ON BOOK REVIEWS: against the empirico-theological prejudice

Some authors have expressed surprise and discontent at the fact that I express my own views in the reviews I have written of their books. Such a reaction suggests that they have an epistemologically naive empiricist vision of a book review. The idea seems to be that a good book reviewer is one who comes to a book with no theoretical background and who extracts a general perspective by a process of induction. Anything else is mere personal prejudice, and has no place in a competent review.

Beneath this empiricist prejudice there lies a second presupposition, one of theological hierarchy. Just as the epistemological empiricist presupposes a norm of total submission to the “facts”, the theological conformist presupposes a God-like despotic author and a subservient creaturely reader. The author is a superior being, and if the inferior reviewer has something of their own to say, they should publish their own book, and not slip their own opinions into a review of someone else’s book.

What these empirico-theological authors detest above all is a review that chooses to enounce or enact a different context for their contributions than the context that they propose themselves.  What they fear and reject above all is the introduction of a broader historical perspective or of a wider problem-situation than the self-serving one that they use and try to impose, one which magnifies their originality importance.

The writing of book reviews is, or can be, an essential creative act, an intervention in a psycho-political field subtending the book in order to make apparent the unconscious (conceptual, psychic, micro-sociological) factors structuring both the act of enunciation and its content that the book embodies.

Adopting a wider, or simply different, context can lead to surprising evaluations of a book. I have written very elogious reviews (e.g. of Adam S. Miller’s SPECULATIVE GRACE, review here), more mitigated ones (e.g. of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING, review here), and quite negative ones (e.g. of Graham Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE, review here). I am not trying to manage anyone’s reputation, none of these writers has any need of foreign management for what they and their “team” do quite well. I am responding not so much to people as to the various voices that I encounter and that permit me to think and to say something that I could not say without them. Even when I express opposition the underlying motive is composition, composing my own ongoing digital book.

A very small number of authors I review or discuss are absolutely scandalised by the change of context I operate. They come out looking less important, less interesting, less original than they appear in their own eyes and in those of their tiny coterie of fans and cronies. They seem to think that they can dictate the mode of reception of their work, and that any other mode is tantamount to a crime of lèse-majesté.

Twice this year authors have forgotten their immediate context, and forgotten themselves, to the point of ordering me off one of my own facebook pages because I did not share their opinion of themselves. This is comical, and displays both their tyrannical nature and their ignorance of the fact that their power is limited to a very small microcosm indeed. It just seems natural to them to be able to order me around and to banish me for the “crime” of doxic divergence. They should be so lucky!

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One Response to ON BOOK REVIEWS: against the empirico-theological prejudice

  1. Imagine if the 4 Evangelists, Muhammad, Nichiren or Martin Luther had been told they couldn’t talk about the books in question without understanding them properly!

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