Anatomy of a Hoax

by Bruce Robbins

[Published in Tikkun, September/October 1996, pp. 58-59.]

As far more people than have ever read the journal now know, Alan Sokal's essay in the Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue of Social Text was a hoax. The journal's editors thought the manuscript argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy. In fact, Sokal booby-trapped the piece with deliberate mistakes, as he later revealed; he sought to publish it to expose the various intellectual and political weaknesses in Social Text and those it represents.

But which weaknesses? Even people who followed the story with some interest and amusement may still be wondering what, exactly, the hoax proved. As one of the editors of Social Text, I freely confess what I think it proved about us: that some scientific ignorance and some absent-mindedness could combine with much enthusiasm for a supposed political ally to produce a case of temporary blindness. It remains to be seen, however, whether our editorial failure is really symptomatic of a larger failure in the beliefs we hold or the movements from which we come, and if so, what it might be symptomatic of.

One conclusion not to draw is that if non-scientists like us are incompetent to judge what scientists do, then only scientists can be allowed to judge it. Whatever our own failings, science should not be protected from public accountability. We cannot leave it accountable only to those funders (increasingly, private corporations) who pay the piper. Pretending that criticisms of science are invalidated by the critic's postmodernism or poststructuralism is a convenient way for Sokal and his backers to pretend they are not defending their own exclusive rights to their turf -- a turf that the public has good reason to monitor as closely as possible.

Another conclusion that doesn't follow is that, floating happily in the waters of jargon and incoherence, so-called postmodernists can't recognize an unintelligible argument even if it swims up and spits in our eye. When Sokal said his essay was nonsense, most reporters instantly followed his lead. After all, he should know, right?

But we thought Sokal had a real argument, and we still do. Allow me to quote Paul [sic] Horgan, senior writer at Scientific American, summarizing in the July 16 New York Times: Sokal, Horgan says, "proposed that superstring theory might help liberate science from `dependence on the concept of objective truth.' Professor Sokal later announced that the article had been a hoax, intended to expose the hollowness of postmodernism. In fact, however, superstring theory is exactly the kind of science that subverts conventional notions of truth."

The lesson that troubles me most has to do with politics. Does subverting conventional notions of truth really have anything to do with being politically progressive? Many observers undoubtedly felt that this hoax administered a well-deserved comeuppance to a style of cultural politics that, whether inspired by poststructuralism, postmodernism, or multiculturalism, spends too much time on a misguided subversion of truth and not enough on making known the truth about social injustice.

This is a complicated question. Poststructuralism and postmodernism emerged at roughly the same time (the 1960s and 1970s) as the women's and civil rights movements at home and movements of national liberation around the world. Many would argue that their conceptual challenge to notions such as objective truth reflects and extends the political challenge of those movements. Multiculturalism, another term for the tendencies Sokal was attacking, is the later "-ism" that underlines this historical connection between concepts and constituencies.

Is it in the interests of women, African Americans, and other super-exploited people to insist that truth and identity are social constructions? Yes and no. No, you can't talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence and a universal standard of justice. But yes, truth can be another source of oppression. It was not so long ago that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African Americans (not to speak of gays and lesbians) were inherently inferior or pathological or both. Explanations like these continue to appear in newer and subtler forms. Hence, there is a real need for a social constructionist critique of knowledge.

Of course, the delicate balance between exposing the facts of social inequality and exposing the process by which social facts are constructed can easily be tipped too far either way. Those of us who do cultural politics sometimes act as if the questioning of reality were of self-evident, universal, and paramount ethical and political value, as if truth were always and everywhere a weapon of the Right. In fact, it's almost impossible to belong to the Left, or to an academic discipline, without some functional sense of truth.

But whatever its problems, cultural politics is not a simple distraction from the harder realities of economic injustice or efforts to organize or to pass legislation. Struggles to allocate our resources differently are inextricably entangled with struggles for recognition. As Ellen Willis suggested with eloquent irony in the Village Voice (June 25), the know-nothings of the left delude themselves: "Capitalism is screwing people! What goes up must come down! What more do we need to know?"

We need to know a lot, and a lot of what we need to know is cultural. Sokal claims that the sort of work Social Text publishes "won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming." But does anyone actually believe that homophobia, say, has nothing to do with the history of AIDS research, or that exposing its influence has been politically irrelevant?

Since few believe that ponytails and body piercing infallibly signify which side someone is going to take on issues such as plant closures or universal health care, it seems likely that what is really expressed by the angry tirades against cultural politics that have accompanied the Sokal affair is a longing for the days when women were back in the kitchen and it was respectable to joke about faggots and other natural objects of humor. These are not the family values I want my children to learn. Nor are they the values of the country at large. As Garry Wills remarked recently, "Women are not going back to their status of three decades ago. Neither are blacks. Gays are not going back into the closet to shut up. White Western culture is not going to regain its monopoly in schools, museums, journals." Wills's larger point is that even for the purposes of the current election, it's not just the economy, stupid. "The new permissiveness," he says, is not "just a matter of elite hedonism, adversarial to `real' Americans, `the people.' Ask at the video rental stores if the only people renting porno films are pinko professors (or Supreme Court Justices)."

In his effort to enlarge socialism's appeal to ordinary, decent people, George Orwell once listed the sorts of enthusiasts (he calls them cranks) who currently give socialism a bad name. Unfortunately, he says, socialism draws "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, `Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England."

Much of the better-informed rejoicing at Sokal's hoax seems to me an echo of Orwell's bid to reclaim the center by getting rid of the feminists and ecologists. The future of the Left, it is now widely repeated, is on the side of ordinary decent folks, folks who believe in objective reality and are easily alienated by anyone who claims to be different. If you are a vegetarian, a pacifist, a feminist, a member of a minority church, someone who prefers fruit juice to alcohol -- today's list would have to be longer -- you needn't apply. To believe this is to make a potentially costly mistake about who ordinary people really are.

Cultural critics have also made mistakes. On occasion, we have seemed to speak up only for those who are excluded [sic] from a list like Orwell's. Or we have seemed to suggest that there should be no list-making at all. But there is no politics in a significant, more-than-academic sense without some search for an alternative center, however imaginary that center may be.

Indeed, I would argue that the multicultural or postmodern Left has been part of such a search. We have encountered not a cacophony of hostile particularisms, as the critics suggest, but a common ethos stressing mutual respect, a self-conscious appreciation of how all knowledge is shaped by perspective -- our own included -- and a dedication to the difficult but necessary task of negotiating among competing and overlapping identities. The media who have kept our story alive, however sarcastically, were perhaps acknowledging in their indirect fashion that American democracy has a real stake in the outcome.

Bruce Robbins teaches English and comparative literature at Rutgers University. He is the author of Secular Vocations (Verso, 1993).