Sokal and Bricmont: Is this the beginning of the end of the dark ages in the humanities?

by Raymond Tallis

[Published in the PN Review, no. 128, June 1999.]

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.
Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science.
London: Profile Books, 1998.

When I was a boy, I was friendly with a lad who lived a few doors away. We used to take bicycle rides together and have gunfights on the waste land and light fires and play scratch cricket. Our ways parted as our interests evolved in different directions. There were no hard feelings and, indeed, much residual good will. Roger (this is not his true name, which I shall withhold for the sake of his family) did not share any of my own developing intellectual interests and I felt none of his love for sailing. I was surprised, therefore, when one evening my mother came across an interview with Roger in the Liverpool Echo in which he declared that his real passion was `cybernetics'. I felt that I had misjudged him and wondered whether, after all, we did have more in common than I had thought. The next time I ran into Roger, I asked him about his interest in cybernetics; more particularly, I asked him what `cybernetics' was. My ignorance was genuine, rather than assumed. To our embarrassment, we both discovered that Roger, too, was ignorant about the nature of cybernetics. For him, it was just a word. It had something to do with science and technology and the future and seemed rather glamorous and was much talked-about then. It was clearly just the thing to impress the readers of a provincial newspaper. I didn't pursue the matter and we saw little of each other subsequently. The last I heard of him, he was doing well as an estate agent. Poor Roger could not have expected that his comments about `cybernetics' would have been taken up (`interrogated', `problematised') by a reader of the Liverpool Echo. This was hard luck. Even more unjustly, he was not awarded a tenure-track post in humanities on the strength of his allusion to cybernetics, or a Chair in the Systems of Thought at the University of Paris.

I was reminded of Roger when I read Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (henceforth S&B). Like Roger, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze have the habit of using terms of which they have not the faintest understanding, in order to impress the impressionable. Unlike Roger, they did not grow out of it and, also unlike Roger, they were rewarded not with obscurity but with international fame and the adulation of seemingly intelligent academics the world over.

For many years, Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva et al got away with murder, confident that their readers would have only the slightest acquaintance with the areas of knowledge they expropriated to prop up their ideas and their reputation for scholarship, indeed for omniscience. Few if any real historians took note of Michel Foucault's eccentric periodisations; with a single exception, analytical philosophers did not think of Derrida as someone to engage in a debate about the contemporary significance of J.L. Austin and speech act theory; and for every ten thousand students who learned about Rousseau's ideas from popularisations of Derrida, there was hardly one who had read, and reflected upon, Rousseau's writings for herself.

Eventually the postmodern Theorists started to attract the attention of experts in the disciplines into which they had strayed. Linguists looked at their linguistics and found it littered with elementary errors. Derrida, for example, repeatedly confused the sign as a whole with the signifier and so have his many hundreds of thousands of obedient disciples. This error is one of the cornerstones of his work. Other linguists were amused by the Derrideans' ignorance of linguistics outside of Saussure -- this ignorance perhaps strengthening their confidence in their ability to pronounce on the whole of language. Historians have examined Foucault's egregious versions of the history of thought and have discovered that even the miniscule and eccentric empirical base upon which his broad sweep theories are poised is grossly at variance with the documentary evidence. His periodisation -- crucial to his vision of Western history and of man as `a recent invention' -- would, to take one small example, require Descartes to have lived sometime after he had died, in order to fit into the right episteme. Indeed, one does not have to be much of a scholar to demonstrate that Foucault's epistemes and the so-called ruptures epistemologiques separating them -- the central notions of the book (The Order of Things) that brought him his international fame -- correspond in no way to any historical reality. Names that should fit into one of his periods are awkwardly active in others and disciplines that transcend his periods prove to be more numerous than he had thought. (One or two people did try to point this out to him while he was alive but you can't tell a Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France anything.) Perhaps Foucault was speaking autobiographically when he described discourse as `the violence we do to things'. At any rate, it is striking how frequently postmodernist theorists, when their theories become accidentally contaminated with facts, get the facts wrong -- so frequently that this cannot be fully accounted for by the party line contempt for `the empirical' but must be the result of a determined endeavour to bend facts to theories. (It is interesting how contempt for facts goes hand in hand with a propensity for fabricating evidence. Perhaps there is a kind of consistency in combining hatred of truth -- and the very notion of truth -- with a love of error.) Some of the most detailed critical examinations have been carried out on postmodern theorists' misrepresentations of philosophical ideas and the history of philosophical thought. Inspection of what postmodernists say about major figures such as Plato, Descartes, Husserl and Peirce, in support of their own theories -- in which, not infrequently, isolated comments by major figures have been made to stand for huge chunks of `Western thought' -- have revealed an extraordinary mixture of genuine misunderstanding and strategic misquotation.

