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Reality and Social Text

Bruce Robbins

In These Times, July 8, 1996

Your June 10 editorial has a few choice things to say about "the intentionally obscure journal Social Text." I've been coeditor of Social Text for the past five years, so I guess my intentions are pertinent here. What can I say? It's all true. We ARE intentionally obscure. That way no one can tell how politically irrelevant and intellectually empty our articles really are. Edward Said on Zionism's victims, Fredric Jameson on what's wrong with cultural studies, Julie Beattie on what's good about Roseanne, Andrew Ross on the limits of Al Gore's commitment to ecology, Ellen Messer-Davidow on how the Right funds its intellectuals-- how else can anybody describe such essays except as dogmatic poststructuralism motivated by "academic one-upsmanship"? How clever of your editorialist to have found us out.

But seriously, folks. Is there any excuse for writing about the intentions of allies in this appallingly condescending and irresponsible way? As a subscriber to In These Times for many years, I didn't expect this sort of sectarianism.

Yes, Social Text fell for Alan Sokal's hoax, and it doesn't feel good. But the real lessons of this episode are not the ones you find either in the mainstream media or in your editorial. Social Text was hoaxed not because we liked Sokal's jargon-filled references to postmodern authorities--in fact we asked him to cut them out-- but because we thought he was a progressive scientist, a physicist who was willing to be publicly critical of scientific orthodoxies. Now we find ourselves accused of positively relishing a style of prose that none of us would ever actually write. Anyone who thinks this stuff is characteristic of Social Text is invited to read the rest of the "Science Wars" issue, from which Sokal's prank has unfortunately diverted attention. You will not find the authors assuming that the revolution will happen by means of witty wordplay or that the physical universe doesn't exist.

So what can be learned from the embarrassing fact that, overeager to welcome what we thought was a conveniently-credentialled ally, we let Sokal's article through? That we should make more allowance for our fallibility; that's for sure. But not that the project of cultural studies is inherently flawed or that there should be a return to the apolitical ideal of scholarly disinterestedness. Or, on the contrary, that human liberation requires the abolition of professional credentials.

Tom Frank's May 27 article takes professionalism as the heart of the Sokal affair. When Stanley Fish talks of a breach of professional good faith, Frank says, what is exposed is the actual dependence on professional privilege, exclusiveness, and career-making that is otherwise disguised by Social Text's left posturing. Deep down, we are nothing but self-serving careerists.

My own view of professionalism, which is not shared by everyone on Social Text, is that fighting to change professional standards and agendas is a significant political activity and that being against professions as such (or against disciplines or expertise as such) is not a left-wing position, and never has been. This means I'm more reluctant than Frank to point the finger. There is sleazy, opportunistic career-making out there, but it's not easy to distinguish from normal scholarship, or from normal journalism. Everyone wants to be on the side of the angels, and what easier way to strike an angelic pose than by accusing someone else of conspiring against the layman in an elite enclave? Careers are advanced as readily by trashing the academy or cultural studies as by participating in them--in fact a lot MORE readily, since trashing gets more attention and takes less work. Note the career paths of Katie Roiphe, Russell Jacoby, Dinesh D'Souza. Perhaps the ever-reversible charge of careerism isn't after all a very reliable or desirable way of indicating that you like some ideas better than others.

Professional deformation exists, in the academy as in journalism, and the academic left is certainly not immune to it. In the humanities, for example, this means tending to favor explanations that give culture a juicy role. On occasion it means ignorant harangues against science that treat scientists like positivist dolts, which most of them assuredly are not. But none of the above can be charged to cultural studies or French theory. It was Matthew Arnold, after all, who defined culture by setting it against science and business. The academic left has paid a price for its compromise with Arnold. But that compromise also explains how the humanities have come to serve as a refuge for left-wing ideas.

Trying to make history under circumstances not of our choosing, we all make compromises. A saintly renunciation of all worldliness and ambition is luckily not a prerequisite for left-wing intellectual work. How many saints are there?

Along with professionalism, the other substantive issue here is cultural politics. A more accurate term for what Social Text is up to than poststructuralism or cultural studies, though it overlaps with both, cultural politics has been attacked on the left for its epistemological relativism, its wilful neglect of class, its divisiveness. These are real and large issues, and I can't resolve them. But let me try to stake out some common ground.

Almost nobody on the left, I think, occupies the extreme epistemological positions of either space-cadet idealism or dumb-as-a-post positivism. Most of us would agree that different groups suffering different sorts of injustice will see the world differently both from their rulers and from each other, and that their perspectives deserve more respect than they get. That much "epistemological relativism" is just common sense. From this point on, there are lots of legitimate questions, for example about how far to distinguish the natural from the human sciences and how to adjudicate between conflicting versions of oppression. But recourse to "reality" or "metanarratives" can't save us from this complexity. Most of us don't refuse metanarratives; we try to deal with the fact that there's more than one. Out of a pool of conflicting realities, we refuse to say that only one is real and the rest aren't. The problem is too much respect for reality, not too little.

Cultural politics doesn't mean either a disabling fragmentation of the left or forgetting about class. As a rule, it gathers people and groups who are trying to deconstruct the same identities they also rely on. (This, by the way, is one of the places where French theory has been of immediate practical value to Americans dealing with our unique mix of race and ethnicity, sex and gender.) Affirmations of cultural identity are no more characteristic of the multicultural left than the questioning of such identities, which opens them up to enterprises of common-language creation and coalition-building. Around a shared economic exploitation, for example.

Radical economic redistribution is arguably the most urgent task facing the left, today as yesterday. But that is precisely why cultural politics is so very important. You can't even begin to comprehend the economic disadvantages of blacks and women, say, if you don't take cultural factors into account (for example, the gendered line between paid "productive" work and unpaid housework). Doing something about it, making redistribution even imaginable to a majority of people, let alone making them feel it's worthy of their support--this is the sort of project for which you can't have too much cultural analysis or understanding.

Bruce Robbins

Co-Editor, Social Text

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Last Modified: 24 November, 1997