sokal
Alan Sokal

The following was published in Wegway Primary Culture, issue 8, Spring 2005. I resisted the urge to edit my introduction.

Wegway8 cover

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget
by
André Questcequecest

with an introduction by Stephen Eric Armstrong

Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University published an essay called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, a leading North American journal of Culture Studies. The editorial board of this journal includes respected thinkers such as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross.

Sokal’s verbose, metaphor-driven essay was a parody and, when word of this got out, it generated a lot of controversy. In 1998, Sokal, along with Jean Bricmont published Intellectual Impostures, a book dealing with some of the issues raised by the affair.

If the publication of “Transgressing the Boundaries” were to be considered a work of art, then I believe art should consider itself flattered. André Questcequecest is thrilled by all of this. He told me once that his distinctive writing style, of never saying anything and only quoting what others have said, was inspired, in part, by his reading of Frederic Jameson and Jacques Derrida. In 1995, Questcequecest published “A Dialogue between the Pleonasmus Brothers, Obfusicus and Pomposius, concerning Approximately Art” in Wegway’s inaugural issue. It consisted of two lengthy quotes, one from Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, and the other from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The two quotes interrupted each other at appropriate intervals to produce a strange dialogue.

In spite of the fact that it is very difficult to determine the relation between ideas, and the words that refer to those ideas, or whether in fact there even are ideas that are separate in any functional way from their words, I see Questcequecest’s work as a poetry of ideas generated by the process of choosing other peoples’ words. It has touches of Duchamp, Schwitters and Ezra Pound’s “Imagism” in it; and it acknowledges the complexity of form versus content. I think it also points to the ambivalent feelings many artists have about copyright, intellectual property, commercial value and one’s sense of community within a tradition.

As Questcequecest’s First Law of Texts states, “There is an inverse relation between an author’s sense of responsibility for what a text might say and the number of references that text contains.” And as Nietzsche said somewhere, philosophical writings mostly reveal the character of their authors and perhaps not much else.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

The Science Wars – Lest We Forget

To begin, Alan Sokal said, “Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l’Homme, Jean Hyppolite raised an incisive question about Jacques Derrida’s theory of structure and sign in scientific discourse … Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability–it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something–of a center starting from which an observer could master the field–but the very concept of the game … In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gμv = 8πGTμv; under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”FN1

He also said, “Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.”FN2

Stanley Aronowitz stated, “Explaining his now famous parody in Social Text’s “Science Wars” issue, Alan Sokal writes in Dissent (“Afterword”, Fall 1996): But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them.” There is much to note in this “confession.” Why choose a hoax on Social Text to make these points? Did Sokal believe its editors were unabashed deconstructionists who doubted the existence of an external world or that they were anti-science? If so, he has either misread the burden of its seventeen-year history or was capricious in his choice. If not, then he has perpetuated the saddest hoax of all: on himself. For the fact is that Social Text, of which I am a founder and in whose editorial collective I served until this year, has never been in the deconstructionist camp; nor do its editors or the preponderance of its contributors doubt the existence of a material world. What is at issue is whether our knowledge of it can possibly be free of social and cultural presuppositions. Social Text was founded, and remains within, the Marxist project – which, as everyone knows, is profoundly materialist. When Fredric Jameson, John Brenkman, and I started the journal we gave it the subtitle “Theory, Culture, Ideology.” Our objective was to interrogate Marxists’ habitual separation of political economy and culture and to make a contribution to their articulation, even reunification. We were appalled by the orthodox Marxist claim that culture had nothing to do with burning issues of economic justice and were equally opposed to a “culturalist” deconstruction of reality in which all that mattered was language. The use of the term “ideology” in our subtitle revealed our critical intent. For us ideology was not “false consciousness” but a form of “lived experience.” This marked us decidedly as not “old leftist” because we questioned the naive old materialism that holds that knowledge simply reflects reality. We followed the contemporary Marxist view that all processes of knowledge, including science, are mediated by their practices; for us “practice” was not a mental, but a material category.”FN3

