Le pauvre Sokal
Way back in the pre-theoretical Fifties, a journalist called Ivor Brown used to have elementary fun at the expense of a serial intruder on our insular peace of mind, a bacillus known as the LFF, or Latest Foreign Fraud. By this he meant any thinker from abroad (Paris, nine times out of ten) whose alembicated ideas were being taken up with more excitement than he thought they – or, I daresay, any ideas – were worth. Brown’s catchpenny campaign in defence of our mental virginity was brought fleetingly back to memory by the title of Intellectual Impostures, a similarly prophylactic exercise which has it in for the French thinkers who have come among us since the late Sixties, bearing what Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont would like to see ostracised as fatuous, if not actually nonsensical ideas.
The authors are both professors of physics, Sokal in New York, Bricmont in Belgium, and it’s as hard scientists that they make their complaint against the intellectual charmers they have singled out, who have all of them at one time or another introduced concepts drawn from physics or the higher mathematics into their work without showing, we now learn, more than the skimpiest understanding of their true formulation or the place they occupy in the body of scientific knowledge from which they have been so recklessly abducted. The thinkers pressed shoulder to shoulder in the dock here – Lacan, Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, Deleuze/Guattari and one or two lesser figures – turn out not to know their mathematical arse from their physical elbow when they choose to steal food from Sokal and Bricmont’s professional larder, and start citing Gödel or Quantum Mechanics or Chaos Theory to lend a false weight, and the glamour that goes with appearing to be scientifically up to the mark, to the non-scientific arguments they are advancing. This point is well enough made in Intellectual Impostures, if also to excess, as Sokal and Bricmont go the rounds of their deluded authors, quoting them in their folly at a length that was hardly called for: as a sottisier, the book is a success, since we’re bound – happy, indeed – to agree that, so far as the purportedly scientific metaphors or extended analogies in Lacan and Co. are concerned, Sokal and Bricmont are right, and that the impostors are abusing concepts that they don’t know enough about to call acceptably in evidence. The same scientific ignorance which means that we can’t call Lacan or Deleuze’s bluff for ourselves, obliges us to concede the authoritativeness of its exposure here.
Were this the only point that Intellectual Impostures was making, it wouldn’t have required a whole book: fifty dismissive pages would have done the job. A whole book we have, however, and an unwontedly priggish one, written by two scientists able to read all manner of disastrous implications into the intellectual misdemeanours that they list, even though these loom pretty small in the work of the various authors they object to, only one of whom, Bruno Latour, might want to claim any scientific credentials. For this two-man vigilante patrol has something bigger in mind than simply to catch out a few LFFs in acts of lese-science. It has set out from the lab with the aim of discrediting
those intellectual aspects of Post-Modernism that have had an impact on the humanities and social sciences: a fascination with obscure discourses; an epistemic relativism linked to a generalised scepticism toward modern science; an excessive interest in subjective beliefs independently of their truth value; and an emphasis on discourse and language as opposed to the facts to which those discourses refer (or worse, the rejection of the very idea that facts exist or that one may refer to them).
This is quite a programme, and undertaken here in an oddly roundabout way, since Sokal and Bricmont have chosen to take on the influential Parisians they regard as a prime source of the infection, rather than their infatuated surrogates on the campuses of the US, where the influence of these particular intellectual exports has been noticeably greater than in France itself. The French, however, were the first to have the benefit of this book, which appeared there a year ago, before being translated into English by the authors themselves and published in the language community which they knew from the start had the greater need of it. You don’t get to hear or even to read much about Post-Modernism in Paris, where the original Impostures intellectuelles was understandably received by one of its most prominent targets, Julia Kristeva, as ‘an anti-French intellectual escapade’, while Jacques Derrida, on whom the authors could for once find nothing to pin, responded with a seen-it-all-before sigh, ‘le pauvre Sokal’.