Surely, then, the game should have been up a long time ago. This has been suggested by Terry Eagleton. To judge from his recently acquired hostility to postmodernist Theory, he has sensed that the clever money is moving on, and that now might be the time to switch from fellow travelling and collaboration to resistance. (He has not, however, withdrawn his uncritical but lucrative Literary Theory.) In a favourable review of M.J. Devaney's devastating critique of some of the philosophical assumptions underpinning postmodernist `thought' (Since at least Plato ... and other Postmodernist Myths), he commented wryly on the danger of critics `muscling in' on areas about which they know nothing. For a critic `muscling in on philosophy', there is, he pointed out

the alarming possibility that a real philosopher might weigh in on your arguments, rather as you might seek to impress someone at a party with your smattering of knowledge about the Dead Sea scrolls, only to discover later that he is a New Testament scholar. (Times Literary Supplement, 2 January 1998, p. 2)
And he adds of M.J. Devaney that she `brings to aspects of postmodern thought the grossly unfair advantage of a knowledge of the history of philosophy to postmodernism'. The laboured irony ill-befits one who has done very well (financially and otherwise) out of postmodern Theory. At any rate, it is true that there is, indeed, always a risk that out there there might be a reader of the Liverpool Echo who will take notice and ask you what cybernetics is or wonder about your credentials for talking about it.

So is the game is up? The appalling truth is that all the damaging revelations about the incompetence of the postmodern theorists have caused little or no damage to the major players or, indeed, to the industry itself. As Eagleton himself has said, `there is too much spiritual and material capital now invested in the postmodernist industry for its executive directors to be able to afford to listen' (loc. cit.). The continuing dissemination of postmodern Theory and its increasingly powerful grip on the humanities almost beggars belief: there can be few liberal arts students who do not encounter Theory in their courses and for many of them, such as those studying literature, it lies like an incubus over the entire curriculum. How can this be possible?

The protection built into Theory and its web of affiliated schools, weatherproofing it against criticism, is very thick indeed: it is composed of layer on layer of ignorance. The hundreds of thousands of first year students in English studies who are given an encapsulation of Western philosophy as `logocentric' by their teachers will, for the most part, not themselves have read a page of Plato, Descartes or Heidegger. Nor, not infrequently, will their teachers or the teachers who taught them. The bibliographies that are dished out to support the postmodernist history of philosophy will often exclude the works of Plato, Descartes or even Heidegger. They will list Derrida, Lacan, Foucault etc; or, more likely, popularisations of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault etc. and the work of their intellectual descendants. Both teachers and texts, in other words, will be several orders removed from engagement with, knowledge of, reflection upon, the thinkers whose thoughts are incorporated into the postmodernists' global systems of understanding that students have to accept on trust. For every student who has read Plato, ten thousand will have been subjected to Derrida's error-ridden account of the Phaedrus upon which he founded his famous theories about logocentricity as `the pattern that will dominate all of Western philosophy'.

Those (and I include myself among them) who imagined that demonstrating the factual errors, empirical inadequacy, logical inconsistency and explanatory failures of postmodern Theory would be sufficient to raze the card castle to the ground had not taken account of this multi-layered insulation of the theorists. We made the same mistake as General Haig before the battle of the Somme when he anticipated that, after a week of continuous bombardment and a million shells, the Germans would allow the British soldiers simply to walk over the lines. And like Haig's infantry, we found ourselves in no-man's-land, weighed down with 60 pound packs loaded with useless things like facts and arguments, waving our rifles at undislodged machine guns behind ten foot high barbed wire entanglements. The Germans had only two years to dig in before the Somme; the postmodern Theorists have been building their trenches and tunnels and bunkers for thirty years. Nor had we reckoned with another tactic: silence. One can minimise the impact of valid dissent by denying it the publicity involved in rebuttal. Or with a third tactic: argumentum ad hominem of such ferocity as to deter others from popping their heads over the parapet. Those who criticised Theory were diagnosed, classified, stereotyped, mocked and sent away to lick their wounds. Derrida's contemptuous treatment of John Searle -- who showed how, at the heart of Derrida's careless pyrotechnics, was a simple misreading of Austin -- typified the kind of deliberate refusal to engage scholars in real debate that kept critical, and knowledgeable, minds at bay. He took argumentum ad hominem a step further by focusing on Searle's name: argumentum ad hominem that mocks him as `Sarl'. The additional advantage of this pugilistic approach was that debate was obscured in a smokescreen of scandal; in the ensuing darkness all arguments, good and bad, looked pretty well the same and the whole thing could be presented as a punch-up between the revolutionaries and the conservatives, or between the old fogeys and the young Turks. Nor, finally, had we reckoned with the sheer volume and size of the industry: for every book questioning Derrida's use of Saussure, there are many hundreds taking it for granted and expounding its significance for students who have to learn to speak fluent Theorrhoea if they are to survive their end of year assessments. Derrida is on a thousand curricula; critical examinations of his work do not figure in a handful. Those who teach Theory are not foolish enough to draw attention to critiques of Theory: no place on the reading lists for them. Only academics committed to truly critical thought and the disinterested pursuit of truth (that superannuated category) would be foolish enough to shoot themselves through the foot by drawing attention to dissenting voices.

