On Being Hoaxed

Draft of article for Tikkun (circa August 1996)

by Bruce Robbins

That afternoon in May I was sitting in front of the computer, half-working, half-listening to "All Things Considered." The kids were in the living room doing a similar combination of homework and TV. Then, all of a sudden, I heard the words "Social Text," followed by laughter. It was the name of the journal I've worked on for over ten years, the last five of them as coeditor. I was thunderstruck. We were on National Public Radio. "Kids! I yelled. "Social Text!"

I had learned a few days earlier that Alan Sokal's essay in our last issue, which argued that there is a convergence between postmodern philosophy and quantum physics, was a hoax intended to demonstrate how ignorant people like the editors of Social Text are about science. But it had never occurred to me, and perhaps it had never occurred to Sokal, that a hoax aimed at a small journal of left-wing cultural politics would be worthy of attention from the mainstream media.

Now I quickly found myself succumbing to a perverse sense of self-importance. Frustrating as it was to hear the NPR interviewer chuckle as Sokal scoffed at difficult philosophical passages (would anybody expect them to make sense, quoted out of context?), the main feeling was titillation. We were worth attacking! But why?

My kids, who have spent endless childhood hours suffering through Social Text meetings, knew enough to appear sympathetically excited as I tried not to hop up and down. "But you know, daddy," my 14-year-old daughter said afterwards, "that guy wasn't any easier to understand than the people he was making fun of."

It was a useful hint. When I wrote back to NPR I admitted that we should have known Sokal was putting us on. Could anybody be serious who wrote papers with titles like "The Absence of Phase Transition for Antiferromagnetic Potts Models Via the Dobrushin Uniqueness Theorem" and "New Lower Bounds on the Self-Avoiding-Walk Connective Constant"?

There's no doubt that esoteric language sometimes hides absence of thought. But jargon isn't really the issue here. Nor is the issue how dumb we were. Yes, Social Text should have shown the article to a physicist--even though it wasn't, after all, a scholarly contribution to physics. And, pleased as we might be to publish a credentialled scientist who was critical of the science establishment (they aren't exactly beating down our doors), we should not have decided to let it pass as one physicist's opinion, philosophically and stylistically awkward but politically convenient.

Still, the fact that we missed the telltale jokes hidden in the footnotes doesn't mean the essay in fact had no argument, as most of the press rushed to assume on nothing more than Sokal's say-so. Smarter or braver than the crowd of smart-aleck reporters who were so anxious to show that they themselves never, never could have been fooled, Sharon Begley and Adam Rogers of Newsweek reminded readers of how respectable a pedigree arguments like Sokal's have within science itself:

Ever since the quantum mechanics revolution of the arly 20th century, scientists have accepted, for instance, that an electron in an atom does not have a definite position until an observer measures it. Even more bizarre, experiments prove that merely knowing one property of a particle can change its other ones. Physicists and philosophers argue passionately about what this means. Is it so egregious for social scientists to riff on the idea of an observer-created world?  (June 3).

Sure, there is plenty of legitimate disagreement about the extent to which observers and their socially-conditioned assumptions shape the accounts of the physical universe that scientists produce. But it's the height of bad faith to pretend that only French theory or scientific incompetence could possibly lead anyone even to pose such questions.

Liz McMillen of the Chronicle of Higher Education gives a classic example of how social and sexual prejudices have worked their way into scientific results. "For years scientists believed that the sperm actively sought out the female egg, which was thought to play a passive role. But in recent years, scientists have said the egg actually sends out signals to guide the sperm" (June 28).

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 thathomophobia, say, has nothing to do with the history of AIDS research or that exposing its influence is politically irrelevant? Or that the profit motive has had no effect on the agenda for research into global warming?

The charge that non-scientists like us are incompetent to judge what scientists do is of course a claim that only scientists can be allowed to judge it. It's a claim, in other words, that science ought to be free from any public accountability, or any accountability other than to those funders (increasingly, private corporations) who pay the piper.

Pretending that criticisms of science are invalidated by postmodernism or poststructuralism is a convenient way for Sokal and his backers to pretend that what they are defending is not their own exclusive rights to a turf that the public has good reason to monitor as closely as possible.

But this is not to say that the hoax offered no grounds for amusement other than gloating along with Sokal's barely concealed belligerence. Points were raised in the ensuing debate that can certainly divide people of intelligence and good will. The example that hits closest to home is the question of culture, or of a politics that is specifically cultural.

Left-wing commentators in particular have accused this cultural politics, which they associate correctly with Social Text, of arrogantly overreaching itself--if not in asserting its authority to render judgment on science, then more boradly in claiming to be a political activity of more than academic signifiance. The Sokal affair, many feel, administered to cultural politics a well-deserved comeuppance.