Poor Sokal and poor Bricmont believe that the garlanded French thinkers who have been leading the American young (and some of the not-so-young) intellectually astray don’t deserve to have any influence at all, that someone capable, as is Lacan, of playing fast and loose with ideas taken over from topology in what is at best semi-ignorance of the facts of the matter should be cast into the oubliette as an all-weather charlatan. A local outbreak of nonsense in his oeuvre may be assumed to be a symptom of a more general condition: if the maths is wonky, the chances are that everything else that Lacan has written is wonky, and that his psychoanalytical doctrines are no sounder or of any more practical service than his algebra. Here, however, the scientists play professionally cautious, for fear of going beyond what they can know for sure and thus letting the empirical side down: ‘We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of [his] work, on which we suspend judgment.’ They make no such claim because they know they don’t need to, so ready will those of like mind with themselves be to leap to the conclusion that they smugly withhold, and those who are already of like mind will be the only obvious beneficiaries of this book. In a less disingenuous vein, they quote from Bertrand Russell, explaining how he lost faith in Hegel as a thinker after discovering how bad he was at maths.
Having myself only ever come across admirers of Lacan who were either entertained, bored or baffled by his topological and other mathematical conceits, as bravura moments in an unusually conceited floor-show, without seeing any need to determine their truth value, I find all this weirdly heavy-handed and alarmist. Sokal and Bricmont have gone about damming the tidal flow of irrationality into intellectual life in an all-or-nothing manner sure to go down well with those theory-haters who long to hear bad things about such as Lacan or Kristeva, but it will be counter-productive among the broader-minded, who believe that the more styles of intellectual discourse cultures find the room and time for the healthier. There is an instructive symmetry between Sokal and Bricmont’s way of proceeding and the one they so much object to: where the impostors like to inlay bits and pieces from the discourse of science in writings that no one would think of calling ‘scientific’ in the strict sense in which Sokal and Bricmont are using the word, the latter apply criteria of rigour and univocity fundamental to their own practice which are beside the point once transferred to this alien context. I’ve read only a little of the work of the feminist writer, Luce Irigaray, but I was delighted to learn, from the few briskly contemptuous pages devoted to her here, that, in arguing for the masculinist bias of science, she has had the estimable insolence to suggest that the 20th century’s most resonant (and sinister) equation, E = MC2, may be sexist for having ‘privileged the speed of light’ or ‘what goes fastest’ over other velocities, and that if the science of fluid mechanics is under-developed, then that is because it is a quintessentially feminine topic. Irigaray’s invocations of the sciences concerned may be worse than dodgy, but in that libertarian province of the intellectual world in which she functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont.
The inappropriateness enters the moment hard scientists like these two start asking that the work of writers and intellectuals such as Irigaray be written to the same specifications of clarity and univocity as are required in the discourse of their own disciplines, formal and stunted as this is called on to be, by comparison with the endlessly and happily expansive discourse of thought in general. To appreciate the category mistake on which this book hinges, it helps to go back to what was in effect its prototype, to Sokal’s well publicised ‘hoax’ of two years ago, when he submitted an article intended as a joke to an American academic journal called Social Text. This Duke University periodical likes, by the sound of it, to give air-space to the arguments of the epistemic relativists and other anti-foundationalists. Sokal knew the sort of thing the editors favoured, and he sent them a ‘parody’, as he puts it, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The text of this reappears as an Appendix in Intellectual Impostures, though by the time you get to it, whatever life might have been left in the joke has been well and truly eroded by the content of the earlier chapters. The ‘parody’ makes relativist claims – for, to take an example more glaring than most, a ‘relational and contextual concept of geometry’ – so far out, as Sokal sees it, for the editors of Social Text to have realised that they were being had and to have turned it down. Except that they had excellent reasons to go ahead and publish it. The hoax article appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to the ‘Science Wars’, and something of this sort, putting a jauntily extreme case, is just what sensible editors, very much in the business of intellectual provocation as they know themselves to be, would hope to have to hand on such an occasion. The article, moreover, is crammed with references to, and quotations from, the supporting literature, all the way from the scientific to the New Age, and would strike most lay readers as a spirited and informative summary of a certain, by this time familiar case against the uniquely respectable ‘meta-narrative’ of science; and as quite a nifty piece of polemic.
