[Marxism] Norman Levitt, spiked-online and the Sokal affair

Paul Gallagher pgallagher4 at nyc.rr.com
Mon Oct 17 13:45:46 MDT 2005

Louis Proyect wrote:

> . It is painfully obvious that Levitt has morphed into a reactionary 
> slug of the kind that is making life difficult for radicals in the 
> teaching profession. 

I worked under Levitt back in 1999. I'd characterize him as reactionary and
hostile to the academic left. But _Higher Superstition_ from 1994 is no 
I doubt he "morphed."

Here's an essay by Richard Lewontin that appeared in the book version of
the Social Text issue. I suspect Lewontin's analysis of Gross and Levitt 
may apply
to Sokal as well.

A la recherche du temps perdu: A Review Essay

Richard C. Lewontin

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic
Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1994. 328 pages $25.95.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts
on Culture and Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. 192 pages $23.00.

The political movements in Europe and America in the 1960s
that Americans identify primarily with opposition to the Vietnam
War were not, at base, pacifist or anticapitalist or "counter
cultural" or simply a revolt of youth against age-although they
were all those things. Rather, they were held together by a general
challenge to conventional structures of authority. They were an attempt to
create a general crisis of legitimacy. They were a "Call to Resist
Illegitimate Authority" and were made in the image of 1792 and the
revolt of the Paris Commune. The state, the military, the corporate
holders of economic power, those over thirty, males, white-all were
the sources of authority and legitimacy that maintained a social
structure riddled with injustice. Those who were in the forefront
of the struggles of the sixties knew what their revolutionary 
forebears knew, that a real crisis of legitimacy is the precondition 
of revolutionary change. But their attempt failed, and the main 
sources of authority and legitimacy for civil and political life 
remain what they have been for two hundred years, apparently 
unaltered in their stability or sense of permanence.

There is, however, one bit of the body politic whose sores from
the abrasions of the sixties have never quite healed over, rather like
a bloody heel that is perpetually rubbed raw by a new shoe that
doesn't fit
the old foot. It is the academy and its intellectual hangers-on
who, while not themselves professors, depend on academics to buy, assign,
review, and cite their works. No one was more troubled, hurt, and
indignant than the professional intellectuals when their legitimacy
was challenged. The state and the corporations, after all, have long
been the objects of attack. They are used to the fight, they know
their enemies. and they have the weapons to hand. Their authority
can always be reinforced when necessary by the police, the courts,
and the layoff. Intellectuals, on the other hand, are particularly
vulnerable, because professional intellectual life is the nexus of
all strands of legitimacy, yet it has had no serious experience of
opposition. Despite the centrality of authority in intellectual
life, the academy has not, since the seventeenth century, been
immersed in a constant struggle for the maintenance of the legitimacy
of its methods and products; on the contrary, it seemed for a long
time to be rooted in universal and unchallenged sources of authority.
Then, suddenly, students began to question the authority of the older
and the learned. No longer were genteel and civilized scholars allowed to
propagate their political and social prejudices without rude
challenges from pimply adolescents. The attack on the legitimacy
and authority of the academy during the sixties was met by incredulity,
outrage, and anger. It produced an unhealing wound that continues
to be a source of pain to some intellectuals, who see nothing but an
irrational nihilism in the rejection of traditional structures of
academic authority.

Were it only the institutional authority of professors that was
challenged, the
hurt would be nearly forgotten. For the most part the control of
the scholarly environment has returned to its former masters although
not without alteration: professors are no longer free to make racist
and sexist remarks in class
without challenge, and even quite innocent events may lead to
serious struggles, making many academics long for the days when they could
say anything they damn well pleased. But even more sinister developments
have continued the crisis in the academy, long after the rest of
civil and political society has restabilized. For the last three decades
there has been a growing attack on the very intellectual foundations
on which academic legitimacy is ultimately grounded. What was 
revealed even by the rather unsophisticated attacks of thirty years 
ago has encouraged a thorough-going foundational reexamination in 
every field. It is no longer obvious to all that the methods and 
problematic of natural science produce an "objective" picture 
of the world untainted by ideology and by the social and political
predispositions of scientists, or that the Divina Commedia contains
all that much of universal or lasting value to someone uninterested
in the history of medieval and early Renaissance Italy (or without 
the ability to read fourteenth-century Italian). What makes this
attack even more unsettling is that it comes from within. God grant 
us another Urban VIII!

