The Sokal Affair Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Sokal Affair

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Here's an exercise to test your critical faculties. Out of the three quotations below, spot the meaningless one.

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance [ecstasy], not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the √-1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).
- Jacques Lacan
If one examines the structuralist paradigm of narrative, one is faced with a choice: either reject rationalism or conclude that the purpose of the observer is significant form, but only if Derridaist reading is valid. The premise of rationalism holds that consciousness is part of the Rubicon of culture. In a sense, the genre, and eventually the paradigm, of capitalist socialism that is a central theme of Stone's Natural Born Killers is also evident in JFK.
- Paul P von Junz
In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather 'metastable', endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed... In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.
- Gilles Deleuze

It was an unfair question. All three of these paragraphs are essentially meaningless. It is only one which is deliberately so. How do we know this? Well, a computer program1 generated that particular paragraph, whereas the other two were actually written and published by people who held tenured academic positions. It may surprise, anger and even shock those not familiar with 'postmodernist2' philosophy that reams of this sort of stuff are submitted to august-sounding academic journals and published without so much as an editorial eyebrow being raised. The prevailing perception is that those who are familiar with this branch of academic life fall into one of two camps: they either embrace it wholeheartedly or fatalistically raise their eyes to the ceiling when the names of Derrida, Irigaray or Lacan are brought up yet again to justify a particularly vacuous intellectual standpoint.

Well, this isn't totally true. A left-leaning physicist from New York, who took particular exception to a popular axiom of postmodernism - that science was only valid as a social construct - decided to strike back and formulated his own, rather scurrilous response. A notable journal in the field of post-modern philosophy, Social Text, was planning to run an issue dedicated to the 'Science Wars', exploring this notion that science is not objective but inherently value-ridden, subjective and epistemologically anchorless, buoyed-up by and floating adrift in a sea of cultural precepts3.

So, in 1996, Alan Sokal wrote the portentously titled paper - Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity and submitted it to the journal.

The Hoax

The article was rather less high-minded in its intention than the editors would have liked to think. Sokal had deliberately taken a patchwork of near-meaningless interpretations and extrapolations and stitched them together with a series of non-sequiturs and howlers that any undergraduate student in mathematics or physics would have been able to detect. Moreover, he didn't even have to invent them himself, he merely had to read the postmodernist writers and quote them verbatim. The article was also peppered with appeals to authority propping up unjustified and breathtaking assertions such as - the coup de grace - 'it has thus become increasingly apparent that physical reality, no less than social reality, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct'. In effect, the statement that 'the sun orbits the earth' would be as valid as that of 'the earth orbiting the sun', depending upon where that statement was made. Sokal even threw in complete gobbledegook, having taken care first to season it heavily with the odd revered name and buzzword:

In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation Gμν=8πGTμν under non-linear 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-centred, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

The bait was the way that the conclusions of the article supported the prejudices of the editorial board, which predictably swallowed it hook, line and sinker. It also pandered to the fallacious4 conceit that, since much profound philosophy was dense and impenetrable, an essay this impenetrably dense just had to be philosophically profound. It was given top billing as a devastating critique by a turncoat scientist who had realised how mistaken he had been in his search for objective truth. Its publication in this special issue was, as Sokal remarked, a monumental act of hubris. He said it would be hard to imagine a more radical way of the editors shooting themselves in the foot5. It even won them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for Literature.

Defending the Indefensible

Sokal came clean in another journal, Lingua Franca, in which he admitted the entire affair was a hoax. Instead of being regarded as high priests of postmodernism, the journal editors were exposed as curators of the emperor's new wardrobe. The reaction from the postmodernists was predictably furious. Derrida simply dismissed him as 'le pauvre Sokal' (the poor Sokal). Some went further but of course, attempts were made to politicise the debate. Julia Kristeva described the episode as an 'anti-French-intellectual escapade'.

The furore continued to reverberate for some time afterwards, having been given a fresh impetus by the book Intellectual Impostures that Sokal wrote with Jean Bricmont. Richard Dawkins described it as 'a splendid book'. In its way, it proved just as incendiary, provoking much the same reaction as previously, but backing the postmodernists even further into their corner.

John Sturrock, in a glib and dismissive review of this book commented that:

Irigaray's invocations of the sciences concerned may be worse than dodgy, but in that libertarian province of the intellectual world in which she functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont

He went on to accuse the authors of having spent a good many tart words attempting to wring the neck of eloquence. Sokal and Bricmont acerbically replied:

Let's see if we've got this straight. John Sturrock thinks that clarity and rigour are admirable qualities in the natural sciences, but dispensable or even deleterious in the humanities and the social sciences. And he has the 'chutzpah' to accuse us of insulting our humanist colleagues?


Why did Sokal do it? Was it simple mischief, or was there a serious point to his hoax? Well, as he admitted himself, he was an unabashed Leftist who went to teach in Nicaragua under the Sandinista government. His target was not the academic Left, just those within who had become a self-perpetuating clique, as well as their fellow travellers who had let intellectual standards slip in embracing the rubbish that the former generated. He didn't see how a word of this pointless verbiage helped the cause of the Left one iota, less so the agenda of subordinating scientific truth to cultural context. So, he merely gave them enough rope, and they proceeded to hang themselves with it.

Sokal indulged in satire, and in doing so, showed that not only did the authors not understand a word of what they were talking about, but neither did their editors6 or reviewers. This issue nevertheless gave little pause for thought; the postmodernists' goal was to show that scientific truth was wholly dependent upon cultural context, regardless of the soundness of their arguments.

Of course, if this truly were the case, there was little point in the scientist getting up in the morning. After all, according to the reasoning parodied by Sokal and now pilloried by others, there be would no guarantee that the American sun would rise in the same way as the French one, would there? Well, scientists in all cultures still happily go to bed knowing that the sun will rise, but it's questionable whether the postmodernists would now give the cold and unforgiving light of day a similar welcome.

1You can thank the Postmodernism Generator for the gibberish of the second quotation. The first and the third are, unfortunately, due to supposed intellectuals. Try running it yourself as every postmodernist essay it creates is totally unique.2Alternatively defined as being 'today's interpretation of yesterday's vision of tomorrow ' or 'crap' - depending entirely, of course, upon cultural context.3There are no prizes for guessing on which side of the argument the journal's editors came down.4You can read about this fallacy here. It's a pretty common one in this academic area.5Taken from Intellectual Impostures.6Anybody who thinks this judgment a little harsh might care to reflect upon an introduction written by one of the editors to a text on 'Science Studies' - 'This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them'.

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