Sokal says that he badgered the editors of Social Text to try and find out what they thought of his spoof before they published it, but that they wouldn’t be drawn. And why on earth should they? His implication is that they should have spiked it as so much rubbish, containing as it does a lot of half-baked science. That, however, is to look on Social Text as though it were a journal belonging to the same discursive field as Nature, which presumably sends everything it publishes of substance out to scientific referees beforehand, and whose editors might well have to commit hara-kiri were they to find themselves hoaxed. The case of a journal like Social Text is opposite: it has every reason to encourage adventurism in ideas as the way to keep the intellectual pot boiling. Sokal and Bricmont would like to see the Science Wars ended (in their favour), as much as anything because of the threat to the funding of physical science potentially inscribed in any undermining of its authority. Many of us will be content and reassured, on the other hand, to see the wars go on, since that way we’re exposed to more arguments, good as well as bad, and can feel that the science we barely understand is being forced to be as explicit as is feasible in making its own social, political and, indeed, scientific case. Given, moreover, that Sokal knew perfectly well what line the editors of Social Text habitually take, to write something in the chummiest accordance with that line and then reckon you’ve scored when you find it being printed, is hardly a reason to crow. His was a hoax barely worth the perpetration.
Like some other scientists, Sokal and Bricmont appear to regret that science has any need of natural language to make itself known, that scientific facts can’t be implanted directly in our brains without resort to verbal mediation. When you complain, as they do, about Post-Modernism’s ‘emphasis on discourse and language as opposed to the facts to which those discourses refer’, a pause for reflection is in order, on whether it is legitimate to oppose the facts to the discourse when facts that are not contained in a discourse cannot be known. Sokal and Bricmont’s Platonic realm is one in which facts are mysteriously dissociated from the forms of words or strings of symbols of which they (in fact) consist. This comes out especially clearly in the least effective chapter of their book, that on Bruno Latour, the sociologist of science, whom they accuse, for example, of being guilty, when writing about relativity, of falling victim to a ‘fundamental confusion between Einstein’s pedagogy and the theory of relativity itself’. If I’ve got this right, they’re saying that the theory of relativity as propounded by Einstein, and the theory in its ideal, unpropounded state are not identical, because the act of propounding introduces an agent who is necessarily a reference-point in space-time that the ‘theory itself’ can do without; in which event, it beats me how we can ever have access to the theory except through ‘pedagogy’, which I take to be the sum of those real-life moments when the theory is communicated by one person to others. In the old and valuable Structuralist terminology, Sokal and Bricmont want their science to be all langue and no parole, its theoretical purity guaranteed by never being exposed to the risks of expression.
After which, it’s no surprise to discover that Sokal and Bricmont are especially unforgiving of ambiguity. This they look on, not as a characteristic of natural language which we can none of us avoid, given the glorious economy of linguistic forms compared with the infinitely much there is to be written or said, but as a ‘subterfuge’, the all too convenient and dishonourable resource of the impostor, enabling as it does the sentences they write to be interpreted in ‘two different ways: as an assertion that is true but relatively banal, or as one that is radical but manifestly false’. When one reminds oneself that the history of thought as a whole has been one of assertions being made that have been proved, if not at the time then subsequently, to bear more than one meaning and to be open to literally interminable re-interpretation, it becomes obvious that the notion of natural language underpinning a book like Intellectual Impostures is alarmingly impoverished. These authors are linguistically reductionist, holding to a view that inside every ‘assertion’ there is an unequivocal kernel which Parisian obfuscators will be doing their devious best to dress up in some fancy and misleading way. I carry no torch for Jean Baudrillard, but will defend him on principle when his ‘verbal veneer’ is held to account, as it is here: in the marginal lands between the literary and the sociological that Baudrillard inhabits, the ‘verbal veneer’ is the very thing, so that to read it as a disguise rather than a display is to misread it in a particularly philistine and irrelevant way. Where language is concerned, Sokal and Bricmont, bigots to the last, lose the plot altogether, and sink to the low point of declaring that their gallery of impostors have no title to any ‘poetic licence’ (a concept I was startled to discover was still in the land of the living), for ‘their intention is clearly to produce theory, and … their style is usually heavy and pompous, so it is highly unlikely that their goal is principally literary or poetic.’ The noise you hear, reading an insultingly simplistic sentence like that, is of the ocean rushing hungrily back to fill the channel dividing those time-honoured adversaries, the Two Cultures.
