Well received as his argument has been by idiots, mine will conclusively demonstrate…

by zunguzungu

One of my favorite genres of academic writing is the ever-so-slightly but not-quite-completely-necessary putdown, the announcement of a specific point of disagreement between the writer and some other noted scholar that damns with just the right faintness of praise. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, the short two or three sentences, often nestled into the footnotes or endnotes where almost no one reads them, where–in a very specificly prolix way–the writer stakes out some piece of ground against his or her challengers. “Scholar X has made a fine demonstration of Y, but as scholars A and B have shown, such an account is insufficient when placed in the context of Z fascinating archival material that my work brings to light.”

I like them best when they’re just ever so slightly too bitchy, when, behind the careful, practiced ego ideal that a careful, practiced writer presents to the reader, you get a glimpse of baser instincts, of motivations and agendas that aren’t strictly reducible to the objectivity of cold scholarly practice. The writer doesn’t need to take any shots at the other guy, and yet they just can’t help it. And this is also what makes them instructive and useful: whatever it is that is impelling the writer to paraphrase a lengthy work by a noted scholar in a matter of short sentences (thereby, inevitably, doing an injustice to the original argument) is probably worth attending to. It is easy to note that a straw man argument is, as such, a bad argument, but then there’s also always a reason why someone resorts to such tactics, and that reason, lurking in the interstices, often signifies something very interesting.

For example, I recall well the moment when I found Frederick Cooper’s casual reference to Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and State in his recent Colonialism in Question (I’ll admit it, I looked up Mamdani in the index). He writes “[Mamdani’s] case for interwar colonial policy is a strong one, but he misses the extent to which Africans developed networks that cut across these divisions, and most importantly the strength of the claims that to citizenship that exploded in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.”

Maybe it only feels too personal because names are used, because many examples could have been chosen and he chose this one, and maybe my amusement at such textual gems is eccentric and juvenile. But on the other hand, there’s something very revealing about the imperative driving that figure to be made. Mamdani’s book emphasizes continuity between colonial and postcolonial governance, arguing that the “decentralized despotism” of the postcolonial African state is just indirect rule under another name. And Cooper is making an argument about the feelings of structure* that emerged only as the colonial state began to fall apart, an imagination of community that could only exist once colonial rule ended. So they contradict each other, in an important way, and one can debate this point. People do; these are fine scholars who both know their stuff and are really, really smart, and there are plenty of ways into and out of this debate.

But as an intellectual argument, it’s also telling in other suggestive ways: that Mamdani, a superb political scientist, makes the structuralist’s error of failing to distinguish between different instantiations of similar structural forms shouldn’t surprise us, nor should we be taken aback when Cooper, the historian’s historian, decries a failure to engage with the historical particularity of each historical moment and its irreducibility to any other. One sees continuity and the other sees change; both are right, both are wrong. But in an interesting way, and not because we need to resolve their disagreement, but because that disagreement illustrates something vital about the questions we have an interest in asking.

I got similarly exercised when I came across this lovely sentence in J-F- Bayart’s Global Subjects: “Of course, we can decide to get irritated by the way [the notion of globalization] has become so trendy, seeing it as merely the effect of ideological fashion and deciding not to use it,” when I followed the tiny number at its tail to the endnote in the back of the book reading thusly: “As does F. Cooper, ‘What is the concept of globalisation good for?'” Oh, that Frederick Cooper, we can just hear Bayart saying, what a big old baby, tutting with displeasure at those kids and their hip lingo.

Here, I’m definitely the one being childish, of course. But it’s an interesting disagreement, precisely because the two aren’t really talking to each other. Cooper’s intervention in that original essay was to point out the theoretical incoherence to the concept of “Globalisation,” to argue that, as used, it doesn’t actually mean anything beyond asserting a variety of things which are demonstrably false. And again, this feels to me like a very historian’s argument, with its concern for the willy-nilly conflation of period and geography that the most red-faced of the globalization cheerleaders tend to presume and celebrate, the “vulgar” globalization, if you will. But Bayart isn’t really talking to Cooper either, and he certainly isn’t doing the things that Cooper is critiquing; Global Subjects might make a few over-broad strokes here and there, but Bayart is also very well attuned to the texture of local histories (especially in Africa, where he really knows his stuff). For Bayart, the term “globalisation” is worth keeping around not as meaning what people think it means, but as something a little more like the unlovely term “glocalization” and which is halfway reducible to the long duree of historical capitalism.

Perhaps I can make my giggling pleasure at academic putdowns slightly more respectable by suggesting that moments like these illustrate a dialectic, a dialogue, or the way knowledge is socially constructed between individual statements. As a matter of method, I firmly believe that if you don’t know who a writer is writing to, who preceded them, and how their words are being received, you know very little about how their text works. And in that sense, reconstructing academic debates is a matter of deriving what is most vital–the larger intellectual questions and the why of them–from those contextual details. But I’d also be lying if I maintained that it was for this reason that I savor the oddly boilerpoint construction of the Cooper put-down of Mamdani, or the bitchy “we can decide to get irritated” of the Bayart put-down of Cooper. Like all of humanity, you see, with its myths and origin stories, I like the big questions much better when I can reduce them to small ones, about human relationships and about conflict.

* As Ed White puts it, and puts it well, adapting a Raymond Williams figure which he likes a great deal (and I do too, because it’s very good).