For all of these reasons, the publication of Intellectual Impostures is an event of first importance for the future of the humanities. Apart from its very great intrinsic merits, it has, on the back of the brilliant Sokal Hoax, attracted enormous publicity both within and beyond academe. Moreover, S&B have set new standards for the criticism of postmodern Theory and they bring new hope that the Castle of Untruth might at last be stormed successfully. Never before has a critique of the Lords (and Ladies) of Intellectual Misrule been carried out so thoroughly or with such magisterial authority. S&B are careful to state at the outset that they do not pretend to undermine the whole of postmodern Theory -- or that they have discredited the entire oeuvre of its founders. And yet their patient, quiet examination has implications, and will have effects, that go far beyond their specific remit. It may even be that students will at last be aware of a universe of discourse outside of the dogma of their Theory-besotted teachers, that they will give the dissenting voices a fair hearing, and the game will truly be up.

S&B define postmodernism as `an intellectual current characterised by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a "narration", a "myth" or a social construction among many others'. They investigate with scrupulous care the things that Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva, Latour, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, Virilio, and others have had to say about mathematics, physical science, and technology, and more particularly the use they have made of concepts borrowed from mathematics and the physical sciences in their writings about language, literature, the human psyche, feminism, contemporary culture etc. S&B have discovered that these luminaries are Rogers every man and woman of them. Their writings are littered with, and the apparent force of their arguments is heavily dependent upon, terms and concepts of which they have not the faintest understanding. Because their audiences are slightly more sophisticated (though no less gullible) than the readers of the Liverpool Echo, the terms they borrow have to be more recherché than `cybernetics'. So Kristeva uses terms lifted from mathematical logic and set theory, Lacan mobilises mathematical logic and topology, Irigaray broods on solid and fluid mechanics, Deleuze and Guattari plunder differential and integral calculus and quantum mechanics, Baudrillard uses Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, and so on. But the appearance of erudition is entirely deceptive.

Consider, for example, the project that established Julia Kristeva's reputation -- her investigation of what constitutes a poetic language:

For us poetic language is not a code encompassing the others, but a class A that has the same power as the function phi(x1....xn) of the infinity of the linguistic code (see the existence theorem, cf. p. 189), and all the `other languages' (the `usual' language, the `meta-languages', etc.) are quotients of A over more restricted extents (limited by the rules of the subject-predicate construction, for example, as being the basis of formal logic), and disguising, because of this limitation, the morphology of the function phi(x1....xn). (quoted S&B p. 41)

And this is only a beginning. Many of her pages are littered with axioms such as the following (the Axiom of Choice):

(EA) {Un(A) . (x) [~Em(x) . -> . (Ey) [y e x . < yx > e A]]}
that are familiar to mathematicians schooled in set theory but for the majority of her readers (including myself) are utterly opaque. This formula, she claimed, `is applicable in our universe E of the pl'. (S&B p. 42)

Roland Barthes saluted her work as `entirely new and precise'. And a recent commentator (John Lechte, Julia Kristeva, 1990) has asserted that

What is most striking about Kristeva's work ... is the competence with which it is presented, the intense single-mindedness with which it is pursued, and finally, its intricate rigour. No resources are spared: existing theories of logic are invoked and, at one point, quantum mechanics (p. 109).
The rest of us might have some reservations. Lacking the knowledge to check the validity of the terminology and its incorporation into the argument, and out of something between modesty and pusillanimity, we would hesitate to classify it as CMTP (colonic material of a taurine provenance). It is only now that we can say that our instincts were justified.

For S&B are two very remarkable people: not only are they theoretical physicists for whom set theory, matrix algebra, topology and their application to quantum mechanics and nonlinear systems are the basis of their daily labour -- so they are neither fazed nor impressed by it -- but they also have a deep understanding of wider cultural and philosophical issues. For the first time, scholars with the necessary credentials to judge the claims of Kristeva -- and others like her who mobilise the advanced mathematics etc (or the outer surface of it) to back up their global assertions about language, literature, the self etc. -- have looked at what she has written and has subjected her use, or invocation, of science and mathematics in the writings, to a minute examination. And what they have found is that her concept-dropping (cf name-dropping) is totally inappropriate and betrays what are, to them, elementary confusions and misunderstandings.

S&B have shown that Kristeva's account of `pl' is strictly meaningless, as are numerous other passages that they quote and analyse at length. For instance, the use of the Axiom of Choice has no relevance whatsoever in linguistics and cannot help to elucidate poetic language. The introduction of this axiom in mathematical set theory is motivated by the study of infinite sets, or of infinite collections of sets.

Where does one find such sets in poetry? To say that the axiom of choice `makes precise how every sequence contains the message of the book' is ludicrous -- we're unsure whether this assertion does more violence to mathematics or to literature. (p. 42)
It is worth noting, in passing, that one of the very many virtues of S&B is the sheer length and number of the quotations: the excerpts they analyse are a page or more long -- not soundbites taken out of context. Their criticism moreover is linked to a luminously clear explanation of terms that are misused -- or at least the more fundamental concepts from transfinite set theory and mathematical logic. S&B's explanatory notes are an intellectual feast and make one hungry to be in the company of real mathematicians.

