Twenty years after Sokal and Bricmont produced their hoax on post-modernism, we have a hoax trolling the post-structuralists – just as good, and likely just as ineffectual:
‘The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.’
That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.
This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper waspublished in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences …
In 1996, Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at NYU, published the bogus paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the preeminent cultural studies journal Social Text which is in turn published by Duke University Press. The publication of this nonsense paper, in a prestigious journal with a strong postmodernist orientation, delivered a devastating blow to postmodernism’s intellectual legitimacy.
Subsequently, Sokal and the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont noted in their 1997 book, Fashionable Nonsense, that certain kinds of ideas can become so fashionable that the critical faculties required for the peer-review process are compromised, allowing outright nonsense to be published, so long as it looks or sounds a certain way, or promotes certain values. It was standing upon Sokal’s shoulders that we proceeded with our hoax, though we perceived a slightly different need.
Sokal’s aim was to demonstrate that fashionable linguistic abuses (especially relying upon puns and wordplay related to scientific terms), apparent scientific authority, conformity with certain leftist political norms, and flattery of the academic preconceptions of an editorial board would be sufficient to secure publication and thus expose shoddy academic rigor on the part of postmodernist scholarship and social commentary.
A primary target of Sokal’s hoax was the appropriation of mathematical and scientific terminology that postmodernist “scholars” didn’t understand and didn’t use correctly. (We included “isomorphism” and “vector” in our paper in subtle homage to Sokal.) Fashionable Nonsense pays particular attention to postmodernists’ abuses of mathematical and scientific terminology. That is, Sokal took aim at an academic abuse by postmodernists and hit his target dead-center. His paper could only have been published if the postmodernists who approved it exhibited overwhelming political motivations and a staggering lack of understanding of basic mathematics and physics terminology.
The scientific community was exuberant that Sokal burst the postmodern bubble because they were fed up with postmodernists misusing scientific and mathematical terms to produce jargon-laden nonsense and bizarre social commentary carrying the apparent gravitas of scientific terminology. It appears that Social Text accepted Sokal’s paper specifically because Sokal was a recognized scientist who appeared to have seen the light.
Our hoax was similar, of course, but it aimed to expose a more troubling bias. The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense. That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions. Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Sokal exposed an infatuation with academic puffery that characterizes the entire project of academic postmodernism. Our aim was smaller yet more pointed. We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.3
As a matter of deeper concern, there is unfortunately some reason to believe that our hoax will not break the relevant spell. First, Alan Sokal’s hoax, now more than 20 years old, did not prevent the continuation of bizarre postmodernist “scholarship.” In particular, it did not lead to a general tightening of standards that would have blocked our own hoax. Second, people rarely give up on their moral attachments and ideological commitments just because they’re shown to be out of alignment with reality.
The problem may be that the post-structuralists and post-modernists, having relied on slogans and verbal posturing for so long in their work, simply don’t have the critical faculties to interrogate the sentences and paragraphs that they are reading. They simply react emotionally to the words in front of them, and make decisions about approbation or disapproval on that basis.