[ The Sokal Affair | Searching | Background Material | Guestbook | Recent Additions ]

[ Top : Articles : "The end of the affair" : Other Articles ]

The end of the affair

Erich Eichman

From:  The New Criterion December 1996.

Earlier this year, famously, the physicist and political leftist Alan Sokal submitted a fully footnoted, jargon-filled essay of pure nonsense to the editors of the academic journal Social Text, arguing that physical reality was merely a social construct. He didn't believe a word of it, but he was trying to make a point. The editors published the essay, Mr. Sokal announced his hoax, and all hell broke loose.

For many, the hoax did in fact reveal--as Mr. Sokal intended--the vacuousness of academic theory and the absurd incoherence of the language in which it is perpetrated. For others, however, the hoax was an unforgivable act of disloyalty that undermined a political project of great importance, especially in the university: the effort to "interrogate" knowledge and "unmask" the hidden power relations that determine the bourgeois definition of the "truth." This is what academic theory--especially the kind practiced by Social Text--claims to be doing much of the time.

Members of both camps showed up at New York University's Meyer Hall on Wednesday evening, October 30, to witness a panel discussion--hosted by NYU's journalism department--entitled "After the Media Event: Politics, Culture & the Social Text Affair." Among the participants were Alan Sokal himself and Andrew Ross, one of the editors of Social Text and by far the most glamorous "cultural studies" professor in the entire universe. Not surprisingly, the auditorium was filled to overflowing. In academic terms, this was a Big Deal.

The evening's moderator was Jay Rosen, a teacher of journalism at NYU, who made it clear from the outset that "After the Media Event" was to be a purely intramural discussion, a "family affair" concerned with the "civic health of the Left." (Given the university venue, this exclusion of rightward views was easily enforced.) Unafraid of cliché, Mr. Rosen argued that it was time to get past the media hullabaloo and "put a different frame around the event," to progress "toward a deeper understanding," to go "into depth about larger issues," to "break new ground"--even to "move the discussion forward." (It somehow does not come as a surprise that Mr. Rosen is an editor at the treacly monthly magazine Tikkun.) Toward this end, he announced that, despite the contentiousness of the subject, the panel discussion was "an inquiry, not an inquisition." No one, in short, was to be "on trial."

Implicitly, though, both Mr. Ross and Mr. Sokal were on trial, accused by different leftist family factions of betraying either the Enlightenment or the Revolution or both. Mr. Ross was allowed to defend himself first. This he did in a brief talk delivered in a faintly arch style that seemed to amuse his fans in the audience, to judge by the chortling that greeted even his woollier pronouncements.

It should be said that Mr. Ross's sentences had a certain decentered quality that often made it difficult for the uninitiated to grasp exactly what he was trying to say. The gist was that Social Text had nothing to apologize for. Lingua Franca, the magazine that had revealed Mr. Sokal's hoax, had perpetrated a "yellow media expos." The hoax was part of a backlash--on the Left-- against "feminism, multiculturalism, and the queer renascence." Mr. Sokal's "needlessly polarizing" stunt in no way delegitimized Social Text or its content. Because the Enlightenment had been used to support racism and sexism, it was right to subject it to a critique, which is what Social Text had been doing in its notorious Sokal issue. Above all, Mr. Ross made it clear, scientific knowledge was still to be considered "like all other forms of knowledge": that is to say, it was not safe from a postmodern interrogation that would question its "assumptions about universality." He did concede that "language"--that is, the obscurantist language of academic theory--"is a serious problem." "I am no dissenter," he said, "from this complaint." But, he added, "I am not going to sign up for an evangelical clean-up squad." In a final flourish of leftist family values, he argued that "guilt-tripping" and "false polarities" would not help in the fight against economic injustice.

All this was greeted with sustained applause, a prelude to Alan Sokal's remarks. Now, it needs to be said that there is a certain aspect of theater to even academic events: Mr. Ross, with his bracelets, earring, loose white shirt and perfectly trimmed, longish black hair, looked as if he had stepped out of a casually hip advertisement in Details magazine. Mr. Sokal, on the other hand, lacked only a pocket protector and a slide rule to fit central casting's image of a clean-cut science geek. In this respect, he was at a disadvantage--given the atmosphere of edgy postmodern subversion emanating from various sectors of the crowded auditorium--but only in this respect.

