Published as ‘Postmodernism Disrobed’, Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July 1998
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:
This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst FŽlix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Intellectual Impostures, which caused a sensation when published in French last year, and which is now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, "the most brilliant mŽlange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered." Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze had a similar talent for writing:-
It calls to mind Peter Medawar’s earlier characterisation of a certain type of French intellectual style (note, in passing the contrast offered by Medawar’s own elegant and clear prose):
Returning to attack the same targets from another angle, Medawar says:
This is from Medawar 1968 Lecture on "Science and Literature", reprinted in Pluto’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 1982). Since Medawar’s time, the whispering campaign has raised its voice.
Deleuze and Guattari have written and collaborated on books described by the celebrated Michel Foucault as "among the greatest of the great. . . Some day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian." Sokal and Bricmont, however, comment that "These texts contain a handful of intelligible sentences – sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous – and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge."
But it’s tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?
Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively New York University and the University of Louvain. They have limited their critique to those books that have ventured to invoke concepts from physics and mathematics. Here they know what they are talking about, and their verdict is unequivocal: on Lacan, for example, whose name is revered by many in humanities departments throughout American and British universities, no doubt partly because he simulates a profound understanding of mathematics:
They go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:
You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous. It recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the existence of God by dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the infinite. In a further piece of reasoning which is entirely typical of the genre, Lacan goes on to conclude that the erectile organ
We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.
The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who is given whole chapter treatment by Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a ‘rape manual’) Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a ‘sexed equation’. Why? Because ‘it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us’ (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an in-word). Just as typical of the school of thought under examination is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. ‘Masculine physics’ privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:
You don’t have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem (the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve).
In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism, Lyotard’s ‘postmodern science’, and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gšdel’s Theorem, quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being played. The following sentence, "though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view":
I won’t quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard’s text "continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense." They again call attention to "the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology – inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning." Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for any of the authors criticised here, and lionised throughout America:
But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t it the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word-games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking around, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense. The genesis of Intellectual Impostures was a brilliant hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you’ve become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when somebody punctures the established bag of wind.
As is now rather well known, in 1996 Sokal submitted to the American journal Social Text a paper called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.’ From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle. Sokal was inspired to do this by Paul Gross and Normal Levitt’s Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science (Johns Hopkins, 1994), an important book which deserves to become as well known in Britain as it already is in America. Hardly able to believe what he read in this book, Sokal followed up the references to postmodern literature, and found that Gross and Levitt did not exaggerate. He resolved to do something about it. In Gary Kamiya’s words:
Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for literature.
Notwithstanding the egg all over their faces, and despite their feminist pretensions, these editors are dominant males in the academic lekking arena. Andrew Ross himself has the boorish, tenured confidence to say things like "I am glad to be rid of English Departments. I hate literature, for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature"; and the yahooish complacency to begin a book on ‘science studies’ with these words: "This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them." He and his fellow ‘cultural studies’ and ‘science studies’ barons are not harmless eccentrics at third rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of America’s best universities. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know – because many of them have told me – that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Alan Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left wing credentials are impeccable.
In a detailed post-mortem of his famous hoax, submitted to Social Text but predictably rejected by them and published elsewhere, Sokal notes that, in addition to numerous half truths, falsehoods and non-sequiturs, his original article contained some "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever." He regrets that there were not more of the latter: "I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack." If he were writing his parody today, he’d surely have been helped by a virtuoso piece of computer programming by Andrew Bulhak of Melbourne: the Postmodernism Generator. Every time you visit it, at http://www.cs.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/postmodern, it will spontaneously generate for you, using falutless grammatical principles, a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen. I have just been there, and it produced for me a 6,000 word article called "Capitalist theory and the subtextual paradigm of context" by "David I.L.Werther and Rudolf du Garbandier of the Department of English, Cambridge University" (poetic justice there, for it was Cambridge who saw fit to give Jacques Derrida an honorary degree). Here’s a typical sentence from this impressively erudite work:
Visit the Postmodernism Generator. It is a literally infinite source of randomly generated syntactically correct nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be submitted to the ‘Editorial Collective’ of Social Text, double-spaced and in triplicate.
As for the harder task of reclaiming humanities and social studies departments for genuine scholars, Sokal and Bricmont have joined Gross and Levitt in giving a friendly and sympathetic lead from the world of science. We must hope that it will be followed.