Online Edition: Winter 2000/2001

The Sokal Hoax

The Sokal Hoax

ed. by the editors of Lingua Franca

Nebraska

by Doug Nufer

Growing up with superhero comics, I used to wonder why one of their standard plot devices, the hoax, seldom occurred in the real world. Then came Vietnam, a swirl of assassinations, Watergate, and the CIA's overthrow of Allende, i.e., ten years of support for a suspicion that the hoax, far from Superman trope, had become government policy. Propaganda and advertising ruled the world. Or, to paraphrase Jefferson, we would tolerate any error as long as there was spin to define it.

More recent decades have inspired enough hoaxes, pro- and anti-establishment, to amuse and infuriate old comic book readers. Barbie dolls who talk like G.I. Joe (and vice-versa), authorized corporate histories that are sold as real books, and computer viruses that rage at The Machine have a resonance that other modes of expression can't match. Long afterward, we still laugh about the dolls, incorporate p.r. lies into reasons supporting our views of various industries, and buy new software (perhaps designed by the hackers who made it necessary) to protect our systems from last year's scourge. Hoaxes are con games, practical jokes and slapstick comedy, happenings which--however they may have been conceived or effectively function--may be best considered aesthetically.

Unfortunately, nowhere in The Sokal Hoax is Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" considered purely as art. Introduced and compiled by the editors of Lingua Franca magazine, the book begins with this infamous parody of poststructuralist language that Sokal slipped past the trolls of Social Text magazine in 1996, then presents the follow-up article Sokal wrote (and Lingua Franca published) to announce and explain what he had done. Most of the book consists of newspaper reports, magazine essays, and exchanges prompted by these articles. Secondary sources (the New York Post, New York Times, Le Monde, The Nation, Dissent, etc.) related the coup and spurred debate over the issues Sokal raised, even though a) hardly anyone (including some of the most strident commentators) had read the original articles, and b) no one outside of a few academics and their detractors might have cared.

Not that the issues aren't important or fascinating. Sokal, an NYU physics professor, succinctly explains himself in the Lingua Franca article. He was fed up with the trend where intellectuals on the Left expressed themselves in mushy jargon and built arguments by citing "authorities" rather than by using logic. In particular, he objected to a tendency for critics who knew nothing about science to criticize science by resorting to these tactics. Science studies and culture studies were two related areas where critics had a field day leaping to conclusions that Sokal found to be unfounded. After all, the Right could bray about faith and Creationism, but shouldn't the Left adhere to the principles set forth in the Enlightenment? Whatever happened to reason?

A letter to the editor or a straight article might have been printed--and would have been ignored. To make his point, Sokal chose to write a fake article and submit it to a respected journal that published science studies and culture studies criticism. His choice of Social Text turned out to be right on target. Not only did they not use a peer review system (or even refer articles they didn't understand to someone who might understand them), he could liberally lard his article with quotes by some members of their editorial board.

Some of the most damning testimony about the editors of Social Text comes from none other than the editors themselves in their responses; consistently they come off as stuffed-shirt poohbahs who can't take a joke. There is, of course, the point that an academic writer has no business lying, that the physicist violated some vow of intellectual integrity by trafficking in parody. More regrettably, a knee-jerk line of newspaper stories used the Sokal hoax to bash (in no particular order) intellectuals, college tuition rates, science studies, and famous Frenchmen who write obscurely and thereby lead our own commonly sensible professors astray.

But when you read, "feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the facade of 'objectivity'…" ; and when you behold Derrida, Lacan, Aronowitz, and company paraded out in all their glory in some of the silliest (but real and meticulously noted) statements they ever made, the article is so beautifully bogus as to render all objections null and void. This isn't just some intramural academic grudge match, and the sideshow of Sokal justifying his prank by saying he did it to save the Left only diverts attention from what's best about this accomplishment: it's a piece of work Nabokov would love. After long hours of background reading, Sokal built his article from fragments, filling in enough of his own writing to throw bones to the editors to let them know he's one of them. This is a scientist who refers to the "so-called" scientific method, a physicist who entertains the point of view that physical laws are subject to opinion.

Had Social Text realized how preposterous Sokal's submission was and rejected it, the article might still have appeared as a dazzling work of literature in a slim volume with only an introduction to speculate on what might have been. But "Transgressing the Boundaries" transgressed the boundaries of academia, ordinary intellectual discourse, and even extraordinary literature; and, in so doing, it recuperated the hoax as an art form.

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Winter 2000 Table of Contents