More about Sokal and his high jinks...
December 7, 1998
It's a Battlefield Out There, Culturally Speaking
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Does anything exist outside culture? Is there anything that we do that is free of the distortions of our tastes and customs? That isn't irrevocably shaped by the languages we speak or our material interests? Is there anything out there that we can assume to be noncultural or transcultural or even universal? Don't count on it. Two years ago, Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist, wrote a satirical paper full of absurdities and scientific howlers arguing that even "physical reality" was at bottom a "social and linguistic construct," that even famous numerical constants like pi are culturally dependent, that science -- presumably the most "objective" of human enterprises -- is culturally determined. He submitted the paper to the trendy academic journal Social Text as if he was serious. The journal's editors didn't get the joke, neither catching the errors nor thinking the paper's assertions absurd. They published it with pride in a special issue devoted to challenging scientific claims of objective truth. The firestorm set off by Mr. Sokal's hoax became an international scandal; more than a hundred reviews, philosophical papers and debates are now posted on Mr. Sokal's Web site
(www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal). Yet what was the result?
Mr. Sokal meant to undermine the extreme relativism latent in the field of "science studies," but the editors defended themselves, and allies stood up for the mocked positions. There were no recantations even after the hoax was revealed. It would have been encouraging if, for instance, even the unchanging nature of pi had been affirmed, but no such luck. Maybe the whole mess suggested that there really is no common ground on which proofs can be made, arguments won, convictions overturned. Science is culture-bound, and so is argument about it. We are all post-modern (colloquially, pomo) relativists: You go your way and I'll go mine. If we meet, it's beautiful. And if we don't, well, that's only to be expected. But now it's happening again. This time, Mr. Sokal, joined by Jean Bricmont, a Belgian theoretical physicist, wrote a full-scale polemic that was published in French last year and has just been released here as "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" (Picador U.S.A.); it is also being translated into Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, German, Greek, Hungarian, Portuguese and other languages. The authors focus their attack not on American relativists but on the ornate French intellectuals who are celebrities at American universities, ranging from the critic Julia Kristeva and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the sociologist Bruno Latour and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The accusation: that these star intellectuals display a broad and deep ignorance of science that is matched only by their nerve in cryptically using its vocabulary as a smoke screen, often diminishing science along the way. Thus, the "erectile organ" is compared to the square root of minus one (Mr. Lacan); poetic language is described with bumbling allusions to set theory (Ms. Kristeva); even Einstein's equation E=mc2 , is considered a "sexed equation" giving "privilege" to the presumably male speed of light because it's the fastest (Luce Irigaray). The book's detailed attack on French intellectual life helped make it a best seller in France. At least 20 essays appeared in Le Monde alone. And many of the French critics focused not on issues of substance but on cultural matters. Mr. Sokal and Mr. Bricmont were accused of being pedantic foreign grammarians picking apart elegant
(French) love letters. One offended opponent suggested that they
were engaged in a typically American spasm of hatred that was reminiscent of Kenneth Starr's report. Another critic proposed that the two authors were like American militarists who, deprived of cold war Government support, sought a new menace to oppose. In other words, proclaimed the French counterattacks, this is a cultural battle, even a political battle, not an intellectual one. This also resembles a response to the first Sokal affair: many arguments made it seem that there aren't just two cultures, as C. P. Snow once famously described the sciences and the humanities; there are only cultures: French and American, left and right, poetic and scientistic. Arguments become battles of taste or the scrabbling of political opponents. Even Mr. Sokal is side choosing, explaining that in his attack on post-modern relativism "my concern is explicitly political": to rescue the left from its pomo taste makers. Meanwhile, he and his supporters have been denounced for raising the "specter of left conservatism." And science itself becomes another terrain for cultural battles. There are, to be sure, good reasons to ask questions about science. In recent decades, serious scholars have been able to show how culturally dependent it is. Everything from styles of experiments to the choices of subjects for research are shaped by politics, finance and other time-bound forces. Of course this does not mean that the results of scientific discovery are merely cultural.
(Pi is not a variable.) But nonetheless such assertion are often
made by more orthodox post-modernists, who suggest that science has no right to special claims of truth. This position has been more influential than it might seem. Eager to jump on that bandwagon, even some mathematicians have been straining (unsuccessfully) to find an example of a culture-bound mathematical fact. If everything is culture, nothing is immune to challenge, including, as Mr. Sokal and Mr. Bricmont argue, courtroom evidence and archeological evaluations. And science loses its status. Many of the French writers attacked in "Fashionable Nonsense," even if they are not relativists, invoke science not to suggest something rational and ordered but something baffling and surreal: the origins of the self (Mr. Lacan), the nature of poetry (Ms. Kristeva), the oddities of modern war (Jean Baudrillard). Science becomes an emblem of obscurity and oppression. Much of this is praised in the name of progressive change, but Mr. Sokal and Mr. Bricmont dissent. They are disturbed that the anti-rationalist attack on science is so closely associated with the political left. They suggest that frustration with the failures of communism and the success of capitalism may be a reason. So, too, they say pomo has been influenced by political movements based on cultural, ethnic and sexual identity, and by the hostility science has inspired with its military applications. But this would make pomo a matter of sociological exasperation. The science debates go to the very heart of the divisions between the political left and right during the last two centuries. How much is nature and how much culture? How much is given and how much is made? The extremes of the right celebrate the rule of nature, the unchangeable character of hierarchies, the call of destiny. The extremes of the left celebrate the relativity of nature, the malleability of human societies, the self-interest inherent in all authority. Pomo is a strand of left-wing thinking, just as fundamentalism is a strand of right-wing thinking. Mr. Sokal has been attacked as a "left conservative" because he is trying to stake out a territory free from the political claims of culture. That would be the territory of reasoned argument, objective fact and Enlightenment insight, where even debates like these might take place. But he is opposing those who consider themselves to be the most progressive and enlightened: those able to step outside the prison of culture and see all its distortions. The irony is that culture is still all they see. ______________________________________________________________ Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company