[Marxism] Re: Technobabble wows organizers of academic confab

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 15 11:54:46 MDT 2005


I had never really given much thought to Alan's [Sokal] relationship to 
Marxism. I, like most people, just assumed that he had gone through volume 
one of Capital, etc., in the way that young orthodox Jews learn to read 
Hebrew. Anybody who describes himself as a "socialist" repeatedly in 
debates with Andrew Ross et al, clearly MUST have at least familiarity 
with, if not commitment to, the Marxist intellectual tradition.

I discovered that this is not true at all. Despite Alan's assertion that he 
is a socialist, in reality he is a left liberal. I had lunch with him on 
New Year's Eve in order to discuss my concerns about his defense of the 
"Kennewick Man" excavations near the Columbia River in Washington State. 
Alan had defended the scientists against the American Indian "creationists" 
in his debate with Andrew Ross and I hadn't given it too much thought at 
the time. Now that I had become thoroughly immersed in such questions, his 
position gnawed away at me like a piece of undigested food.

In the course of our discussion, it was revealed to me that Alan's defense 
of science has nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. It is virtually 
indistinguishable from everyday liberal concepts of the role of scientists 
in society. He said that bad science would expose itself in a free society, 
so there would seem to be little risk of running into the sort of horrors 
that took place in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia. All we have to do is 
criticize the excesses of archaeologists and everything would come out okay 
in the end. I sat there sipping my wine in a mood of total shock. Alan's 
trust in capitalist society was touching but a bit naïve. After all, this 
was a free country when anthropologists and archaeologists wrote all sorts 
of racist nonsense throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Leaving this 
aside for the moment, I had a completely different analysis of how science 
is conducted. As a stodgy old Marxist, I had become convinced long ago that 
the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. Science was not 
immune.

I asked Alan if he had ever read Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins, 
co-authors of "The Dialectical Biologist." No, he had taken the book out of 
the library, but never read it. This was astonishing to me. How could Alan 
Sokal have become regarded as some kind of defender of Marxist rectitude 
when he had utterly no engagement with the main experts in the field. In 
his new book "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of 
Science," co-authored by physicist Jean Bricmont, there is no index entry 
for Marx, Lewontin or Levins. In the one chapter that deals with their own 
views on the science wars, as opposed to the follies of the pomos, they 
analyze Thomas Kuhn, not the Marxist analysis of what Lewontin and Levins 
call the "Commoditization of Science." That is the real issue, not what 
Lacan thinks of pi.

In point of fact, the Social Text issue that Alan's spoof appeared in is 
one of their better efforts. It is available now under the title "Science 
Wars" and contains first-rate articles by Levins and Lewontin. It turns out 
that the original Social Text issue was basically a rejoinder to Norman 
Levitt, Alan Sokal's ally in the so-called science wars. Alan told Lingua 
Franca that his spoof was inspired by Levitt's efforts to expose irrational 
tendencies in the academy.

Directing his attention to Levitt and co-author Paul Gross's "Higher 
Superstitions," Lewontin writes:

"What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the 
existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation of 
scientific knowledge. They are scornful of 'metaphor mongers,' yet Gross's 
own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a metaphor, the 
metaphor of 'development' To describe the life history of an organism as 
'development' is to prejudice the entire problematic of the investigation 
and to guarantee that certain explanations will dominate. 'Development' 
means literally an unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish 
desarollo, or the German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making 
manifest of an already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized 
egg, just as the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then 
'developed.' All that is required is the appropriate triggering of the 
process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold. This is not 
mere 'metaphor mongering'; it reveals the shape of investigation in the 
field. Genes are everything. The environment is irrelevant except insofar 
as it allows development. The field then takes as its problematic precisely 
those life-history events that are indeed specified in the genome: the 
differentiation of the front end from the back end, and why pigs do not 
have wings. But it ignores completely the vast field of characters for 
which there is a constant interplay between genes and environment, and 
which cannot be understood under the rubric of 'development,' Nor are these 
characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous system, for 
which the life history of the nerve connections of the roundworm is a very 
bad metaphor."

This is the kind of discussion that matters most in the so-called science 
wars. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, Alan Sokal should be responding 
to these arguments. Instead, he has constructed strawmen that are easy to 
knock down.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/modernism/sokal2.htm

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