Transatlantic thought war: causalities heavy

March 7, 1997

French intellectuals have responded with verve (or spurious profundity) to Anglo-Saxon derision (or spurious clarity)of their ideas. Ayala Ochert reports. The opening of EuroDisney in Paris five years ago exposed a chink in the French armour against American "cultural degradation". Now, as the Alan Sokal affair reaches French shores it seems that transatlantic influences have even succeeded in penetrating French intellectual circles.

Last May, Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, perpetrated a hoax on the cultural studies community by managing to get the journal Social Text to publish an article, written by Sokal himself, expounding postmodern philosophy so extreme that it was nonsensical. He simultaneously announced in another journal, Lingua Franca, the "absurdity" contained in his Social Text article, which derided the notion of an external world, explicable via scientific laws and included the statement that physical reality is a social and linguistic construct. Since then, US academics and scientists have been arguing voraciously the implications of Sokal's hoax.

Many have praised his attacks on the lack of standards among postmodernist intellectuals, with scientists claiming victory against their critics. Others have defended the human sciences against what they perceive as "academic policing" by scientists.

France had ignored the debate as an internal US cultural conflict until Paul Boghossian, professor of philosophy at New York University, struck a nerve in an article in the Times Literary Supplement. He couched the "problem" in terms of the (unfortunate) triumph of the French philosophical tradition, which produced such figures as Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, over the parallel Anglo-American tradition, which produced the likes of Bertrand Russell. Boghossian asked why "the dominant tradition of philosophy in the English-speaking world wasn't able to exert a more effective corrective influence" against postmodern aberrations.

Prompted by this perceived attack on French traditions, Le Monde, mouthpiece of French intellectual and political debate, has over the last month published a series of articles by French scientists and academics. They also include an explanation of the motives behind the hoax from Sokal himself. "I wrote my article not to defend science from the barbarian hordes of sociology," he says, "but to defend the American academic left from a trendy segment of itself."

Among his French supporters is Jean Bricmont, a theoretical physicist from the University of Louvain, with whom Sokal is writing a book denouncing postmodern philosophers as "scientific impostors". But others follow in the French tradition of disdain for American culture and thought. Sociologist Denis Duclos attacks Sokal for behaving as though one can "speculate on thought in the way that one speculates on the market", and for trying to turn it into a "theme park of ideas".

Bruno Latour, professor of sociology at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, one of the writers parodied by Sokal, also diagnoses the affair as a war between the two nations. He argues that US physicists, after the cold war, have found a new enemy in foreign (ie French) postmodernists. "France, in their eyes, has become another Colombia, a country of dealers producing hard drugs - derridium, lacanium - as irresistible to American students as crack."

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Durham, has followed the Sokal affair from the start and regards this French development with interest but without surprise: "The French have always regarded the English (intellectual tradition) as having a spurious clarity; and the English have regarded the French as having a spurious profundity," he says.

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