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Next: Acknowledgments Up: Conclusion: Why Bother? Previous: Cultural issues.

Political issues.

Finally, there is a political issue (we realize, however, that the questions discussed here are so broad that many people will agree with us without sharing our political orientations). In the United States, a large part of this ``postmodern" discourse originates from sectors of the academic Left. Neither Sokal nor myself wish to attack the Left as such, quite the contrary. But, as Sokal observed:

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. And yet, over the past two decades, a large number of ``progressive'' or ``leftist'' academic humanists and social scientists (though virtually no natural scientists, whatever their political views) have turned away from this Enlightenment legacy and -- bolstered by French imports such as deconstruction as well as by home-grown doctrines like feminist standpoint epistemology -- have embraced one or another version of epistemic relativism. [Sokal (1996b)]

Here is how Sokal himself views his efforts, from a political point of view (Sokal 1996c):

One of my goals is to make a small contribution toward a dialogue on the Left between humanists and natural scientists - ``two cultures'' which, contrary to some optimistic pronouncements (mostly by the former group), are probably farther apart in mentality than at any time in the past 50 yearsgif.

Like the genre it is meant to satirize - myriad exemplars of which can be found in my reference list - my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. (Sadly, there are only a handful of the latter: I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn't have the knack.) I also employed some other strategies that are well-established (albeit sometimes inadvertently) in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words. (N.B. All works cited in my article are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented.)

But why did I do it? I confess that I'm an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I'm a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be ``true'', why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don't aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theorygif. )

But my main concern isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: 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. Alan Ryan said it well:

It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth ... Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you've had it. ... But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess. [Ryan (1992)]

Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm has decried

the rise of ``postmodernist'' intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all ``facts'' claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. [Hobsbawm (1993)]

(Hobsbawm goes on to show how rigorous historical work can refute the fictions propounded by reactionary nationalists in India, Israel, the Balkans and elsewhere.) And finally Stanislav Andreski:

So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world." [Andreski (1972)]"

I will conclude with some remarks of a self-described ``child of the Enlightenment", who has maintained a high level of intellectual rigor both in his professional and in his political work:

If you really feel, Look, it's too hard to deal with real problems, there are a lot of ways to avoid doing so. One of them is to go off on wild goose chases that don't matter. Another is to get involved in academic cults that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a defense against dealing with the world as it actually is. There's plenty of that going on, including in the left. I just saw some very depressing examples of it in my trip to Egypt a couple of weeks ago. I was there to talk on international affairs. There's a very lively, civilized intellectual community, very courageous people who spent years in Nasser's jails being practically tortured to death and came out struggling. Now throughout the Third World there's a sense of great despair and hopelessness. The way it showed up there, in very educated circles with European connections, was to become immersed in the latest lunacies of Paris culture and focus totally on those. For example, when I would give talks about current realities, even in research institutes dealing with strategic issues, participants wanted it to be translated into post-modern gibberish. For example, rather than have me talk about the details of what is going on in the U.S. policy or the Middle East, where they live, which is too grubby and uninteresting, they would like to know how does modern linguistics provide a new paradigm for discourse about international affairs that will supplant the post-structuralist text. That would really fascinate them. But not what do Israeli cabinet records show about internal planning. That's really depressing. [Chomsky (1994)]
and finally,
Left intellectuals took an active part in the lively working class culture. Some sought to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers' education, or by writing best-selling books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, informing us that the ``project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon the ``illusions" of science and rationality - a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use. [Chomsky, 1993, chap. 11.]

next up previous
Next: Acknowledgments Up: Conclusion: Why Bother? Previous: Cultural issues.

Kuroki Gen
Mon Aug 30 11:49:39 JST 1999