The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: March, 2014

Much Belated Reflections on the Sokal Hoax

Alan Sokal, author, back in the ’90s, of a famous hoax on postmodern-style writing in the humanities, this week published a new essay on the importance of science and evidence-based knowledge at Scientia Salon. But it’s not this new essay I want to address here; it’s a much belated consideration of the hoax, which has been bothering me since I read it quite recently. The story: Sokal was a scientist, and he felt that the use of scientific terminology by certain pomo theorists was a pretentious attempt to give validity to basically nonsensical claims. Science concepts were being wrenched from their original contexts and grafted onto non-scientific arguments without any comprehensible justification or evidence that the science was understood – because scientific jargon was alien to the social sciences and humanities, these ineptly argued papers were passing peer review on the basis of their impressive-sounding language alone. Indeed, the use of such language had become de riguer in many conferences and journals, much to the detriment of  intelligent investigation into society and culture. So Sokal would argue. So he wrote a nonsensical parody of pomo and sent it in to a prestigious journal, Social Text, and, of course, Sokal being a credentialed name, it was accepted and published.

In some accounts this is considered a key moment in the decline of postmodern academic writing (Tim Woods, Beginning Postmodernism, Manchester UP, xv). Of course, this was all far before my time but it’s a topic that interests me. My Carlyle studies have brought me to consider again and again concepts like fakery, quackery and imposture. Carlyle considered Samuel Johnson the greatest writer of the 18th century because, whatever he wrote, on whatever subject, “there was always something in it.” A blunt and naive assessment, maybe, but still, an important one. Who wants to read something of which, however clever and sophisticated it be, one will ultimately say that there is nothing in it? Thus clarity is important, for it aids us to make the judgement as to whether a piece is substantial or not. This attitude is exemplified by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”, and is still an appealing one: clarity is truth, and jargonism is a cloak for evil or vacuity. It was this suspicion of the obviously jargonistic and difficult language of postmodernism – the possibility that there was nothing in it – that laid the foundations for the enthusiastic reception of Sokal’s text.

Sokal’s essay was entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. Nice title: the theme of transgression was big in postmodernism, and it also promises a synthesis of a respectable old-school methodology from the humanities – hermeneutics – with a concept from the cutting-edge of science – quantum gravity. Sokal’s thesis went like this:

 But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity”. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

Now this paragraph gets right to the heart of my problem, and gives rise to the following speculation: what is a parody? Because reading this I don’t get that it’s a parody of postmodernism; I can only read it as postmodernism. Let’s look at the basic features of postmodernism:

1. The undercutting of an all-encompassing rationality;

2. An incredulity towards metanarratives and a challenge to totalizing discourses, which is a suspicion of any discursive attempts to offer a global or universal account of existence.

3. A rejection of modernism.

(Woods, 10)

The third characteristic is irrelevant to this discussion but the first two are central to Sokal’s method. In the excerpted paragrah he undercuts rationality and the metanarrative of science by claiming that knowledge is not objective and its pretensions to universality masks for its actual grounding in culturally dominant ideologies. This is the classic postmodernist stance. He offers little beyond blank assertion in defense of his claim; he doesn’t need to, as that was basically received wisdom/ received unwisdom within postmodern circles, being a reaction against enlightenment principles of empiricism and rationalism, the Sherlock Holmesian observation and deduction.

For example: a high-profile, indeed notorious, work of high postmodernism came with Jean Baudrillard’s “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” in the early 90’s. Baudrillard meant it in a somewhat metaphorical sense, but the attention-seeking title, with its determined anti-empiric slant, did indeed draw a lot of attention, making its author a public name, though not necessarily a popular one: “Baudrillard has become a byword for what many consider to be the excesses of postmodern theory” (Woods, 28).

The Essence of Parody

But now that we know what postmodernism was/ is and sort of what it did, and can read the extract from Sokal’s article in that light,the aforementioned question is, I think, pertinent: what is a parody? Fortunately, this is not a difficult question to answer. From the Oxford Companion to English Literature (2007):

The parodist must both imitate and create incongruity in relation to the pretext, and parody has, contrary to pastiche, traditionally had a comic dimension.

A simple and elegant definition, consisting of two elements: imitation and creation of incongruity. And here’s where Sokal’s text comes back in: I don’t doubt that he intended to parody postmodernism in “Transgressing the Boundaries”, but I don’t see the incongruity between Sokal’s text and straight-up pomo. Authorial intention is one thing, but formally, in the text, there’s only blank imitation, and no evidence of incongruity. Sokal himself claimed surprise that the hoax was initially not identified as such, until he himself publicized 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 theories 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. (Wikipedia)

While the claim Sokal mentions is indeed a rather farfetched one, and wholly unsupported, that doesn’t make it a parody of postmodernism – that is exactly what postmodernism does, that is just the sort of claim it makes: postmodernism is irrational, anti-empirical, even nonsensical. It challenges by its core principles the idea of physical reality as a meaningful concept in cognitive terms. To restate that position is not to parody postmodernism; it is simply to be a postmodernist. If the reader finds Sokal’s thesis self-evidently absurd, that is because postmodernism is, in principle, absurd. To repeat, the element of incongruity is missing: there’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit in a “real” postmodernist text. So it’s no wonder it wasn’t immediately detected as a parody.

