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February 02, 2006



There's a lot of mitigating factors in the Sokal case. The key one is that Sokal, a reputable academic scientist (I think physicist) offered to do an article on the intersection of contemporary science and literary theory for the journal. That he would include elementary scientific errors is hardly something that the editors of a literary journal would have been on the lookout for. Moreover, where his 'errors' were not of a scientific nature, there is no simple objective standard by which to assert that they are errors. While I broadly agree that there is an immense amount of hot air produced in academic circles without adequate attention to the facts, now as has there always has been in academia for the last thousand years, this does not mean that anything that is not 'materialist' is simply false.

the burningman

Mark -- Editors are supposed to be on the lookout for errors at all times. The article Sokal wrote was totally incoherent, and when it wasn't -- it was intentionally wrong.

The argument that science is a "narrative" is widespread, see Richard Rorty, arguably America's foremost philosopher, and others.

It's not just "hot air," it's the rejection of materialism and science by academic leftists totally divorced from the forces of production they float on top of.

Avakian has an interesting exchange in his dialogue with DePaul philosophy prof Bill Martin about the "rightness" of Idealist theories. Lenin was the one who talked about the dynamism of dialectical idealism, and that he's take that before a mechanical materialism anyday.

In other words, positivists and Platonists can make correct analysis -- despite their errors.

Recognizing that doesn't cancel out the Post-Modern myopia that still fills graduate programs and other information factories.

The left is scientific, rational, materialist or it is not really a left at all. In order to be equipped to fight the medievalism coming up from Kansas, we have to confront our own illusions about religion and mysticism.

I mean, I have friends (on the left) with degrees in philosophy who talk about astrology as if it means something, even medical professionals. Others talk of becoming religious as a way of "staying in the heart of the people."

It's a byproduct of the destruction of scientific learning in this country. Without understanding what science is, why not view it as another religion, another "narrative?"

Eric Odell

Speaking as a dropout physicist, I view Alan Sokal as a people's hero of the 1990s, a decade that was somewhat lacking in such.

I've read (or at least skimmed) the Social Text article in the past. The thing that made the hoax so beautiful was not just that there were purposeful errors in the article, it was that the silly stuff he put in it made the article as a whole ludicrous -- and, to someone who knew something about both physics and postmodernism, hilarious.

The fact that the publishers of Social Text would run such an article when they clearly had no clue about the overall meaninglessness of the content is the whole point of the matter. It makes the incident an elegant crystallization of the fundamental philosophical dispute at the center of things: whether or not there really is an objective reality independent of the "discourses" we tell about it, and whether those "discourses" should actually be subject to something like the scientific method, i.e., the test of practice. I believe that even for Sokal's purposeful misstatements that were on a philosophical rather than strictly "scientific" level, there is still an objective reality which we are attempting to describe and which is the light that we should strive to hold such descriptions up to -- even if in those cases it's a vaguer and more difficult task.

I think the fact that Sokal was an actual leftist and pointed that out vocally after he revealed the hoax was essential. To anyone who paid attention to the matter, it demolished the idea that postmodernist academics are anything like real leftists, despite all their talk of "transgression." In their employ, that term rarely amounts to more than "being naughty."

foucault lives!

Before dismissing post-modernism,deconstruction out of hand, its important to look at the material basis for this school of thought. In Western Europe, France, in particular,the 1960s witnessed mass movements that often went beyond the immediate demands of reformist/Stalinist parties. (It's imortant to note that many French philosophers located themselves in the French CP, including Derrida, Foucault and Sartre)

This, as well as the Thrid World liberation struggles that decentered Europe as the center of world revolutin lead to a new questioning of traditional revolutionary narratives. Philosophers began to see the working class in its mulitude rathered than homogenous, finding inspriation not only in factory struggles, but the reordering of social realtionships(i.e.-women, gay liberation movement.)

These movements lead to a questions of the foundation of science, not necessarily as true or not, but the means in which science is often used as the permanent "is" and not a space of inquiry and imagination. I think Foucault's book Discpline and Punish goes into this.
For the left, this also means overcoming the determinism of Stalin's shadow. It's important to note that Stalin fancied himself a scientist, and saw Marxism-Leninism as a set of scientific laws. This lead to the ossification of revolutionary theory to mere rote.

I'm not against science, but I realize its not a simple set of laws that is above class struggle or viewpoint. Science can be used as justification of racism or a means of understanding how the world works. I think the pomos are more rejecting the former than the latter.


I guess I'm a touch sensitive about this because of the amount of time I've invested in studying French poststructuralism. And really, knowing that stuff, I'm not inclined to reach the conclusion that it's all bunk. Indeed, although I don't make it, the case is made for Foucault, Derrida et al. being materialist.

In general its the American acolytes of these thinkers who don't really understand them who perpetrate the worst intellectual crimes. Richard Rorty is perhaps the most extreme example of irrationalist, post-modern philosophy, but its based on a self-consciously selective reading ofthe Europeans. Derrida does talk shit sometimes, but certainly not all the time.

Regarding Sokal, however, I just didn't think he managed to produce a text that was patent nonsense - I didn't agree with it, but it didn't seem patently absurd or anything to me.

the burningman

Well Mark, I feel you. I've done my time as well -- and while Foucault is up for debate on his materialism or lack thereof, I think the rest of the post-structuralist scene could never have existed and no one would notice but grad students.

Not getting the Sokal hoax as hilarious... well, if you lived in New York it would crack you up.


I get the humour - but I've read culture studies journal articles that were far more patently nonsense than a trained scientist is likely to be capable of!

foucault lives!

I'm repeating this post because I feel the central points have been missed.
Given the critique of postmodernism as being anti-materialist and harmful to build social movements I have the following questions.

1) How can we develop a materialism that rejects telelogical and postivists tendencies?

2) How can a base of knowldge be created that incorporates the experiences of women, racial/nationally oppressed groups and queers?

My view is that post-modern discourses (not only Foucault, Derrida, but also bell hooks and Cornel West) calls into question the postivist aspects of science while creating room for the experience of marginalized groups. As such, it decolonizes the language of revolution(that in the Russian experience was often top-down, postivistic, etc) and creates room for mutuality, democracy and unity in struggle.

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