Skip to comments.Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
Posted on 08/03/2007 2:57:01 AM PDT by Enchante
There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''.3 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; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.....
(Excerpt) Read more at physics.nyu.edu ...
The “Social Text” affair involved a brilliant parody article submitted by physicist Alan Sokal of NYU to a trendy, posturing leftist “cultural studies” journal at Duke University called “Social Text” — basically Sokal wanted to see if pompous leftist academics would publish an article full of absolute drivel if it flattered their ideological and cultural posturing. They published it, and the rest is history.
Unfortunately, many academics still have not studied or taken seriously the lessons of this affair.
There are some great links/articles/interviews at the author’s website:
p.s Sokal actually considers himself on the left politically (even went to Nicaragua to teach during the Sandinista era), but he became disgusted with the absence of respect for evidence and logic on much of the political left.
A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies
Alan D. Sokal
For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I’m a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.
So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,’’ in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. It appears in a special number of the magazine devoted to the ``Science Wars.’’
What’s going on here? Could the editors reallynot have realized that my article was written as a parody?
Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. 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, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Textraises important questions that no scientist should ignore — questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There isa real world; its properties are notmerely social constructions; facts and evidence domatter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.
Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory — meaning postmodernist literarytheory — carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and ``text,’’ then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and ``language games,’’ then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.
In the end, I resorted to parody for a simple pragmatic reason. The targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside. In such a situation, a more direct demonstration of the subculture’s intellectual standards was required. But how can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can’t be brushed off is the one that’s self-inflicted. I offered the Social Texteditors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor. Did they meet the test? I don’t think so.
I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues — including many concerning science and technology — I’m on the same side as the Social Texteditors. But I’m a leftist (and feminist) becauseof evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?
And why should self-indulgent nonsense — whatever its professed political orientation — be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement?
Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University. He is co-author with Roberto Fernández and Jürg Fröhlich of Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory(Springer, 1992), and co-author with Jean Bricmont of the forthcoming Les impostures scientifiques des philosophes (post-)modernes.
I didn’t read the 1st post, lol. I got 3 or 4 paragraphs in before I asked myself, “who wrote this, the Chomskybot?”
‘This goes back to before the days of FR - for all who may have missed it the first time around (and for others who just want some renewed chuckles). This is the parody article submitted to (and blithely published by) a trendy leftist “cultural studies” journal at Duke U. called “Social Text” — one of the all-time great parodies in the history of culture!’
Great stuff. I didn’t wade through the whole thing the first time I came across it. Having done so now, I’m sure it had many folks in the humanities going in a big way. Much puffery with little actual content - and most of that didn’t really make sense. Wow, sounds like Dem talking points...
LOL! My first impression when I started reading this was that it sounded Marxist. Glad I read some of the posts pointing out that it’s satire before I sounded off.
Don’t worry about understanding this intellectual exercise in frustration. The entire physical universe is an illusion. Get over it!
What Sokal fails to understand is that it is NOT parody to these people. At their core, they really believe what comes out of their mouth (and that of their friends) constitutes reality. Their opinions consistently become ingrained in the previailing culture—why shouldn’t they also trump the laws of physics? The thought the joke was on them. But really, it is on all of us.
Reality and Objectivity have always been highly overrated.
What is more important than ‘fact’ is how you ‘feel’ about it and how it will advance the social agendas you support.
I wonder what he would think of Ward Churchill?
“Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?” — what a great question from a left-winger! I guess the answer has to with the fact that what they call the “right wing” is not actually displaced to the “right” side of reality the same as they are positioned “left” of reality.
“And why should self-indulgent nonsense — whatever its professed political orientation — be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement? “
Why indeed? Most of our higher education fits this category. I shake my head in sadness at the complete world and history ignorance I encounter on a daily basis.
It’s not any stretch to compare the degraded standards and intellectual bankruptcy that produced the “Social Text” fiasco from a trendy journal published by DUKE University to the “Gang of 88” and the depravity of the Duke faculty/administration in the face of the fraudulent case against the Duke lax players:
Since 1994, at least, it has been completely obvious that “the emperor has no clothes” at Duke and similar places. Yet, few if any academics draw any lessons from such fiascos as the “Social Text” affair or the attempted faculty lynching of the Duke lax players. Those faculty members who are actually competent just hunker down and try to pursue their work, while the charlatans of the left run wild all over the place. This phenomenon was also seen recently at Harvard when less than 1/4 of the arts and sciences faculty managed to depose a very liberal president for not being slavishly politically correct (never mind the entire university’s faculty in medicine, etc. which is ignored in such cases).
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