Nina Strohminger–a post-doctoral fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics–recently wrote a scathing review of Colin McGinn‘s book The Meaning of Disgust. Thanks to Strohminger’s flamboyant cuffing of McGinn around the ears, her review earned her some well-deserved ‘net fame. I have not read the book so I cannot comment on it but the review does make for quite an entertaining read. I say that as someone who has mixed feelings about such ‘takedowns’ in the academic context; I have no such compunctions when it comes to bad movies (see below). Still, McGinn has dished out plenty in the past, so he should be used to this sort of jousting. (An interesting subtext: Strohminger is a newly minted Ph.D from the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience program; McGinn is a senior professor in a related field. Let’s hope McGinn has the grace to retaliate only in print.)
Strohminger’s review begins:
In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.
From there it moves on to:
McGinn’s view of disgust is insistently mysterian: not merely ignorant or unenlightening but obfuscatory. Baroque, eye-catching explanations are given precedence over parsimony, evidence, or even common sense….Another property of the book, of which potential readers should be aware, is its unintentional hilarity. The humor derives less from the unblushing content than from the unblushing purpleness of his prose.
And so on. You get the picture. There is however, a missed opportunity in the review, and it occurs when Strominger catches McGinn being sloppy and sexist:
McGinn suggests that inorganic items—a list which includes cars, houses, and, apparently, fine silks—lack the ambivalence of human companions, so we can love them wholeheartedly, unencumbered by the physical disgust that attends our love for children and romantic partners. Diamonds, being forever, do not remind us of death. He muses: “Is this why women tend to love jewelry so—because of a relatively high level of bodily self-disgust? Just asking.” Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking!
Strohminger’s retort to the line she quotes is good, but I think it could have been better. By placing an exclamation mark at the end of the ‘Just asking’ Strohminger defuses her counter-volley’s rhetorical impact significantly. With that punctuation, Strohminger’s retort looks a little hurried and nervous, one quickly made, and then withdrawn. McGinn’s ‘Just asking’ ends with a period; its offensiveness is a function of the baldness of its statement. It is the period that makes clear his ‘just’ asking is insincere.
Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking.
This, I think, is the right mirror to McGinn’s line. I do not know if reviews ever appear in revised editions; but if they ever do, then Strohminger should take the opportunity to ditch the exclamation mark, replace it with a period, and email McGinn and myself a copy. (Come to think of it, I don’t think Strohminger’s review has been published yet; time yet to revise!)
Note: Thanks to reading around the McGinn review, I stumbled on Anthony Lane’s hilarious review of George Lucas’ disastrous Star Wars episode 3. The review is genuinely funny and Lucas deserves every single word in there.