Idiot Savants?

In a new book, intellectual gadfly Alan Sokal and co-author Jean Bricmont assail the demigods of French theory for their fraudulent use of high science. But does this mean all postmodern philosophy is bunk?

By Kristina Zarlengo
Published November 2, 1998 5:19PM (EST)

For the past two years Alan Sokal has been living large. Ever since he revealed that an article he published in the trendy left-wing journal Social Text was a fraud, Sokal, a professor of mathematical physics at New York University, has been lionized, condemned and seen his name splashed across the front page of the New York Times. A year ago when his new book, "Intellectual Impostures," co-authored with Belgian physics professor Jean Bricmont, hit the European market, the two men became an instant source of media controversy. After garnering a cover story in the major French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, the book went on to earn bestsellerdom in France and Belgium, where it competed favorably with Princess Diana titles. Earlier this year, Sokal and Bricmont toasted the book's British publication with a bottle of Louis Latour burgundy and saw themselves become fodder for a host of divergent editorials and reviews. Among his many moments in the limelight, Sokal debated opponents on French television and lectured in Argentina and Brazil. Now, even as the book is being translated into 12 more languages, including Dutch and Catalan, the drama has barely begun. This month, with the publication of an American edition, the repackaged and renamed book will finally debut on Sokal's home turf -- a debut that promises to be its most explosive incarnation yet.

For a man who might have written arcane computations for a few hundred other physicists for the rest of his life, Alan Sokal's sudden rise to international fame might seem like an unlikely phenomenon. But Sokal's prank touched a throbbing nerve and reopened the culture wars of the late '80's and early '90s. "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" -- as it is called in its American edition -- follows in the same contentious tradition as the hoax, but this time Sokal and Bricmont's project is far more serious and more measured. With carefully sharpened pens, the two physicists set out to catalog the scientific abuses of the most celebrated of the French theorists: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Bruno Latour, as well as many of their cadre from England and the United States.

Of course, in America "the Sokal affair" is reprising a two-year-old controversy that has gripped humanists and social scientists, academics and journalists, leftists and conservatives. In 1995, responding to a call from the journal Social Text for papers for a special issue on science, Sokal sent in a garbled, scientifically ludicrous essay. After the issue came out, Sokal revealed the essay to be a hoax whose publication called into question the validity of current trends in literary theory and cultural studies. "Fashionable Nonsense" is the inflation of that hoax into an earnest book -- heavy with references, extended scholarly citations and footnotes. Stateside anticipatory fever has been so high that when I called for a galley four months ago, the book's publishers were already cleaned out.

So far, reactions to the book have been mixed but uniformly intense. The Guardian hailed it as welcome proof that modern French theory is "a load of old tosh," while the London Review of Books lambasted it as "unwontedly priggish." The latter critique garnered a rash of letters that praised the book and its critique of "galloping francophilia." In Nature, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gushed that underlings in humanities and social science programs will find Sokal "a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree." Meanwhile, French theorist Kristeva -- a target of the book's vitriol -- accused Sokal and Bricmont of abetting a francophobic political and economic campaign, then suggested they undergo psychiatric treatment. Latour, however, didn't let Sokal and Bricmont's diagnosis of his work as "fatally flawed" interfere with his politesse: Sokal and Bricmont's burgundy toast in London was courtesy of Latour, who presented a bottle of his family's vintage when he debated Sokal there.

Such a gift may seem ironic, but it's also fully appropriate. After all, Sokal and Bricmont's fame is a product of the fame of their objects of ridicule. If Lacan's "Ecrits" were not to many scholars' bookshelves what the Spice Girls CD's are to the music collections of preteen girls, Sokal and Bricmont's condemnation of Lacan's "superficial erudition" would have little impact.

Sokal and Bricmont do not attempt to assess the validity of their subjects' work, stating that they lack the necessary expertise. Rather, they limit themselves to demonstrating how the French theorists they examine misuse science and math in their arguments. For example, when psychoanalytic theorist Lacan declares that the torus (a geometric figure) is "exactly the structure of the neurotic," they dismantle this assertion piece by piece -- switching between lengthy quotations of Lacanian so-called math and their own mathematically informed (but comprehensible) explanations. In one of the miserably few cases in which Lacan does define his key term, they write, the definition is "gibberish." Having convincingly demonstrated that Lacan lacks even basic understanding of what he discusses (confusing irrational and imaginary numbers, for example), they show how he moves from a number of false premises to laughable conclusions such as: "Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the [square root of] -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient if its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1)." Since such calculations are fantasies, they conclude, the scholarship is really just psychobabble. Since the book's release, they've gone on to issue a gleeful public challenge, inviting anyone who can prove such passages meaningful to come forward.

