Le pauvre Sokal

John Sturrock

  • Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
    Profile, 274 pp, £9.99, October 1999, ISBN 1 86197 074 9

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.