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If you give a man a Fisk, you’re an insufferable asshole, but if you teach a man to Fisk, you’ve created a whole new asshole.

Roger Ailes

I suppose this was the immediate impetus, but I’m shall we say reluctant to ascribe to the piece any recognition beyond that which it’s already gotten, and anyway, it’s merely a catalyst which has set off a chain reaction prompting me to try and synthesize some half-formed, vague ideas kicked loose by Barry’s discussion thread on pornography and some (very) recent reading on Russian magic and some speculatin’ on the nature of Gödel’s Theorem, which I’ll doubtless take as far out of context as poor old Schrödinger’s Cat . (Someone keep Professor Hawking away from the gun cabinet, please?)

Webster’s defines Fisking as—well, no, it doesn’t, not yet. But definitions are out there; most seem to cite the Volokh Conspiracy, so let’s do the same (by way of the Neo-libertarian News Portal):

The term refers to Robert Fisk, a journalist who wrote some rather foolish anti-war stuff, and who in particular wrote a story in which he (1) recounted how he was beaten by some anti-American Afghan refugees, and (2) thought they were morally right for doing so. Hence many pro-war blogs — most famously, InstaPundit—often use the term “Fisking” figuratively to mean a thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words. Good Fisking tends to be (or at least aim[s] to be) quite logical, and often quotes the other article in detail, interspersing criticisms with the original article’s text.

A thorough, forceful (if figurative) beating, then, that tends to or at least aims to be logical, administered to someone for something they said. And I like my humor neck-snappingly bleak, so it is with a small grim smile that I appreciate the aptness of taking one’s inspiration from an account of a thorough, forceful, illogical beating administered by an angry mob to someone erroneously assumed to be an agent or a symbol of that which is evil or bad or harmful—or at the very least of that which is pissing them off that particular day. —And, like Fisk, I am not without my sympathy. Even as I scratch my head at trying to parse the “logic” in refuting a citation of Gandhi’s life’s work by pointing out the man was assassinated. (“And look what happened to him.” “Oh! Jolly good show! ’it ’im again! ’it ’im again!”)

But I come not to Fisk a Fisking. —Not because I think Fisking is wrong, no. Not because I curl my lip in a disdainful sneer at figurative beatings, or recoil from the taste of blood on my rhetorical jackboots. Nor because I’m tired, and think it’s a futile endeavor, akin to Canute spitting into the oncoming tide—I am, and I do, but that’s not why I’m not Fisking a Fisking today. No.

It’s because it’s so damned easy.

My Christmas present to myself this year was The Bathhouse at Midnight, W.F. Ryan’s monumentally descriptive survey of (as the subtitle puts it) magic in Russia. In his introduction, he lays out the intended scope of the book (which, as noted, is monumental), discussing the problems one encounters when one sets out to write about the history of magic in Russia, and one must figure out what it is one means when one says “history,” “magic,” and “Russia.” How does one account for the differences between written and oral traditions—especially when the border is as permeable as it is in Russian history? What bits of all those many and varied regions stretching across 11 time zones that we (or some of us) have at one point or another called “Russia” do you include, and what do you leave out? What is magic? How do you know it when you see it? How can you differentiate it from assumptions of divine intervention, or folkloric tradition, or religious ceremony? (Do you need such differentiations in the first place?) —The most interesting of these definitional problems is figuring out what magic is, of course, or at least coming to a vague agreement as to the particulars of what we’ll call magic for the course of the book. Ryan never quite comes out and offers a firm definition of his own (beyond the general impression that he’ll be more inclusive than not—a fine and worthy goal, in this case), but he does summarize some interesting definitions along the way: Magic is an alternative to religion, the other side of its coin, a corruption of it, parasitic to religion, a deviation from spiritual or social norms, or (charitably) a semiotic system of oppositions to religion. That form of religious deviance whereby individual or social goals are sought by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution. Magic’s goals are overwhelmingly the expression of personal desires for sex, power, wealth, revenge, relief from sickness or protection from harm; religions usually have social, ethical, spiritual, and numinous aspects that transcend individual ambition. But as Ryan puts it (and I’ll quote directly now, rather than tightly paraphrase): “Most attempts to come to terms with the sameness or distinctness of concepts of magic and religion suffer to some extent… almost all can be made to fit the evidence at most points, and almost all break down at some points in specific cases.” Each definition is a useful enough tool in and of itself, for doing what it is it does, but each breaks down somewhere or another. The tool is to be used when needed and set aside when not; definitions should always (strive to) be descriptive, not prescriptive. The map is not the thing mapped. This is important to keep in mind, because, to quote Gábor Klaniczay (and to drag this digression back onto the ostensible topic of Fisking):

