snobbery Doubt wants to evoke by bringing in an incongruous term used to denigrate residents of small mountain communities in the southeastern United States. Think more of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown, or Herbert Gans’s Urban Villagers, or Arturo Jauretche’s “medio pelo.” You get the point. I used Konstanović to good effect in an earlier piece of research on ways in which the Milošević regime mobilised latent urban-rural tensions as a way of maintaining political power in Serbia in the 1990s. That research was published as the book The Culture of Power in Serbia (1999).

Anyway, Konstantinović doesn’t play much of a role in this book because it engages a debate in which the philosopher, who died in 2011, did not participate. To say, as Doubt does, that in an empirical study beginning in 2001 “Gordy does not mention the book,” which was published in 1969, “out of deference” to “[n]ationalist intellectuals” is a projection based on nothing. Least of all on an understanding of Konstantinović.

Finally, there is a weird moment at the end where Doubt mentions three of my friends: Nataša Kandić, Sonja Biserko and Staša Zajović (he doesn’t seem to know who they are, though: he renders the last one as “Staša Yajović” – maybe he got her confused with the delightful Croatian pop singer Jadranka Bastajić, who is known by the nickname Yaya? And he calls Nataša Kandić a “human rights lawyer,” which she isn’t.).

Here’s what he says I say about them: Gordy echos the dominate [I think maybe he means ‘dominant,’ it’s a verb/adjective distinction – EDG] political frame and writes with no additional discussion that they ‘are the objects of charges that they are anti-Serbian, that they are traitors, and that they represent a domestic fifth column standing for foreign interest’.” That sounds pretty bad, and it would be bad if it were true. The “no additional discussion” to which Doubt refers includes both the chapter in which the sentence appears, which offers a continuum of eleven variants of approaches to responsibility, ranging from celebration of crime to engagement with the past (it’s the longest chapter in the book, but if you read Doubt’s review you would not know it was there) and the section of that chapter, which details efforts to discredit people who investigate and act on the criminal record of the recent past. It’s a neat trick where he counts on the reader of the review not having read the book in order to be able to portray me as saying precisely the opposite of what I say.

Doubt also says that my friends’ “souls are nobler” (he doesn’t say compared to what, though), and here I cannot disagree at all that my friends’ souls are indeed very noble. Doubt has an odd idea as to why, though. He speaks of them in glitteringly general terms suited to fictional characters: they take offense at crimes committed in the name of a Greater Serbia; they understand that it is more base to do wrong than to suffer wrong.” No doubt they do, but the effect of this description is to exoticise and essentialise the people involved while trivialising the concrete labour and risk that is involved in their human rights work. The elements that Doubt identifies as things that these people are offended by and understand are ones that do not differentiate them from a meaningful constituency in Serbia. What is unique about them is the actual work they put into sharing knowledge and understanding of “wrong,” and into promoting reconciliation.

This is why it is a matter of considerable pride to me to be able to collaborate with human rights activists in Serbia, and in particular with the REKOM campaign that is spearheaded by Nataša Kandić. You’ll find my contributions to their periodic workshops here and here, my articles in their journal here, my contribution to the recent campaign to integrate justice into the process of Serbia’s accession to EU membership here. Keith Doubt may say that I “downplay their significance,” but I do not recall seeing him at any of these events. I doubt he knows what he is reading.