Mr. Sokal's main argument--true to its theme--was logically structured and grammatically conceptually coherent. Truth, he said, was a matter of reason, objectivity, and evidence. The purpose of his Social Text hoax was to reveal the sloppy thinking that had infected certain elements of the Left under the influence of postmodern theory. Only by reasoned argument, he felt, could the Left defeat the demagoguery and superstition of its enemies. The "hypersubjectivity" of postmodern theory--which emphasizes group identities and the special truth perspectives of gender and race, for instance identities--merely "plays into the hands of anti-rationalists" by trumpeting "local knowledges" at the expense of universal truths. Mr. Sokal proudly declared himself a "leftist and a feminist" and thus especially troubled by trends that might "divert us from a leftist social critique."

At this point, Mr. Sokal did something very clever: he referred to a real-world controversy that might demonstrate his point. This startling digression had a momentarily tonic effect, although it caused no end of trouble later on. He cited a recent New York Times story about the war of words between archeologists and Native American creationists over the right to study various prehistoric skeletons found on Native American grounds out west. Archeologists almost universally believe that the peoples of North America came here from Asia, across the Bering Strait, as skeletal remains confirm. Tribal creationists, however, believe that their people literally sprang from the ground, and they wish to bury the skeletons before the scientists can use them to advance a "falsehood."

For Mr. Sokal, this controversy showed the foolishness of "local knowledge." Clearly reason, objectivity, and evidence were on the side of the archeologists, and yet one man cited in the article--a nonlocal, empathetic British archeologist, in fact--had maintained that the Zuni world view (the Zunis reside in Arizona, where some of the disputed skeletons can be found) was "just as valid" as that of the archeologists. But how could it be? As Mr. Sokal was at pains to point out, these warring explanations of human origins were mutually exclusive: they could both be wrong, but they could not both be right. Broadly speaking, he said, the principles of the scientific method (emphasizing evidence logically studied) were the best way of adjudicating the matter. The postmodern Left--obsessed with group identities--forgets this at its peril, Mr. Sokal warned. He was especially horrified when a hostile article in Tikkun on the hoax (its author was not Mr. Rosen) included the statement that "truth can be another source of oppression." Mr. Sokal clearly thought this was the wrong road for the Left to travel. His remarks were greeted with respectful applause. . .

Two other panelists had their say before the free-form questioning began. Ellen Willis, a professor of journalism at NYU and a longtime Village Voice contributor, delivered an even-handed, anguished disquisition on the "tensions and weaknesses of the Left" that had been revealed by the Sokal hoax. She was not really willing to condemn the nonsense in Social Text and journals like it--and in fact congratulated postmodern theory for opposing Marxist conceptions of class that overlooked culture--but she was not at all happy with the insularity and hermeticism that now were so much in evidence, and she lamented the "overvaluation of particular identities." The Left, she said with a certain weariness, "is in dismal shape right now" and "paralyzed in the face of all-out class war by global capital."

Ms. Willis was followed by Stanley Aronowitz, a professor at City University of New York and one of the founding editors of Social Text, although apparently he is no longer on the masthead. did not participate in the decision to publish the Sokal piece. Mr. Aronowitz is not a thin or a shy man, and much of what he said, although incomprehensible, was refreshingly entertaining simply because it was delivered with such clownish brio. He reminded those who did not know that Social Text had been founded seventeen years before to contribute to the "renovation" of the "Marxist project." And "that is still what it is about." He alluded to the Frankfurt School and condemned the media's characterizations of Social Text (including, later, "the affair Kimball," that is, the article in this magazine by its managing editor for June 1996). He went on to declare the real issue to be "scientificity" and rambled a bit through postmodern theory before announcing: "We are not relativists."

The truth of this last statement was not entirely evident in the discussion that followed. As Mr. Aronowitz's talk dissolved into commentary by other panelists--Mr. Ross reasserted at one point that "science is not a neutral discourse" and Mr. Aronowitz seconded the idea--the moderator, Mr. Rosen, tried to bring things back down to earth. This was a mistake.