How to Parody Postmodernism

A further question might be, if this isn’t absurd enough to qualify as a parody of postmodernism, how could it ever be parodied? I think an answer might be, by using the terminologies, methods and core assumptions of pomo to set up a proof of something rational, empirical or otherwise scientific but utterly banal (and, crucially, delivered in obscure and intimidatingly polysyllabic terminology): that 2 and 2 equals 4, say. Or even something ridiculous but nevertheless scientifically exact and demonstrably wrong – that 2 plus 2 equals 3.9, perhaps. This would actually create the incongruity by moving past the assumptions of pomo into the realm of exact knowledge, the one place that movement never intended to go and where it could perhaps be shown that it has little to offer except the banal in fancy-dress or the plain wrong. That would be parody.

An Idea Whose Time Had Come 

I doubt many people have read Sokal’s article through. It’s arcane and specialized. It’s boringly written, unless you read it as a parody; and, as I suggest, you never will unless you already know it’s meant to be a parody. So why does it have such a big name?  Perhaps because the sense of postmodernism’s demise was in the air, and it awaited an expression. I’m reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s observation in On Heroes:

It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from saying, all men were longing to say. (Kindle free, loc 304)

So by Carlyle’s standards, Sokal may be a Hero, a Thinker with a capital T, for he said what all men were longing to say at that time. Perhaps more pertinent is Victor Hugo’s quote about the impossibility of resisting an idea whose time has come. In this reading, Sokal’s article is less famed for its merit than for its timeliness; in fact, my reading is that the text of the article is almost wholly irrelevant to its status, only the intent behind it has been of importance. Nevertheless, though postmodernism isn’t as dominant as it was, it still exists; and even where it’s fallen away the tendency to posit extremely abstruse theories as an integral part of literary criticism is still very strong. We’re probably no closer to Orwell’s ideal of clear, frank English, but at an individual level we can perhaps learn from the Sokal affair and should keep in mind the simple, naive but important consideration that we should be able to affirm of everything we read (and write), that there is something in it.

The Stark Munro Letters (1895)

This book, now available free on the kindle, is one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known works – a large category including all of Doyle’s considerable output bar the Sherlock Holmes stories and dino-adventure story The Lost World. This particular one is from 1895, a time when Conan Doyle had just killed off Holmes (only to bring him back a few years later) and was consciously trying to do more “serious” work – like many very popular writers he became obsessed with being “serious”. In line with this ambition, The Stark Munro Letters is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, which is as focused on articulation of the intellectual development of the title character as on his actions. Stark Munro is an obviously autobiographical character – he is a newly qualified small-town doctor struggling to make ends meet, just as Doyle was in the early 1880s (the time in which the book is set).

There’s a degree of plot external to Munro’s musings, mostly concerned with a fellow doctor James Cullingworth, based on Conan Doyle’s onetime friend George Budd. Cullingworth is a man of great charisma and energy, but also selfish, unreliable, and even somewhat vindictive. He does seem to be another rumination by Conan Doyle on the Carlylean Hero doctrine, though a more ambivalent one than Holmes, because though Cullingworth is a Hero in the sense of being a man of many and great talents, he turns out not to have the moral fibre integral to the Hero. Cullingworth himself expounds a theory of the “properly balanced man” that is reminiscent of Carlyle:

A properly balanced man can do anything he sets his hand to. He’s got every possible quality inside him, and all he wants is the will to develop it. (loc 1144)

Cullingworth considers himself, as well as a doctor, a novelist and an inventor, and is convinced of his own mastery of all these fields. Recall Carlyle:

The grand fundamental character is that of Great Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz Battles […]. burns, a gifted song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. (On Heroes, loc 1113)

Doyle subverts this theory by putting it in the mouth of the unreliable Cullingworth, and by Munro’s judgement that Cullingworth’s novel is actually of inferior quality, and his inventions lacking in practical utility. Elsewhere in the novel, Munro reflects on Genius, and considers Carlyle’s line that genius is “transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all” (Frederick the Great, Kindle: Library of Alexandria, loc 4882):

Carlyle’s definition always seemed to me to be a very crisp and clear statement of what it is NOT. Far from its being an infinite capacity for taking pains, its leading characteristic, as far as I have ever been able to observe it, has been that it allows the possessor of it to attain results by a sort of instinct which other men could only reach by hard work. (loc 48)

The reader may recall that Holmes also deals with this definition, but without referencing Carlyle explicitly: “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains […]. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 3) Holmes is evidently acting as a mouthpiece for Conan Doyle here, as is Munro later. Conan Doyle is evidently interested in greatness as an intrinsic trait, as, in truth, was Carlyle, notwithstanding his emphasis in the quote from Frederick on “taking trouble”. Considering both Holmes and some Carlylean Heroes, it appears that intrinsic talent and work tend to go together, anyway: the Hero unites natural talent with moral fibre; the said moral fibre will compel him to work at his talent, and so achieve greatness. Holmes is both gifted and industrious: he finds his gift for “observation and inference” (“The Gloria Scott”) early in life, and hones it assiduously thereafter.

