Swallow Hard: What Social Text Should Have Done

by Jay Rosen

[Published in Tikkun, September/October 1996, pp. 59-61.]

As I understand it, the Sokal affair is about affirmative action for ideas. Should arguments felt to be under-represented in the culture-at-large be admitted into prestigious haunts like Social Text even if they don't meet the standard intellectual tests? Alan Sokal got tired of what he saw as an excess of affirmative action in the ideas purveyed by cultural studies. So he devised a test in the form of a hoax: Could an author who deliberately met no standards whatsoever make it into Social Text merely by parading past the judges their own sympathies, dressed up in a jargon they would recognize and citing these same judges as authoritative? The test came back positive. The issue, then, is what to make of the results.

Although it would have been agonizingly difficult (pride is involved), I very much wish the editors had reacted differently. Had they said "We goofed" right away, and then examined -- penetratingly and in public -- everything that led them to accept the Sokal article, they might have demonstrated to literate America that what the academic Left thinks about itself is actually true: it has no peer when it comes to being critical of institutions. Social Text is an institution of the academic Left. It should have taken itself apart and put itself back together again after the Sokal debacle. It would have been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Working backwards from the hoax, like safety experts going over a crash site, they could have illuminated every standard they diluted in order to accept the article, and then asked themselves: Well, what are our standards?

Consider what the editors have already admitted:

1. They did not understand the ideas they were publishing. ("Scientific ignorance," Bruce Robbins calls it, acknowledging that the physics on display was Greek to them, as it would have been to anyone since much of it was gibberish or deliberate clowning by Sokal.)

2. They didn't respect what they were publishing. ("From the first, we considered Sokal's unsolicited article to be a little hokey ... His adventures in PostmodernLand were not really our cup of tea," Robbins and co-editor Andrew Ross wrote in a statement explaining their decision.)

3. But they published it anyway for political reasons. ("Enthusiasm for a supposed political ally," Robbins says, explaining why they went for the essay. "We thought it argued that quantum physics, properly understood, dovetails with postmodern philosophy." Note: what "dovetails" with the editors' perspective is good because it dovetails. Can Sokal's point be made any plainer? )

4. They were condescending to the author and his "hokey" ideas. (Robbins and Ross again: "It is not every day we receive a dense philosophical tract from a professional physicist. Not knowing the author or his work, we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that this article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field." Earnest is what counted; intelligent -- and intelligible -- did not.)

5. They abandoned their attempts to improve what they were publishing when the author they condescended to resisted, thus doubling the condescension. (Robbins and Ross write: "Having established an interest in Sokal's article, we did ask him informally to revise the piece. We requested him a) to excise a good deal of the philosophical speculation and b) to excise most of his footnotes. Sokal seemed resistant to any revisions ..." So they went ahead anyway.)

Given such damaging facts, it seems unwise for Robbins to term the episode a simple "case of temporary blindness, " and go on from there to criticize the critics. Decisions this dumb flow from a lot of small decisions over the years, and to me the first issue is how: How did we work ourselves into this position, where an article we don't understand and don't respect written by author who refuses to revise his work gets published in our journal merely because we find in him a "conveniently-credentialled ally," as Robbins wrote in a letter to the weekly In These Times. Imagine a Social Text roundtable that began with this question, placed on the Internet and published in the journal. Cultural studies would set a standard for "critical" discourse that might even outclass Sokal, who at this point is winning in a rout.

According to Robbins, it's unfair of us to conclude that, "floating happily in the waters of jargon and incoherence, so-called postmodernists can't recognize an unintelligible argument even if it swims up and spits in our eye." He should hope we conclude this, for the alternative explanation is worse: that Sokal's "credentials" were so useful that his ideas hardly mattered.

My own view puts language at the center of the affair, for it is precisely the slow creep of jargon that turns institutions dumb. Are there specialized vocabularies that academic critics employ to make new apprehensions possible? Of course, and to say, "just write in plain English" can be a coercive demand. But there's a test, and the test is whether the vocabulary that initially makes exciting thoughts thinkable begins to promote the absence of thought. Sokal put Social Text to the test, and the journal flunked. Again, imagine how exciting it would be to see the Robbins and his crowd put their own sophistication about language to public use by examining precisely where the vocabulary of postmodernism has gone off track.

Robbins begins this kind of examination in his admirably critical remarks about the excesses of the everything's-a-construction pose. He is right to doubt the intentions of journalists eager to lampoon the pointy-heads. And he is definitely correct that the critique of science cannot be off limits to non-scientists. But he and his colleagues have equivocated when they should have swallowed hard and expressed immediate alarm. They claim they didn't take the article seriously; they also claim that it makes a serious argument, which conservatives, scientists and journalists want repressed.

This quest to have it both ways is persuading no one not already aligned with the editors. It is a public disaster, and I wish Robbins would recognize that. For there are plenty of people watching this affair who don't fit the category of Sworn Social Text Enemy. They are not know-nothing journalists, right-wing strategists, arrogant scientists or unreconstructed Marxists waving away all concern for "culture." Ruth Rosen (no relation) is one them. She wrote this in the Los Angeles Times:

Yes, I know that the conservative right may use Sokal's parody to further attack "tenured radicals." But if the progressive left is to survive and be credible, it must withstand the glare of public scrutiny and be worthy of people's respect.

This is dead on. The klieg lights are lit, and it's during these moments in the public glare that institutions can redeem -- and yes, transform -- themselves. Sokal has done Robbins and his co-workers a favor. They should get over the giddiness ("We're worth attacking!") and get down to the painful business of leading the critique of Social Text.

Jay Rosen is Tikkun's media editor and an Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University.