The Sokal Hoax, Post-Modernism and the Left

Every now and then one will unfortunately have the experience of participating in a rather, pleasant and stimulating conversation which is completely derailed by a statement of sheer lunacy.

“Oh, so you actually believe in DNA?”

 “No, don’t you get it….gravity is a social construction.”

 “The essential nature of Marxism is theological in its paradigmatic obfuscation of non-empirical un-reality.”

… And so on.

After several minutes of listening to a soliloquy of incomprehensible verbiage the individual in question will eventually confess the following; “I’m basically a post-modernist”. This is sort of a code-word; Post-Modernists are essentially academic charlatans. No other group of people will proudly boast of the fact that they are sure of absolutely nothing and then drive the point home by asserting that… neither are you. Surely the fact that such people are incredibly annoying is a concrete reality, objective in nature and immune to scientific criticism or doubt.

These PoMo’s will have many theories. Some of these theories will disprove other theories, including their own and the collective implications of these theories will be transparently non-existent. From what I understand, Post-modernism is a sort of rejection of the intellectual and academic legacy of the Enlightenment. The field itself is the bastard-hybrid of several different areas of study within the humanities and sciences. It occupies a sort of intellectual limbo that serves as a refuge and safe haven for every ridiculous theory deemed unworthy of actual scholarly recognition within established fields of academia.

After all, 2 + 2 will always equal 4, regardless of whether the conditions in the lab or mathematics department are egalitarian. To all those fools who proudly declare that all knowledge is relative and the sum total of human understanding is merely a collection of “stories” deriving from socio-economic circumstances, they should put their “theory” to the test. They should stand atop a tall building, shout the liberating words “gravity is a self-imposed social construction” and jump.

Here’s the thing: I can talk to a scientist or science professor and get him/her to explain virtually any theory in language I can actually understand; regardless if it’s chaos theory or quantum mechanics. And even if I can’t immediately understand the incredibly complicated nature of the mathematical equations which underline these theories, I do understand the concepts. The same is true for virtually any discipline or field of study. I certainly do not understand the mathematics behind complex financial derivative products, but I can get an economist to explain what a derivative is in plain English to me.

Yet when you ask a Post-modernist to explain to you, in plain English, what their theories/ideas actually are, one of two things will inevitably come to light. Either they will blab on incoherently about their inability to convey to you the awesome complexity of some impossible to comprehend idea (code words for total bullshit) or the idea, when divorced from the needlessly complicated verbiage and quadrisyllabic words, will simply be a truism. It will be so obvious it goes without saying. Only it’s hard to advance an academic career on truisms and common sense, so one can understand the need to dress it up.

In fact one can almost imagine some sad liberal arts student accidentally walking into a physics lab in his/her University and thinking the following:

Wow! Look at all these people doing all this work. They’re using a mysterious language and their work has scientific, far-ranging implications… I know! I’ll invent a theory with incomprehensible language that no one will understand and it will have far-ranging implications too!”

The difference is obvious. Scientists have actually produced things; things like antibiotics, contraception, cellular technology, and a plethora of other inventions and breakthroughs which have radically improved the quality of life for billions of people. My personal favourite in antibiotics. Do you know what happened to people with infections before antibiotics? They fucking died. Often in a long and painful manner during which the infection would eventually spread through their blood into their brains, sentencing them to live their final days in an agonizing delirium before their bodies simply gave up. In fact, infections of the teeth were one of the main reasons why life expectancy used to be around 28. Surely, science and economic theory has been misused. No one is disputing that. Ironically, doesn`t the incredible horror of the atomic bomb simply reinforce the basic conclusion that Einstein and Rutherford were right? It is a ridiculous non-sequitur to blame science for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After-all, the evils of math and counting were no doubt employed in order to facilitate the slave trade. Should such actions cast a shadow on the legitimacy of mathematics?

