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Friendly fire


Friendly fire
The hoaxing of Social Text


hen the editorial committee of the US journal Social Text chose ʻScience Warsʼ
as the title for last yearʼs special double issue (nos 46–47, Spring/Summer
1996), they could hardly have guessed how apt it would prove to be – not as
a description of its contents, but of the furore it would provoke. For with this issue of
Social Text, a new front was opened up in the ʻculture warsʼ which rage in the USA over
the disputed terrain where academic discourse meets mainstream politics in the distorting
mirror of the media: a complex and treacherous battlegound of ʻscienceʼ, where political
allies can be swiftly transformed into ideological foes in a hail of friendly fire.

The spark was the revelation that Social Text had been subjected to a carefully
managed hoax. Several months previously, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New
York University, had submitted an article, ʻTransgressing the Boundaries: Toward a
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravityʼ, claiming to offer support from
recent physics for various ʻpostmodernʼ epistemological positions. After some hesitation,
Social Text decided to carry it in their special issue on science. However, the day after
it appeared, another article by Sokal was published in the bimonthly Lingua Franca, in
which he exposed his own Social Text piece as a ʻparodyʼ of cultural studies of science,
intended to unmask its ʻshoddy scholarshipʼ.

His method, Sokal revealed, was to structure the article around ʻthe silliest quotes
about mathematics and physicsʼ from ʻthe most prominent academicsʼ, ʻinventing an argument praising them and linking them together.ʼ All of which, he claimed, was ʻvery easyʼ,
since he ʻwasnʼt obliged to respect any standards of evidence and logicʼ – although it will
have taken considerable industry, since the text is liberally referenced, being accompanied
by over twenty-one pages of notes and bibliography. Furthermore, Sokal argued, he had
perpetrated his hoax on behalf of the Left: specifically, that section of the Left increasingly fed up with the ʻtrendyʼ obscurantism and wrong-headedness of a postmodern
cultural studies which, it believes, is undermining the prospect for ʻprogressive social
critiqueʼ by insisting upon the ʻsocial constructionʼ of reality. Nowhere are its idiocies
more apparent, so the argument runs, than in the ʻculturalʼ treatment of physical theory.

We were thus presented with a set-piece confrontation between a new, culturally-based
academic Left and its scientifically-oriented predecessor, in which the latter, apparently,
worsts the former by publicly revealing the illusory character of its clothing (intellectual
standards), and gains a rare opportunity to show off its own sense of humour into the

The media had a field-day. The story made the cover of The New York Times (18/5/96);
it was picked up in Britain by The Observer (19/5/96); it became a subject of debate on
National Public Radio; and follow-up articles and exchanges appeared in everything from
Newsweek (3/6/96), the THES (7 & 21/6/96) and The Village Voice (21/6/96) to a host
of smaller US Left periodicals such as Tikkun and In These Times. Letters columns were
clogged with competing voices, with Sokal comically complaining about the number of
Stanley Fishʼs column-inches in the NYT (38) and refusing to continue playing there when
his own 12-incher was cut down to ʻ7.3ʼ by the lettersʼ editor (7.3!). Sokal chose instead
to post his reply on the Internet (with commentary on his threatened inches), although
how many inches it can be said to have occupied there is anyoneʼs guess. Sokal was not
alone in making use of the Internet, though, and its communities of interest have played a


Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)

significant role in framing and sustaining the affair. But what, exactly, is the affair about?

And what does it actually show?

Misplaced solidarity
For Sokal and his supporters, there is little doubt (they have few doubts): it demonstrates
the bogus intellectual credentials of ʻpostmodernʼ cultural studies and reaffirms the
need for the Left to turn away from ʻwishful thinking, superstition and demagogueryʼ,
to reclaim its Enlightenment roots in the ʻscientific worldviewʼ (Sokal, talk at the NYU
Forum, 30/10/96). For the editors of Social Text, matters are predictably more complex.

Clearly, they regret the publication of Sokalʼs essay and acknowledge it to have been an
error of editorial judgement. But, they argue, it was a mistake generated by a misplaced
sense of cultural-political solidarity, rather than any particular intellectual affinity with the
offending piece –as its comparison with any of the sixteen other articles in the ʻScience
Warsʼ issue (by the likes of Steve Fuller, Sandra Harding, Ruth Hubbard, Joel Kovel,
Emily Martin, Les Levidow and Hilary Rose) shows.

Both stylistically and in tone, Sokalʼs essay stands out as an anomaly, but in Andrew
Rossʼs words: ʻthe editors considered that it might be of interest to readers as a “document” of that time-honoured tradition in which modern physicists have discovered harmonic resonances with their own reasoning in the field of philosophy and metaphysics.ʼ
And in its own perverse way, it undoubtedly is. According to Robbins (the other main
editor of the journal, besides Ross): ʻSocial Text was hoaxed not because it liked Sokalʼs
jargon-filled references to postmodern authorities – in fact we asked him to cut them out
– but because we thought he was a progressive scientist, a physicist who was willing to be
publicly critical of scientific orthodoxies.ʼ
The mistake was thus to allow the lure of an ally within the scientific establishment
to dictate judgment about the piece; to allow political convenience to suspend intellectual
judgment. In this respect, for some, it was a representative error, whatever oneʼs conception of physics, and however much one may disagree with Sokalʼs views about science:

representative of an overly strategic approach to intellectual matters, characteristic of that
section of the cultural Left to which Social Text, broadly speaking, belongs. (Although it
should be noted that it also represents a certain cultural Marxism, which is one reason it
fell for the hoax in the first place. It takes science seriously; seriously enough to be sceptical of its conventional self-understanding.) But what of the politics of the hoax itself?

