Throwing a spanner in the text

June 7, 1996

Physicist Alan Sokal was unconvinced by the abstractions of cultural studies. So he sent a spoof article to the discipline's leading US journal couched in the right jargon but, at heart, utter nonsense. It was published, so confirming, he argues here, that much thinking that parades itself as 'Theory' is sloppy, silly and self-indulgent

For some years I have been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of rigour in the trendier precincts of the American academic humanities. But I am a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and differance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing standards, I decided to try a modest experiment: would the leading American journal of cultural studies publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if it sounded good and flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Interested readers can find my article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", in the spring/summer 1996 issue of Social Text. What is going on here? Could the editors really not have realised that my article was a parody?

In the first paragraph I deride "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the western intellectual outlook; that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in 'eternal' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the 'objective' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method."

Is it now dogma in cultural studies that there does not exist an external world? Or that there exists an external world but science obtains no knowledge of it?

In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that "physical 'reality' [note the scare quotes.] ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself.

Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my flat. (I live on the 21st floor.) Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that no scientist or mathematician could possibly take seriously. For example, I pretend that the "morphogenetic field" - a fringe concept due to Rupert Sheldrake - constitutes a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. This connection is pure invention; even Sheldrake makes no such claim.

I assert that Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations have been confirmed by recent work in quantum field theory. Even non-scientist readers might well wonder what in heaven's name quantum field theory has to do with psychoanalysis.

In sum, I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent undergraduate physics or maths major would quickly realise that it was a spoof.

Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics.

But the most amusing parts of my article were not written by me: they are direct quotes from the Masters (whom I shower with praise). For example, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari hold forth on chaos theory, Jacques Derrida on relativity, Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray on differential topology, Jean-Francois Lyotard on cosmology, Michel Serres on nonlinear time I Nor is all the nonsense of French origin. Connoisseurs of recent American and British work in the "cultural studies of science" will find ample food for thought.

How did I do it? I structured the article by inventing an "argument" linking Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, and quantum gravity. I then threw in, for good measure, a pinch of feminism, a dab of multiculturalism, and a sprinkling of New Age ecology. All this was quite easy to carry off, since my argument was not obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic. Even the "political" part of the article was illogical.

But why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation was utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation of a particular kind of sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance.

These attitudes are most prominent under the now-fashionable banners of "postmodernism", "poststructuralism" and "social constructivism", but their indirect influence is far wider. My concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political.

Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false. There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorising consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths - the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory - meaning postmodernist literary theory - carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and "text", then knowledge of the real world is superfluous: even physics becomes just another branch of cultural studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and language games, then logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic.

Politically, I am angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed left. We are witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. 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 combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful - not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right.

The recent turn of many "progressive" or "leftist" academic humanists and social scientists towards one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the prospects for progressive social critique. How can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity?

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the so-called left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that "the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project." They apparently felt no need to analyse the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.

Of course, I am not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none is invented. Now, it is true that the author does not believe his own argument. But why should that matter? The editors' duty as scholars is to judge the validity and interest of ideas, without regard for their provenance.

If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I do not? Or are they more deferent to the "cultural authority of technoscience" than they would care to admit?

In the end, I resorted to parody for a simple pragmatic reason. The targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside. Some brave souls have tried, like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their intemperate but fundamentally accurate book, Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (1994); but all they have gotten for their labours is unwanted praise from the right and vilification from the so-called left.

In such a situation, a direct demonstration of the subculture's intellectual standards was required. But how can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that cannot be brushed off is the one that is self-inflicted.

So I offered the Social Text editors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigour. Did they meet the test? I do not think so. I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I am a leftist too (during the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues, I am on the same side as the Social Text editors. But I am a leftist (and a feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolise the intellectual high ground? And why should self-indulgent nonsense be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement?

Alan Sokal is professor of physics at New York University. A version of this article appears in the May/June issue of Lingua Franca.

REACTIONS TO SOKAL'S ARTICLE

Your recent experiment with Social Text brought tears of joy to my eyes. When I was 13, my father took me to a Marxism Literary Group meeting. They had invited a "physicist" who gave a talk about how there was no fundamental particle because that would violate the dialectic. I stood on a table and shouted that the universe and its underlying structure preceded Marx (as would any good materialist). No one took me seriously. I have waited years for the vindication that you provided.

A graduate student

There are several of us grad students in the department who are privately cheering you. But please don't identify me. When I get tenure, I hope to effect change in the field.

A graduate student in science and technology studies

Having funded my own schooling, I feel like I spent money on what you call the emperor's new clothes. Your article rejuvenated my faith in liberal scholarship based in solid research.

A graduate student in rhetorical criticism

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