A Physics Prof Drops a Bomb on the Faux Left

* A spoof written in cultural theorists' jargon is published as the real thing.

by Ruth Rosen

Op-ed, Los Angeles Times, Thursday, May 23, 1996, page A11

When I was a child, my favorite story was "The Emperor's New Clothes." A chorus of adults praises the Emperor's new wardrobe, but a child blurts out the truth: The Emperor is in fact stark naked. From this tale, I learned that adults could be intimidated into endorsing all kinds of flummery. The longer I teach at the university, the more I return to this story for consolation.

Last week, a little known academic scandal made its way to the front page of the New York Times. The scandal actually began about a decade ago, when a growing cadre of Academic Emperors began empire-building within American universities. They claimed that their scholarship, shielded from outsiders by impenetrable theory and incomprehensible prose, constituted a radical political movement and that they were the true theorists of the "academic left."

It took a New York University physicist named Alan Sokal to expose the unearned prestige that the Academic Emperors have heaped upon themselves. A self-described progressive and feminist (to which I can attest; I helped with his exposé), Sokal became fed up with certain trendy academic theorists who have created a mystique around the (hardly new) idea that truth is subjective and that objective reality is fundamentally unknowable. To Sokal, the denial of known reality seemed destructive of progressive goals.

To his credit, he didn't just sit and fume. After immersing himself in the theorists' arcane literature, Sokal wrote a brilliant parody titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Penned in unintelligible prose, heavily documented with lengthy footnotes, Sokal's article basically argued against the "Enlightenment idea" that there exists an external and knowable world. Physics, the physicist implied, was simply another field of cultural criticism.

When I first obtained a copy of Sokal's still unpublished parody, it seemed no worse than much of the dense writing that passes for cutting-edge theoretical criticism. I delighted in his ability to mimic the imponderable syntax and jargon of contemporary theoretical academic writing:

In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future post-modern and liberatory science.

Sokal decided to submit his gibberish to Social Text, a prestigious academic journal that has promoted the new cultural criticism as a radical political movement. Without soliciting a scientific opinion from an outside reader, the Social Text editors published Sokal's article in a special spring issue devoted to the "science wars," the quarrel between social theorists and actual scientists.

Sokal disclosed his deception in the current issue of the academic magazine Lingua Franca. He explained that he had been disturbed "by the decline in intellectual rigor in the trendier precincts of the American academic humanities" and had "decided to try an admittedly uncontrolled experiment: Would the leading North American journal of cultural studies ... publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if it sounded good and flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes."

Satire is often the best way of revealing the truth (recall Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"). Sokal's spoof exposed the hypocrisy practiced by these so-called cultural revolutionaries. They claim to be democratizing thought, but they purposely write in tongues for an initiated elite. They claim that their work is transformative and subversive, but they focus obsessively on the linguistic and social construction of human consciousness, not on the hard reality of people's lives. Their claim to originality is particularly offensive to historians who have always known that social structure and cultural meaning change over time. With few exceptions, their pretensions obscure their nakedness.

Yes, I know that the conservative right may use Sokal's parody to further attack "tenured radicals." But if the progressive left is to survive and be credible, it must withstand the glare of public scrutiny and be worthy of people's respect.

We shall soon see which ideas can pass the giggle test.

Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on politics and culture.

physics.web@nyu.edu / Physics / GSAS / NYU

-- last modified 11 June 1996