Media Wars
One of the most salient aspects of the affair has been Sokalʼs recourse to the mainstream
media to conduct an ideological campaign against another section of the Left. Sokal has
used the media skilfully, both to register his hoax and to
generalise its point into a full-scale attack on ʻcultural studies
of scienceʼ and ʻpostmodern cultural studiesʼ (which he tends to
treat as equivalents). And for many on the Left, his hoax was
a welcome public counter to the attention-grabbing ʻrelativismʼ
of much recent cultural theory. Yet Sokal has also provided
the press with an ideal occasion to prosecute two of its favourite pastimes – disparaging intellectualism, of any kind, and
travestying the Left – while bolstering the sagging image of
the ʻscientistʼ as a figure of authority and a man of reason and
good sense. (Relishing the ʻimpenetrable hodge-podge of jargon
[and] buzzwordsʼ in Sokalʼs hoax essay, the New York Times
(18/5/96) selected ʻhegemonyʼ and ʻepistemologicalʼ for especial
derision … postmodern nonsense indeed!)
This was Sokalʼs major media card: his status as an ʻexpertʼ
in modern physics legitimated his views about the philosophy
of science, and thereby about the cultural study of science,

Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)


from whence it was but one small step to cultural studies as a whole. That these views
are simplistic, at best, and never short of commensensical was an added bonus. Stanley
Fish (Professor of English and Law at Duke University and executive editor of its Press,
which publishes Social Text) was wheeled in by the NYT to provide an alternative account
of ʻsocial constructionʼ, but nobody in the press thought to ask the likes of Hilary Putnam
what he thought about Sokalʼs bracingly down-to-earth conception of ʻrealityʼ, or the
confidence with which he distinguishes ʻtruthʼ from ʻclaims of truthʼ, and ʻknowledgeʼ from
ʻpretensions to knowledgeʼ. Nor was anybody interested in the decidedly non-commonsensical character of Sokalʼs own scientific work, as spelled out in such papers as ʻNew Lower
Bounds on the Self-Avoiding-Walk Connective Constantʼ.

Philosophy has been notable by its absence, which is just as well for Sokal, since as
Linda Martín Alcoff has pointed out, his robust views would be rejected by nearly all contemporary philosophers of science – irrespective of their politics. Yet, weirdly, philosophy
is precisely what Sokal now claims his hoax was all about. ʻSocial Text is not my enemy,
nor is it my main intellectual targetʼ, he insisted at the recent Forum at NYU. In fact, ʻthis
affair is in my view not primarily about science … What I believe this debate is principally
about … is the nature of truth, reason and objectivityʼ. But this is not what it has been
about for the media. Nor is it what it was originally about for Sokal, when he started it all
off by feeding the press yet another version of one of its most relentlessly promulgated narratives: the story of a decline in a ʻstandardsʼ. It was about knocking the cultural Left, and
if that meant reinforcing conservative dogmas about ʻdeclining standardsʼ, the ʻemptinessʼ
of fashion and the ʻobscurantismʼ of cultural minorities, so be it.

There has always been a section of the radical Left which is more comfortable in the
company of Burkeans than sexual libertarians. And it is here, perhaps, rather than in the
philosophical disputes about science (which have been going on since the 1960s), that the
heart of the matter lies: in a heightening of intellectual antagonisms between generations of
the Left. It is an aspect of the affair that has been most prominent in the parade of opinions on the Internet.

Fantasies of ‘pomos’
One of the functions of the Internet has been to expose to immediate public scrutiny
exchanges that would previously have taken place in private, over a longer period of time.

One of the dangers of this exposure is that intemperate and hastily conceived thoughts
can readily take on the character of ʻpositionsʼ in highly charged debates. One of the
advantages, however, is that the motivations underlying different views are more legible
than usual. So it is that the ad hominem attacks on Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross
– against which Sokal himself has recently protested – have much to tell us about the
anxieties, fantasies and displacements sustaining what is an increasingly harmful divide
between an older ʻscientificallyʼ-oriented and a younger ʻculturallyʼ-oriented Left.

It is tempting (and no doubt, to some, reassuring) to conceive of the divide as structured
by differing attitudes to Marxism. But this is too simple. Not just because the intellectual
culture of Marxism is pervasive, if uneven, on both sides, but because antipathy to the cultural Left tends to be focused on a particular composite image: ʻpomosʼ (postmodernists),
who have alledgedly taken over the academy, dismissing material interests and laying waste
to intellectual standards in their dogged pursuit of identity politics, fashionable clothing
and academic careers. In the exchanges provoked by Sokalʼs hoax, ʻpomosʼ are the ideal
imaginary others of the ʻtrue Marxistsʼ (and vice versa), and they are modeled on the
mediaʼs fantasy projection of Andrew Ross. (Clothing places a key metaphorical role in
these invectives.)
One might, I think, be forgiven for finding this spectacle both intellectually irritating and politically depressing: irritating, because of the lowering of the level of debate that
it involves; depressing, because it is so clearly the product of a political defeat, from which
it distracts attention. At a time when the Left needs all the solidarity it can muster just to
survive, there has to be a better way for it to conduct its debates than this.

Peter Osborne


Radical Philosophy 81 (Jan/Feb 1997)

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