(John Locke, Epistle to the Reader, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689)
by Noam Chomsky
I’ve returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about “theory” and “philosophy,” a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions — though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.
As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don’t have “theories” and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to “theory” and “philosophy” and “theoretical constructs” and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won’t speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before “postmodernism” had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: “if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret,” despite much “pseudo-scientific posturing.”
To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,” but little that I can detect beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls’s important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).
The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick’s “libertarian” response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That’s correct, as were his observations on what it means.
The proponents of “theory” and “philosophy” have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a “secret” to me: I’ll be happy to look. I’ve asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of “a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to” the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world’s population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the “theory” or “philosophy” that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these “others” include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the “theoretical” obscurities entirely, or often on their own.
Again, those are simple requests. I’ve made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.
As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies — of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.
These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows “elitism,” “anti-intellectualism,” and other crimes — though apparently it is not “elitist” to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don’t enter into the kind of world in which I’d prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the “theoreticians” there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is “elitist,” not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won’t amplify.
To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can’t possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I’d like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound “theories” and “philosophy,” nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.
The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges — but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.
It’s entirely possible that I’m simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I’m perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made — but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I’m missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it’s all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I’m just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I’m perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).
Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things:
(1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty;Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.
(2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it.
Again, I’ve lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called “philosophy” and “science,” as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won’t spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims — to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.
Specific comment. Phetland asked who I’m referring to when I speak of “Paris school” and “postmodernist cults”: the above is a sample.
He then asks, reasonably, why I am “dismissive” of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I’m not going to undertake it. I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t been explicitly asked for my opinion — and if asked to back it up, I’m going to respond that I don’t think it merits the time to do so.
So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.
Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones — the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that’s who I’m referring to, and why I don’t proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it’s not obvious.
For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I’d suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.
Phetland also found it “particularly puzzling” that I am so “curtly dismissive” of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time “exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times.” So “why not give these guys the same treatment.” Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I’m aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I’m constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I’m also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren’t already obvious. Since I don’t happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don’t spend any time on it.
Phetland suggests starting with Foucault — who, as I’ve written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault’s work is important. That’s exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a “dismissive” attitude towards all of this — in fact, pay no attention to it.
What Phetland describes, accurately I’m sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it — apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I’d suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault’s scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don’t trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don’t know — this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let’s put aside the other historical work, and turn to the “theoretical constructs” and the explanations: that there has been “a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do” what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That’s true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that’s a “theory,” then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a “theory” too, since I’ve been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it’s so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it’s a truism). It’s been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it’s more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR [public relations] industry early in this century — who understood all of this well — called “controlling the public mind.” The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that “the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers” relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become “a theory” or “philosophy,” others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.
Some of Foucault’s particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the “theory” is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There’s nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven’t been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What’s interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, “free market” scams, and so on. That I don’t find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren’t placed in the intellectual firmament as “theoreticians.”
To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as “important insights and theoretical constructs” that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the “insights” seem to me familiar and there are no “theoretical constructs,” except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is “wrong, useless, or posturing.” No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not “useless,” but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to “posturing,” a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don’t particularly blame Foucault for it: it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the “corruption” of this culture particularly since World War II, that’s another topic, which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t go into here. Frankly, I don’t see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That’s a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I’ve been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I’m not going to undertake an essay on topics that don’t interest me.
Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about “theory” and “philosophy” are raised, I’ll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.
Johnb made the point that “plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener”; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent “theories.” Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I’ve never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it’s true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, “to the rest of the country, he’s incomprehensible” (“he” being me). That’s absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I’m on a fair amount, and it’s usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I’ve repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and “frame of reference” issues because it’s already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that’s much harder; it’s necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.
It’s certainly true that lots of people can’t read the books I write. That’s not because the ideas or language are complicated — we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem — though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don’t have a clue as to what it’s about, quite commonly; sometimes it’s pretty comical.
A final point, something I’ve written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501 ). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “mathematics for the millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That’s not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That’s an organizer’s dream, as I once heard Mike say. It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.
End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.
I have also recently discovered that there is going to be a debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek in Canada, at Toronto’s Sony Center on April 19, 2019. Apparently, this resulted from some remarks Zizek made at the Cambridge Union Forum. I watched the presentation below:
I must confess that I could make little sense of what he was talking about. And if you note the attitude of the audience and the moderator, they too seem to be mentally paralyzed. Based on this lecture, I think that Noam Chomsky’s evaluation below (2012) of Zizek is very plausible. Here is the transcript:
Question: Now in one of our previous conversations you mentioned that theory is not really of an interest to you, nor do you think that it’s useful at times for practical application and attempting to combat and change these systems of power. However one of the more wide-ranging left intellectuals of our time, Slavoj Zizek, takes almost the exact opposite approach to his work. He draws on the work of Derrida, Lacan, and various others to illuminate his critique of global capitalism, Empire ideology, and so forth. Can you talk about why you personally haven’t written more books on say political or economic or social theory, and then, what are your thoughts on Slavoj Zizek’s work as with regards to how much of it you’re aware of, or have read, or engage with, and then his use of French psychoanalyst Lacan’s work and then of course any words on Derrida’s work deconstructionism in that legacy?
Chomsky: What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And the reason, when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, that yield empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential; so, maybe you can tell me why you think that there’s something significant. I’m not interested in that kind of theoretical posturing which has no content.