In six more chapters of quilted text, Sokal and Bricmont similarly criticize six other renowned scholars for their fatuous scientific jargon, arguing again and again that "if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing." Kristeva confuses set and interval. The "unwittingly comic" Irigaray doesn't understand the role of approximations in science. Baudrillard misappropriates non-Euclidian spaces. Virilio "shows perfectly how to package a banal observation in sophisticated terminology."

What is the meaning, they ask, of French theorist Lyotard's famous assertion that "Postmodern science ... is changing the meaning of the word knowledge ... is producing not the known but the unknown"? The revelation sounds shocking, Sokal and Bricmont aver, but to the extent that it indicates that modern science subtracts from what we rationally understand, or changes the meaning of the word "knowledge," it is also false. (Except, they note, for cases of Metatheorems in mathematical logic such as Godel's theorem, which are "rarefied branches of the foundations of mathematics [that] have very little impact on the bulk of mathematical research and almost no impact on the natural sciences.") To the extent that Lyotard's diagnosis of postmodern science is true, it is also banal -- new scientific theories only produce the unknown in the sense that new discoveries make for new problems. Again and again the two physicists gloss two possible meanings of the theorists' highfalutin claims about science and math: one that is "true but banal"; the other, "surprising but manifestly false." Trivia, they say, masquerades in these writings as radical wisdom. Technical jargon is a smoke screen for vapidity.

Sokal and Bricmont's polemics are part of a three-year-old conflict that some have dubbed "The Science Wars," in which cultural theorists and scientists began battling it out over each other's epistemological claims. The war started in 1994, when mathematician Norman Levitt and biologist Paul R. Gross published "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science," a condemnation of the relativism propagated by contemporary social scientists, feminists and others they deemed inimical to science. In 1995, New York University comparative literature professor Andrew Ross fought back, arguing that "Higher Superstition" had enkindled "a second front opened up by conservatives cheered by the successes of their legions in the holy Culture Wars." He also framed the conflict in political terms: "Conservatives in science have joined the backlash against the (new) usual suspects -- pinkos, feminists and multiculturalists of all stripes." In order to mount a defense of these "suspects," Ross and his colleagues planned a special issue of the cultural-theory academic journal "Social Text." Amid a number of leftist affirmations of the cultural -- rather than objective -- roles of science and technology, was the work of one actual scientist, Alan Sokal. The rest is metahistory.

Although Sokal's hoax lauded au courant theorists like Jacques Derrida, Irigaray and Donna Haraway, it employed little logic and fewer scientific truths. For Sokal, the publication of this nonsense proved that Social Text's editors had lax intellectual standards. He also debunked the editors' alignment of science defenders with conservatism by claiming to vindicate leftism. "For most of the past two centuries," he wrote in his disclosure, "the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful ... The recent turn of many 'progressive' or 'leftist' academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage."

Sokal's hoax immediately snowballed from commentary about the editorial board of one academic journal to a polemic among leftists about the nature of Leftism. It was also something even more abstract: a rationalist challenge to claims about epistemic relativism. "I didn't write the hoax as a scientist in order to defend science," Sokal stated over the phone from his home in New York City. "I wrote it as a rationalist in order to defend rationalism ... and a rational world view." This defense has proved as provocative as age-old dilemmas like monism vs. pluralism, and it has invested the Science Wars with extraordinary recalcitrance.

Questions about epistemology may seem too arcane to have much of a real-world effect, but they have proved plenty incendiary. And Sokal distances himself from even the phrase "Science Wars"; he and Bricmont dub it "unfortunate." But recent friction between natural and human scientists has often sparked conflicts in which Sokal's name, like that of Gross or Levitt, functions like a battle cry. A Princeton University Institute for Advanced Studies faculty position in the sociology of science has been funded but gone unfilled after two candidates were campaigned against on the basis of their positions on the Sokal affair. One candidate was Sokal's object of scorn Bruno Latour; the other, Norman Wise, has credentials in both science and history and conceives of himself as a Science Wars nonpartisan, but was campaigned against partially on the basis of an exchange over the Sokal affair. A Science book-review editor lost her job when she printed a critical review of a collection of essays edited by Gross and Levitt. Meanwhile, at an academic conference on "Left Conservatism" I attended this spring at University of California at Santa Cruz, Sokal was called an "ignoramus," an accomplice to conservatives, and compared to Newt Gingrich.