Among the numerous (and to them elementary) errors that S&B expose in Kristeva's text are (a) her belief that Gödel asserted the opposite of what he actually did assert in his famous theorem; (b) her misunderstanding that the axiom of choice implies a notion of constructibility; and (c) her mistranscription of a definition of the set of functions C0(R3) in a way that would hit anyone who knew about the necessary field in the eye. None of her audience would have spotted this; most of them, like me, and most of the readers of PNR, untrained in advanced mathematics would not have understood a word of what she said and would have to take her arguments -- and their relevance to poetic language (say the distinctive character of `Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day' as opposed to `If you touch my car I shall bash your head in') -- on trust. Nevertheless, it was this kind of junk that earned her her chair in linguistics at the University of Paris VII eight years after she astonished Paris (including the all-powerful Roland Barthes) with her `new and precise' work. A betrayal of trust seems an egregious way to a chair, but they order things differently over there. It would be interesting to know who was on her appointment committee and how much they understood of set theory and mathematical logic. The defence that this was all a long time ago and Professor Kristeva has moved on to other things won't of course wash. If it was shown that I had arrived at my present chair on the basis of what in my own sphere of clinical medicine would be regarded as fraud, I should feel obliged to resign, however many years ago the work was done. Besides, Kristeva has moved out of her brand of quasi-mathematical poetics only to embrace the work of an out-and-out fraud, Jacques Lacan.

Lacan, whose groundless dogma on the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real Kristeva has advocated with uncritical passion over the last twenty years, borrowed, like Kristeva, concepts and terms from disciplines of which he had no real knowledge or understanding. For over a decade before his death, he was obsessed by the notion that certain topological figures might cast light on psychiatric illness and the human mind. He believed, for example, that the torus was `exactly the structure of the neurotic'. (The ludicrous `exactly' beautifully exemplifies the way intensifiers are used whenever counter-intuitive notions of huge scope and nearly zero comprehensibility are being asserted without argument, fact or illustration.) His disciples too, therefore, believed in the torus -- in the ever-deferred hope, perhaps, that belief might bring understanding. (Credo ut intelligam). At any rate, they listened in awe to his day-long seminars on such things as the Borromean knot and continued to do so even in his pathetic last years, when, as a result of multiple strokes, his speech was mangled by dysphasia and his cognitive functions were somewhat intermittent. By then even his silences, as dysphasia gave way to aphasia and his mind emptied, were attended to and subjected to lavish reverential interpretation.

Now S&B have shown, what no one has hitherto been knowledgeable enough to demonstrate: precisely what was wrong with Lacan's use of mathematics. It is not only empty glitter but also internally flawed. Lacan's writings, in addition to being bad or lunatic psychiatry, are also bad mathematics. Lacan, S&B show, makes advanced errors -- muddling the very specific technical meanings of certain terms from topology (such as `compactness') and so on. But he also makes elementary ones, as when he confuses irrational and imaginary numbers or the universal and the existential quantifier -- the latter the kind of mistake a first week student in mathematical logic would not perpetrate.

With the help of his pseudo-mathematics, Lacan could gibber for hours, while his disciples listened in silence:

I will posit here the term `compactness'. Nothing is more compact than a fault, assuming that the intersection of everything that is closed therein is accepted as existing over an infinite number of sets, the result being that the intersection implies this infinite number. That is the very definition of compactness ... (quoted p. 21)
The confusion here -- pointed out by S&B -- of the topological notion of compactness with other notions within and without topology would have entirely escaped the attention of his un-mathematically schooled audience. One wonders what they thought as they listened to this stuff for hours. Perhaps they were simply awestruck, like the villagers in Goldsmith's poem: `And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew.' A wonder that would have been greater had anyone among the psychoanalysts and other quasi-medical hangers on at his seminars noted the all-too-obvious and tragic fact that that head was afflicted for its last years with a progressive dementia.

S&B are not distracted by the Mixmaster prose (in which all sorts of glamorous terms are poured into the pot and spun round at 500 r.p.m.) from the particular uses to which individual terms are being put. So when Lacan argues that

Structure is the aspherical concealed in the articulation of language.

It is clear that, as far as meaning is concerned, this `takes hold of it' of the sub-sentence -- pseudo-modal -- reverberates from the object itself which it wraps, as verb, in its grammatical subject, and that there is a false effect of meaning, a resonance of the imaginary induced by the topology, according to whether the effect of the subject makes a whirlwind of asphere (sic) or the subjective of this effect `reflects' itself from it (quoted p.20).

S&B simply note that Lacan has failed to clarify what he means by structure; even if one assumes the term to be confined to a strict mathematical usage, topology provides but one interpretation of structure. There are many others: order structure, vector-space structure, manifold structure etc. Since Lacan has not clarified which sense of `structure' he meant, then his argument, such as it is, is empty.

