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October 21, 2008

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TDK

The closing comment about Kurt Gödel is just silly.

Either he doesn't understand Gödel or he is making a statement about deconstructionism that I don't understand.

Anna

"What's more, it's not particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness."

Bingo. Calling Alan Sokal...

pwyll

I have to second TDK. Gödel's work was ground-breaking, and for the ages. To compare modern literary critics to Gödel is to pay them tribute they do not deserve.

David

Yes, I’m not sure what he’s getting at with the Gödel reference. But it seemed unfair to cut him off mid-sentence. You could always ask for an explanation:

http://www.fudco.com/chip/

carbon based lifeform

The deconstruction formula is funny.

"You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren't French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic."

Candice

"Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred. The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff."

What is important about Literary Criticism?

"Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as to its validity. "

He's right. It is one of the more valuable lessons I learned in college - that truth, value, and assumptions are not as simple as we typically believe. Questioning assumptions can indeed be useful. Sadly, it seems all the po-mo deconstructionistas do is corrupt the language, fog the mind, and suck off the tit of university payrolls.

As Mr. Morningstar says, this is an interesting topic for an undergraduate thesis or perhaps even a course topic, but not for a whole career. Its value should be in teaching one how to question assumptions, not in making a field of doing that questioning. It's a personal journey and not something I'm interested in paying others to do for me.

David

“What is important about Literary Criticism?”

I suspect that’s a question that troubles quite a few literary theorists; hence the urge to pepper their noodling with claims of subversive political import. By puffing out their rhetorical chests and making political claims, their cosmic importance can be recognised from afar.

dirigible

What is important about Literary Criticism?

It is the intellectual application of the Peter Principle. Academics will adopt Literary Criticism in inverse proportion to their competence. Sadly they will then try to foist it on anyone trying to actually further the arts and sciences.

Postmodernism contains no questions, only stock answers. That they are different from the prevailing hegemony (sic) does not make them any more like questions.

JuliaM

It seems, via the Croydonian, that 'precious birds' are starting to overwinter in the Netherlands:

http://croydonian.blogspot.com/2008/10/sssshhh-no-on-tell-bbc-it-will-get.html

David

Julia,

Thanks. It’s odd how so many “progressive” ideas seem to require a rarefied environment from which contrary views are excluded...

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/11/so-very-tired.html

Herb

May 18, 1996

Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly
By JANNY SCOTT
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, "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 studies.

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 Professor 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, Professor 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 meaning.

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," Professor 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 political" motivations.

"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 Franca.

In an interview, Professor 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 Professor Sokal's attention, yesterday 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.

Professor 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 science.

"I didn't know people were using deconstructive literary criticism not only to study Jane Austen but to study quantum mechanics," he said yesterday. Then, he said, he read "Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel With Science" by Professor Levitt and Paul R. Gross.

Professor 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 Professor Aronowitz. Words like hegemony, counterhegemonic and epistemological abound.

In it, Professor 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 N.Y.U., said yesterday that about a half-dozen editors at the journal dealt with Professor Sokal's unsolicited manuscript. While it appeared "a little hokey," they decided to publish it in a special issue they called Science Wars, he said.

"We read it as the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some sort of philosophical justification for his work," said Professor Ross, director of the American studies program at N.Y.U. "In other words, it was about the relationship between philosophy and physics."

Now Professor Ross says he regrets having published the article. But he said Professor Sokal misunderstood the ideas of the people he was trying to expose. "These are caricatures of complex scholarship," he said.

Professor Aronowitz, a sociologist and director of the Center for Cultural Studies at CUNY, said Professor Sokal seems to believe that the people he is parodying deny the existence of the real world. "They never deny the real world," Professor Aronowitz said. "They are talking about whether meaning can be derived from observation of the real world."

Professor 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."

Coiled Gibberish in a Thicket of Prose

Following is an excerpt from "Transgressing the Boundaries," a parody by Prof. Alan D. Sokal of New York University that was published in the journal Social Text as a serious article.

"Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step further, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science."

pst314

Alan Sokal has a book on his hoax, titled "Fashionable Nonsense".

TDK

I did a course on Gödel as an undergraduate. There's no doubt it's very hard and counterintuitive.

However there is a marked difference between Gödel and the PMs. At the time, but decreasing as time went by, his peer mathematicians attempted to prove him wrong. Many tried to find the flaw in his work or to come to different conclusions. Now we are not talking of a subject where the proof consists of artfully written prose; we are talking about symbolic logic. Every step can be analysed one stage at a time and if any fail the whole edifice crumbles. In short there is a rigour virtually absent from PM and his work challenged the orthodoxy within his field.

PM by contrast is the prevailing hegemony within education. My son's A-level in English requires him to read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" and to write an essay on how to change society so that the protagonist feels he is treated equally. Social activism is now the default mode.

David

TDK,

“Social activism is now the default mode.”

Today’s post is tangentially relevant…

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/10/insatiable-delu.html

georges

PoMo is basically over. All the major thinkers who take a PoMo stance are now dead, apart from Zizek. This blog post shows how the telltale buzzwords of PoMo are declining in academia:

http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2008/09/graphs-on-death-of-marxism.php

There are three points which I always find myself making in these discussions. First, there are many on the left - including Sokal - who have always been anti-PoMo. Chomsky in particular is hostile to it. Here, for instance, is James Heartfield explaining why he sees PoMo as a retreat from activist politics:

http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/ghostly_demarcations2/

Christian Marxist Terry Eagleton is a fierce critic of Stanley Fish. He says "Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump":

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n05/eagl01_.html

This leads on to my second point: that we must be careful about grouping together a whole load of writers who often disagree profoundly with each other. I've been re-reading some Derrida, and while I'm not warming to the task, I now realize I was attributing to him all manner of PoMo ideas he never actually claimed to hold.

Third, and this is, I think, very interesting: there is a pronounced turn towards religion in PoPoMo thought. Derrida's late work, such as "The Gift Of Death", becomes more obviously concerned with religious themes. Eagleton talks a lot more about Christianity than he used to; his favourite enemy of the moment is now Richard Dawkins:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

Anna

"Professor Cooke also claims "polygamy can be liberating and empowering.""

Maybe the dozy fucking bint should try it for ten years before she tells us how great it is. She's supposed to be a feminist, right?

David

“She’s supposed to be a feminist, right?”

Supposedly. She’s edited at least one feminist journal and did take part in the Duke “rape” fiasco. She’s quite vocal in denouncing “persecution” and “oppression” when the alleged perpetrator suits her contorted leftwing politics, even when the “persecution” and “oppression” in question doesn’t actually exist. But then, she’s also supposed to be an insightful educator, which is perhaps a tad misleading too.

I’d have thought that polygamy and its religious sanction would be regarded as an obvious human rights issue, since it implies – and implies quite strongly – that women are effectively chattel. It also tends to reinforce other misogynist cultural norms. I guess the belief is that women with brown skin have “different” rights than thee and me, or indeed Professor Cooke herself. Of course, “different” rights generally means *fewer* rights, but this is skipped over because some things must be romanticised to suit a pre-existing worldview in which only the West can be wicked, primitive, barbarous, etc. And for some it’s simply unthinkable that Western civilisation is actually rather good and much better than the alternatives, especially for women.

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