During these months of internecine strife, zealots on both sides have mouthed pleas for respectful dialogue between human and natural scientists or between rationalist leftists and relativist leftists. But like badly dubbed voice-over, the dialogue itself has been shrill, and as in a bad film, the heroes and villains have all been caricatures. Lined up on one side we have naively scientific, unimaginative dogmatists fenced in by their unexamined bias that truth and reality exist untouched by the society that describes them. On the other, we have enigmatic writers and irrelevant nihilists so enamored of their intellectual dithering that they no longer even know that jumping out of a tall building will cause them to fall. Each side diagnoses the other as anti-intellectual and as leftist only in name. Each side claims the other is draining the left of its brainpower. Now -- in a return that some will see as a helpful expansion on a hilarious hoax, and others will see as a bad movie that has just gone serial -- Sokal is back with the next salvo: a book whose title alone is sure to inflame.

What does "Fashionable Nonsense" prove? When I talked to Sokal, he rephrased his modest mission: "The contribution we make is limited but I think pretty solid. We show that this part of these people's work is nonsense. What does it imply for the rest of their work? Strictly speaking, nothing." Insofar as it identifies and condemns the grave errors in math and science made by some big thinkers, Sokal and Bricmont's critique is indeed rock-solid. Even as we become convinced, however, that these emperors wear no clothes when it comes to physics and math, the importance of such a conviction remains unclear.

Sokal and Bricmont are "explicity agnostic" on the larger bodies of these French theorists' work -- they criticize only their abuses of math and science. But even if these French theorists are naked, they wear an ideological haute couture that has never been admired for its threads of math and science. They are distinguished in precisely those fields that Sokal and Bricmont will not address, i.e. psychoanalysis, feminism, techno-politics and cultural analysis. As Sokal and Bricmont themselves are quick to point out, most of Newton's work was on alchemy and mysticism; Descartes' Physics is bogus. So what? We hail them for their accomplishments. "If the same can be said for the work of our authors," they modestly declare, "then our findings have only marginal relevance."

Indeed, when I talked over the phone with French theorist Sylvere Lotringer about what he makes of "Fashionable Nonsense," he dismissed its critique as justified only insofar as it is picayune. Sokal, he quipped, "is like a huge dinosaur with a very small head. He wants to criticize and he has reasons to criticize the details. But who cares? The point is, he doesn't address the theories themselves ... If he had attacked the concept by showing that there's an intrinsic relation between the error in a paragraph and the possibility of the concept, that would become meaningful, but his becoming a cop is not very interesting." Co-editor of Semiotext(e), which has long printed French theory titles for American audiences, including many by "Fashionable Nonsense's" targets, Lotringer said he had talked to Baudrillard and Virilio after the book's French release. "No one that I talked to denies that they could have been wrong [on matters of mathematics and science]. But they think it's not a really important thing -- the argument doesn't rely on the accuracy of the detail."

University of California at Santa Cruz history of consciousness professor Donna Haraway, who was backhandedly praised in Sokal's hoax, takes Lotringer's point one step further: "I don't expect people I learn from not to make mistakes. I've made some errors. I've used some metaphors that haven't gone where I wanted them to. Sometimes we're arrogant. But expecting something else is to cast a false impression of what it means to be an intellectual." By implying that these theorists are debunked by errata, she continued, "Sokal and Bricmont produce the phenomenon they attribute to others. If we deify thinkers, it's our fault, our failing, not theirs."

It's true that insecure readers leap from the observation that they understand only what's trivial and dumb to the non sequitur that if they don't understand something, it must be important and intelligent. But Haraway's claim that this whole brouhaha is somehow the fault of those who expect intellectual luminaries to write cogent, accurate prose also seems absurd. Besides, why would these intellectuals want to write even one sentence of impenetrable prose? If the material isn't technically accurate, what's their real agenda? Although Sokal and Bricmont at first decline to make sweeping speculations about the purpose of this theoretical gibberish, eventually they argue that the goal of these thinkers "is, no doubt, to impress, and above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader." Later, they assert that feminist theorist Julia Kristeva "is trying to impress the reader with technical jargon," or "to impress the reader with fancy words that she does not understand."