In their discussion of Kristeva, S&B point out that `she makes no effort to justify the relevance of the mathematical concepts to the fields she is purporting to study -- linguistics, literary criticism, political philosophy, psychoanalysis'. And the lack of relevance of the flaunted erudition is a constant finding in Intellectual Impostures: it is there merely to impress and terrorise. The appearance of relevance is sometimes sustained by treating metaphors as if they were literal truths. This is particularly evident in the writings of Luce Irigaray.

Irigaray, like Kristeva and Lacan, betrays a thorough misunderstanding of the science she exploits in her writings. She evinces a particular interest in hydrodynamics and is fond of technical terms such as `laminated planes', `solenoid movements', and `spring-points'. But S&B's main concern is with the way she uses hydrodynamics to underpin some pretty large assertions about sexual politics and the oppressed and marginalised situation of women. Her conclusions are, to put it mildly, somewhat underdetermined by the science she invokes.

Irigaray has famously argued that science is sexist; for example E=Mc2 is `a sexed equation'. The reasons she gives for believing this are extraordinary. The equation

privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather its having privileged what goes the fastest ... (quoted p. 100).
The muddle here is so dense that it is probably not worth unpicking it. Suffice it to say, as S&B do, that Einstein's equation has been verified to a high degree of precision. Whatever Irigaray might feel about privileging the speed of light over `other speeds that are vitally necessary to us', the equation would not be valid if the speed of light (c) were replaced by another speed -- by, for example, the speed of a woman running after an escaping toddler in a supermarket. To put this another way, if the equation is sexist, so is nature; if scientists are sexist in respect of this equation, it is because matter is. And if matter is sexist, so are women, who are made of matter (though on that there is more to be said, as we shall see).

The sexism of science, Irigaray argues, explains why fluid mechanics is not as well developed as solid mechanics. The inability of (masculinist) science to deal with turbulent flow is explained by 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. Hence male science cannot cope with fluid dynamics. This seems somewhat to overlook that men, like women, are 90% water, that like women, they have 5.5 litres of blood circulating round their bodies, and that they bleed, salivate and, yes, take a leak -- just like women. Notwithstanding these elementary observations, this is Irigaray's explanation of why women are erased from masculinist theories, and fluids have been erased from science.

There is, of course, a huge literature on fluid dynamics and turbulence. It has been one of the key areas investigated over the last few decades using the new analytical tools derived from chaos theory. A full definition of the conditions under which flow will become turbulent still eludes scientists, but there are also incompletely solved problems in solid mechanics, and, indeed, throughout physics.

One would think that misrepresenting the facts, misusing specialised terminology (Irigaray is even worse on mathematical logic than she is on fluid dynamics), and using metaphors that are tendentious to the point of lunacy, would be a high price for an intellectual to pay. One is curious to know what end would justify these desperate means. Astonishingly, Irigaray's goal is to support conclusions that no male chauvinist pig would dare shout out in his sleep:

But every stage in this development [of the female sexual economy] has its own temporality, which is possibly cyclic and linked to cosmic rhythms. If women have felt so terribly threatened by the accident at Chemobyl, that is because of the irreducible relation of their bodies to the universe. (quoted pp. 113-4)
This is not an isolated episode of redneckery. Elsewhere Irigaray links rationality and objectivity with masculinity and emotion and subjectivity with the female. To `reduce women to their sexuality, their menstrual cycles and rhythms (cosmic or not)' is, as S&B point out, `to attack everything the feminist movement has fought for during the last three decades. Simone de Beauvoir must be turning in her grave.' There is a bitter irony in the deployment of so much mystification and intellectual dishonesty to bien pensant ends only to discover an unexpected commonality of view with the rednecks. The reason that Luce Irigaray has not attracted the anger of ordinary oppressed women is the obscurity in which the works that have brought her international fame among academics are wrapped.

Interestingly, the snobbish misuse of science in postmodern thought sits side by side with hostility to science itself -- to its claims to be useful or true. S&B deal particularly effectively with the epistemic relativisers such as Bruno Latour who assert that science is `social through and through'. None of those who relativise science to discursive communities can explain the three most important things about science: that it makes accurate predictions; that it produces technology that works; and that it is as effective in Blackburn as in Soweto -- so that antibiotics for a gravely ill old man in Blackburn do the trick as for a gravely ill young woman in Soweto.

It is interesting to reflect on the irony that the fraudulent use of scientific jargon has been a prime means of winning over the herd to postmodernist discourse, while true science is treated by postmodernists with disdain. How perverse that so many humanist intellectuals can be utterly enslaved by the evidence-free, opaque pseudo-science of someone like Lacan while true sciences, such as physics or pharmacology, are objects of suspicion. Or that science can be relativised, while the mangling of science in the addled brains of amateurs like Irigaray are treated as truths to be accepted without question. There is an analogy here with the postmodern theorists' attitude to facts. We are told that there are no facts, only discursive communities and their interpretations; so postmodernists require us to support only those facts (usually wrong) that they mobilise to support their huge empirical assertions about the course of history, the nature of society or the politics of the self.

