Truth Matters: 20th Anniversary Editorial

Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 299-304.

Denis Dutton and Patrick Henry

Once in a while stunning new ideas that energize a scholarly discipline — or even wreck it altogether — come from the outside. The most influential philosopher of science in the last generation was not a philosopher at all, but an historian and physicist, Thomas Kuhn. Ernst Gombrich, an art historian, has deeply informed the philosophy of art, as the linguist Noam Chomsky has affected the philosophy of language. And Jacques Derrida continues to cast his stupefying spell over many a literature department, even if most philosophers remain unimpressed.

In a minor but spectacular way (how else to describe an event first encountered on the front page of the New York Times?), Alan Sokal has barged in on this honorable tradition. As a physicist, he successfully placed a barely-coherent, factually ludicrous, jargon-ridden article in a major journal of cultural studies.

When we caught up with Sokal’s hoax, our initial reaction was sympathy for the hapless editors of Social Text. They weren’t the first journal editors to be landed with a contribution that went sour (though the only other episodes we could recall were plagiarism, not parody). However, when one of these chaps, Stanley Aronowitz, reacted in the Times by calling Sokal “ill-read and half-educated” (May 18, 1996), editorial fellow-feeling began to evaporate. And when Stanley Fish, executive director of the Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text, launched a bitter counterattack on Sokal three days later, it was hard not to regard Fish’s indignation, as E.D. Hirsch described it in a subsequent letter to the Times, as “the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed.”

After some tedious preliminaries, Fish accused Sokal of failing to understand that the sociology of science is an enterprise “distinct” from science, “with objects of study, criteria, and goals all its own.” Sokal knows this, naturally, as he had already made clear in his Lingua Franca article on the hoax, and as he explains again in his afterword in this issue of our journal. But Fish went on to a more sweeping generalization. Imagining Sokal believed that cultural studies threaten the stability or integrity of the sciences, Fish said not to worry: “A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed to its own goals and protocols, it doesn’t reach into, and therefore doesn’t pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies.”

With this account of a well-ordered academic world, Fish inadvertently reveals what some see as a serious failing of cultural studies and postmodern theory: it poses a threat to absolutely nothing. Leave science aside for a moment, and consider a sociology of, say, astrology, or medicine, or the fashion industry. Could we envision a proper sociology of astrology which posed no danger to “the goals and protocols” in using planetary/zodiacal patterns to predict the future or retrodict the characters of subjects? Hardly; it’s the business of the sociology of any human activity to identify and question the intellectual claims and practical ambitions of that enterprise. And that is exactly what Alan Sokal did: he invented a clever test of the intellectual rigor of cultural studies in general and its version of poststructuralist sociology of science in particular. He then subjected Social Text — and implicitly in many minds the intellectual standards of the field it represents — to the test. It failed.

Sokal’s methodology was not unique; it can be applied in different ways to many other disciplines. If you want to evaluate, for example, the intellectual pretensions of astrologers there is a fine way to do it; it essentially adapts the double-blind placebo procedure used in drug research, another celebrated testing methodology. Allow a group of astrologers to agree on a set of character readings based on accurate birth charts. Give these back, shuffled, with identifying information stripped off, to the subjects of the astrological readings. If the subjects can pick out their own readings from character descriptions alone (descriptions created by astrologers on the basis of birth information only, without meeting the subjects in question), then astrology must possess at least some degree of credibility. As it happens, astrology consistently fails such tests: people will choose readings for all sorts of reasons (mainly flattery: “You’re a deeply spiritual person who is liked by your friends”), but they can’t actually find their own readings consistently better than chance allows in a randomly presented series.

Sokal performed a similar test on Social Text. He didn’t send the journal a stack of ten submissions with a request to spot the fake one, but submitted a single placebo article which pretended to be a contribution to scholarship. Actually, it is worse than that, for Sokal’s parody ought to have been recognized as more poison than placebo by any half-awake reader. To take but one of his countless nonsensical proclamations, Sokal says that quantum gravity confirms the theories of Jacques Lacan: “Furthermore, as Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten’s derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional quantum field theory.” Yeah, sure. As Sokal put it in Lingua Franca, “I structured the article by inventing an ‘argument’ linking Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, and quantum gravity. Then I threw in, for good measure, a pinch of feminism, a dab of multiculturalism, and a sprinkling of New Age ecology.” Just like astrology fans who find star-sign descriptions irresistible, especially when flattering, the editors of Social Text were suckered by the idea of a big-time physicist validating their ideological fantasies — not on the basis of decent evidence or recognizable argument, but because of the implied flattery (the article cited Social Text editors Aronowitz thirteen times and Andrew Ross four times).

In view of these embarrassments, Fish’s counterattack on Sokal is arrogant and specious. Cultural studies are as safe from Sokal’s jabs as science is from cultural studies, Fish says: “Just as the criteria for an enterprise will be internal to its own history, so will the threat to its integrity be internal, posed not by presumptuous outsiders but by insiders who decide not to play by the rules or who put the rules in the service of a devious purpose.” If this were true, astrology, Nazism, homeopathic medicine, and Scientology — as well as physics and Fish’s cultural studies — would all be immune from criticism by “presumptuous” outsiders, that is by anyone except astrologers, Nazis, etc. In fact, no field of inquiry is immune from outside criticism, not even physics, and vulnerability to debunking is most starkly brought out when someone like Alan Sokal, posing as an insider, demonstrates that the “criteria” of a so-called discipline are empty or self-validating.

