Transgressing the Boundaries...
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 20 May 96 12:51:16 -0700
Subject: Transgressing the Boundaries...
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Copyright 1996 N.Y. Times News Service
NEW YORK (May 18, 1996 00:30 a.m. EDT) -- A New York University physicist,
fed up with what he sees as the excesses of the academic left, hoodwinked
a well-known journal into publishing a parody thick with gibberish as though
it were serious scholarly work.
The article, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," appeared this month in Social Text, a
journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural
Now the physicist, Alan Sokal, is gloating. And the editorial collective
that publishes the journal says it sorely regrets its mistake. But the
journal's co-founder says Sokal is confused.
"He says we're epistemic relativists," complained Stanley Aronowitz, the
co-founder and a professor at CUNY. "We're not. He got it wrong. One of the
reasons he got it wrong is he's ill-read and half-educated."
The dispute over the article -- which was read by several editors at the
journal before it was published -- goes to the heart of the public debate
over left-wing scholarship, and particularly over the belief that social,
cultural and political conditions influence and may even determine knowledge
and ideas about what is truth.
In this case, Sokal, 41, intended to attack some of the work of social
scientists and humanists in the field of cultural studies, the exploration
of culture -- and, in recent years, science -- for coded ideological
In a way, this is one more skirmish in the culture wars, the battles over
multiculturalism and college curriculums and whether there is a single
objective truth or just many differing points of view.
Conservatives have argued that there is truth, or at least an approach to
truth, and that scholars have a responsibility to pursue it. They have
accused the academic left of debasing scholarship for political ends.
"While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious," Sokal
wrote in a separate article in the current issue of the magazine Lingua
Franca, in which he revealed the hoax and detailed his "intellectual and
"What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy
thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking:
one that denies the existence of objective realities," he wrote in Lingua
In an interview, Sokal, who describes himself as "a leftist in the
old-fashioned sense," said he worried that the trendy disciplines and
obscure jargon could end up hurting the leftist cause. "By losing contact
with the real world, you undermine the prospect for progressive social
critique," he said.
Norman Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University and an
author of a book on science and the academic left that first brought the
new critique of science to Sokal's attention, Friday called the hoax "a lot
of fun and a source of a certain amount of personal satisfaction."
"I don't want to claim that it proves that all social scientists or all
English professors are complete idiots, but it does betray a certain
arrogance and a certain out-of-touchness on the part of a certain clique
inside academic life," he said.
Sokal, who describes himself as "a leftist and a feminist" who once spent
his summers teaching mathematics in Nicaragua, said he became concerned
several years ago about what academics in cultural studies were saying about
"I didn't know people were using deconstructive literary criticism not only
to study Jane Austen but to study quantum mechanics," he said Friday. Then,
he said, he read "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel
With Science" by Levitt and Paul R. Gross.
Sokal said the book, which analyzes the critique of science, prompted him
to begin reading work by the critics themselves. "I realized it would be
boring to write a detailed refutation of these people," he said. So, he
said, he decided to parody them.
"I structured the article around the silliest quotes about mathematics and
physics from the most prominent academics, and I invented an argument
praising them and linking them together," he said. "All this was very easy
to carry off because my argument wasn't obliged to respect any standards of
evidence or logic."
To a lay person, the article appears to be an impenetrable hodgepodge of
jargon, buzzwords, footnotes and other references to the work of the likes
of Jacques Derrida and Aronowitz. Words like hegemony, counterhegemonic and
In it, Sokal wrote: "It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical
'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and
linguistic construct; that scientific 'knowledge,' far from being objective,
reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the
culture that produced it."
Andrew Ross, a co-editor of Social Text who also happens to be a professor
at NYU, said Friday that about a half-dozen editors at the journal dealt
with Sokal's unsolicited manuscript. While it appeared "a little hokey,"
they decided to publish it in a special issue they called Science Wars, he=
"We read it as the earnest attempt of a professional scientiSt to seek some
sort of philosophical justification for his work," said Ross, director of
the American studies program at NYU "In other words, it was about the
relationship between philosophy and physics."
Now Ross says he regrets having published the article. But he said Sokal
misunderstood the ideas of the people he was trying to expose. "These are
caricatures of complex scholarship," he said.
Aronowitz, a sociologist and director of the Center for Cultural Studies at
CUNY, said Sokal seems to believe that the people he is parodying deny the
existence of the real world. "They never deny the real world," Aronowitz
said. "They are talking about whether meaning can be derived from
observation of the real world."
Ross said it would be a shame if the hoax obscured the broader issues his
journal sought to address, "that scientific knowledge is affected by social
and cultural conditions and is not a version of some universal truth that
is the same in all times and places."
© 1996 Peter Langston