Culture is important only if the scientific worldview leaves a lot out. This is one reason why literary critics and other humanists have been inclined toward skepticism about science ever since the modern concept of culture was first defined by the Romantics and Matthew Arnold. In other words, today's anti-science skepticism in the academy is not an innovation, nor does it stem directly from French theory or multiculturalism.

But it is indeed a problem. Eager to return to their own disciplinary reason for being, students of culture have trouble controlling their propensity to generate mindlessly repetitive attacks on culture's supposed others, whether they are called science or reason or truth. Bewitched by epistemological questions (what is real knowledge?), cultural critics sometimes act as if the questioning of reality were of self-evident and even paramount ethical and political value, as if truth and reason were always and everywhere weapons 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 and reason, and academic critics tend to have one whether they admit it or not.)

A primary concern with culture has sometimes meant a certain hesitation in talking about economic inequality or in doing something about legislation. It has also entailed a willingness to to find things to appreciate in ordinary culture, even a highly commercialized, commodified culture like ours.

Hence the easy parodies of a cultural studies industry whose analyses mechanically uncover "resistance" and "subversion" in whatever artifact happens to be under discussion. With so much resistance and subversion all over the place, you'd think the force of change in American society would be doing a lot better than they are.

All of these points have been raised in the wake of Sokal's hoax. Abut it's worth noting that they had all been raised before as well, and within the same fields and journals that have since been widely ridiculed. In other words, the debate about them is part of cultural politics.

Cultural politics is not, then, a simple distraction from the harder realities of economic injustice or efforts to organize or to pass legislation. As Ellen Willis suggested with eloquent irony in The Village Voice (June 25), the know-nothings of the left are as deluded as the know-it-alls of the right: "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. The struggle for economic redistribution, Nancy Fraser argues, necessarily passes through struggles for recognition. Race concerns access to housing and employment as well as cultural disparagement. Gender is not merely a question of identity but a structuring principle of the division between "productive" and unpaid, domestic labor.

Consider the Jewish question. Various people have wondered why so many Jews (myself included) have been involved on both sides of the Sokal affair. It's only a speculation, but perhaps the reason is that the "objective reality" that's really at stake here is not that troublingly complex problem faced by scientists and philosophers; here, objective reality is a figure for meritocracy.

You don't know what merit is unless you have a standard, and for many people objectivity has seemed to be that standard. Without it, they fear that the whole edifice of merit will collapse-- a fear that many already associate with multiculturalism and academic reform. This fear has been especially acute for Jews, whose possibilities of upward mobility since World War II have depended disproportionately on the (new) policy of identity-blindness in education.

But for some of us, being Jewish has been just as peremptory a reason to try to see beyond the artificial limits and subtle injustices of meritocracy, a reason to develop a larger and more generous sense of fairness.

Along with a threat to universal standards of fairness, culture has also seemed too eager to be hip. It is ironic that the mainstream media should lavish their satire on the hip-academic-as- interpreter-of-culture, for if there are any true slaves to the up-to-the-minute urgency of fashion out there, it's of course the media people themselves, not slower-paced academics who listen to NPR while they muse and ponder.

For the media, academics are usefully unlikely suspects. Writing man-bites-dog stories that accuse nutty professors (of all people!) of being led astray by fashion offers reporters a chance to get out from under their own servitude to the latest versions of the cool and the chic. To which I add, for what it's worth, a quiet warning against cheap fashion bashing. Any teenager will tell you that it can be cool to have a conscience. The high moral ground doesn't belong to the nerds.

Who is the real target of spluttering tirades against hip and/or cultural politics which suggest, like Tom Frank's, that the only real politics is economics? Since nobody believes that ponytails and body piercing infallibly signify how someone is going to come down on plant closures or universal health care, it seems likely that what such outbursts really express 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 observed 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' larger point is that even for the purposes of the current election, it's not just the economy, stupid. "The new permissiveness," Wills 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 an effort to enlarge socialism's appeal to ordinary, decent people, George Orwell, that voice of decency and clear jargon-free English, once listed the sorts of enthusiasts (he called them cranks) who currently give socialism a bad name. Unfortunately, he declares, socialism draws "every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." To state one's desire for vegetarian food, he went on, "is by itself to alienate plenty of decent people."

Much of the support for Sokal's hoax and the hostility to cultural politics that has accompanied it seems to me an echo of Orwell's bid to reclaim the center. Decency, it is now repeated, is on the side of ordinary folks, those who believe that science can be trusted to report on objective reality and that people compete on a level playing field and who are easily alienated by anyone who believes anything 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 be longer, of course, with more categories for race, sex, religion, and styles of life-- you needn't apply.

Cultural politics has perhaps erred on occasion by seeming to speak up ONLY for those who are excluded from such a list. But I would argue that any list like this makes a huge and potentially costly mistake about who ordinary people really are.

One job of journals like Social Text is to keep that mistake from happening. The media who took our story so seriously were perhaps acknowledging in their indirect fashion that there is a real public stake in the outcome.

Bruce Robbins
Professor of English, Rutgers University