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A Case of ‘Inverted Commas’

To the Editors:

I am not now nor have I ever been either a “deconstructionist” or for that matter a Maoist. Yet that is how Ian Buruma describes me in a review of a recently published translation of Victor Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism [NYR, August 15], for which I wrote the foreword. The former charge seems to be based on nothing more than hearsay, since Buruma claims that I have been “known” as a practitioner of “deconstructionism,” safely flanked by scarequotes that exempt him from either explaining what it means or how my work exemplifies it. My putative association with Maoism is made possible by extracting a short portion from a long sentence in which I suggest that Mao’s own distrust of specialists would have been shared by Segalen himself. While Buruma has long traded in sliding innuendo and slur under the sign of criticism, one might have thought he would change his tactics now that he is a teacher of the young and a professor who has to worry about other people’s “human rights.” But one also thinks of the proverbial scorpion who couldn’t go against its nature. By the same measure, it is no more of a surprise, even though disappointing, that the editors of the NYR sanction the currently favored critical (and political) practice that links denunciations of poststructuralism with old-fashioned redbaiting.

Harry Harootunian
East Asian Studies
New York University
New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

Even allowing for professorial thin skin, this little outburst of rage is baffling. I never called Professor Harootunian a “deconstructionist.” I said he was known for his “deconstruction” of Japanese intellectual history. A small distinction, to be sure, but then modern theory calls for small distinctions. It would seem from the last sentence of his letter that Dr. Harootunian wants to be known as a “poststructuralist.” Fine by me. The quotes, by the way, were not meant to scare, but simply to mark a term of jargon.

One of Dr. Harootunian’s best-known books, entitled Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism, is described in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy (Vol. 17, pp. 61–86), as a work that “analyzes Tokugawa ‘nativism’ (kokugaku) as a form of discourse from the standpoint of postmodern semiotic theories of textuality.” This sounds pretty close to deconstruction, or “deconstruction,” or “poststructuralism” to me, but whatever the jargon I really don’t mean to frighten anyone about Dr. Harootunian.

As for calling him a “Maoist,” or Maoist, I hate to question Dr. Harootunian’s close reading of texts, but there isn’t even a hint that I did any such thing. I said it was unfair to Simon Leys to suggest that his criticism of Parisian Maoists in the 1970s was based on a “dream world constructed by the Sinologist.” Leys hated Maoists. Harootunian is critical of Leys. I thought his criticism was unfair. This doesn’t make Harootunian a Maoist, just unfair to Simon Leys.

About the personal abuse, just one thing. What are those quotes doing around “human rights”? Are they meant to scare, or to suggest that human rights are mere jargon?

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