S&B wrote Intellectual Impostures above all because they felt that postmodern Theory -- notwithstanding its rhetoric of subversion, its much-protested support of the marginalised, the dispossessed, the oppressed -- was undermining genuinely progressive thought. Reflecting on his Hoax, Sokal emphasised that his main concern was not `to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit -- "we'll do just fine, thank you"' (p.249), but `to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse -- and more generally a penchant for subjectivism -- which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left'. The last thing that those who seek social justice need is the antiscientific, anti-empirical, relativising, obscurantism of writers like Irigaray, Baudrillard, Deleuze et al. If one discards the notion of scientific truth, based upon facts outside of human discourse, and sneers at the notion of `empirical truth', then one plays into the hands of the powerful for whom denial of certain facts at least is extremely convenient: the path from asserting that `E=MC2 is a sexist equation' and that it has everything to do with male domination and nothing to do with nature itself to Baudrillard's assertion that `the Gulf war never happened' (it was merely the sum of its media representations), to the denial of the massacres in East Timor or of the reality of the Holocaust, is short and straight.

Needless to say, S&B have caused widespread outrage by pointing this out. The announcement for a recent conference at the University of California-Santa Cruz (quoted pp. 196-7) spoke of `a spectre haunting U.S. intellectual life: the spectre of Left Conservatism'. S&B and others were criticised for their opposition to `antifoundationalist theoretical work' and `for an attempt at consensus-building founded on notions of the real'. S&B were portrayed `as socially conservative Marxists trying to marginalize feminist, gay and racial-justice politics and as sharing the values of American right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh'.

The difficult position of those who are concerned about social justice, but who also abhor the confusions and dishonesty of postmodernist Theory, has been succinctly expressed by Wendell Harris in a recent review of John Ellis's Literature Lost:

It is easy for an American with even a rudimentary social conscience to find multiple evils in American economic, cultural, and social systems and in Western culture generally. Only wilful blindness can fail to recognize continuing racial inequality and sexual discrimination, the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor, the existence of millions who lack access to adequate medical care, and a court system that has less to do with justice than with the cleverness of the lawyers one can afford. That the shrill chorus of condemnation flowing from the cultural critics currently dominating university humanities programs can point to real evils makes it difficult to challenge these critics' equally real confusions and excesses. Effective response is made doubly difficult by the multitude of political and religious conservatives whose response to all attempts to achieve equality is the cry `freedom being trampled by political correctness' -- one does not care to be mistaken for one of their number. (`Multiculturalism and Cultural Warfare', Philosophy and Literature 1998, 22:497-515).
The difficulty of conveying and sustaining what are not very complex distinctions -- between, say, opposition to oppression and opposition to dishonest and ineffectual ways of opposing oppression -- is itself a measure of the degree to which postmodern Theory has debased, coarsened, confused, corrupted academic discussion.

This, above all, is why the publication of Intellectual Impostures is an event of the utmost importance in the humanities. It also accounts for the determined attempts Eagleton's `executive directors of the postmodernist industry' have made to avoid engaging it on its own terms, or indeed, any terms at all. Unsurprisingly, Kristeva has dismissed the book as `an intellectually and politically insignificant act'. Well, she would say that wouldn't she? After a brilliant thirty-year career founded upon CMTP she is not going to break with a winning formula and start cultivating intellectual transparency. She is, however, being perhaps unwittingly over-modest: an exposé of the nullity of her own writings is a matter of the first importance. For Kristeva's writing is of the greatest significance, not (as will by now be evident) because of any intrinsic merits (it has none) but because of the attention it has attracted and the man and woman hours (indeed person-centuries) that have been squandered in reading, recycling, worshipping, citing, quoting, and expounding her gnomic thoughts. And also for the immensely influential bad example that she and a handful of others have set, showing that not only can you get away with murder but that you can tough out well-founded criticism by simply ignoring it.

Derrida -- who always ignores criticism (as has been repeatedly pointed out) -- responded to S&B with a characteristic haughty sneer: `Le pauvre Sokal'. This was echoed by John Sturrock in a laid-back review (`Poor Sokal', London Review of Books, 16 July 1998, pp. 8-9) that made clear that intellectual integrity was not something to get over-excited about and worrying about factual truth is the kind of pedantry one should despise. Sturrock concedes that `the imposters [Kristeva, Lacan et al] are abusing concepts that they don't know enough about to call acceptably in evidence' but then, astonishingly, argues (in defence of Irigaray!) that while her `invocations of the sciences concerned may be worse than dodgy', nevertheless, `in that libertarian province of the intellectual world in which she functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont'. In other words, better uncheckable opaque bullshit that excites the ignorant with the illusion of near-understanding than the rigorous sciences that S&B profess. (Sciences, incidentally, which are not only rigorous but also beautiful, imaginative, exciting and -- as a bonus -- in many cases quite close to the truth and consequently useful in the world outside of the text.)

