Transgressing against the Postmodernists

By Thompson, Damian | The American Conservative, June 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

Transgressing against the Postmodernists

Thompson, Damian, The American Conservative

Transgressing Against the Postmodernists [Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, Alan Sokal, Oxford University Press, 465 pages]

ONE OF THE PARADOXES of postmodernism is its lack of a sense of humor. Scholars who conceive of intellectual activity as a game, and who delight in exposing its rhetorical and procedural tricks, react like outraged dowagers when someone plays a trick on them. That is one reason Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University and professor of mathematics at University College London, is so despised by the deconstructionist Left.

In 1996, he published an article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," in the peer-reviewed cultural-studies journal Social Text. Its declared aim was to use the emerging theory of quantum gravity to show that science itself contradicted the "dogma" that the operation of eternal physical laws can be measured by "objective" procedures and "the (so-called) scientific method." There followed a paper written in fluent Lacanian jargon studded with references to nonlinearity, morphogenetic fields, and differential topology. That, in itself, was not new: the philosophical deconstruction of science was the great postmodern project of the late 1980s and early 1990s. What thrilled readers of Social Text was the fact that a leading professional physicist, as opposed to a philosopher, sociologist, or literary theorist, was attempting this exercise from inside the scientific establishment.

Another of the paradoxes of postmodernism is that although many of its practitioners make their careers exposing the meaninglessness of intellectual hierarchies, they roll over in delight the moment someone high up the hierarchy wants to tickle their stomachs. In this respect they resemble other apostles of what I call counterknowledge-the fast-morphing, overlapping, ever-growing corpus of "alternative" knowledge that abandons traditional methodology in response to the demands of intellectual fashion and the marketplace. Homeopaths, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and cult archaeologists sneer at academia until a maverick professor endorses their theories, after which they never stop boasting about his or her credentials. So Sokal was-briefly-a hero in cultural studies circles, for transgressing the boundary from his side of the border.

A few weeks later, he had become a bogeyman in those same circles-and he remains one now, more than a decade later. Soon after Social Text appeared, Sokal published an article in the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca revealing that the whole thing had been a hoax. "Transgressing the Boundaries" was a parody that had been accepted by a leading academic journal whose editors-to Sokal's delight-had not spotted even one of its carefully planted scientific howlers. In his own words, the essay was "a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever" containing speculative theories passed off as science, absurd analogies, and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words.

Why did Sokal go to such trouble? Not to defend scientists: as he put it, "we'll survive just fine, thanks," despite the withering discourse of feminist scholars. Students, on the other hand, do need to be defended, and to defend themselves, against lit-crit verbiage masquerading as physics; the hoax was partly intended to help them develop an informed skepticism with which to deconstruct their professors' deconstructionism. But-and this is what really stung-at the heart of Sokal's exercise lay his own political agenda. And it was a leftist one. If "Transgressing the Boundaries" had been a parody, however exquisitely crafted, by a conservative professor, it would have been easier to dismiss. The author, however, describes himself "an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. …

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