The Postmodern Hoax

Beyond the Hoax

Reading Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax brought back the question that haunted my university teaching career:  How much of postmodernism was intellectual fraud?

"Transgressing Boundaries" and Social Text

Sokal is the physicist who submitted a deliberately bogus article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries:  Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the cultural studies journal Social Text.

Post-structuralism as Mummery

After it was accepted and published (Spring/Summer 1996), Sokal announced that the article was nonsense, a parody of postmodernist half-baked arguments and verbiage. Sokal and the Belgian physicist/philosopher, Jean Bricmont, subsequently published Impostures Intellectuelles (1997) in which they systematically unmasked the mummery of leading lights of post-structuralist theory such as Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva.

Jacques Lacan as Charlatan

The most compelling essay I have read on Lacan is Dylan Evans’ “From Lacan to Darwin.”  Evans spent at least a decade studying Lacan, first in the context of psychoanalysis as a dedicated Lacanian disciple in Buenos Aires, then in Comparative Literature at UNY Buffalo, and finally in London as a psychologist and adherent of “evolutionary psychology.”    Evans confesses:

Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Paradoxically, Evans offers the closest thing to a justification for Lacanian psychoanalysis  (and the whole of Lacan’s work for that matter) I’ve ever read.  The process is one in which the analyst is a fraud, and when the patient finally discovers that his psychoanalyst is a huckster then he is cured.  (Consider the possibility that the whole of postmodernism/post-structuralism was a hoax, and we are now cured because we can say so.)  Evans concludes by questioning the legitimacy of the process, but his preamble shows a degree of coherence that is rare in discussions of Lacan: 

Fashionable Nonsense

How is it possible that this “fashionable nonsense” (to quote the American title of the Bricmont & Sokal book) became so widespread and firmly, even dogmatically accepted in the arts and humanities programs of Anglo-American universities?  The answer is fairly obvious and often repeated with allusion to the fable of “the Emperor’s new clothes.” What I can add, perhaps, is some of the detail of how university professors and students aspiring to become university professors were compelled to show an understanding of; that is, to pretend to understand, the nonsense underpinning post-structuralist theory. 

How Scholarship Becomes Dogma

The same requirement that we put on students writing theses applies to professors submitting their work for peer review:  “show that you have done the reading.”  “The reading” in the postmodern period is, of course, the post-structuralist theorists:  Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, etc, and to make matters worse, everyone who makes use of this Tel Quel cabal, which turns out to be just about everyone who is getting published.  For professors, the cliché is still fully functional: it’s publish or perish.  If you want to get published, which is what you do to get tenure and promotion, not to mention funding so you can go to conferences at juicy locations like Hawaii and Paris, then you better know your post-structuralist theorists, or at least be ready to pretend you do.  

The Trickle-Down Effect on Pedagogy

The idea that a couple of hundred specialists might gather at a conference to spout this turgid, empty language at one another, playing verbal puzzle games, didn’t really disturb me all that much.  Though it did seem a terrible waste of time and brainpower.  What did disturb me was to see students chastised for failing to “theorize” and “problematize” as if these terms signaled an accomplishment.  It disturbed me to see students struggling to understand theories which didn’t hold water and being forced, like their professors, to pretend they made sense and were being grasped;  or, worse still, simply being turned off the study of literature and culture because it had been transformed into the study of obtuse theories.

Negotiating Postmodern Dogma

Then, of course, there was my dilemma of how to negotiate the hypocrisy:  teaching theories I really didn’t find credible.  In my research and publications, I think I did alright:  showing that I had read the post-structuralists while signaling that I wasn’t really buying the theories they were selling (citing Sokal and Bricmont for example).  Teaching undergraduates, I could cherry-pick concepts and vocabulary, acknowledging their soi-disant origins, but spinning them, à la Rumpelstiltskin, into something that made sense; that is, that made sense to me, and could be transformed into something that made sense and was even useful for students.  I could explain deconstruction, as Ellis does in Against Deconstruction, in terms of the many challenges to essentialism (the idea that words get their meanings from one-to-one correspondence with the “essences” of objects in the world).  While acknowledging that the un-readable Kristeva did the earliest work on the important and useful concept of intertextuality, I could quickly turn to Graham Allen’s accessible description of the idea (in Intertextuality) that “meaning [. . . .] exists between a text and the other texts to which it refers and relates” rather than within an independent text.  The ubiquitous concept of “the subject” as an unstable site of consciousness, so typically associated with Lacanian psychoanalysis, is what the philosophy of mind is all about and could be explained in that context. 

The Imposition of Postmodern Dogma on Students

Dealing with graduate students and graduate theses was more problematic.  It was disheartening to see students being led down a garden path, into dead ends, on wild goose chases--all the clichés applied.  I tried to be frank, but I also recognized that if students wanted to get on in the academic world, they could not afford to be dismissive of post-structuralism. Even if you knew the emperor wore no clothes, there was no advantage and significant risk in saying so.

Postmodernism Versus Enlightenment

Perhaps the most important part of Beyond the Hoax is its preface.  There Sokal concludes, from the surprising attention which the hoax received (though I always felt it didn’t receive enough), that “a not insignificant cohort of adults recall having endured, as undergraduates, an English, cultural studies or women’s studies course overly filled with Lacanian or deconstructionist verbiage, and who may have doubted their own intellectual competence as a result.”  On a broader, political level, Sokal quotes Noam Chomsky’s complaint that postmodernist intellectuals, while claiming a leftist agenda, have actually deprived working people of the tools of emancipation by claiming “that the ‘project of the Enlightenment is dead,’ that we must abandon the ‘illusions’ of science and rationality -- a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.”  To substantiate Chomsky’s point, consider the fact that we have been told ad infinitum by postmodernists that “common sense” and “binary thinking” (the only kind of thinking that the human brain is capable of) are evidence of right-wing, conservative ideology.

Postmodernist Abuse of Language

What I have most appreciated of Sokal’s work (though odd since he is a physicist) is his critique of postmodernist abuses of language.  What Sokal observes most often relates to how postmodern academics use terms from science which also exist in common language but without ever clarifying the sense in which the words are being used.  Instruction number one which I would typically give to graduate students approaching a thesis was “define your terms,” but it was a tough sell considering the postmodern scholars they were reading rarely, if ever, did so.  The postmodernists’ solution to the ambiguity, obfuscation and incoherence in their own writing was to celebrate ambiguity, polysemy and indeterminacy as if they were positive features in expository writing.

Science and Scepticism

The Sokal hoax provided a healthy revelation of what we were allowing to happen inside academia, but I’m less sure that the revelation has made its way into university classrooms.  As much as I admire what Sokal has accomplished, as he clarified his objectives in perpetrating the hoax and clarified the terms of the debate between postmodernist constructionist and empirical scientists, I found myself sliding back to where I had come from among the phenomenologists and skeptics.  The question, which is as old as philosophy itself, boils down to: “Is there an objective reality, uncontaminated by our perceptions and intentions, that we can have access to?”  Science must answer yes because the study of that reality is its defining objective.  Cultural-studies academics like me, unimpressed as I am with post-structuralism, are destined by discipline, like the ancient Greek philosophers of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, to remain skeptical.


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