Beneath or beyond its purgative intellectual agenda, Intellectual Impostures has also, unexpectedly, a political one, which comes to the fore in the book’s Epilogue, where Sokal and Bricmont declare that ‘Post-Modernism’ has had three principal ‘negative effects: a waste of time in the human sciences, a cultural confusion that favours obscurantism, and a weakening of the political Left.’ The political argument is that epistemic relativism and all the rest of it is the new opium of the radicals, a disease of the university campuses unhappily expressive of the disengagement of academic leftists from anything resembling practical politics. They quote Chomsky on the frustrating experiences that he had when mingling earlier in the Nineties with the intelligent young in Egypt: ‘When I would give talks about current realities … participants wanted it to be translated into Post-Modern gibberish.’ Sokal and Bricmont believe that the intellectually decadent youth section of the American Left has sold out similarly by withdrawing into a sloppy relativism, if not outright New Age weirdery, and has thereby ‘collaborated in driving the last nail in the coffin of the ideals of justice and progress’. They are nostalgic for the days when the Left trusted and promoted hard science, rather than decrying and even regarding it as proto-fascist, though the line that they follow in Intellectual Impostures will do more to bear out this last anxiety than to invalidate it.
The pessimism of their conclusion is not only extravagant but also patronising, as if our subscription to the ideals of justice and progress, which are not dead, were in the end dependent on our sharing the extraordinarily restrictive attitude towards the life of the mind of the authors of Intellectual Impostures. Having spent a good many tart words attempting to wring the neck of eloquence, they really shouldn’t have quit the field, and headed back to the lab letting off clouds of rhetorical vapour of their own.
Vol. 20 No. 15 · 30 July 1998
Let’s see if we’ve got this straight. John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) thinks that clarity and rigour are admirable qualities in the natural sciences, but dispensable or even deleterious in the humanities and the social sciences. And he has the chutzpah to accuse us of insulting our humanist colleagues?
Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont
London SW7 & Louvain-la-Neuve
Hearing one of the visiting hackettes on Radio Four’s Start the Week confessing how her young life had been blighted by having to read Derrida is enough to establish that what the world needs now is a negative review of Sokal and Bricmont. But John Sturrock fluffs it. He wants to defend Bruno Latour against the authors’ charge that he confuses scientific theory and scientific pedagogy (Einstein’s in this case) – and, more broadly, that he confuses scientists’ theories with how and why they launch them. Sturrock says: ‘If I’ve got this right, they’re saying that the theory of relativity as propounded by Einstein, and the theory in its ideal, unpropounded state are not identical, because the act of propounding introduces an agent who is necessarily a reference-point in space-time that the “theory itself” can do without; in which event, it beats me how we can ever have access to the theory except through pedagogy, which I take to be the sum of those real-life moments when the theory is communicated by one person to others.’ This is the kind of garbage that a not very bright sixth-former might hope to pass off as a philosophical argument. Sturrock should hang his head in shame.
Department of Experimental Psychology, Cambridge
I was disappointed by John Sturrock’s article on Sokal and Bricmont. Despite an attack mounted with passion and peevishness, he doesn’t find any clear line of argument. But then a clear line of argument is not the kind of thing with which he’d wish to be associated! One can appreciate his claim that in the humanities the process of carrying out daring intellectual pirouettes is often the heart of the matter, and not a distraction. But this misses the point that the French writers concerned were trying, by the very use of scientific comparisons which is in question, to move beyond that, to suggest that their particular trapeze acts were not only exciting but rooted in a privileged position. Nobody, in Sturrock’s view, was ever convinced that these claims constituted a cogent argument: apparently everyone saw them as a ‘floorshow, without seeing any need to determine their truth value’. So, that’s all right then.
