Much Belated Reflections on the Sokal Hoax

by Mark Wallace

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.