J'accuse: a history

October 10, 1997

Rubbishing intellectuals is as much a well-loved pastime in France as elsewhere and Impostures Intellectuelles has earned Sokal and Bricmont vast media coverage.

Targeting the tendency of French intellectuals to be abstruse or pretentious is nothing new. Pierre Bourdieu attacks "scholastic epistemocentrism" and similar sins in his latest book, Meditations Pascaliennes. But there has been surprise in France at a line-up of "impostors" which makes more sense to New Yorkers than Parisians and a feeling that an old argument has been brought out of mothballs. The influence of "French theory" on postmodernism in US universities far outstretches its impact in France, where names like Lacan and Kristeva would not be put alongside those of Deleuze or Latour.

With a number of the targets dead and the texts of others dating back decades, the declared offensive of scientific rationalism against relativism appears to have little to do with the substance of the "impostors'" work. In interviews with the French media, Sokal insists his target is "not the individuals, but the culture which accepts or encourages this imposture". That culture belongs to "a certain American Left". The danger, he says, is that this Left supplies movements like the Gay, Lesbian or Black movements with an unsound philosophy.

French commentators suspect an attack on leftwing thinking. Asked why rightwing intellectuals, especially neoliberal economists, have not been singled out, Sokal explains that they have not committed the same errors. If that judgement is what differentiates and validates the work of, for example, Francis Fukuyama while it condemns the work of a generation of French thinkers, then Sokal and Bricmont appear to be falling into the trap of a "scientific correctness" as impoverished as the worst excesses of political correctness, says Roger-Pol Droit, columnist for Le Monde. He argues that the authors' attack collapses in confusion because the target, "postmodern thought", does not exist.

Julia Kristeva gets her own chapter in Sokal and Bricmont's Impostures Intellectuelles. Sokal admits he used Kristeva despite the fact that the writing singled out for its mathematical incorrectness dates back to the 1960s and even though "she has changed since". He accuses her of having "not much more than a vague idea what she is talking about'' when she "tries to found a formal theory of poetic language on mathematical notions like set theory".

Kristeva, asserts Impostures Intellectuelles, confused set theory with the theory of intervals and did not grasp the difference between the cardinality of real numbers between zero and one and sets of numbers between zero and two.

But Kristeva has refuted Sokal and Bricmont's attack. She tackles first the fact that the article selected was written in 1966 when she was 25, "snuffling with flu in a student room" during her first autumn in Paris. Such attention to minor detail in an early article, she suggests, could encourage her to think that she must have been a genius.

She adds that the human sciences in general, and literary theory in particular, "borrow" rather than "apply" scientific models which are put to work as "traces" and undergo change during "transference from subject to object, from interpreter to data''. In this way, the element which has been borrowed is no longer a model and the reflection which results is closer to poetic metaphor than to scientific modelling. She admits that attempts to assert this in the 1960s may have led to short cuts and lack of clarity.

Kristeva argues that, in the US, a period of intellectual francophilia has been followed by a new phase of francophobia, echoing the intense economic competition between America and Europe and the current world order, which is leading to fierce rivalries and refuge in traditional identities. In this new phase of intellectual suspicion and laziness, she concludes, anachronistic and insignificant debates generate disinformation.

Stella Hughes

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