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Physicist's Slick Hoax Leaves Egg on Face of 'Progressive' Academic Journal

Transgressing the Transgressors: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Total Bullshit

Gary Kamiya

Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for "advanced" thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords ("hermeneutics," "transgressive," "Lacanian," "hegemony," to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted.

Well, as that discredited icon of phallocentrism, Gomer Pyle, might have said, "Surprise, surprise, surprise." Behind the shiny black cover of the current "Science Wars" issue of "Social Text," a prestigious journal devoted to cultural studies, those who rush to read will find an article by NYU physicist Alan Sokal titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."

Sokal's piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the "real world"), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) and reaches the usual "progressive" (whatever that word is supposed to mean) conclusion. And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit -- a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.


Sokal reveals his hoax in the current issue of the magazine "Lingua Franca." In order to "test the prevailing intellectual standards," he writes, "I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes."

It's actually easy to see why the editors accepted the article: it parrots with deadly accuracy the style and intellectual approach of the standard mediocre progressive post-structuralist paper available cheap over every academic counter these days. In fact, one almost wishes that Sokal had made his modest proposal even more egregious. His paper, which is arrant nonsense, is quite literally indistinguishable from a thousand others -- a fact which itself says volumes about the decrepit state of the humanities today.

"Transgressing the Boundaries" (one hopes that the editors of Social Text appreciate the little joke contained in that title) opens with a flourish, invoking a hilariously heterogeneous group of thinkers -- physicists Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr, science historian Thomas Kuhn and feminist science critic Sandra Harding -- to clear the decks of this "objective world" nonsense, a notoriously retrograde view promulgated by such logocentrists as Lynne Cheney (who is a Republican) and Plato (who would have been one if the party had existed in 400 B.C). Following this time-honored maneuver (a favorite of English-lit types who can't balance their checkbooks but who have no difficulty in citing Bell's Theorem to buttress their attacks on Western science), Sokal modulates into the usual Grand Tour of Highlights of Modern Indeterminacy. Absurdly, he repeatedly invokes philosophers, psychoanalysts and literary critics like Derrida, Lacan and Jameson to back up his pronouncements about the most rarified and speculative aspects of theoretical physics. But this practice has become so customary in the humanities, where breezy comments to the effect that "Everyone knows that the real world is an oppressive masculinist myth" are heard at every MLA convention, that one scarcely notices.

It's in his conclusion, though, that Sokal goes over the top and provides some real howlers. "The content and methodology of postmodern science thus provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive intellectual project, understood in its broadest sense: the transgressing of boundaries, the breaking down of barriers, the radical democratization of all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life (see, for example, Aronowitz 1994.)"

Yo! Comrades! Let's go out and transgress some boundaries! And while we're at it, let's break down barriers! Meet me at noon to radically democratize all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life! Right after the faculty luncheon at the Regency!

Sokal's spoof is great fun, but it also has a point. Sokal wants to reclaim the legacy of the Enlightenment, which the academic Left in its current fuzzy, fake-multicultural, didactic guise has foolishly turned against. "For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combatting the mystifications of the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right," he writes.

Sokal will no doubt be smeared as a reactionary for having the effrontery to place a whoopi cushion under the Supreme Throne of Post-Modernist Progressive Rectitude. In fact, he is a leftist who taught math in the Sandinistas' Nicaragua (a biographical tidbit which may have helped sell his bona fides to whoever vetted his article). As such, he joins the ever-growing list of liberals -- Robert Hughes, Todd Gitlin, David Bromwich, Russell Jacoby, Arthur Schlesinger, C. Vann Woodward among them -- who have grown disenchanted with the smarmy, predictable rhetoric and sloppy thinking that increasingly dominate the self-proclaimed campus Left.

"The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy," Sokal writes with considerable understatement. (He also points out what may be the most priceless irony of the whole affair: that perhaps his piece was so readily accepted because the editors may have been "more deferent to the so-called 'cultural authority of technoscience' than they would care to admit." A man in a lab coat can even order around a deconstructionist!)

For well over a decade, critics from all points on the political spectrum have been bashing the obscurantism, scholastic pedantry and phony radicalism rampant in the contemporary humanities. Those attacks have had little or no effect. But as Sokal points out, "the blow that can't be brushed off is the one that's self-inflicted." Maybe his little hoax will be the pin that will finally let some hot air out of the counter-phallocentric balloon.


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Last Modified: 24 November, 1997