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*Postmodernism disrobed*
*by* *Richard Dawkins* <mailto:[log in to unmask]>
*[Published in* /*Nature*/ <>*, 9 July 1998, vol. 
394, pp. 141-143.]*
/*Intellectual Impostures*/ 
by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
**Profile* <>*: 1998. Pp. 274. £9.99
To be published in the USA by* *Picador* 
<>*as/Fashionable Nonsense/ in 
November 1998*
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with 
strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of 
reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages 
with respectful yellow highlighter.  What kind of literary style would 
you cultivate?  Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your 
lack of content.  The chances are that you would produce something like 
the following:

    We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence
    between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the
    author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic
    catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic
    non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions
    remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in
    our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.

This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many 
fashionable French 'intellectuals' outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont 
in their splendid book/Intellectual Impostures/, previously published in 
French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English 
edition.  Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the 
opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, "the most brilliant mélange of 
scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever 
encountered". Guattari's close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, 
had a similar talent for writing:

    In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous
    series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor
    unstable, but rather 'metastable', endowed with a potential energy
    wherein the differences between series are distributed... In the
    second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification,
    always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element
    traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the
    corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the
    emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.

This calls to mind Peter Medawar's earlier characterization of a certain 
type of French intellectual style (note, in passing, the contrast 
offered by Medawar's own elegant and clear prose):

    Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it
    is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of
    self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and
    stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an
    outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the
    quality of modern thought...

Returning to attack the same targets from another angle, Medawar says:

    I could quote evidence of the beginnings of a whispering campaign
    against the virtues of clarity.  A writer on structuralism in
    the/Times Literary Supplement/ has suggested that thoughts which are
    confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most
    appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear.  What
    a preposterously silly idea!  I am reminded of an air-raid warden in
    wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the
    spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses.  He,
    however, was being funny on purpose.

This is from Medawar's 1968 lecture on "Science and Literature", 
reprinted in/Pluto's Republic/ (Oxford University Press, 1982). Since 
Medawar's time, the whispering campaign has raised its voice.
Deleuze and Guattari have written and collaborated on books described by 
the celebrated Michel Foucault as "among the greatest of the great ... 
Some day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian." Sokal and Bricmont, 
however, think otherwise: "These texts contain a handful of intelligible 
sentences -- sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous -- and we have 
commented on some of them in the footnotes.  For the rest, we leave it 
to the reader to judge."
But it's tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound 
that most of us will not understand the language in which they are 
expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be 
unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how 
are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to 
detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know 
whether the modish French 'philosophy', whose disciples and exponents 
have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is 
genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?
Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively, New York 
University and the University of Louvain in Belgium. They have limited 
their critique to those books that have ventured to invoke concepts from 
physics and mathematics. Here they know what they are talking about, and 
their verdict is unequivocal. On Jacques Lacan, for example, whose name 
is revered by many in humanities departments throughout US and British 
universities, no doubt partly because he simulates a profound 
understanding of mathematics:

    ... although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical
    theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the
    slightest regard for their meaning. His 'definition' of compactness
    is not just false: it is gibberish.

They go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:

    Thus, by calculating that signification according to the algebraic
    method used here, namely:

You don't have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous.  It 
recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the existence of God by 
dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the infinite.  In a 
further piece of reasoning that is entirely typical of the genre, Lacan 
goes on to conclude that the erectile organ

    ... is equivalent to the of the signification produced above, of the
    jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to
    the function of lack of signifier (-1).

We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to 
assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake.  Perhaps he is 
genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who 
is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one 
has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that 
I/don't/ know anything about.
The feminist 'philosopher' Luce Irigaray is another who gets 
whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage 
reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton's/Principia/ 
(a "rape manual"), Irigaray argues that/E=mc/2 is a "sexed equation". 
Why? Because "it/privileges/ the speed of light over other speeds that 
are vitally necessary to us" (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to 
learn is an 'in' word). Just as typical of this school of thought is 
Irigaray's thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been 
unfairly neglected. "Masculine physics"/privileges/ rigid, solid things. 
Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of 
re-expressing Irigaray's thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For 
once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he 
has no clothes:

    The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the
    inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she
    attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas
    men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have
    openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids... From this
    perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive
    at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow
    cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women)
    have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated

You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of 
this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but 
it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason 
why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are 
difficult to solve.
In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour's confusion of 
relativity with relativism, Jean-François Lyotard's 'post-modern 
science', and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gödel's Theorem, 
quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only 
one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. 
Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being 
played. The following sentence, "though constructed from scientific 
terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view":

    Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in
    which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence
    created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end,
    just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

I won't quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard's 
text "continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense". They again call 
attention to "the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific 
terminology -- inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make 
out, devoid of meaning". Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for 
any of the authors criticized here and lionized throughout America:

    In summary, one finds in Baudrillard's works a profusion of
    scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and,
    above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant.
    Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see
    what role they could play, except to give an appearance of
    profundity to trite observations about sociology or history.
    Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a
    non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness.
    When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of
    Baudrillard's thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped

But don't the postmodernists claim only to be 'playing games'? Isn't the 
whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute 
truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no 
point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative 
truth, isn't it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around 
with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one 
is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. 
Shouldn't games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and 
pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react 
with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense? 
The genesis of/Intellectual Impostures/ was a brilliant hoax perpetrated 
by Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the 
chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of 
deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you've become the 
establishment, it ceases to be funny when someone punctures the 
established bag of wind.
As is now rather well known, in 1996 Sokal submitted to the US journal 
/Social Text/ <> a paper called 
"Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of 
quantum gravity" 
 From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted 
parody of postmodern metatwaddle. Sokal was inspired to do this by Paul 
Gross and Norman Levitt's /Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and 
its Quarrels with Science/ 
<> (Johns 
Hopkins University Press, 1994), an important book that deserves to 
become as well known in Britain as it is in the United States. Hardly 
able to believe what he read in this book, Sokal followed up the 
references to postmodern literature, and found that Gross and Levitt did 
not exaggerate. He resolved to do something about it. In the words of 
the journalist Gary Kamiya 

    Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious,
    obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for 'advanced'
    thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or
    later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords
    ('hermeneutics,' 'transgressive,' 'Lacanian,' 'hegemony', to name
    but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an/au
    courant/ journal, and have it accepted... Sokal's piece uses all the
    right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white
    men, the 'real world'), applauds the virtuous (women, general
    metaphysical lunacy)... And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit
    -- a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered
    editors of/Social Text/, who must now be experiencing that queasy
    sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled
    that nice big gift horse into their city.

Sokal's paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a 
physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking 
the 'post-Enlightenment hegemony' and such uncool notions as the 
existence of the real world. They didn't know that Sokal had also 
crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any 
referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have 
detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and 
others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and 
were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This 
ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize 
for literature.
Notwithstanding the egg all over their faces, and despite their feminist 
pretensions, these editors are dominant males in the academic 
establishment. Ross has the boorish, tenured confidence to say things 
like, "I am glad to be rid of English departments. I hate literature, 
for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who 
love literature"; and the yahooish complacency to begin a book on 
'science studies' with these words: "This book is dedicated to all of 
the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written 
without them."
He and his fellow 'cultural studies' and 'science studies' barons are 
not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have 
tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United 
States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power 
over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic 
career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know -- because many 
of them have told me -- that there are sincere scholars out there who 
would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To 
them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or 
a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is 
strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.
In a detailed post-mortem of his famous hoax, submitted to/Social Text/ 
but predictably rejected by them and published elsewhere 
Sokal notes that, in addition to numerous half-truths, falsehoods 
and/non sequiturs/, his original article contained some "syntactically 
correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever". He regrets that 
there were not more of these: "I tried hard to produce them, but I found 
that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn't have the 
knack." If he were writing his parody today, he would surely be helped 
by a virtuoso piece of computer programming by Andrew Bulhak of 
Melbourne, Australia: the Postmodernism Generator. Every time you visit 
it, at, it will 
spontaneously generate for you, using faultless grammatical principles, 
a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen.
I have just been there, and it produced for me a 6,000-word article 
called "Capitalist theory and the subtextual paradigm of context" by 
"David I. L.Werther and Rudolf du Garbandier of the Department of 
English, Cambridge University" (poetic justice there, for it was 
Cambridge that saw fit to give Jacques Derrida an honorary degree). Here 
is a typical passage from this impressively erudite work:

    If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice:
    either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has
    objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to
    choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of
    context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a
    textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense,
    the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that
    reality comes from the collective unconscious.

Visit the Postmodernism Generator 
<>. It is a literally 
infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct nonsense, 
distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You 
could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready 
for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be 
submitted to the 'Editorial Collective' of/Social Text/, double-spaced 
and in triplicate.
As for the harder task of reclaiming US literary departments for genuine 
scholars, Sokal and Bricmont have joined Gross and Levitt in giving a 
friendly and sympathetic lead from the world of science. We must hope 
that it will be followed.
/Richard Dawkins/ <mailto:[log in to unmask]>/is at the Oxford 
University Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PW, UK./