Fisking as a Rhetorical Construct

fisk (v): debunk via critical annotation, typically with heaping doses of contempt.
Recently Jill Walker lamented that it was hard to teach her students to blog critically. Perhaps we should first teach them to fisk.

Over the past month, I’ve seen the verb “fisk” pop up in weblogs discussing media coverage of Iraq. The eponymous verb is named for Robert Fisk, an award-winning reporter for the UK Independent. His writing talent is without question:

Did I sit on President Saddam’s throne? Of course I did. There is something dark in all our souls that demands an understanding of evil rather than good, because, I suppose, we are more fascinated by the machinery of cruelty and power than we are by angels.|So I sat on the blue throne and put my hands over the golden armrests and surveyed the darkened chamber in which men of great power sat in terror of the man who used to sit where I was now. — Independent 12 Apr 2003

While not flinching from calling Saddam evil, Fisk has been highly critical of the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq. He is extremely popular with [some] anti-war forces, in part becaue of his opinionated writing; but his consistent pro-Palestine slant does not escape the watchful eyes of pro-Israel media watchdogs, some of whom find his statements anti-Semitic.

But just as “boycott” derives not from something that the evil English landlord Captain Boycott did, but rather what the Irish villagers did to him, so too “fisk” does not refer to what Fisk does, but rather what is done unto him. In the blogosphere, some feel motivated to respond to Fisk’s writing by refuting him in minute detail — often repeating long chunks or the entirety of his articles, and interlineating their challenges. See: “Fisking Fisk.”

The best definition I have found so far is by Eugene Volokh, who recalls an article in which Fisk “(1) recounted how he was beaten by some anti-American Afghan refugees, and (2) thought they were morally right for doing so.” This, then, would seem to be the very first “fisking”. Volokh credits an August 8, 2002 Instapundit post, and asked whether anyone had found an earlier usage. I wonder whether the term owes something to “MiSTing” — a form of cultural criticism that formed the premise for “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” in which silhouetted wise-crackers in the lower right corner of your TV screen comment on and ridicule bad movies.

In general, then, the term “fisking” can be applied to any point-by-point critical annotation of another text. It is a mode of criticism well-suited to the WWW, since it begins by copying the full text of the target text, and proceeds to point out logical flaws and raise doubts. Since the fiskee’s fixed text cannot respond to the challenges, the fisker can without too much trouble make the fiskee look ridiculous. While the term seems to have originated in conservative attacks against liberal positions, I recently came across a postmodern blogger who fisks an anti-postmodernist.

Fisking as a Rhetorical ConstructLiteracy Weblog)

My idle curiosity about the term has turned into something of an epic quest… I think I’ll post this now and take a break. You can post comments on the KairosNews version of the fisking entry.