	The reaction to the foundational attack on the intellectual
presuppositions of the sciences and the humanities, following so
soon on the blows to the personal status of academics, has been
the creation of a literature of indignation, characterized for the 
most part by the analytic coherence of a cry of pain. Among the most 
recent expressions of hurt and anger are Higher Superstition: The 
Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman 
Levitt, and On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and 
Society by the long time protector of traditional values of the 
intellectual family, Gertrude Himmelfarb.

What suicidal impulse must have possessed Paul Gross and Norman
Levitt when they produced, as the first line for their book,
"Muddle-headedness has always been the sovereign force in human
affairs"? While reading the book I thought it might be amusing to
review it entirely through artfully arranged quotations from it,
producing a kind of autophagous destruction, but then I decided it
was not worth the considerable effort required to copy out all the
passages.  Yet it is impossible to resist totally: "This is a book
that is content, in the main, to posture, rather than to argue. It
is driven by resentment, rather than the logic of its ideas" (91). 
"Very few positions are analyzed at great enough length to make 
them coherent; names and phrases are simply run in and out of the 
text as props for [their] views" (51).

The argument of Higher Superstition is simple, although
its rhetoric is rococo:

(1) There is a set of antiscientific critics who comprise
the "academic left" and are the direct descendants of the
Marxist or Marx inspired new-lefties of the sixties. Their
program to devalue science is the deliberate extension of
the attempt to destabilize bourgeois society, an attempt that failed
politically but continues to plague intellectual life.

(2) A great deal of nonsense has been written about science
by the "academic left;'who, in fact, hate science. The
claims of these people are that the content and method of
science are culturally biased against feminine values,
against non-Europeans-and axe tools for the oppression of groups
without power. Moreover, according to these critics, science is
just another language, and like all texts, the texts of science
can mean many different things at different times and in different
contexts. Such people deny the objective reality of the material
world that is described by science.

(3) Science is a set of practices that has been developed
in order to produce an objective picture of the natural
world. Scientists, of course, make mistakes like anyone
else, but the results of science really last are those that are
"written in nature." Moreover, science is good for you. It is the
one methodology that is guaranteed to produce objective knowledge
about the world, and it is the only way to solve the world's
problems. "The wretched of the earth want science and the benefits
of science."

The first problem with Gross and Levitt's thesis is that it is
impossible to tell what is meant by the "academic left," although
they spend a lot of energy trying to justify the term. It definitely
does not mean academics who are politically left: they exclude all 
practicing  scientists with leftist politics. Indeed, some of their 
best friends are lefties. They love Steve Gould. Nor does it include 
all leftist humanists and social scientists. They use, for example, 
an article in the New Left Review- by an admirer of Marx, Elizabeth
Wilson, to castigate the "academic left." On the other hand, the academic left includes such well-known lefties as Paul de Man! Nor does one have to be an academic to be
included (Jeremy Rifkin is on the list). Their archetype of the
"academic left" is Stanley Aronowitz, whose leftist credentials are 
for them that he is actually a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left wing of what used to be the Democratic Party. The hopeless muddle they make
of the category renders the term academic left useless for any
analytic purpose, yet it appears over and over, beginning with the 
subtitle of the book itself. What is revealed is the unbroken
historical line that connects the present literature of indignation 
with the struggles for authority and legitimacy of the sixties and 
the still-present memories of clenched fists and cries of 
"Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!"

It is certainly true, and Gross and Levitt provide some
lovely examples, that some people have written nonsense about the method
and content of natural science. What is not clear from their
treatment is whether these examples of nonsense represent any
significant or threatening attack on rationality, any more than
their own vulgar six page history of the Left in the United States 
threatens the profession of political history, or their one-liners 
Out of Cliff Notes characterizing Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe,
and Coleridge need worry those who study European literature. By
deliberately choosing a few extreme examples-so extreme that they require only
quotation and not analysis-the authors have created a bogeyman
meant to frighten us so much that we will be distracted from
considering the real critique of naive reductionism and positivism. 
The vulgarity of their approach prevents any serious analysis of 
the presuppositions, methods, and results of what goes on under the 
name of Science.

The "science" of Gross and Levitt is something out of a
high school textbook. It is the Law of Combining Proportions,
the motion of a falling body in a vacuum, the ratio of
round to wrinkled peas in the second generation of a hybrid
cross. They know that there are serious problems in
epistemology, but they announce their intention to ignore
these problems because they have already been disposed of
by others: "This is a book about politics and its curious
offspring, not about epistemology or the philosophy of
science; we cannot therefore refute, in abstracto, the
constructionist view.... Nor are we obliged to do so:
serious philosophers have been at it for decades" (48).
Decades, indeed! Since Plato's cave.

