Hoodwinking the Postmodernists

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat May 18 10:45:09 MDT 1996

Lou Proyect brought up the wonderful prank pulled on the pomo journal
Social Text by NYU physicist Alan Sokal. The co-editors of the issue were
Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross. Here is Ross's response, which I found
pretty damn funny.

Doug Henwood


>dear folks,
>some of you may have read
>NYU physicist Alan Sokal's announcement in the current Lingua Franca of
>his perpetration of a hoax, to wit, that he wrote a parody of a "cultural
>studies of science" article in order to see if it would be accepted by a
>journal like Social Text.  According to Sokal, he took this action, as a
>progressive and a scientist, in order to assist in "the intellectual
>renovation of the left."  I have appended the response below, which will
>appear in some form in Lingua Franca in the summer. feel free to
>circulate this.
>What were some of the initial responses of the  journal's editors when we
>first learned about Alan Sokal's prank upon Social Text?  One suspected
>that Sokal's "parody" was nothing of the sort, and that his admission
>represented a change of heart, or a collapse of his intellectual resolve.
>Another, while willing to accept the story,  was less sure that Sokal knew
>very much about what or whom he thought he was kidding. A third was
>pleasantly astonished to learn that the journal is taken seriously enough
>to be considered a threat to anyone, let alone to natural scientists. At
>least two others were furious at the dubious means by which he chose to
>make his point.  All were concerned that his actions might simply spark
>off a new round of caricature and thereby perpetuate the climate in which
>science studies has been subject recently to so much derision from
>conservatives in science.   However varied the responses,  we all believe
>that Sokal took too much for granted in his account of his prank.  Indeed,
>his claim--that our publication of his article proves that something is
>rotten in the state of cultural studies--may have turned out to be as
>wacky as the article itself.
>First, let me recount the history of the editorial process regarding
>Sokal's article,  in order to provide readers with a framework that Lingua
>Franca did not seek when they decided to publish his piece.  From the
>first,  we considered Sokal's unsolicited article to be a little hokey.
>It is not every day that 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 PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea.  Like other
>journals of our vintage that try to keep abreast of cultural studies, it
>has been many years since Social Text  published contributions to the
>debate about postmodern theory, and Sokal's article would have been
>regarded as sophomoric and/or outdated (and therefore unnacceptable to the
>editors) 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, assertively, and somewhat
>aimlessly, with a veritable 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 an exercise of the
>intellect whose scholarly worth had to be judged.  On those grounds, the
>editors considered that it might be of interest to readers as a "document"
>of that time-honored tradition in which modern physicists have discovered
>harmonic resonances with their own reasoning in the field of philosophy
>and metaphysics.   Consequently, the article met one of the several
>criteria for publication which Social Text recognizes.  As a non-refereed
>journal of political opinion and cultural analysis (entirely
>self-published by an editorial collective until  its recent adoption by
>Duke University Press),  Social Text has always seen its lineage in the
>"little review" tradition of the independent left as much as in the
>academic domain, and so we often balance diverse editorial  criteria when
>discussing the worth of submissions, whether they be works of fiction,
>interviews with sex workers, or interventions in postcolonial thought.
>In other words, this is an editorial milieu with principles and aims quite
>remote from that of a professional scientific journal.
>Having established an interest in Sokal's article, we did ask him
>informally to  revise the piece. We made a general request to him a) to
>excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most
>of his footnotes.  Sokal seemed resistant to any general revisions of this
>sort, and indeed insisted on retaining almost all of his footnotes and
>bibliographic apparatus on the grounds that his peers, in science,
>expected extensive documentation of this sort.   Judging from his
>response, it was clear that his article would appear as is, or not at all.
>At this point, Sokal was admitted to the category of "difficult,
>uncooperative author," well known to journal editors.  His article entered
>a state of limbo, well known at Social Text at least, as "too much trouble
>to publish,  not yet on the reject pile, and capable of being redeemed if
>published in the company of related articles."
>Some months after this impasse was reached, the editors did indeed decide
>to assemble a special issue on the topic of science studies.  We wanted to
>gauge how science studies practitioners were responding to the scurrilous
>attacks of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, and other conservatives in
>science.  Contributions were solicited from across the field of knowledge;
>from humanists, social scientists and natural scientists (the final lineup
>included many of the more significant names in science studies (Sandra
