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Ravens and Writing-Desks: Sokal and the Two Cultures
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Ravens and Writing-Desks:
Sokal and the Two Cultures

I

A distinguished neurologist (who will remain unnamed) came to the Bordeaux area to lecture on “Art and the Brain.” His lecture included a multimedia presentation of charts, experimental data, and, of course, slides of famous paintings. The experimental data had much to do with what areas of the brain were affected by certain types of percepts, and his main argument was that many modern artists more or less consciously took advantage of these physiological and neurological facts to produce an art that would necessarily stimulate the perceiver in a certain manner. His triumphant conclusion was that, in this way, art had become a universal and totally fail-safe language—fail-safe because artistic communication takes place at the level of nerve-endings and brain centers. There is no danger of misinterpretation, since anyone with normal perceptual faculties can perceive what there is to be perceived. Indeed, there is no danger of misinterpretation since interpretation itself is entirely eliminated from this somatic definition of art.

Aside from the fact that the lecturer never bothered to distinguish between artistic perception and perception per se (after all, when your Aunt Molly shows a snapshot of the family reunion, she is also activating these universal nerve-endings and brain centers), what seemed especially troubling about this picture of art was the way it seemed to eliminate not only interpretation but all forms of consciousness, including consciousness of the history of art, and consciousness of the history of art criticism. Now few philosophers will be convinced by such [End Page 119] an unmediated, physicalist vision of plastic art, and I do not intend to spend any more time on the presentation of its idiosyncrasies. However, one should stop to question the motivation behind this reductionism. In the context of the two cultures controversy, it becomes relatively clear. By eliminating the history of art, by—indeed—eliminating the conscious intentions of the artist with respect to this history, by reducing art to a matter of pure perception, the lecturer was trying to eliminate those bodies of knowledge which his tools cannot master—history and criticism. And in the context of the two cultures controversy, this elimination is a way of saying to humanists that they are not needed.

It is not at all my intention to associate the work of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont with such crude attempts to foster a purely scientific view of existence. Indeed, they are quick to emphasize the value of other modes of human thought. I would however like to use such examples to understand the context within which the attacks on science take place. It is indeed an interesting coincidence that Sokal and Bricmont published their Impostures intellectuelles here in France at roughly the same time as an influential essay representative of the very anti-scientific trend which they sought to condemn. 1 Sokal’s aim has been, in many ways, to denounce the jargon and irrationality of much current thought in the humanities. He has shown with his hoax 2 and in the Impostures volume that much of the current orthodoxy—on American campuses, at least—is a nonsensical wrenching together of indefensible and unconnected ideas. Carrollians will have recognized the “ravens” and “writing-desks” of my title: one of the most notoriously unanswered riddles of the Alice Tales is the Mad Hatter’s “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” 3 It turns out, however, that Carroll had nothing specific in mind when he formulated the question, and in a preface to a later addition, Carroll points out that “the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all” (Gardner, p. 95). However unlikely the analogy may first appear, some context can always be found to combine the bird and the furniture. But, to simplify, much of the beneficial effect of Sokal’s hoax and of Impostures intellectuelles has been in their power to discourage those seeking to establish illicit relationships—such as that between quantum gravity and feminism, or topology and human sexuality.

But is the culture of science more sinned against than sinning? In his work on “scientism,” Tom Sorrell recalls the...