A Physicist Deconstructs Cultural Studies

Alan D. Sokal

Dept. of Physics New York University

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is --- second only to American political campaigns---the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. Larry Laudan Science and Relativism 1990, p.x

For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in the trendier precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and differance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try an (admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would the leading North American journal of cultural studies --- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross --- publish an article consisting of utter nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Interested readers can find my article, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'' (!), in the spring 1996 issue of Social Text.

What's going on here? Could the editors really not have realized that my article was a parody?

In the first paragraph I deride ``the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook'': that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

Is it now dogma in Cultural Studies that there does not exist an external world? Or that there exists an external world but science obtains no knowledge of it?

In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that ``physical `reality' [note the scare quotes!] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.'' Not our theoriea of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that no scientist or mathematician could possibly take seriously. For example, I argue that the ``morphogenetic field'' --- a crazy New Age idea due to Rupert Sheldrake --- constitutes a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. I claim that Lacan's psychoanalytic theories have ``recently been confirmed by Witten's derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.'' And I insist that the axioms of equality and choice in mathematical set theory are somehow analogous to the homonymous concepts in feminist politics.

But the most amusing parts of my article were not written by me: they are direct quotes from the Masters (whom I shower with praise). Here, for example, is Jacques Derrida holding forth on the theory of relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability --- it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of some thing--- of a center starting from which an observer could master the field --- but the very concept of the game.

And Deleuze and Guattari on chaos theory:

To slow down is to set a limit in chaos to which all speeds are subject, so that they form a variable determined as abscissa, at the same time as the limit forms a universal constant that cannot be gone beyond (for example, a maximum degree of contraction). The first functives are therefore the limit and the variable, and reference is a relationship between values of the variable or, more profoundly, the relationship of the variable, as abscissa of speeds, with the limit. There's more --- Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray on differential topology, Jean-Francois Lyotard on cosmology, Michel Serres on nonlinear time --- but let me not spoil the fun.

Nor is all the nonsense of French origin. Connoisseurs of the work of Stanley Aronowitz, David Bloor, Jonathan Culler, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Katherine Hayles, Barbara Johnson, Arthur Kroker, Andrew Ross and Slavoj \v{Z}i\v{z}ek --- among many others --- will find ample food for thought.

How did I do it? I structured the article by inventing an ``argument'' linking Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, and quantum gravity. I then threw in, for good measure, a pinch of feminism, a dab of multiculturalism, and a sprinkling of New Age ecology. All this was quite easy to carry off, since my argument wasn't obliged to respect any standards of evidence or logic.

I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist (or undergraduate physics major) would quickly realize that it is a spoof. Evidently the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in quantum physics.

But why did I do it? Certainly not just to show that I could hoodwink a bunch of gullible humanists. My method was satirical, but my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. These attitudes are most prominent under the now-fashionable banners of ``postmodernism'', ``poststructuralism'' and ``social constructivism'', but their indirect influence is far wider.

My concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with postmodernist doctrine is that it is false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths --- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory --- meaning postmodernist literary theory --- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and ``text'', then knowledge of the real world is superfluous: physics (not to mention sociology and history!)\ becomes a branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and ``language games'', then even internal logical consistency is superfluous: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.

Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful --- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many ``progressive'' or ``leftist'' academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about ``the social construction of reality'' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left (or so-called Left) have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that ``the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.'' They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.

I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I'm a leftist too (during the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues I'm on the same side as the Social Text editors. But I'm a leftist because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?

And why should self-indulgent nonsense --- whatever its professed political orientation --- be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement?

Was It Ethical? I'm not oblivious to the ethical issue. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand the limited nature of the deception in this case. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which are meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. There is only one significant deception: whether the author believes his own arguments. But why should this matter? The editors' duty as scholars is to judge the validity and interest of ideas, without regard for their provenance. (That is why many scholarly journals practice blind refereeing.) If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they care if I don't? (Or are they more deferent to the ``cultural authority of technoscience'' than they would like to admit?)

But there's another reason I resorted to parody, and it's a pragmatic one. The targets of my parody have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture --- some might say a racket --- that is largely oblivious to reasoned criticism from the outside. Numerous critics have tried, like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science (Johns Hopkins, 1994); but all they have gotten for their labors is praise from the likes of Roger Kimball (a fate worse than death!)\ and vilification from the so-called Left. Obviously, a more direct demonstration of the subculture's intellectual standards was required. But how to prove, incontrovertibly, that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can't be ignored is the one that's self-inflicted. I offered the Social Text editors an honest opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor. If they failed the test, don't blame me.

Finally, let me observe that the ethical and intellectual issues are logically independent: the content of my character is irrelevant to the validity or invalidity of my ideas. So, consider me an arrogant bastard if you must, but judge the ideas on their own merits.