A Friendly Amendent to Nina Strohminger’s McGinn Review

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.

Consider now:

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.

7 thoughts on “A Friendly Amendent to Nina Strohminger’s McGinn Review

    1. Karl,

      Thanks for those links. I think you capture my ambivalence quite well. In a way, I’m contributing to the state of affairs I don’t like: bad review gets written, people find it funny, it gets traction and a life of its own, and its substantive points might get lost. Strohminger’s review makes some very good critical points; will they got lost in the kerfuffle? Will scholarship have advanced by the end of all this?

      1. that’s the big question! I think the substantive points she makes (which I basically read as ‘he’s too imaginative’) are unfortunate (I love speculative scholarship, particularly when it’s scholarship of what we might call motivation…and, at any rate, psychology/psychiatry aren’t necessarily reliable), and the other really significant points (he didn’t do the reading) could be said about, well, anyone who fucks up that way because of incompetence or arrogance. This fault is a general one, not necessarily specific to this book. In other words, no, I don’t think the review advances scholarship. Serious readers in disgust will still turn to Rozin, Nussbaum, Miller, and the host of scholars whose work I don’t yet know.

      2. Or, let me put this another way. I’m not going to reread the review, so forgive me I go astray: the review doesn’t make any of its own arguments except for a series of snide gestures towards ‘practical’ explanations for disgust. Otherwise, there’s just a more or less explicit that we should do more reading in disgust studies. Nowhere does she indicate what new problems the field should be exploring. So, again, no, I don’t think the review moves scholarship forward.

        (frankly, I don’t know if I actually believe this, or if I’ve just talked myself into it, but the more I think about the review, the less I like it. Note: I don’t actually believe in “actual” belief)

  1. I agree with the amendment. I wonder if adoping a faux-colloquial tone by further amending it to “Just askin’.” would add or subtract from the effect. It seems to suggest a “just-us-folks” informality that puts the writer on the side of reasonableness, leaving the opponent as a pompous and overly formal blowhard standing by himself.

    I haven’t seen anyone mention William Ian Miller’s “Anatomy of Disgust” yet, but I liked its more empirical/anecdotal/sentimentalist approach to the subject, though as with his other books it seems to return to the central theme of Goffman-esque social codes by which we are constrained and oppressed, disgust being yet another hammer in the Foucauldian toolbox.

    1. David,

      I think the ‘askin” version would work better than the one with the exclamation, though I’m inclined to think, a little less effectively than the straight version I suggest. But in general, anything that indicates the same trick can be used against McGinn himself would work.

      Thanks for the reference to Miller; I haven’t read that myself. As for its treatment, is there anything that does not find a place in the ‘Foucauldian toolbox’? 🙂

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