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.

The study of evolution is filled with ideological prejudices
whose influence is increasing. Notions of "optimality,"
"strategy," and "utility" have been taken over from economics
and are the organizing metaphors of fields of biology, like
sociobiology that Gross and Levitt so admire. Yet there is
no "hard science" here. In its place is a collection of
imaginative stories with no empirical test that can put
them into the frame of analytic genetics on which evolutionary
theory claimed to be built. One of the most extraordinary
developments in evolutionary studies has been the coming
into dominance of metaphors of selective adaptation for
explanations at the level of whole organisms, while,
simultaneously, explanations in population
genetics have become characterized by reference to historical
contingency random walks, and gamblers' ruin.

Even molecular biology, with its talk of "self-reproducing"
gene, that "determine" the organism, is ideological in its
implications. DNA is certainly not "self-reproducing," any
more than a text copied by a Xerox machine is self-reproducing;
in fact, it is the machine that is interesting and needs
to be understood. So it is the total cell machinery that
needs to be understood if we are to understand both the
production of new DNA and how the information in the DNA
is, in fact. turned into flesh. Higher Superstition is not
a serious book about the problems of understanding and
constructing science. It is, instead. one long fit of bad
temper, taking as its object the most vulnerable and easiest
targets. Its authors remind one of the father who, having
been told off by his wife and children, goes out and kicks
the dog.

While Higher Superstition misses the real action, the author
of On Looking into the Abyss knows the enemy and engages
it directly. As
Himmelfarb correctly perceives, the traditional bases for authority
and legitimacy in questions of aesthetic, historical, and moral judgment
are under direct attack. The claim for "contingencies of value,"
in Barbara

Herrnstein Smith's resonant phrase, is the demand for a thorough
going revision in our arguments about what is good and bad in both
the moral and aesthetic spheres. If the struggles of moral philosophers
can only be judged in time and place, if Shakespeare was only a marvelous
English poet and dramatist, then we are indeed adrift. Can it really
be that Tupac Shakur and Ludwig van Beethoven are in some way on the
same plane? After all, they both qualify as antisocial personalities.
The problem of the source of authority and legitimacy of values is more
than an academic issue, and its implications are far greater than
just finding a good reason to make all undergraduates take a survey
course in English literature.

Like Higher Superstition, Himmelfarb's book belongs to the
genre of the literature of indignation. Her argument is simple and direct.
If there is no universal and absolute source of value, then there is
no basis on which we can hold in check the most destructive and inhumane
behavior of individuals and nations. If Opus 131 is not "great"
in some absolute sense, then we are doomed to an eternity of punk
rock. If we cannot hold the Western ideas of freedom to be absolute,
then we are doomed to be slaves or slave drivers. The claim of
contingency must be rejected, because the alternative is the abyss.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of a project does not
guarantee the coherence of its consideration. First, she
is wrong about history. She makes many references to the
Holocaust, all meant to warn us of the hideous consequences
of a loss of commitment to absolute values. But, if there
is one thing that characterized Nazism, it was not a nihilism
of values but rather a psychopathic adherence to absolute
principles of the right, the good, and the beautiful. Race
purity, the morality of the Volk, the rescue of culture
and civilization from the evils and corruption of Jews and
other orientals were the cornerstones of justification for
the Holocaust. No word was more important to Nazi cultural
criticism than "degenerate:' Does Himmelfarb think that
the tortures of the Inquisition were in the name of cultural
relativism? In fact, we do not have a single example of
mass inhumanity that was the consequence of a rejection of
value; on the contrary, institutions of human slavery and
oppression have always been justified by an appeal to the highest
principles. The question, alas, is not one of --freedom," but of
freedom for whom and to do what, Himmelfarb is too well versed in
political philosophy not to know the deep contradictions in concepts
of liberty, but none of that surfaces in her discussion. For her,
the philosophical questions of liberty were all definitively dealt
with by Mill.