There’s another passage of reflection from Stark Munro closely recalling the great detective:

Most things on this earth, from a woman’s beauty to the taste of a nectarine, seem to be the various baits with which Nature lures her silly gudgeons. They shall eat, they shall propagate, and for the sake of pleasing themselves they shall hurry down the road which has been laid out for them. But there lurks no bribe in the smell and beauty of the flower. Its charm has no ulterior motive. (loc 1667)

Holmes makes similar remarks in “The Novel Treaty”, but goes so far as to conclude that “[o]ur highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.” This has always struck me as an odd comment for the character to make, though it’s interesting that he makes it before several other characters involved in the case; it’s definitely unusual for Holmes to become distracted before clients/suspects in this way and start musing on irrelevancies – several scholars have written about this passage, and been puzzled by it, but none that I’ve read have haven’t mentioned the speaking-before-clients/suspects aspect. I’ll have to return to the story to see if something else is going on with Holmes here, beyond a genuine expression of his worldview. As I wrote earlier, Holmes’ advocacy for Winwood Reade in The Sign of Four indicates a sceptical viewpoint.

It’s in The Stark Munro Letters that Conan Doyle goes most substantially into religious questions. He has two basic convictions that he’s trying to work with and develop:

1 Religion in its then current state is inadequate and a tissue of half-truths and outmoded superstitions: “Is religion the only domain of thought which is non-progressive, and to be referred for ever to a standard set two thousand years ago?” (loc 206) “There was a time when it took a brave man to be a Christian. Now it takes a brave man not to be.” (loc 539)

2 Atheism is unthinkable: “The very existence of a world carries with it the proof of a world-maker, as the table guarantees the pre-existence of the carpenter. Granting this, one may form what conception one will of that Maker, but one cannot be an atheist.” (loc 414)

The second point is rather problematic, as Munro simply chooses an object for which we know there to be a creator (a table; creator: a carpenter), rather than one of the myriad objects which are not made by any identifiable entity (e.g. a rock) and gives this as proof that all things have a Maker. It doesn’t take a philosopher to identify this as very sloppy thinking; to which, in truth, Conan Doyle was quite prone. In any case, this is only the beginning for Munro. If Christianity is definitely misguided, but there definitely is a God, then how to comprehend and describe this deity? This is, undoubtedly, the difficult part. Where is the intellectual scheme that will make such a move possible? Here again we see the importance of Carlyle:

I had so identified religion with the Bible that I could not conceive them apart. When the foundation proved false, the whole structure came rattling about my ears. And then good old Carlyle came to the rescue; and partly from him, and partly from my own broodings, I made a little hut of my own, which has kept me snug ever since, and has even served to shelter a friend or two besides. (loc 402)

Munro’s religion is based on Nature: “Nature is the true revelation of the deity to man.” (loc 410) By attention to Nature, one can observe that “[w]isdom and power and means directed to an end” (loc 415) are everywhere apparent. One further  notes that “ALL is good, if understood” (loc 886). Munro reflects that “it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good” (loc 923). Munro accepted that evolution explained development of biological organisms, but evolution was effect before it was cause (loc 421). There was something before and behind even this:

The survival of the truest is the constant law, I fancy, though it must be acknowledged that it is very slow in action. (loc 1515)

No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable. (loc 857)

Munro’s philosophy is resolutely positive, it’s all about the “survival of the truest” and so forth. There’s no empirical evidence for this, though, as Munro implicitly admits when he notes that it’s “very slow in action”, and again in his discussion of cruelty. It’s very much a “leap of faith” doctrine, rather than one rooted in observation of the workings of the world and of Nature, as is claimed. The will to faith was strong in Conan Doyle, and the foreshadowing of his later spiritualist leanings are already very clear in Stark Munro, with its insistence on the divinity and moral purpose of all things, even where empirical evidence suggests quite otherwise.

In reviewing the book, I’ve written as if my experience of the book was very much abstracted from the reading of fiction as narrative, and focused on fiction as elucidation of ideas. But in fact, as a narrative I found this book very readable and interesting. I’m a sucker for late 19th-c., early 20th-c. bildungsromans: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Portrait of the Artist, Of Human Bondage, This Side of Paradise, Tono-Bungay; more recently,  I discovered Paul Kelver by Jerome K. Jerome (definitely not a classic, but one I still found plenty of interest in). Given that predilection, I was always going to enjoy Stark Munro, especially given the vitality and simple elegance of Conan Doyle’s prose. For all his insight, however, the philosophy he tried to impose on life was, basically, bosh, and it was for this that he wanted the book to be judged. Some may find Holmes’ “true cold reason” a little arid, but Conan Doyle could with profit have applied a little of it to his own arguments in The Stark Munro Letters.

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