RE: Poetry (was Hakim Bey )

From: Webb, Steve (
Date: Wed Feb 27 2002 - 10:00:59 MST

Amen to that. Humanities academics often seem to struggle with the poetry/prose dichotomy, unable to decide whether they are creating art or conveying information. Often they try to do both at once, and as a result aren't very successful at either.

Similar ideas were expressed by Orwell in his essay, "Politics and the English Language":

There's also the issue of poseurs and intentional spoofs, like the paper that Alan Sokal successfully submitted to the postmodern journal, _Social Text_:

"Alan Sokal, it may be remembered, is an N.Y.U. physicist who, in 1996, submitted a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to Social Text, a journal of cultural criticism based in New York City. As the issue containing his paper was going to press, Lingua Franca published Sokal's disclosure that he'd conceived the article as a hoax. A full-blown turf war soon ensued, with commentators from all sides of the academic and political spectrum using the episode to score points. In addition to reprinting the original paper, The Sokal Hoax assembles a full range of those responses to it, from the defensive posture taken by the editors of Social Text; to right-wing chortling over the left's embarrassment; to internal left polemics; to replies by some of the theorists Sokal had strung up by their own petard.

"The title of Sokal's paper alone should have aroused suspicions among Social Text editors, but Sokal mixed up science, pseudo-science, leftish pieties and pure gibberish into a brew they apparently could not resist. Here, to set the tone of the piece, is a typical Sokalism: "The victory of cybernetics over quantum physics in the 1940s and 1950s can be explained in large part by the centrality of cybernetics to the ongoing capitalist drive for automation of industrial production, compared with the marginal industrial relevance of quantum mechanics." The choice between quantum mechanics and cybernetics is pseudo-history; that it made it into print is real egg on the face of the Social Text editors. And it fits right in with Sokal's agenda, which was to spoof anti-science attitudes by pretending to lay the groundwork for a postmodern quantum theory. Sokal agitates for a "liberatory" science-one that has shed the Enlightenment "dogma" that there "exists an external world" to be grasped by "the (so-called) scien
tific method," and has opened itself to "the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist, and ecological critiques."

"Sokal liberally sprinkles the spoof with undoctored quotes from the leading lights of postmodernism, many of them French. Here, for example, is Derrida doodling on about the "Einsteinian constant," which he takes to be "not a constant" at all and "not a center," and hardly even "the concept of something" but, instead, "the very concept of the game." And here is Jacques Lacan seizing on notions of "differential topology," a supposedly promising approach to some problems in physics, in order to elucidate the "structure of mental disease"-because, after all, if "one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject," then why wouldn't another "cross-cut surface" correspond "to another sort of mental disease"? Other pomo heavy hitters, including Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jean-Francois Lyotard are allowed to speak verbatim as well. Under the guise of agreeing with them, Sokal exposes them to their fair share of (ultimately self-) abuse.

"One perennial lesson the book appears to reinforce is the immiscibility, as in oil and water, of Anglo-Saxon thought and French rhetoric. French thinkers reserve the right to dip their tropes in tincture of the absurd to give them extra firepower, a right we reserve for poets, late-night comedians, and animated cartoons..."

(Quoted from the Atlantic Online:

The complete text of Sokal's article may be found at:

-----Original Message-----
From: Dave Sill []
Sent: Wednesday, February 27, 2002 9:18 AM
Subject: Re: Poetry (was Hakim Bey )

Alex Ramonsky <> wrote:
> My question is...Why do lyrics and poetry like this frighten and upset
> people? Because they do...
> There are three different types of reaction to stuff like this. Some people
> say, 'doesn't make any sense to me'. Other say 'Oh yeh I get it it's kind of
> abstract; poetic'. But the third lot say 'BS! Wank! Rubbish!' and over-react
> completely, trying really hard to discredit the author, almost frantic to
> prove it 'doesn't mean anything, it's rubbish'.
> I have noticed such a strong reaction of this kind for so many years, Ithis
> response of 'Huh! Mystical crap!'
> Can anyone explain why this sort of usage of language provokes this
> reaction? Are people actually frightened of it because they don't understand
> it?

I'll take a stab at this because I suspect you think I'm one of the
`third lot'. I personally have no objection to such abstract writing
in lyrics or poetry because they're artistic forms of expression that
attempt to convey feelings and emotions, not just information.

I do object when such techiques are applied to prose, which is
supposed to be conveying information.

If Bey's writings are poetry disguised as deep intellectual prose,
then they're successful: they had me completely fooled. I don't like
that, though, because I wasted substantial effort trying to make sense
of them.


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