His next line is that ‘clarity and univocity’ are ‘inappropriate’ except in the discourse of Sokal and Bricmont’s own disciplines, ‘formal and stunted as this is called on to be’. Well, neither Sokal and Bricmont nor science as a whole have asked for ‘univocity’ – Sturrock clearly has little acquaintance with scientific debate. But to throw away clarity quite so casually is a more damaging concession than he realises. And would he like to specify why he believes a debate concerned with reaching as objective an agreement as we can achieve to be ‘stunted’? This is a defence witness who proves more useful to the prosecution.
John Sturrock begins his review of Sokal and Bricmont’s book by attempting to incriminate them by association (with that illustre inconnu, Ivor Brown), but not even a bad case of galloping francophilia (of which I was a victim for a number of years) can justify the nonsense being put about by these Parisian intellectuals and their disciples around the world. Those of us who find Kristeva, Lacan and tutti quanti plain silly are not a bunch of anti-theoretical empiricists. Theory may be speculative, but it must contain at least some potential for proof. It ought, moreover, to be expressed in language of some clarity (at least to specialists), rather than being wrapped in clouds of obscurity so thick that no rain can possibly come from them.
There are more than two million known chemical compounds: they are all interconnected and there is no contradiction in the whole edifice. The linguistic confusions that hung about the birth of chemistry – such as, what is a truly simple substance? – have faded into irrelevance with the appearance of this chemical edifice. The individual refutable proposition is the staple of philosophy and the reason that it never makes any progress: the interlocking web is the staple of science and the reason it does. It may be anathema to John Sturrock but science really is ‘all langue and no parole’.
Editor, Poetry Review, London N2
John Sturrock was delighted to discover Luce Irigaray quoted as arguing that ‘the 20th century’s most resonant (and sinister) equation, E=MC2, may be sexist for having “privileged the speed of light” or “what goes fastest” over other velocities.’ He then argues that ‘in the intellectual world in which Irigaray functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont’. He wants us to be ‘exposed to more arguments, good as well as bad’, so that ‘the science we barely understand is … forced to be as explicit’ as possible.
How saying ‘E=MC2 is sexist’ forces science to be more explicit is beyond me. Perhaps my wits have been made dull by the ‘stultifying rigour’ of scientific method. If bad arguments are as good as good ones, why not let M stand for Tinkerbell and E stand for jouissance?
John Sturrock suggests that for the editors of Social Text, Sokal’s ‘spoof’ article was just one more bit of intellectual excitement: its ‘truth’ or ‘correctness’ totally irrelevant. That’s scary enough. But then why didn’t they publish the explanatory piece that Sokal submitted to them? That would have added to the fizzle in their journal.
Sokal and Bricmont must have been very gratified to receive a review that so perfectly exemplified their thesis and so amply justified their concerns. And how generous of you to choose as their reviewer someone who is not afraid to declare openly that frank nonsense adds to ‘intellectual provocations’ and is a legitimate part of lively debate. On the other hand, if John Sturrock really is your consulting editor, what on earth do you consult him on? Hopefully not on whether the articles you print make any sense.
Cambridge Psychotherapy Practice
John Sturrock’s fractured, incoherent, pointless, headless piece causes me to suspect that his senses have been assailed by a sonic boom of sorts.
Vol. 20 No. 16 · 20 August 1998
John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is quite right and his account of the delusions of poor Sokal and poor Bricmont gets to the heart of the matter. Their confident belief in a readily-graspable distinction between ‘discourse and language’ on the one hand and the ‘facts’ to which these refer on the other, indicates simple-mindedness of a rare perfection. No doubt Sokal finds it acceptable that his original contribution to Social Text is currently tricked out in terms as comfy as ‘hoax’ or ‘spoof’. What would he think if it were to be called a ‘fraud’?