The attitude of influential literary journalists like Sturrock only underlines the significance of Intellectual Impostures. But it also shows how its impact might be blunted. This book should by-pass the `executive directors' and reach out to the students. It must not, therefore, be trivialised by the scandal it has caused. Its critique of postmodernism should not be sidelined as simply as part of a little war within academe, an obscure spat between `insular Anglo-saxons' and the `Latest Foreign Fraud'. (This is how Sturrock tries to present it in his LRB piece.) For this reason, it is worth spelling out in a little more detail just why S&B's book is important.

Firstly, although S&B modestly refuse to claim that their examination of Kristeva et al's way with scientific jargon invalidates the rest of their work `on which we suspend judgement', there is much independent evidence that the dishonesty S&B have uncovered is part of the wider culture of charlatanry in postmodern Theory. The various habits that S&B list in their Introduction -- (a) `holding forth at length on theories about which one has, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea', (b) `importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities or social sciences without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification'; (c) `displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant'; and (d) `manipulating phrases and sentences that are in fact meaningless' -- are the immemorial vices of the charlatan. Never, however, have they been so prevalent, so well-funded and so well rewarded.

These vices have flourished with the rise of so-called `interdisciplinary' studies which have assisted the catastrophic decline of intellectual standards -- of rigour and honesty -- in the humanities. They are not, of course, truly interdisciplinary. When Kristeva impresses an audience of literary critics with her grasp of set theory and when Lacan talks to a mathematically and medically ignorant audience about advanced topology and psychiatry, they are relying on the absence of experts from the disciplines whose terminology they have pinched -- people who can tell fake jewellery from the real thing. Even where such individuals may be present in the audience, they will be in the minority and, in the heated and partisan atmosphere that surrounds the Great Postmodernists and their thousands of disciples, are unlikely to be able to dent the charlatan's reputation. It was not for nothing that John Bayley described `interdisciplinary studies' as giving cunning and opportunistic academics the `chance to rise between two stools'.

I saw this process in action recently, at one of only two non-medical conferences I have attended. The speaker was arguing à la Irigaray that twentieth-century micro-physics, with its emphasis on energy rather than matter, and its notion of an atom that was composed mainly of nothing, should allow women a more female relationship to their own bodies. I took the opportunity in question time to point out that (a) this `female' physics had been created overwhelmingly by men (Max not Maxine Planck and Albert, not Albertine Einstein); (b) that the new physics applied not only to female bodies but also to male bodies -- as well as to pebbles, scorpions, vomit and dogdirt; and (c) that Susan Stebbing had long ago had shown up the fallacy of feeding back the discoveries and concepts of micro-physics into the macroscopic world of bodies visible to the naked eye -- her target had been Sir Arthur Eddington. (While the billiard ball world of the atom is no longer in place, the billiard ball world of the billiard ball most certainly is.) The speaker did not deal with this question very well but I was prevented by the chair -- who was clearly shocked by my interjection -- from questioning the speaker further, as (she said censoriously) there are other people who want to have their say. These other people were full of praise for `a rich contribution' and stimulating presentation and offered the speaker a good deal of underarm bowling. Afterwards, the speaker (a tenured academic at a very prestigious university) came up to me and said that, had she known that there was to be an expert in the audience, she would have been more cautious in her arguments! I am not an expert -- equipped only with `A' level physics and a certain amount of unbewitched common sense. This response was at least contaminated with the residue of honesty and even shame.

The correlative of contempt for the truth is contempt for one's audience. The most direct expression of this is the infamous duration of the lectures given by many of the maitres à penser. It is not unusual for Derrida to talk for several hours. And Lacan would, as noted, go on for an entire weekend. (Whether comfort breaks were allowed is not noted by his hagiographers.) This kind of harassment bears an eerie resemblance to Castro's four hour harangues of his cowed populace sweating in the sun, or Brezhnev's and Mao's addresses to the Congresses of their respective parties. The Great Postmodernist Thinkers and their representatives make no concessions to their auditors or readers. Even if the passages from Kristeva, Irigaray and others cited by S&B did not turn out to be nonsense scientifically, it would still be obvious that they were never intended as acts of communication, any more thah the demented and aphasic mumblings of Lacan in old age, listened to with respect and awe by his anguished disciples, were genuine acts of communication. Communication requires not only that one knows what one wants to say but also that one has an idea where one's audience is at and how best one can reach them. Kristeva, whose aim was not to communicate but to show off, to impress, to terrorise, knew very well that her audience would be unable to understanding the pseudo-mathematical garbage she was imposing on them.