When asked why he thinks he's getting so much attention for pointing out isolated errors, Sokal admits his implied attack is large. "Of course, there's a much larger class of things that we don't claim to have proven but which are raised as reasonable conjectures based on what we've proven," he said. "If we've established that 5 percent or even 1 percent of somebody's writing constitutes either gross incompetence or deliberate fraud, then it's reasonable to be much more skeptical about the rest of the person's work." He added that the critiques extend to the field of cultural theory as a whole: "We are trying to criticize not just these writers but their readers who are impressed by them and in particular the secondary authors who were impressed by them and then made an industry writing about them. So we are trying to criticize their whole culture."

Sokal and Bricmont's tone in "Fashionable Nonsense" changes from semitolerant to fatigued as they conclude again and again that this is meaningless, that is ill-defined, this other is obfuscatory. Toward the end of the book, quotations of their targets grow increasingly lengthy, taking up four pages in some cases, while their own commentary grows terse -- shrinking in one case to "This ... needs no comment." As the frames grow thin and the quoted passages of mind-numbing prose thicken, another point gets forcefully made: "Fashionable Nonsense" is in large part a reprint of the very nonsense Sokal and Bricmont ask us to dismiss. It is unpleasantly, if justifiably, derivative. It becomes hard to know why anyone not already convinced of their conclusions would care to wade through it. Sokal's hoax and the challenging, often witty papers he wrote to reveal and then defend it, which are included in the appendix, made the same points better.

Sokal and Bricmont are at their best when attacking what they call their secondary target: epistemic relativism. They argue convincingly that the idea -- which is often a foregone conclusion in American language departments -- that modern science is nothing more than another story, a "social construction," is by no means proved conclusively, despite the arguments of philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper and Paul Feyerabend, who call into question the possibility of absolute truth. Ideas from the philosophy of science, such as the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the theory-dependence of observation, do not, it turns out, easily translate into radical relativism.

If "Fashionable Nonsense" gains strength from its modest scope, these limitations also constitute its weakness. In the end, Sokal and Bricmont recommend that leftist postmodernism shed its relativism and reduce itself to claims based on good old-fashioned empirical evidence. But they are careful to give us no idea what such claims might be -- since this subject falls outside their expertise. It's easy to admire their consistency and modesty. But without such positive suggestions, they end up coming off as dogmatic and censorious. As Haraway has put it: "Sokal is working as an inquisitor. He's the Kenneth Starr of the intellectual world."

Even if Sokal and Bricmont's broadest allegations of fraud and incompetence are warranted, it's hard to see why humanists would want to follow along their denunciatory path. How could a physics-worthy slash diet of rational skepticism satisfy scholars' desires to unscientifically understand hopelessly complex phenomena like the human psyche, or racism, or modern culture. Why should it?

Even so, if Sokal and Brimont do have an effect on the state of contemporary theory, many of these changes will no doubt do some good. During six years of graduate study in comparative literature, I saw plenty of lazy, dull scholars truss up their claims with jargon that required more effort to decode than it was worth. I saw smarmy censorship in the form of blanket claims that truth, meaning, reality, certainty and clarity are dead. I saw one of my best students replace her political activism with talk about how the Mall of America is a Foucaultian panopticon. People say stupid things in order to appear smart; it's nothing new. But cultural theory has also made enormous strides in softening entrenched traditions enough to let in fresh voices and formerly excluded scholars. Besides, if the French theory we're supplied is truly bogus, wouldn't we do better to kill it off with lack of demand, than to react to it ad infinitum? If Sokal and Bricmont are right, why would scientists want to spend precious hours monitoring the fatuous when they could do fruitful, valid work?

"It seems to us," Sokal and Bricmont conclude in the epigraph of "Fashionable Nonsense," "that postmodernism, whatever usefulness it originally had as a corrective to hardened orthodoxies, has lived this out and is now running its natural course." Whether postmodernism will be injured by their critique remains to be seen. Lotringer reported to me that Virilio, for one, who is now an old man, was excited by the book. After the two of them perused a passage in "Fashionable Nonsense" that calls a paragraph of Virilio's writing "the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have even encountered," Lotringer said, "he just rolled up his sleeve and showed me his biceps and said, 'That's good. Because I'm preparing my book for the year 2000 and I know that now they are trying to get us and I'm going to get them.'" Even as the bell opening round two of the Science Wars dings, I discern the din of round three.

Kristina Zarlengo

Kristina Zarlengo is a freelance writer living San Francisco. She received her Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1997.

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