Second, there is no argument in On Looking into the Abyss,
only alarm and indignation. Suppose it were true (and I
will argue that it is not) that the abandonment of absolute
cultural values would lead ineluctably into the depths. It would
not follow that values do indeed have an absolute basis but only
that a willing suspension of clear thought is a prudential necessity
for the maintenance of a humane society. Himmelfarb does not present
a single argument for the existence of an absolute standard either
of morality or of "greatness." Indeed, there are only two positions
she might take.  One is religious: the good and the beautiful are
given by God or by some equivalent source of value that is prior
to human existence.  The other is a Darwinian gloss on Kant: all
human beings, as a result of the
evolution of their central nervous systems, have in the structure
of their brains a set of a prioris that dictate what appear to be
universal values. Himmelfarb is too perspicacious to commit herself
to either of these, at least in public. Curiously, she does not
try to finesse the problem by the standard negative argument from
the Theaetetus, namely, that to argue that man is the measure of
all things is self-contradictory, and so there must be absolute
values. This is a Socratic ploy, which cannot carry real weight.
It is a feature of language that the statement "There is no absolute
truth" is self-denying; but it does not follow that there is absolute
truth, any more than it follows from Russell's dictionary paradox
that we should burn all our dictionaries.

In the absence of a religious or natural historical claim for
absolute standards, there remains only the evident fact that human
beings have created values in the course of their varied histories.
To the extent that some values have made possible stable social
orders and others have not, there has been a convergence on values,
and this prudential consideration is quite sufficient as an argument
for adherence to them. But this instrumental argument leads to the
possibility that prudence may lead in other directions in other
times. It is this possibility that Himmelfarb wishes to deny,
despite the fact that the intellectual circle to which she belongs
was quite willing to support the murder of Vietnamese by Americans for
the sake of freedom. It simply does not follow that if there are
no absolute and transcendent values, then there are no values. If
that were true we would still be on the gold standard. I do not
need to believe in God or a universal human nature to know that I
would find it intolerable to live in a society where I could not
dissent publicly from received truth, but I also know that the
members of the College of Cardinals do not share my view and that
they have a better claim to represent the long sweep of European
history than I do. The difference is that I am on the victorious
side of the most recent serious crisis of legitimation.

One of the ironies of Himmelfarb's position is that she,
like the school of cultural theorists to which she belongs,
makes the same indissoluble linkage between absolute moral 
values and absolute cultural standards that was made by the 
National Socialists. The most common attribute in The Abyss 
is "greatness," but it is never quite clear what one needs 
in order to qualify as "great" in a
universal sense, beyond the historical approbation of people who
are in a position to know. But how are we to tell

who is in a position to know, except that they have read and approved
of the "great"? The claim that "great" authors have provided deep
and novel insight into the general human condition that necessarily
speaks to all, irrespective of class and culture, is patently false.
When I reply to a friend who has twitted me about taking myself
too seriously, "He jests at scars that never felt a wound" I am
not providing a deep philosophical insight, unknown to the rudest
groundling, but I am quoting a superb bit of English poetry. Anyone
who is in any doubt that Shakespeare was an English poet should
try Andre Gide's translation of Hamlet: "Thou wretched, rash,
intruding fool, farewell!" comes out as "Pauvre sot, brouillon,
indiscret, bon voyage!" Nor can Pushkin's dancing tetrameter,

Onegin, dobryi moi pryatel',
Rodilcya na bregakh Nevy,
Gde, mozhet bit', rodilic' vy

be carried into any English translation of Eygenii Onegin, not to
speak of creating any cultural resonance with the upbringing and
love life of a late eighteenth-century dandy who "was born on the
banks of the Neva, where, perhaps, you too were born, my dear
reader." Sorry, wrong river, wrong century, wrong social class,
wrong language.

The body of writing to which Higher Superstition and On Looking
Into the Abyss belong, while appealing to transcendent standards,
is, ironically, the product of a particular historical moment in
the development of European culture. In a movement that began with
the growth of the noblesse de robe in prerevolutionary France,
technical and intellectual competence has increasingly become a
pathway to upward social mobility. More secure and, from all
attitudinal surveys, more prestigious than entrepreneurship or
state service, intellectual activities increasingly have provided
status, material well-being, and some forms of social power.
Professional intellectuals, chiefly academics, have only relatively
recently found themselves to be a major source of authority and
legitimacy in European bourgeois society. An important part of that
power is the image that intellectuals speak for no special interest,
time, or group but are the conduits into society of the eternal
verities. Thus, they have not appreciated the degree to which they,
like any other source of legitimacy, necessarily become identified
with the general structures of authority, and so they are unprepared
for the attack on their authority that periodic crises of political
legitimation must bring. In reading these books I saw before me
Masaccio's bathetic image of Adam and Eve, faces screwed up in
anguish, shedding bitter tears and covering their genitals as they
are expelled from Paradise.


This essay appeared in Configurations 3, no. 2 (spring 1995):

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