The notion of an audience of academics willing to listen respectfully to, at best unproven, at worst meaningless, assertions of enormous scope, opens up deeply worrying questions about the impact of postmodernist Theory on the institutions that support contemporary humanities. We have known for a long time that once someone is elevated to the status of maitre à penser he/she is unassailable: his/her views cannot be challenged. But this immunity must now apply to a much wider number of teachers -- to all of those many thousands who parrot the obiter dicta and world-encompassing assertions made by the maitres. This implies a huge constituency of students, graduates, post-docs, lecturers, readers, professors, etc. willing to remain silent while the dogma, couched in a butuminous prose, is intoned. I am not talking about a few besotted groupies enthralled by a charismatic figure like Lacan. I am talking about a fair slice of the humanist intellectual community. I am talking about herd behaviour and I am talking about a huge herd.

The deceitful use of scientific and other jargon by individuals who have no wish or intention to be understood is bad enough when it is addressed to a handful of disciples. When it is poured into the minds of teenagers who have it foisted upon them as part of a compulsory curriculum and have scarcely enough time to remember it, never mind to think critically about it, the abuse of trust shades into something more serious: indoctrination. It is usually unsuccessful because of the saving indifference of most young people to abstract ideas and the lack of sanctions other than failure in examinations. But it is sickening, nonetheless; even more so when one thinks that this deference to the maitres à penser and their intellectual descendants sits side by side with the postmodern theorists' constant talk of revolt, rebellion and subversion, and when one reflects that rhetoric about overthrowing established power structures is combined with uncritical and child-like acceptance of whatever opaque utterance pops into the maitre's head.

The profound significance of S&B's wonderfully written, deeply passionate and authentically erudite book, is that, by shining real light on the fake jewellery of the leading postmodernist theorists, it has shown what has happened to academic humanities over the last thirty years under the influence of individuals like Kristeva for whom intellectual legerdemain has become a way of life. It is an important moral act, though S&B would, I suspect, distance themselves from that kind of portentousness, judging that it should be reserved for those who believe that they are subverting the power structures of western civilisation by offering a new Lacanian reading of a popular film.

At any rate S&B have made a decisive contribution to the dispiriting task of uncovering the extent to which fraud, as James Drake has pointed out, has become institutionalised in the humanities. Science fraud is rare enough to be news; humanities fraud, being structural, rather than episodic, is never news; indeed, it is hardly visible. The brilliance of Sokal's famous hoax (given as an appendix to this book) was that it was fraudulent to exactly the degree that the works it was parodying were fraudulent. No wonder the editors of Social Text felt badly treated: the article that had made them a laughing stock of the academic world was no worse than hundreds of similar boluses of garbage published month in month out in dozens of similar journals. Its global assertions, its lack of factual evidence, its incoherent logic, its errors in the use of science, its superficial erudition unsupported by real knowledge or understanding -- all these are endemic in the world of postmodern academe. And it is so easy to get away with murder. As Katha Pollitt (quoted by S&B) noted, `the comedy of the Sokal incident is that it suggests even the postmodernists don't really understand one another's writing and make their way through the text by moving from one familiar name or notion to the next like a frog jumping across a murky pond by way of lily pads' (p. 194).

S&B's Epilogue contains many interesting and important reflections on the disastrous attempted expropriation of the natural sciences by postmodern Theory. They wonder `how we got here'. They single out (a) the neglect of the empirical, (b) scientism in the social sciences, (c) as a correllative of this, the prestige of the natural sciences, (d) the social sciences' `natural' relativism, and (e) the traditional philosophical and literary training which ill equips individuals to deal with scientific texts. Most usefully, recognising that `interdisciplinarity is the order of the day', and acknowledging the advantages that might come from the incorporation of science into the humanities, they list some of the lessons that might be drawn from their investigation. They should be pinned on the wall of every humanities department where postmodern Theory is taught and there are resident worshippers of individuals like Kristeva:

1. It's a good idea to know what one is talking about.

2. Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound.

3. Science is not a `text'.

4. Don't ape the natural sciences.

5. Be wary of argument from authority.

6. Specific scepticism should not be confused with radical scepticism.

7. Ambiguity may be a subterfuge.

To this one might add: do not lie to yourself or to anyone else; or -- do not betray the trust of your students, your peers, your readers and the intellectual community at large. Precisely because it is so easy to mislead your students and even your peers in the field of cultural criticism and the humanities and even easier in the field of interdisciplinary studies, one should be aware of it as a permanent temptation to be guarded against.

Academics intending to continue as postmodern theorists in the interdisciplinary humanities after S&B should first read Intellectual Impostures and ask themselves whether adding to the quantity of confusion and untruth in the world is a good use of the gift of life or an ethical way to earn a living. After S&B, they may feel less comfortable with the glamorous life that can be forged in the wake of the founding charlatans of postmodern Theory. Alternatively, they might follow my friend Roger into estate agency -- though they should check out in advance that they are up to the moral rigours of such a profession. At any rate, being an estate agent might be a little more comfortable than being a postmodernist for the next few years. For, after S&B, a spectre will be haunting the exponents of Theory: the Truth. Poor old Truth that the giants of postmodern Theory have so thoroughly rogered. It's set to make a comeback. So watch out.

Raymond Tallis
Division of Geriatric Medicine
Clinical Sciences Building
Hope Hospital, Eccles Old Road
Salford, M6 8HD