What have the Post-modernists produced of value? In my mind, the intellectual vanity of self-aggrandizing western professors and academics is not a tangible benefit worth acknowledging. The only thing Post-Modernists have ever produced which has intrinsic value is the laugh one gets when hearing about the Sokal Hoax.

Alan Sokal, an American Physicist, found himself disgusted with what he perceived to be the lack of credibility amongst the community of intellectual French Post-modernists who considered themselves leftist. Sokal, a lefty as well, was displeased with the ways in which this community of intellectuals seemed to reject and criticize legitimate science while peddling their own perverted brand of pseudo-science in order to push a very specific political agenda. It was embarrassing to have their gibberish being taken seriously. Intellectuals like Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida were prime examples of what Sokal was referring to. If you want a specific example of what Sokal was talking about you can check out any of Derrida`s lengthy publications where he waxes philosophical about…

“…the more “fruitful paths (formalization)” of a general semiotics without falling in what he considered “a hierarchizing teleology” privileging linguistics, and speak of ‘mark’ rather than of language, not as something restricted to mankind, but as prelinguistic, as the pure possibility of language, working every where there is a relation to something else”

I rest my case.

Sokal reasoned that this community would embrace literally any theory, regardless of how silly, as long as it used the proper jargon and pushed the appropriate political message. So, in order to test this hypothesis Sokal wrote an essay entitled – Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” and submitted it to a trendy, Post-Modern journal called “The Social Text”. The arguments within the essay were deliberately ridiculous and quite funny in many cases. Not surprisingly, his suspicions about the academic integrity of this new field of study were confirmed when they published his paper and it received a great deal of praise amongst the Post-Modernist community.

Of course, the theory made no sense and wasn’t really a theory at all. A point that was driven home when Sokal wrote a book a year or so later called “Fashionable Nonsense” explaining the essay was in fact, a hoax. Since then, Sokal has become a quasi folk hero in certain scientific circles for exposing Post-modernists to largely be a collection of frauds. This is considered to be a turning point in what was later dubbed “the science wars”. Some of the Post-Modernists even claimed that Sokal didn`t understand the incredible truths and breakthroughs he made in his own text. Left-wing activist Michael Albert (and co-creator of the theory of participatory economics) compared this rationalization to the likelihood that a monkey would type randomly on a keyboard and produce amazing material.

Here’s the point: There was a time when intellectuals understood that they had social responsibilities. Now, more than ever, when our political and journalistic institutions are completely corrupt and devoid of legitimacy, we need intellectuals to figure out what’s really going on and explain it to the rest of us in terms we can understand (so we can do something about it). We don’t need incomprehensible theories that explain nothing. They help no-one.

For example, I know many Feminists. I consider myself a Feminist. We are a diverse bunch. Yet in my experience, the one thing that binds together all the women and men I know who work in rape-crises centers, battered women’s shelters or do legal work on behalf of women’s rights is that they care very little about whether or not gender is a social construction. It’s simply irrelevant. Who needs a rather bizarre and sweeping endorsement of metaphysical constructivism in order to arrive at the conclusion that men and women have equal rights, that more money needs to be appropriated by our legislatures to combat the violations women suffer on a daily basis or that patriarchy is oppressive?

Believe me, this is by no means a problem limited to gender or feminist issues. It’s the same in nearly every field of study. It literally makes me nauseous to think about a couple of academics on some campus, blabbing on about the correct interpretation of Das Kapital in some inane debate about whether Lenin or Trotsky represents the most pure form of socialism. In my experience, these people are rarely the same bunch who join Oxfam, become community organizers, get progressive city councillors elected or start anti-poverty initiatives.

But why would anyone do anything? I mean real political action involves hard work, in many cases boring, unglamorous work. I know most young lefties who fancy themselves revolutionary have visions of facing down police, dying or being imprisoned for the cause, etc. But a great deal of political action is the really boring and necessary stuff you never hear about in the history books; like the dedicated activist who spends two hours a day cold-calling people, trying to get them to vote and/or donate to a cause; or the girl who spends all day and night at a Kinko`s, printing out leaflets for a rally; or the person that has the super-fun job or sorting cans of soup for a food drive. And guess what? Real scholarly research also requires boring and necessary hard-work. In fact, a great deal of it is simply clerical work; looking things up, checking sources, documenting quotes, re-checking sources, etc.

