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Notes and Fragments
Poststructural Theorizing and Hollow Dialectic
Wendell V. Harris
I got round to reading Fashionable Nonsense, the English language edition of Impostures Intellectuelles by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, rather tardily. I had been delighted by Sokal's clever coup in constructing an absurd argument out of bits and pieces of the discourse fashionable among savants currently all too influential in the humanities and social sciences and seeing it published in 1996 as a serious contribution by Social Text. Sokal's Trojan horse was brilliant not only in being buttressed by a plethora of actual quotations (almost 200 works are cited), but by the way it stitches together both the vocabulary and the peculiar assumptions of trendy poststructuralist writing. This mastery is apparent from the statement of the article's theses in which echoes of concepts launched by Kuhn, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Lacan and others of similar proclivities float eerily over common sense.
It has . . . 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. [End Page 424]
At the time of the controversy over Sokal's hoax, I was both astonished and amused that certain members of the academic community felt that Sokal had betrayed academic good faith: it is precisely because editors and the presumably expert readers asked to referee submissions are expected to be able to recognize the intellectually sloppy and logically absurd, not to mention sheer nonsense, that professional journals are professional. What had been shown to be betrayed was just that expectation, that trust, in the professional competence of journal editors. I must admit that I had at one time toyed with the idea of submitting a palpably absurd confection of fashionable jargon to a major journal, as I suspect had many another dismayed academic before Sokal, but I found it too difficult not to lose control and deviate into sense.
When Impostures Intellectuelles was published in 1997 followed by the English translations in 1998, I was surprised that the book did not create more of a stir. But occupied with other matters, I finally read the book itself only after receiving a copy of an enthusiastic review by Raymond Tallis. I have to admit that I was disappointed. Although already prejudiced in favor of the arguments made by Sokal and Bricmont against the inaccurate and misleading employment of scientific and mathematical concepts to support theories supposedly germane to the humanities and social sciences, I kept feeling that Sokal and Bricmont were not carrying the attack far enough. But as I tried to formulate the defects of the book more exactly, I began to see that what I regarded as weaknesses were evidences of the problems of attacking the deficiencies of the poststructuralist mode of thought. The prophets of poststructural theorizing and their countless followers have had their greatest impact on literary studies, but of course their beliefs have affected (perhaps infected is the better word) the humanities and social sciences as a whole, while their putatively literary criticism often goes far beyond the elucidation of literary texts. Therefore I shall lump poststructural theorizing in general and for convenience refer to it simply at PT.
There are at least four major difficulties in exposing the absurdities one is likely to encounter in PT. To begin with, scholars aware of the dangers of applying formulations valid in one field to phenomena of a quite different field of study are understandably wary of expressing criticism of those portions of a theorist's work that draw on disciplines in which they lack full competence. Thus for instance conscientious [End Page 425] psychologists, physicists, or linguists...