Fish, however, digs himself in deeper: “Alan Sokal put forward his own undertakings as reliable, and he took care, as he boasts, to surround his deception with all the marks of authenticity, including dozens of ’real’ footnotes and an introductory section that enlists a roster of the century’s greatest scientists in support of a line of argument he says he never believed in.” What this statement discloses is that for Fish & Co., “marks of authenticity” — dozens of footnotes and a roster of great scientific authorities, not to mention incessant praise for the editors’ publications — carry more weight than actually adducing a sound and coherent argument. For Fish then to go on to accuse Sokal of threatening intellectual standards and suggest he is guilty of scientific fraud is simply desperate.

In 1994, when we first announced the Bad Writing Contest, we said that “entries must be non-ironic, from actual serious academic journals or books — parodies cannot be admitted in a field where unintentional self-parody is so rampant.” We’ve noticed that virtually every publication that has covered the contest — The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca, the TLS, and others — has quoted that line out of the press release; it struck a nerve. We could hardly have realized it, but about the time we were devising the contest Alan Sokal was working on his little project to find out if the gatekeepers of poststructuralist theory could themselves tell the difference between parody and self-parody.

How rich then is Fish’s anger that Sokal “carefully packaged his deception so as not to be detected except by someone who began with a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion that may now be in full flower in the offices of learned journals because of what he has done.” Such a claim deserves a response from the office of this particular journal. First, the “packaging” of Sokal’s article: the text is so brazen that if it were the only thing we’d ever seen by Alan Sokal, we’d have thought him crazed. If you read for content, “Transgressing the Boundaries” is so far beyond even the appearance of scientific or scholarly credibility, that we’re amazed anyone could have been bamboozled by it.

Second, the issue of suspicion. Skepticism is a good policy for any editor because it’s generally a good idea for any scholar. For the last quarter century, however, it is poststructuralism that has promoted “a deep and corrosive suspicion” which it routinely applies to almost anything you care to name: truth, knowledge, science, morality, the notion of genius, the family, Western civilization, philosophy, the idea of great literature, high art or music, literary meaning, tradition, objectivity, capitalism, love, historical understanding, and on and on. Sometimes the suspicion has produced worthwhile reassessments of values and ideas too-much taken for granted; these days the mantras of suspicion are wearing a bit thin. But the one conspicuous omission from the list has always been poststructuralist doctrine itself--it is the one grand narrative never to be questioned. Part of Alan Sokal’s achievement has been to demonstrate this lack of a reflexive, self-critical sense in one of the most influential journals of poststructuralist cultural studies.

The hegemony of poststructuralism in the humanities is fading fast, with no one certain what will replace it. (We don’t pretend to know ourselves, recalling with pleasure the answer the trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton gave when he was asked where jazz is going: “If I knew where jazz was going, I’d be there already.”) Some of the articles in this anniversary issue suggest possible lines for future research, while others emphasize attitudes which need to be more widely cultivated. For research, don’t ignore Colin Martindale’s essay. With his light-hearted style and closely defined aims, he’s doing something that ought to be rediscovered by humanists weary of foggy, armchair speculation. Martindale has for years been thinking up experiments to test the kind of hypotheses most people might consider just a matter of opinion. His numerical results are not the solution to every problem in aesthetics, but how satisfying to sink your mind into hard data, instead of wasting time trying to figure out the jargonized prose of some semi-confused theoretician. Roger Seamon is also attempting to sketch a theory which explains something about the psychology of aesthetic response. He invites thinking and debate not in terms of preconceived ideological commitments (and how boring, Ihab Hassan points out, that’s all become), but in terms of considering what it’s like to experience and enjoy a work of art. For writers like Martindale and Seamon, empirical truth actually counts.

Francis Sparshott shares this abiding respect for facts, and his essay, provoked by Said’s indictment of Austen and Kipling, clarifies some important questions, not least of which is how long we should continue to take Edward Said seriously. Wendell Harris and Eva Brann have some solid advice for readers and theorists, while Michael Wood and Martha Nussbaum present the kind of eloquent, philosophically informed criticism we have consistently tried to publish in this journal for twenty years. Paisley Livingston and Eric Miller both offer substantial insights into issues in classical theory of literature, and Susan Haack’s lucid scholarship in the philosophy of science is exactly what poststructuralist theory has needed all along, but rarely encountered. As for the happy physicist, Alan Sokal, his essay was first offered to Social Text, which couldn’t find space for it. We’re humbled to present this scrap swept from their table.

The good-will and generosity of countless friends and supporters, notably at Whitman College, has seen us through our first twenty years, and our debts are legion. We thank the members of our Editorial Board who’ve served till now, and welcome new Board members who begin with this issue. Above all, we owe so much to our contributors, past and present. In terms of style, subject, or doctrine, there is not much their work carries in common, except a sense for three imperatives: present an argument, provide evidence to support it, and write as though truth matters. It always has.


Copyright © 1996 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.