Then Alan Sokal responded, “According to Aronowitz, I think that knowledge of reality is “transparent” and I “never interrogate the nature of evidence or facts.” On what basis does he make such claims? And if I were such a simpleton, why would I have explicitly raised epistemological questions in my Afterword? But the trouble isn’t just that Aronowitz distorts my own positions; it is that much of his essay is based on setting up and demolishing straw opponents. Who nowadays claims that culture has nothing to do with economic injustice, or that funding sources have no effect on scientific work? Who denies the value of sociological and political study of science and technology, or of the philosophical analysis of epistemological problems? My point is a modest one: that such investigations need to be conducted with due intellectual rigor. The works cited in my parody article provide a plethora of examples of how not to proceed. And so, unfortunately, does Aronowitz’s essay”FN4

Bruce Robbins said, “As far more people than have ever read the journal now know, Alan Sokal’s essay in the Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue of Social Text was a hoax. The journal’s editors thought the manuscript argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy. In fact, Sokal booby-trapped the piece with deliberate mistakes, as he later revealed; he sought to publish it to expose the various intellectual and political weaknesses in Social Text and those it represents. But which weaknesses? Even people who followed the story with some interest and amusement may still be wondering what, exactly, the hoax proved. As one of the editors of Social Text, I freely confess what I think it proved about us: that some scientific ignorance and some absent-mindedness could combine with much enthusiasm for a supposed political ally to produce a case of temporary blindness. It remains to be seen, however, whether our editorial failure is really symptomatic of a larger failure in the beliefs we hold or the movements from which we come, and if so, what it might be symptomatic of. One conclusion not to draw is that if non-scientists like us are incompetent to judge what scientists do, then only scientists can be allowed to judge it. Whatever our own failings, science should not be protected from public accountability. We cannot leave it accountable only to those funders (increasingly, private corporations) who pay the piper. Pretending that criticisms of science are invalidated by the critic’s postmodernism or poststructuralism is a convenient way for Sokal and his backers to pretend they are not defending their own exclusive rights to their turf — a turf that the public has good reason to monitor as closely as possible.”FN5

Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal said, “Julia Kristeva, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, accuses us of spreading “disinformation” as part of an anti-French politico-economic campaign; she was even quoted (we hope misquoted) by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera as saying that we should undergo psychiatric treatment. Vincent Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, in Libération, accuse us of seeking to divert research funds from the social to the natural sciences. These defenses are curious: for even if our motivations were indeed as ascribed (and they most certainly aren’t), how would that affect the validity or invalidity of our arguments? We have the modest hope that calmer heads will soon prevail among both our supporters and our critics, so that the debate can focus on the substantive content of our book. Which is what? The book grew out of the now-famous hoax in which one of us published, in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text, a parody article chock-full of nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotes about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals. However, only a small fraction of the “dossier” discovered during Sokal’s library research could be included in the parody. After showing this larger dossier to scientist and non-scientist friends, we became (slowly) convinced that it might be worth making it available to a wider audience. We wanted to explain, in non-technical terms, why the quotes are absurd or, in many cases, simply meaningless; and we wanted also to discuss the cultural circumstances that enabled these discourses to achieve such prominence and to remain, thus far, unexposed. Hence our book, the noise and the furor. But what exactly do we claim in our book? Neither too much nor too little. We show that famous intellectuals such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest empirical or conceptual justification — note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument — or throwing around scientific jargon to their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we are explicitly agnostic.”FN6

Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross said, “Why does science matter so much to us? Because its power, as a civil religion, as a social and political authority, affects our daily lives and the parlous condition of the natural world more than does any other domain of knowledge. Does it follow that non-scientists should have some say in the decision-making processes that define and shape the work of the professional scientific community? Some scientists (including Sokal presumably) would say yes, and in some countries, non-expert citizens do indeed participate in these processes. All hell breaks loose, however, when the following question is asked. Should non-experts have anything to say about scientific methodology and epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask.”FN7