So, I suppose it makes perfect sense. Why not just sit around in the most self-indulgent manor possible and contemplate the beauty of the SELF in all its infinite complexity – I am Muslim, Gay, Transsexual, Libertarian, Socialist, Norwegian Midget. Hear Me Roar. In my experience, only the most insecure and sad people feel it necessarily to tie their self-esteem to a fucking category. Your identity is based on what you DO, not the demographic info you use to fill out a census form.

To bring this around full circle, what’s truly disgusting about Post-modernism, especially the type popularized by the French intellectual left, is its inherent elitism. These people preach to the choir, argue amongst themselves and have no time for regular folk. And let’s be honest here, this form of contempt for ordinary people is not limited to just the French. I know “progressives” who literally will not talk to a Rob Ford supporter, rendering themselves completely oblivious to their own naked contempt for the democratic process. These are the same “open minded” people who have decided it’s only morally acceptable to associate with people who share their exact political views. Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s not only `close minded`, it’s the actual definition of closed minded.

I know I beat up on the Left a lot, but it’s only because at heart, I consider myself a Leftist and I want to see this once famous and celebrated movement regain its former credibility and some of the much needed leverage necessary to do some good. Reality Check: Noam Chomsky is in his 80s. Edward Said has passed away and so has Howard Zinn. When Chomsky goes we will literally be left with Naomi Klein and Michael Moore. To make matters worse, we won’t even have the entertainment value of watching Christopher Hitchens tear them to pieces. If the aforementioned progression is not a sober indicator of a movement in decline, I don’t know what is.

This is just a thought, but it would probably do the Left some good in the recruiting department if they did not constantly look down on others for their so-called moral impurities. In addition to this, it would certainly help if they were not completely terrified of people, especially those they claim to represent. Is it really a surprise that it never occurred to the Occupy Toronto folk to actually walk two blocks to Moss Park and attempt to recruit some poor people? Alexander Cockburn said it best when he described a lefty meeting as a bunch of people who form a circle, turn the guns inward and fire.

Lastly, in the interest of maintaining some credibility, certain sections of the Left (you know who you are) need to stop trying to depict science as the corrupt enforcer of a class system or patriarchal oppression. If this current global political movement is not to be tossed aside into the ash-bin of history, it will need all the allies it can get. Personally, I would rather have the scientists than the post-modernists on my side any day. But you already knew that.



About Joe

Joe a public servant in the truest sense of the word, tirelessly advocating for YOU. He doesn’t “technically” work in government but considers all of the citizens of Toronto to be his children. Recovering drug addict, social worker, certified life skills coach (really), political dissident and former ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt manufacturer... Joseph pushes the boundaries of new Journalism. His mission is clear; merging opinion and fact into semi-coherent gibberish designed to generate ad revenue to feed his editors pockets (and ego). Joe’s writing represents your number #1 online source for what Joe may be thinking at any given moment. Other PP posts by Joe can be found [here]

  • Krow

    “Objectivism is true because it’s proven to be more useful” is the rallying cry for modernism. The problem is that usefulness does not imply truth, and that perceived usefulness is not indicative of actual utility. Listen, I won’t disagree with you that Derrida’s incomprehensible works are nothing more than power fantasies which provide little in the way of furthering our understanding. Dismissing postmodernism outright because of a certain group of intellectuals use it for furthering themselves, though, is hardly fair. The social sciences in particular have benefited greatly from the notion that truth does not always have to be objective. New perspectives on societal plurality, sexuality, and minority history all have their roots in postmodernism. To state that postmodernism is “elitist” is to miss the point entirely.

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