Truth or Consequences: A Brief Response to Robbins

by Alan Sokal

[Published in Tikkun, November/December 1996, p. 58.]

I'm grateful to Tikkun for the opportunity to respond briefly to Bruce Robbins' article, "Anatomy of a Hoax" (September/October). Rather than belabor Social Text's lapses in falling for my parody, I'd like to address some of the larger intellectual and political issues raised by Professor Robbins.

On many issues Robbins and I are in agreement. Science and technology are legitimate, indeed crucial, subjects of public critique and democratic debate. The funding of scientific research by private corporations poses grave dangers to scientific objectivity. (But to make this argument, one must first believe in objectivity as a goal; postmodernists and relativists don't.) Finally, cultural questions are as important as economic ones -- sometimes more so.

But Robbins goes astray when he attempts to defend -- albeit half-heartedly -- the postmodernist/poststructuralist subversion of conventional notions of truth. "Is it in the interests of women, African Americans, and other super-exploited people," Robbins asks, "to insist that truth and identity are social constructions? Yes and no," he asserts. "No, you can't talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence" -- exactly my point. "But yes," Robbins continues, "truth can be another source of oppression." Come again? How can truth oppress anyone? The existing social arrangements may indeed be oppressive, but how can telling the truth about them make things worse? "It was not so long ago," Robbins explains, "that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African Americans ... were inherently inferior." But that isn't truth -- it's ideology posing as truth, and objective science demonstrates its falsity.

This error is repeated throughout Robbins' essay: he systematically confuses truth with claims of truth, fact with assertions of fact, and knowledge with pretensions to knowledge. These elisions underlie much of the sloppy thinking about "social construction" that is prevalent nowadays in the academy, and it's something that progressives ought to resist. Sure, let's show which economic, political and ideological interests are served by our opponents' accounts of "reality"; but first let's demonstrate, by marshalling evidence and logic, why those accounts are objectively false (or in some cases true but incomplete).

"Those of us who do cultural politics sometimes act," Robbins candidly admits, "as if ... truth were always and everywhere a weapon of the right." That's an astoundingly self-defeating attitude for an avowed leftist. If truth were on the side of the right, shouldn't we all -- at least the honest ones among us -- become right-wingers? For my own part, I'm a leftist and a feminist because of evidence and logic (combined with elementary ethics), not in spite of it.

Ellen Willis (Village Voice, June 25) has eloquently criticized those know-nothing lefties who are impatient with theoretical social analysis. "We need to know a lot," Robbins correctly observes, "and a lot of what we need to know is cultural." But Robbins then misrepresents my assertion that "theorizing about `the social construction of reality' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming," by quoting only the second half of the sentence. My objection is not to cultural analysis per se, but only to a social-constructivist and anti-realist philosophy run amok.

Robbins concludes by asserting that "what is really expressed" by critics of Cultural Studies' excesses is "a longing for the days when women were back in the kitchen and it was respectable to joke about faggots." I don't know where he dreamed up that one, but it's sure news to me -- as it must be to Ruth Rosen, Katha Pollitt, Noretta Koertge, Barbara Epstein and the dozens of other feminist critics of postmodernism. For the sake of the American left, it behooves us not to evade the real issues.

Alan Sokal is Professor of Physics at New York University.