WHAT CAN BE MORE irresistible than the opportunity to take some pompous, widely respected intellectual leader and knock him flat on his ass by exposing him as an idiot? Is this not every high school student's dream? And what can be more infuriatingly pompous than some fancy-pants French intellectual or American deconstructionist, postmodernist, or academic feminist? These people prattle on in an arcane, incomprehensible language about things like the "compatibility of the axiom of choice and the general continuum hypothesis with the axioms of set theory." You suspect that there is something wrong with what they're saying, but since it advances fashionable political stances, and since such people have thoroughly taken over our universities, and since you can't understand any of it anyway, you can't argue with it. Fashionable Nonsense
by Alan Sokal and Jean Briemont
(Picador USA, $23) Until now. In what might be termed the intellectual equivalent of pulling a professor's pants down in front of the class, physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 wrote an elaborate hoax, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," that was published as a serious academic treatise in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text. Sokal's article purported to debunk the notion that "there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in 'eternal' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the 'objective' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method." Sokal also argued that "feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the facade of 'objectivity.'" Sokal subsequently described "Transgressing the Boundaries" as "crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals." His own writing in the article, he added, was "a melange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. . . . I also employed some other strategies that are well-established (albeit sometimes inadvertently) in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words." All in the service of proving that "the foundational conceptual categories of prior science—among them, existence itself—become problematized and relativized"—a state of affairs that "has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science." The article was well received—until Sokal revealed that it was a hoax. FASHIONABLE NONSENSE, WRITTEN by Sokal and fellow physicist Jean Briemont, includes "Transgressing the Boundaries," comments on it and its reception, and a rigorous critique of the writings of some of the leading proponents of a prevailing postmodern academic fashion called "epistemic relativism"—the idea that "modern science is nothing more than a 'myth,' a 'narration' or a 'social construction' among many others." The book is at once hilarious and terribly depressing—hilarious because the quotations from leading intellectuals read like vicious parodies, depressing because it highlights the lamentable babble that passes for academic thought and discourse in these postmodern days. Not since Stalin anointed T.D. Lysenko as the High Priest of Soviet Science has it been so abundantly clear that an academic's politics matter far more than his or her intellectual substance when it comes to publication and career advancement. Sokal and Briemont, being physicists, are concerned less with the ideas advanced by postmodernists than with the misuse and abuse of science by them. Much postmodern discourse is buttressed by complex arguments and citations from quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and nearly every such citation is either woefully misunderstood or woefully misapplied by the academic citing it. "We show that famous intellectuals . . . have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology," the authors write in their preface, "either using scientific ideas totally out of context . . . or throwing around scientific jargon in front of their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning." The authors rather overgenerously (or perhaps disingenuously) insist that their critique is confined to the misapplication and misapprehension of science by postmodernists, claiming that they reserve judgment on the body of scholarship as a whole. But it is impossible for this reader to find a way to take seriously anything any of these scholars writes after reading the quotations and related critiques in this book. No one who takes in Sokal's and Briemont's rigorous undressing of the postmodernists will ever be able to take any of them seriously on any subject. They are more laughable even than those academicians in Jonathan Swift's writings who were trying to extract sunshine from cucumbers. Fashionable Nonsense can be rough going; it quotes incomprehensible writing, then goes into excruciating detail explaining exactly where and how the incomprehensible writer is wrong. Many of the concepts from mathematics and physics are extremely complex—a circumstance that can make reading the book an arduous task. Even so, its entertainment value is almost infinite. You don't have to be a physicist to understand what is wrong with an assertion like: "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, multidimensional 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 criticized previously." You will find it impossible to distinguish the parody from the seriousness in this book. Which is undoubtedly why Sokal and Briemont write, of that last passage, "only a genius could have written it."