>Harding, Steve Fuller, Emily Martin, Hilary Rose, Langdon Winner, Dorothy
>Nelkin, Richard Levins, George Levine, Sharon Traweek, Sarah Franklin,
>Ruth Hubbard, Joel Kovel,  Stanley Aronowitz, and Les Levidow).  Most
>responded directly to the evolving controversy that some were calling the
>"Science Wars," while others wrote their own accounts of work in their
>respective fields.  Here, we thought, was an appropriate and heterogenous
>context in which Sokal's article might appear, providing a feasible
>solution to our editorial dilemma.  He expressed some concern when asked
>if we could publish his piece in this special issue (we assumed he wished
>to distance himself from the polemical company assembled for the issue),
>but he reiterated his eagerness to see it in print.  Our final decision to
>include him presumed that readers would see his article in the particular
>context of the Science Wars issue, as a contribution from someone unknown
>to the field whose views, however peculiar, might still be thought
>relevant to the debate.  Since his article was not written for that
>special issue, and bears little resemblance, in tone or substance, to the
>other commissioned articles,  it was not slated to be included in the
>expanded book version of the issue (with additional articles by Katherine
>Hayles, Michael Lynch, Roger Hart, and Richard Lewontin) which will be
>published by Duke University Press in September.
>In sum,  Sokal's assumption that his "parody" struck a disreputable chord
>with the woozy editors of Social Text is ill-conceived.  Indeed, its
>status as parody does not alter substantially our initial perception of,
>and our interest in, the piece itself as a curio, or symptomatic document.
>Of course, the whole affair may say something about our own conception of
>how physicists read philosophy, but that seems less important to us than
>that his prank does not simply lead to a heightening of the hysteria which
>the Science Wars have induced.
>Most of all, what his confession altered was our perception of his own
>good faith as a self-proclaimed leftist.  In the view of our editors,
>Alan Sokal was now revealed to be either a) a leftist whose self-loathing
>has been activated by conservative caricatures of the cultural left, or b)
>a leftist whose genuine sense of commitment led him to a questionable
>manner of expressing his political point.   In either respect,  his
>actions smacked of a temper often attributed to "unreconstructed male
>leftists."   More to the point, the boy stunt pulled by Sokal seemed
>typical of the professional culture of science education.
>Having talked to the (real) Sokal subsequently, we believe that most of
>the issues he intended to air are, at this point, rather well-known to
>readers of  Social Text and to Lingua Franca.  Indeed, they have been
>going the rounds in the academy since the first postmodern, social
>constructionist, or anti- foundational critiques of positivism appeared
>over thirty-five years ago.  That many natural scientists have only
>recently felt the need to respond to these critiques says something about
>the restricted trade routes through which knowledge is still circulated in
>the academy, policed, as it is, at every departmental checkpoint by
>disciplinary passport controls.  Nor are these critiques unfamiliar to
>folks who have long been involved in debates about the direction of the
>left, where positivism has had a long and healthy life.  At this point in
>time,  we have a vestigial stake in these critiques and debates, but much
>less of an interest than Sokal supposes.  When Sokal discovers that the
>cultural left he believes he has outsmarted really doesn't give much of a
>hoot about what Lacan said about topology in his 1966 seminar, then we can
>talk turkey.
>Our main concern is that readers who may be new to the debates engendered
>by science studies are not persuaded by the Sokal stunt that this is
>simply an academic turf war between scientists and humanists/social
>scientists, with one side trying to outsmart the other.  More important to
>us is the gulf of power between experts and lay voices,  and the currently
>shifting relationship between science and the corporate state.  Nor are
>these concerns extrinsic to the practice of science.  Prior to deciding
>whether science intrinsically tells the truth, we must ask, again and
>again,  whether it is possible, or prudent, to isolate facts from values.
>Why does science matter so much? Because its power, as a civil religion,
>as a social and political authority, affects our daily lives and the
>parlous condition of the natural world more than does any other domain of
>knowledge.  Does it follow that non-scientists should have some say in the
>decision-making processes that define and shape the work of the
>professional scientific community?  Some scientists (including Sokal
>presumably)  would say yes, and in some countries, non-expert citizens do
>indeed participate in these processes.  All hell breaks loose, however,
>when the following question is asked.  Should non-experts have anything to
>say about scientific methodology and epistemology?  After centuries of
>scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific domination of nature
>one might have thought this was a pertinent question to ask.
>Andrew Ross, Co-Editor, Social Text
>andrew ross 212-998-8538
>american studies program, NYU
>285 mercer st. 8th flr.
>new york, ny 10003

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