Question: And would you — I mean I think it would be interesting for a lot of folks particularly because this work has become more and more popular. I remember just hearing Zizek’s name a few years ago and then now when I go into different organizing circles or if I go to different events or protests or rallies or so forth, assemblies, I hear his name and his work being brought up often. It seems you just recently had a conversation with Angela Davis. Vijay Prashad, of course, moderated the conversation in Boston, and I would like to see more of those conversations take place even from — say folks coming from different angles — people such as yourself and say someone as Slavoj Zizek whose work is becoming more influential. Do you think that’s helpful to have those maybe not even debates but at least conversations with people on the Left who are providing work for people who do find it influential, I mean do you think this is something we should think about?
Chomsky: Well, you say his work is becoming influential. I wouldn’t question that. But I think his posturing is becoming influential. Can you tell me what the work is? I can’t find it. He’s a good actor. He makes things sound exciting. But can you find any content? I can’t. I would have no interest in having a conversation with him, and, I suppose, the converse is true as well, I imagine. A discussion with Angela Davis is fine. She’s an interesting person. I expect she has important things to say. She’s done interesting things.
These writings and these people were exposed in the following book: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1998.
Below is a review of this book by Richard Dawkins, published in Nature, July 9, 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-3.
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Fashionable Nonsense, previously published in French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”. Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, had a similar talent for writing:
In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed . . . In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.This calls to mind Peter Medawar’s earlier characterization of a certain type of French intellectual style (note, in passing, the contrast offered by Medawar’s own elegant and clear prose):
Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought . . .Returning to attack the same targets from another angle, Medawar says:
I could quote evidence of the beginnings of a whispering campaign against the virtues of clarity. A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear. What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.This is from Medawar’s 1968 lecture on “Science and Literature”, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 1982). Since Medawar’s time, the whispering campaign has raised its voice.
Deleuze and Guattari have written and collaborated on books described by the celebrated Michel Foucault as “among the greatest of the great . . . Some day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian.” Sokal and Bricmont, however, think otherwise: “These texts contain a handful of intelligible sentences — sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous — and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge.”
But it’s tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?
Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively, New York University and the University of Louvain in Belgium. They have limited their critique to those books that have ventured to invoke concepts from physics and mathematics. Here they know what they are talking about, and their verdict is unequivocal. On Jacques Lacan, for example, whose name is revered by many in humanities departments throughout US and British universities, no doubt partly because he simulates a profound understanding of mathematics:
. . . although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His ‘definition’ of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish.They go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:
Thus, by calculating that signification according to the algebraic method used here, namely:You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous. It recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the existence of God by dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the infinite. In a further piece of reasoning that is entirely typical of the genre, Lacan goes on to conclude that the erectile organ
S (signifier)/s (signified) = s (the statement), with S = (-1), produces s = square root of -1
. . . is equivalent to the square root of -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.
The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a “rape manual”), Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation”. Why? Because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an ‘in’ word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. “Masculine physics” privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:
The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids . . . From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve.
In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism, Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘post-modern science’, and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gödel’s Theorem, quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being played. The following sentence, “though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view”:
Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.I won’t quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard’s text “continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense”. They again call attention to “the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology — inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning”. Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for any of the authors criticized here and lionized throughout America:
In summary, one finds in Baudrillard’s works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard’s thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense? The genesis of Fashionable Nonsense was a brilliant hoax perpetrated by Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you’ve become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when someone punctures the established bag of wind.
As is now rather well known, in 1996 Sokal submitted to the US journal Social Text a paper called “Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” This page is part of another website. From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle. Sokal was inspired to do this by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), an important book that deserves to become as well known in Britain as it is in the United States. Hardly able to believe what he read in this book, Sokal followed up the references to postmodern literature, and found that Gross and Levitt did not exaggerate. He resolved to do something about it. In the words of the journalist Gary Kamiya:
Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for ‘advanced’ thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords (‘hermeneutics,’ ‘transgressive,’ ‘Lacanian,’ ‘hegemony’, to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal’s piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the ‘real world’), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit — a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.
Notwithstanding the egg all over their faces, and despite their feminist pretensions, these editors are dominant males in the academic establishment. Ross has the boorish, tenured confidence to say things like, “I am glad to be rid of English departments. I hate literature, for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature”; and the yahooish complacency to begin a book on ‘science studies’ with these words: “This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”
He and his fellow ‘cultural studies’ and ‘science studies’ barons are not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know — because many of them have told me — that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.
In a detailed post-mortem of his famous hoax, submitted to Social Text but predictably rejected by them and published elsewhere, Sokal notes that, in addition to numerous half-truths, falsehoods and non sequiturs, his original article contained some “syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever”. He regrets that there were not more of these: “I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack.” If he were writing his parody today, he would surely be helped by a virtuoso piece of computer programming by Andrew Bulhak of Melbourne, Australia: the Postmodernism Generator. Every time you visit it, it will spontaneously generate for you, using faultless grammatical principles, a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen.
I have just been there, and it produced for me a 6,000-word article called “Capitalist theory and the subtextual paradigm of context” by “David I. L.Werther and Rudolf du Garbandier of the Department of English, Cambridge University” (poetic justice there, for it was Cambridge that saw fit to give Jacques Derrida an honorary degree). Here is a typical passage from this impressively erudite work:
If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.Visit the Postmodernism Generator. It is a literally infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be submitted to the ‘Editorial Collective’ of Social Text, double-spaced and in triplicate.
As for the harder task of reclaiming US literary departments for genuine scholars, Sokal and Bricmont have joined Gross and Levitt in giving a friendly and sympathetic lead from the world of science. We must hope that it will be followed.