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Celebrating 15 years of the Sokal expose…

Posted by Pete McBreen Fri, 04 Mar 2011 17:58:00 GMT

In the Spring of 1996 the Alan Sokal had his article Transgressing the Boundaries published in the Social Text journal. To coincide with the article’s publication, Sokal arranged for another article to be published A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.

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)

For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain 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 diffĂ©rance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

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

The overall result of the experiment was that the parody article was published as if it were a valid work of scholarship in the field.

Hoax or Expose?

Sometimes it is not enough to just question something, sometimes you have to go further. Yes, Sokal’s experiment is often labelled a hoax, but my take is that it was an expose of many things that are wrong with out current social and political discourse.