Questions 22 –29
In 1996, a leading academic journal of cultural studies, Social Text , published an article by a physicist named Alan Sokal. The article attacked the sciences for their ‘authoritarianism and elitism’ and argued, amongst other things, that physical concepts (ssuch as gravity) were essentially ‘social constructs ’. Subsequently, Sokal revealed in a rival journal that the article had been a hoax. In the following two passages Sokal and the editors of Social Text justify their actions.
Passage 1: Alan Sokal
Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore – questions, for example,about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters. 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 internal 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. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.
Passage 2: The editors of Social Text
Obviously,we now regret having published Sokal ’s article, and apologize to our readers, and to those in the science studies or cultural studies communities who might feel their work has been disparaged as a result of this affair. From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey. It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist. Not knowing the author or his work, we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that this article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field. His adventures in Postmodern Land were not really our cup of tea. Sokal ’s article would have been regarded as somewhat outdated if it had come from a humanist or social scientist. As the work of a natural scientist it was unusual, and, we thought, plausibly symptomatic of how someone like Sokal might approach the field of postmodern epistemology, i.e. awkwardly but assertively trying to capture the ‘feel ’ of the professional language of this field, while relying upon an armada of footnotes to ease his sense of vulnerability. In other words, we read it more as an act of good faith of the sort that might be worth encouraging than as a set of arguments with which we agreed. On those grounds, the editors considered it of interest to readers as a ‘document’ of that time-honoured tradition in which modern physicists have discovered harmonic resonances with their own reasoning in the field of philosophy and metaphysics.What is the likely result of Sokal’s behaviour for non-scientific journals? Less well-known authors who submit unsolicited articles to journals like ours may now come under needless suspicion, and the openness of intellectual inquiry that Social Text has played its role in fostering will be curtailed.
22. Sokal’s method may be described as satirical because it involved
a) insincere imitation.
b) humour and innuendo.
c) unfair and