Nowhere will science, or its practitioners, qua scientists, find the answer to human problems. Science can’t write a humane constitution for a nation; nor can it resolve the issues that divide the citizens of Northern Ireland. In saying this, I am not contending that Derrida can either – much less that he can add significantly to the list of known compounds. But he can inspire Sokal to write brilliant hoaxes that make us all cudgel the two halves of our brains. And that in large part, I suppose, is what John Sturrock wants to celebrate. Ironically, in Peter Forbes’s letter (Letters, 30 July), where the views of the pro-Sokal forces are most clearly and succinctly expressed, the unsung villains are not the imaginative Derridas and Lacans, who thumb their Gallic noses at science. It’s the Russells and the Ayers, who tried to make a science of philosophy and a philosophy of science.
Richard L. Spear
Tokyo Woman’s Christian University
John Sturrock refers to the campaign of one Ivor Brown against the LFF or Latest Foreign Fraud. I think we were meant to infer that the LFFs in question were Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, rather than Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. But it would be interesting to know how, if at all, Sturrock would discriminate between the former and the latter. Perhaps the latter would be regarded as encouraging ‘adventurism in ideas’. I think we should be told.
Sturrock uses an intellectual model so self-contained that it is difficult to decide at which point to prise it open and examine how it works. Perhaps the appropriate point is a consideration of the assertion that ‘facts that are not contained in a discourse cannot be known,’ a piece of post-structuralist dogma that is demonstrably false. The history of science abounds with examples of empirical facts which called into question dominant theories (models, paradigms or, if you insist, discourses), the most well-known, perhaps, being the Michelson-Morley experiment, and the discrepancies in the orbit of Mercury, both of which challenged the dominant Newtonian worldview, and led eventually to its supersession by the Einsteinian model.
Sturrock’s denial of the existence of facts independent of theory leads him to the extraordinary conclusion that ‘theoretical purity’ is ‘guaranteed by never being exposed to the risks of expression’. This is the diametrical opposite of the way science operates. To use Popper’s terminology, theories are conjectures which must be exposed to the risk of falsification. Of course one does not have to be a Popperian to see the role of empirical testing as fundamental: this is common to all scientific methodologies. To deny the possibility of discrepancy between dominant theory and empirical fact will not, as Sturrock hopes, force science ‘to be as explicit as feasible in making its own social, political and scientific case’, but, on the contrary, will eliminate the most powerful method of distinguishing good science from bad.
In reporting one’s conclusions in the sciences or in history (my trade), it is writing unambiguously, precisely and with ‘stultifying rigour’ (as John Sturrock, in his open-minded way, puts it) that is ‘extraordinarily’ difficult. Next time Sturrock flies, he should be sure that his jet has been assembled with ‘stultifying rigour’; likewise, when he next reads a history book – about, say, Northern Ireland or race relations in France.
Open University, Milton Keynes
For every book that challenges or debates ‘theory’ there are probably a hundred that don’t. A look at publishers’ catalogues and academic job adverts is enough to establish that theory is the orthodoxy in the humanities, and its foundational texts just as canonical as whatever canons they have displaced, questioned or enriched. Sokal and Bricmont have every right to debate the elements of theory that they find fraudulent or cavalier, and Sturrock’s review of their book is simply unfair. He portrays them as schoolboy hoaxers and reactionary lightweights, when all they are doing is questioning a system unused to being challenged from the outside. Book for book, market for market, debate for debate, Sokal and Bricmont are so outnumbered that the sight of Sturrock stamping them down is disturbing. His review is a godsend to those who, unlike Sokal and Bricmont, really do have their knives out for theory. As the editor of Structuralism and Since, Sturrock could have used the space to show how ‘theory’ has extended and enriched the terms of our engagement with ideas. He could also have acknowledged why such a book as Intellectual Impostures came to be written, what it is that provoked two left-wing scientists to write it.
The level of engagement with Sokal and Bricmont is already low. Intellectual Impostures has been called, in France, the product of a ‘Belgian inferiority complex’, Kristeva has called it ‘misinformation’, while Derrida just says ‘le pauvre Sokal’. Sturrock’s review is more intelligent, but it is firmly in that lineage. It is not just that he disagrees with what is said, but that he does not think anyone has the right to say it. The book will not change anything. How could it? Its supporters will read it as confirmation of things they think they already know (as your letters pages amply show), while its critics have shown that they will not tolerate dissent. It is just as well for Sokal and Bricmont that they are scientists, because they are now shafted in the humanities job market.
