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Book Review April 17, 2003
Islamic Studies: Faculty Only
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4
In Halliday's view, civilians see only appearances, while the initiates of his IR guild pierce the veil to discover reality: for example, the Iranian revolution was "...eminently intelligible to anyone aware of what is involved in the establishment of a new state power." In other words, IR academics have found a way to fit the Iranian revolution into their schematic framework. This is not much of a claim; any quack pyschic can do as much, explaining historical events in hindsight as the product of astrological alignments.

Yet of such underwhelming, negative conclusions is this book constructed. After finishing Halliday's first two chapters, I had learned that:

*The Middle East isn't unique; and

*The Iranian Revolution wasn't really so different from other revolutions.

Two negative assertions; that seemed a rather poor return on my very considerable investment in reading 70-odd pages of doughy academic prose.

Halliday's preference for negative structures extends from bigger figures of speech like antithesis right down to sentence-level. Within each sentence, negations pile up on each other, until the browbeaten reader retains only the admonitory word "not."

Here's a very typical Halliday passage. As you read it, note how the sequence of negations, and negated negations, makes it harder and harder to grasp anything beyond the forbidding, warning tone:

"Yet the [Iranian] Revolution was not a chance event; it defeated not a decayed autocracy but a state that had appeared to be one of the stronger and more decisive of Third World regimes, and one, moreover, that had enjoyed considerable support from abroad. Although it is necessary, in light of subsequent events, to revise the picture of the Shah's regime as at the zenith of its power, it would be a mistake to underestimate the combined force of revolutionary pressures which were necessary to overthrow the established Iranian state."

This is the sort of prose which makes "academic writing" a pejorative term. Think back to the grim hours you spent in an airless undergraduate library, studying for a Poli Sci exam. Remember how stupid you felt, how hard it was to stay focused on the page, how you found yourself reading the same paragraph three or four times without comprehension, and how you counted the pages you still had to read?

No doubt you thought it was your own fault. Ha! That was only our little trick, I'm afraid. In fact, academic writing like Halliday's is designed to discourage outsiders, to bluff them into believing IR is a real, even difficult discipline.

Look at the passage quoted here, and you'll see that Halliday has gone to considerable trouble to avoid any simple assertions. The condensed version of this passage would go, "The not-random revolution defeated a not-decayed state not at its peak but not helpless either."

He picks a negative every time-because negatives are both harder to comprehend and more forbidding. Instead of saying that the Iranian Revolution was inevitable, he says it was "not a chance event"; instead of saying that it overthrew a strong regime, he manages a double negative, saying it "defeated not a decayed autocracy." But those negations are easy-peasy compared with what comes next: the hopelessly mangled sentence beginning, "Although it is necessary...." This sentence manages to do nearly everything possible to confuse the reader, from a missing agent to a pair of double negatives jammed together. This is a structure designed to defeat even the most dogged reader. And all to make a ridiculously bland assertion, something to the effect that the Revolution overthrew a fairly powerful regime.

You can call this bad writing-if you're the trusting type. I consider it premeditated obfuscation. I say Halliday wrote this badly because he wanted to intimidate readers out of trying to understand the Middle East, leaving the task to the phony diviners of the IR Guild. In essence, then, this book is written in the worst sort of bad faith.

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