Critics convey confusing criticisms

March 15, 1996

Gordon Johnson's personal statement (THES, March 1) presents Cambridge University Press as holding off forces of "intimidation" that threaten from the outside.

My recall is that it is the press's critics who are accusing CUP of having succumbed to intimidation from perceived terrorist threats in not offering Anastasia Karakasidou a contract for her study of a Slav-Macedonian minority in northern Greece, entitled Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood. [The press feared publication would lead to terrorist reprisals against its staff in Greece.]

Critics often get confused with their criticism, and the discipline of social anthropology within which Karakasidou works is no exception. An example is Clifford and Marcus's 1986 book Writing Culture: the authors draw attention to the fact that textual analysis often leaves the politics out only to find themselves accused of what they criticise - leaving out the politics. In their case the counter-accusation comes from third parties. In this case it seems turned back to source, with unfortunate effect.

If Johnson's statement confuses the CUP's critics with their criticism, he reminds his readers the press appears to have given in to intimidation from terrorist sources, or rather to the threat of it and an imagined threat at that, where it has not given in to "intimidation" from fellow scholars, real as it may be. One might have preferred this the other way round. We are told, however, that the Press is not going to yield to the "campaign . . . to heap opprobrium" on it. Why not? Two reasons suggest themselves. Because (1), contrary to Johnson's protestations, the criticism cannot be taken seriously. Because (2) the Press thinks there is nothing to learn. If either is true, this is a sad state of affairs for scholars to contemplate.

Is the press not interested in the reaction which its handling of the decision has caused? People from several disciplines have voiced concern about the propriety of publishing with a press they say they cannot trust. A motion of censure is to be brought to the annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists this month. Students in and of Greece have expressed alarm about the effect of the press's stance on the academic community there. Certain learned associations are consulting their membership. The decision has been the subject of articles in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education in the United States. Some individual authors are enquiring about their contracts. Is all this to be dismissed as intimidation?

I have heard dismissals of that nature before, as an anthropologist studying dispute processes in a society where men do not listen to women's reasons because they have already decided that women are categorically out to make trouble. Johnson's statement suggests that the press has already decided that the pressure amounts to "trouble" not "reasons".

The pressure being put on CUP to reconsider the process by which its Syndicate reached a decision over the Karakasidou book is not comparable to threats on life and limb. The scholars' expressed disquiet is of another order. It comes from within the community, not from outside, and it comes from those who explicitly look to university presses for the very standards of publication and fair dealing which CUP cherishes. Authors and referees have been invited to express their views through a moratorium on dealing with manuscripts.

On the second point, perhaps the press has already thought everything through? My impression from many of the critics is that we can leave to one side the question of the syndicate's good faith at the time when the decision was taken in the knowledge available to them. The question has become what one might learn from an unprecedented situation. It would be a very ignorant scholar who did not reflect on past conclusions. The press is being asked to reflect on the decision, and on the way the decision was made, in the light of what has happened since. Lack of interest in doing so adds uncertainty to the mix of information and misinformation that abounds. There are diverse constituencies of concerned scholars, including some on the press's doorstep such as the Cambridge department of social anthropology. The department has no formal ties to CUP, and only in a historical sense to the series within which Karakasidou's manuscript was considered.

Johnson makes one very welcome comment in the promise of a review. This will surely include a review of the procedures by which cases involving conflict of interest can be handled in the future: the next one cannot be unprecedented. Giving advice and taking decisions are of course distinct processes, but I trust that it will also include a review of the refereeing structure and the channels by which CUP draws on the advice of scholars in the whole appraisal process. Lord Renfrew, the Cambridge archaeologist, has asked the question: under what circumstances will the press allow threats of terrorist activity to influence acceptance or rejection of works for publication? This issue of influence is not to be confused with the kind of influence other members of the academic community within and beyond Cambridge, within and beyond social anthropology might hope to exert on a publishing house which they would like to feel also belongs to them.

Marilyn Strathern is professor of social anthropology, University of Cambridge.

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