John Krige said, “Does Sokal care that his spontaneous response to those “relativists” who are puzzled about the epistemic status of a world that is always mediated by our unreliable senses, our context-laden language and our scientific instruments (he invites anyone who isn’t sure that the world exists to step out of the window of his high-rise apartment) is nothing more than a 1990s uptown New York version of an age-old common-sense reaction to a deep philosophical problem? Have Sokal and Bricmont followed the carefully crafted and empirically enriched studies of scientific practice by sociologists and historians of science over the last two decades (see Physics World, April 1998, pp. 19-20) — work that has breathed a new vitality into these fields? … The editors of the journal Social Text, in which Sokal’s spoof article was originally published, have also been overwhelmed by the authority of these fields. Indeed, it is just for this reason that they accepted Sokal’s article as a sincere attempt by an academic author to apply concepts from physics, which they did not understand, to cultural studies. They trusted him, all the more so since he was a physicist at a prestigious institution. But he deliberately betrayed that trust by producing what he knew to be drivel with a view to exposing and humiliating them. The lesson is obvious. Those of us working in the humanities and social sciences – as well as our students and the public at large – should not be so quick to trust people in the “hard” sciences, notably physicists. We should not take them uncritically at their word. Which is, of course, just what researchers in the history and social studies of science have been insisting on for the last two decades.”FN8

Jay Rosen said, “Although it would have been agonizingly difficult (pride is involved), I very much wish the editors had reacted differently. Had they said, “We goofed” right away, and then examined – penetratingly and in public – everything that led them to accept the Sokal article, they might have demonstrated to literate America that what the academic Left thinks about itself is actually true: it has no peer when it comes to being critical of institutions. Social Text is an institution of the academic Left. It should have taken itself apart and put itself back together again after the Sokal debacle. It would have been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Working backwards from the hoax, like safety experts going over a crash site, they could have illuminated every standard they diluted in order to accept the article, and then asked themselves: Well, what are our standards? Consider what the editors have already admitted:

1. They did not understand the ideas they were publishing. (“Scientific ignorance,” Bruce Robbins calls it, acknowledging that the physics on display was Greek to them, as it would have been to anyone since much of it was gibberish or deliberate clowning by Sokal.)
2. They didn’t respect what they were publishing. (“From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey … His adventures in PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea,” Robbins and co-editor Andrew Ross wrote in a statement explaining their decision.)
3. But they published it anyway for political reasons. (“Enthusiasm for a supposed political ally,” Robbins says, explaining why they went for the essay. “We thought it argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy.” Note: what “dovetails” with the editors’ perspective is good because it dovetails. Can Sokal’s point be made any plainer? )
4. They were condescending to the author and his “hokey” ideas. (Robbins and Ross again: “It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist. Not knowing the author or his work, we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that this article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation
from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.” Earnest is what counted; intelligent — and intelligible — did not.)
5. They abandoned their attempts to improve what they were publishing when the author they condescended to resisted, thus doubling the condescension. (Robbins and Ross write: “Having established an interest in Sokal’s article, we did ask him informally to revise the piece. We requested him a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most of his footnotes. Sokal seemed resistant to any revisions …” So they went ahead anyway.)” FN9

FN 1 Alan Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies” at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/
FN 2 ibid
FN 3 Stanley Aronowitz, “Alan Sokal’s “Transgression,” Dissent (Winter 1997): 107-110, at ibid.
FN 4 Alan Sokal, “Alan Sokal Replies [to Stanley Aronowitz],” Dissent (Winter 1997): 110-111, at ibid.
FN 5 Bruce Robbins, “Anatomy of a Hoax” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 58-59, at ibid.
FN 6 Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, “What is all the fuss about?” Times Literary Supplement (17 October 1997): 17, at ibid.
FN 7 Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, Co-Editors Social Text at ibid.
FN 8 John Krige, “Cannon-fodder for the Science Wars,” Physics World (December 1998): 49-50, ibid.
FN 9 Jay Rosen, “Swallow Hard: What Social Text Should Have Done,” Tikkun (September/October 1996): 59-61, ibid

image from http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal.html

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