Jesus College, Oxford
When I circulated Alan Sokal’s hoax-piece in Social Text among my undergraduate students, relatively unschooled in the ways of ‘critical theory’, most realised what was going on about ten lines into it (two of them, non-scientists, spotted the technical flaw in the subtitle: ‘Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’). How many historical journals would accept for publication articles about events which had not occurred, or which referred to non-existent sources, or which consistently misapplied prevailing terminology or ideas? Social Text’s crime is exactly equivalent, and no amount of liberal rhetoric or posturing will change this. Sturrock has elsewhere accused thinkers who work in his own, more reassuringly nebulous field, of being inaccurate or misrepresenting a case indicating that he does think that some versions of the ‘truth’ are more acceptable than others, however unstable and unprovable they may be.
Sturrock offers a (perhaps deliberately provocative) ‘defence’ of Luce Irigaray’s claim that E=mc2 is a ‘sexist’ equation. Such ‘wild and contentious theses’, he argues, are ‘far better’ than the ‘stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont’. This truly beggars belief. Beyond every social manifestation and intervention of science, beyond every sexism, racism and other ‘-ism’, beyond even the existence of humankind on this planet and that of any other life in the universe, E will always be equal to mc2.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Vol. 20 No. 19 · 1 October 1998
John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is surely right to remind us that literary discourse, because it deals with the metaphorical, is itself subject to metaphorical exaggeration. This is Keats’s ‘fine excess’, and one of the nicely old-fashioned things literary theory of the past twenty years has done is remind us of this ineradicable literariness: it could be said that almost every word of Roland Barthes – an exceptionally fine critic – is exaggeration. One hardly ever believes Barthes. But it is difficult to see how Luce Irigaray’s statement, that E=mc2 is a ‘sexist’ equation, can be included in this category. To say that ‘Melville is always Gnostic’ is a pardonable exaggeration, and we pardon it in part because it is a truthful fiction about a set of truthfully fictional texts – a metaphor about metaphor. But E=mc2 is not a metaphor, though it is a representation. For as Thomas Nagel has argued in a different context, against Richard Rorty, E=mc2 is not a representation of another representation: it is ‘a representation of a physical element’. Anyone who practises science, or who grew up with scientists around them (my father was a zoologist), knows that science simply cannot be practised – cannot even be started – in a world according to Irigaray.
Terence Hawkes announces (Letters, 20 August) with hilarious assurance that Sokal and Bricmont are deluded and simple-minded about the difference between discourse and the ‘facts’ that discourse represents. Well, we can take our pick between the entire scientific community on one side, or Hawkes on the other. I suspect that Sokal and Bricmont are perfectly well aware that there is no ‘simple’ separation of facts and discourse: what scientist is not aware of this? Nevertheless, that we can only approach the physical world via our representations of it does not mean that the physical world does not exist and has no laws independent of those representations. This is like saying music does not exist because we can only play it on musical instruments. Of course, music is a representation, and it is a reality. This is elementary, yet, as Patrick McGuinness suggests in the same issue, thousands of perfectly decent literary critics, such as Hawkes, have spent years of their time arguing against it. By all means, if it makes him happy, let Terence Hawkes believe that Shakespeare’s literary power is just ‘one of the stories we tell ourselves’, in Rorty’s parlance (along with, oh, Beethoven’s so-called ‘greatness’); but cancer and the circulation of the blood and the wing mechanism of the stick insect (my father’s wonderfully specific PhD thesis) and E=mc2 are not only stories.
Vol. 20 No. 20 · 15 October 1998
An article by Martin Amis in the Guardian earlier this year touches on John Sturrock’s review of Sokal and Bricmont (LRB, 16 July). After observing the relationship between the speed of a car and the damage inflicted on a body struck by that car, Amis claims that he ‘finally understood’ E=mc2. His remarkable failure to understand Einstein’s equation and apparent ignorance of the considerably simpler concept F=ma admirably demonstrate the kind of thing that Sokal and Bricmont find so infuriating.