The wide array of theoretical explanatory tools and comparative sets stands in puzzling contrast to the ease with which each general proposition can be contradicted.

Call it Klaniczay’s Corollary to Gödel’s Theorem and keep it in mind; we’re off on another digression.

—Samuel Delany has written (most notably in “Politics of Paraliterary Criticism” in Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary, and thank God John still has my copy, or I’d start quoting at length and we’d never get out of here) that one of the central problems with sympathetic attempts to seriously critique paraliterary stuff like comics or SF is that they almost always start with an attempt to define the thing to be critiqued. Delany’s point is that genres are impossible to define, because they are social constructs, highly permeable categories highly fluid both from day to day and person to person. One can never delineate with any degree of precision the necessary and sufficient conditions that make SF SF, or comics comics; therefore, attempting to define them is futile from the start. Also, it lends a déclassé air of pseudo-science to one’s criticism, as if one has such a distrust of one’s material that one must appeal to a nominally neutral definition as an argument from authority. (Webster’s defines SF as…) So quit stinkin’ up the joint, kid; you’re embarrassing me.

Which is not to say I agree wholly with Delany, or that there’s never a need for definitional thinking. Criticism can be cheekily likened to one of those blind folks with the elephant discoursing at length about what it is they’ve experienced, the immense fan-like quality of it (or the peculiarly prehensile, ropey nature, or the way it calls to mind thick, gnarled tree trunks), how that quality compares with what Foucault says about how it’s really a wall, and the thoughts set in motion by contemplating the differences and similarities of the ways we each perceive this thing we call “elephant.” It helps in this circumstance to articulate what you think you’ve experienced, and how, and why; it helps to say right off the bat what it is you think an “elephant” is. —But to mistake this articulation for a definition is to mistake a description for a prescription, a tool for a law, the map for the thing mapped. It is to believe you’re really talking about a fan, a rope, a tree trunk, a wall, and to forget we’re all trying to figure out what this thing called “elephant” is.

There’s another reason to eschew the definition in criticism (or polemicism): because definitions are by nature imperfect, theoretical explanatory tools that can with puzzling ease be contradicted in one or another of their particulars, because for any given axiomatic system there exists propositions that are either undecidable, or the axiomatic system itself is incomplete, well, it’s all too easy to poke holes in definitions. And it’s all too easy to mistake poking a hole in a definition for refuting someone’s argument; to say, “The tool you made that house with is imperfect, therefore the house is not worth my consideration.” (Which, no, is not what Audre Lorde meant.) —And even if the debate is entered into in good fun and good faith, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked arguing about the words one chooses to define the thing instead of coming to grips with the thing itself.

And Fisking is little more than poking holes in someone else’s definitions.

Each statement of the anti-war, anti-American speech to be Fisked is parsed as if it were a definition: of the speakers’ credo, his or her intentions, worldview, as a statement of what anti-war anti-Americans in general think. Any contradiction that can then be pulled from what the Fisker takes to be that credo or worldview, or those intentions, or any action from anyone counted as anti-war or anti-American, is then held aloft, trumpeted, crowed over as a critical flaw in the thinking of one’s target. See? A contradiction! See? The tool is imperfect! See? We don’t have to pay any attention to the house! —When in doubt, point out that Gandhi practiced non-violence. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. And they both got assassinated! See? Quod erat fuckin’ demonstrandum.

’it ’im again.