For Mr. Rosen, the Social Text hoax was principally about one thing: "Are there any intellectual standards in this corner of the Left?" The bluntness of the question and the allusion to standards set off a bout of hissing from the audience. After a certain amount of to and fro, in which Mr. Ross joked about how standards are supposedly always "falling," never "rising" (this was considered hilarious by his claque), Mr. Rosen asked his question about standards again. Mr. Ross responded, with mild heat, that "standards are about ethics," which require that you don't "practice deception." Mr. Sokal recognized this as a jab at his hoax and parried it by pointing out that the editors of Social Text had been free to judge the content of his article quite apart from whether he believed it himself, which was irrelevant. So neatly did he make this point that he was rewarded with a brief round of applause. The adulation was short-lived.

In the course of the audience questioning--some of it sensible, most of it not-- someone asked Mr. Sokal "how you know truth when you see it." He responded by returning to the archeologists' troubles with the Zuni creationists. He repeated the simple law of contradiction (mutually exclusive ideas can't both be right) and appealed again to evidence and logic. Then a student in the back, with real heat, thundered: "On whose authority should we be forced to answer the question?"

It is difficult to imagine convey how swiftly this query derailed the evening. The questioner angrily went on to complain that the choice required by Mr. Sokal's logic "presented a double bind," for only "particularisms offer resistance to the epistemic violence you're proposing!" At this point there was much appreciative murmuring from the crowd and a few huzzahs of assent.

For Mr. Sokal and Mr. Rosen, though, all this was completely baffling. Mr. Sokal recited the law of contradiction again and restated the need to rule from evidence, which seemed so obvious to him, but he was rewarded for his pains by guffaws from the knowing theory fans in the audience, who clearly considered him blinkered in exactly the way a logocentric hegemonist might be. He finally gave up. "I don't understand your question." Mr. Rosen didn't either. First he couldn't remember the name of the Native American tribe being discussed ("Who are these people again?") and then he navely asserted: "Isn't the question, Where do these people come from?" The exasperation of the audience was palpable: It certainly was not!

It was left to Stanley Aronowitz to explain, rather condescendingly, that the inquisitor had raised a "metatheoretical question." (Sighs of relief all round.) In short, the man was asking whether "the framing itself is subject to interrogation." This was considered helpful, and the questioning went on, but the raw collision of theory and reason had finally struck a jarring note. Family etiquette had been breached, and things could not be the same. Todd Gitlin, another NYU professor of journalism, stood up to say a few words on behalf of intellectual standards, which would allow the Left to prove, for instance, that "Charles Murray is a fraud." But the Zunis reappeared when Andrew Ross, inspired by another question and response, turned to Mr. Sokal to say "you cannot dismiss Zuni thinking as prejudice." (It's odd how categorical a category-busting theorist can be.) Another person innocently asked Mr. Ross how one could defend the Zuni world view and not at the same time disarm oneself for combating Jerry Falwell and other Christian fundamentalists who have their own creationist ideas.

This was an obvious and sensible question. A lesser man, when faced with the task of answering it, might have stumbled over his own inconsistencies and beat a retreat. But Andrew Ross is not a famous cultural theorist for nothing. He simply "reframed" the question. He pointed out that it sadly ignored "the inequality of power relations between the two groups" (Zuni, fundamentalist Christian). He then asked Mr. Sokal why he was putting Native Americans "on trial" with his archeology example, since they were the most "screwed over" and "marginalized" group in American history. "That is a very political choice," he said. Fortunately, this sally inspired a certain amount of groaning and hissing from the audience, although probably some percentage of it was aimed at the purblind Mr. Sokal for having misguidedly questioned the Zuni way of knowledge in the first place.

The long evening ended with an editor of October magazine standing to declare to the editors of Social Text, empathetically, "that she knew what it was to be attacked by Roger Kimball." She then proceeded to speak in a roundabout way of a "crisis in language," which was "symptomatic of a larger crisis." Stanley Aronowitz seemed to agree: "We lack the capacity to understand one another." To Mr. Sokal he magnanimously said: "You've gone far to begin the discussion." And then, in the only direct admission of error in the entire evening, he declared: "Look, Social Text fucked up. . . . But the project of Social Text is not a fucked-up project!"

I suspect that Mr. Sokal would say that this is another case where the laws of logic might lead one to a different conclusion. If the first statement is true (and it is), then the second statement cannot also be true (and it isn't).

[ The Sokal Affair | Searching | Background Material | Guestbook | The Top of this Article ]
Last Modified: 24 November, 1997