James Wood is breathtakingly confident about his grasp of the notion of metaphor; but his grasp of the relationship between representations and reality is tenuous in the extreme at least, if his own analogies are anything to go by.
He manages to ruin the perfectly good point that claims made with words might nonetheless refer to realities independent of language by comparing the relation of words and facts to that between performances of music and the music performed. We need not buy into the idea that music can be reduced to its performances in order to appreciate that the existence of Beethoven’s Ninth is importantly (if complicatedly) dependent on the existence of a variety of cultural practices of performance, notation and composition. Is this the kind of reality Wood wants us to attribute to atoms? Sokal and Bricmont would not approve; but Terence Hawkes would salivate.
Cumnor Hill, Oxford
Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998
Tardily happening on the LRB of 16 July, I wondered if I alone noted a series of coincidences – Walter Benjamin’s ‘library angels’ at work overtime. Reading the cover line, ‘A hoax barely worth the per petration’, for some reason I immediately assumed it referred to the notorious Aus tralian case of Ern Malley, the invented Modernist poet, before realising it dealt with Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Im postures. The more I read John Sturrock’s impeccable analysis of ‘l’affaire Sokal’ the more it reminded me of Ern Malley, an almost identical backfiring spoof whose supposed exposure of avant-garde fraudulence only confirmed the potential of that same avant-garde. The deliberately nonsensical poetry of the imaginary Malley has eventually come to be seen as a genuine achievement in Australian Modernism even if its intention was to rubbish that movement. At any moment I expected Sturrock to mention Malley and the parallels between the two cases. Two pages later I came across a review of the first biography of Ernie O’Malley, perhaps a source for the pseudonym Ern Malley. If that was not enough, on the page that separated these two articles there was an advertisement for Poetry Review mentioning a recent issue on hoaxing, much of which was indeed devoted to Ern Malley.
John Sturrock (Letters, 15 October) gives us a typically Post-Modern performance in his continued attempt to defend the barely defensible. Having disarmed us with a perfectly acceptable comment on the dramatic impact that Einstein’s mass-energy equation has had on the world, he then glides smoothly into far more contentious areas in his second paragraph. Luce Irigaray’s intention, he asserts, is merely to ‘draw attention to the multiple ways in which the formula has been used outside a strictly scientific context’, one of which is ‘to support the masculinist bias in … science’. Curiously, he does not feel it necessary to give a concrete example of this apparently widespread phenomenon. Perhaps we should examine what Irigaray actually says on the subject. This is the quotation in Sokal and Bricmont: ‘Is E = mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of this equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.’ You do not have to be a physicist to see that this is just twaddle.
Vol. 21 No. 3 · 4 February 1999
One aspect of the Sokal and Bricmont affair was not raised in the LRB correspondence (Letters, 29 October 1998): namely, the authors’ scientific competence. They state, rightly, that ‘Goedel’s theorem is an inexhaustible source of intellectual abuses’. Unfortunately, they themselves suffer from ‘Goedelitis’. Their ‘explanation’ – ‘Goedel’s first theorem exhibits a proposition that is neither provable nor refutable in the given system, provided that this system is consistent’ – is simply wrong. An essential property – namely, the existence of a proof-checking algorithm – is omitted. Without this proviso the whole edifice falls to pieces essentially in the same way it did when Kristeva replaced ‘consistency’ by ‘inconsistency’ in Goedel’s second theorem: sometimes consistency cannot be proved within the system, but an inconsistent system can prove its own inconsistency. The omission is not accidental: it reappears later in the book. Finally, the authors’ ‘expert’ judgment dismisses any impact of Goedel’s theory on the development of artificial intelligence, the theory of randomness, the philosophy of mathematics or the understanding of Escher’s art (to name only a few areas): ‘Metatheorems in mathematical logic, such as Goedel’s theorem … have … very little impact on the bulk of mathematical research and almost no impact on the natural sciences.’
Auckland, New Zealand