When we talk about—anything, at length, our own experiences, what we think those mean, morally, ethically, politically, critically, when we talk about the camps of feminism or vampire slaying television programs or whether or not we should go to Iraq to demonstrate a commitment to something as ridiculous as peace and as ludicrous as respect for human life, over beers at the bar or in our blogs or in peer-reviewed journals, we are, in a sense, describing our piece of the elephant. Comparing it with what other people have said about that elephant. And we can keep in mind the shortcomings of definitions (or decide that what I’ve laid out here is utter hogwash), but we can’t help but speak in them; and whenever we try to define what it is we mean when we talk about the elephant (whether it’s the one in the living room or the one that just did the loop-the-loop under the big top), we can’t help but define ourselves. Debate based on respect does its best to reach past those definitions, to look from the tools to the thing being built with them, to leap from the map to the thing mapped. It may miss, it may disagree, it may get it wrong, but it makes the attempt. And this takes work. It doesn’t come easy. (That’s why it’s usually a mark of respect.)

On the other hand, anyone at all can trumpet a contradiction. Anyone at all can complain about a tool. Anyone at all can kick, can lay into someone with the boots and fists of an angry mob, can crack open a cheek with a thrown rock. —Whether they aimed it logically or not.

Anyone can Fisk.

And that’s why I don’t. It’s déclassé.

  1. --k.    Dec 31, 05:25 AM    #
    Wow. Atrios managed to say in 17 words what it took me mumblety-mumble digressions to peregrinate. --Pith, thy name is brevity.

  2. mark    Dec 31, 07:11 AM    #
    yes, but did Atrios include a cool digression about Samuel Delany and ideas of genre? I don't think so! :) Seriously though, this was a really interesting, really cool essay...the last couple of paragraphs really do a good job describing honest debate and rational thought and good blogging, I think. And the last two lines are wonderful. :)

  3. Medley    Dec 31, 08:04 AM    #
    Nicely done.

  4. Kevin Moore    Dec 31, 10:19 AM    #
    Whenever Glenn Reynalds blogs another "fisking" link, I picture him snorting with geekish laughter, hitting the "post" button with a pointed "nyaahhh." Given that image, it's hard not to feel superior.

    That said, I think it's important to question the overall value of contributions made by Fisk, Alexander Cockburn and other wingnuts on the Left. (In the past I would have included Hitchens, but we know how he turned out.) Michael Moore is another one. They put together some great agitprop, but in such a scatter-shot, from-the-hip manner, and with information that seems half-digested. The knee is perpetually jerking, but the mind is left wanting.

  5. Ampersand    Dec 31, 03:56 PM    #
    I'm not sure it's fair to lump Michael Moore in with the others; or, at least, I think that Moore the artist and filmmaker should be set aside and not tarred with the same brush as Moore the pundit and author. TV Nation and Roger and Me should no more be held to essay-standards of rhetoric than political cartoons should be.

    As for Fisk - with all due respect, Kevin - when some of his critics risk their lives going into war zones to report, then I'll take them seriously when they call him a wingnut. All Fisk's famous report on being beaten up really said was "I don't blame them for attacking me; I might have done the same, in their situation. I reserve my anger for the larger powers that have created this awful situation, where it seems reasonable to some Afghan refugees to attack any Westerner they can find."

    What the fuck is so nuts about saying that? It's maybe a great deal more charitable a view than I personally would take; but it's not nuts.

    My inclination is to give a left activist who, in his 60s, still risks his life going to report on what's happening in the mid-east a measure of respect that's incompatable with calling him a contempt-filled term like "wingnut."

    If you think his ideas are wrong, then rebut them; nothing in Kip's essay suggests there's anything wrong with disagreeing with wrong ideas in a substantial manner. But "Fisking" is simply not substantial. Neither is "wingnut."

  6. Donald Johnson    Jan 3, 10:27 AM    #
    I read the Fisk report about his beating and I never dreamed it would become a subject for ridicule. The fact that his account of his beating inspired this term "Fisking" suggests that "Fiskers" are nothing more than schoolyard bullies at heart.

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