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  • Transgressing the Boundaries: An Afterword*
  • Alan D. Sokal

Alas, the truth is out: my article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which appeared in the spring/summer 1996 issue of the cultural-studies journal Social Text, is a parody. 1 Clearly I owe the editors and readers of Social Text, as well as the wider intellectual community, a non-parodic explanation of my motives and my true views. One of my goals here is to make a small contribution toward a dialogue on the Left between humanists and natural scientists—“two cultures” which, contrary to some optimistic pronouncements (mostly by the former group), are probably farther apart in mentality than at any time in the past fifty years.

Like the genre it is meant to satirize—myriad exemplars of which can be found in its reference list—my article is a mélange of truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever. (Sadly, there are only a handful of the latter: I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack.) I also employed some other strategies that are well-established (albeit sometimes inadvertently) in the genre: appeals to authority in lieu of logic; speculative theories passed off as established science; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is [End Page 338] ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words (for example: linear, nonlinear, local, global, multidimensional, relative, frame of reference, field, anomaly, chaos, catastrophe, logic, irrational, imaginary, complex, real, equality, choice).

I should emphasize that all works cited in my article are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Indeed, the most hilarious passages in my article were not written by me: they are direct quotes from the Masters.

But why did I do it? I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class. And I’m a stodgy old scientist who believes, naively, that there exists an external world, that there exist objective truths about that world, and that my job is to discover some of them. (If science were merely a negotiation of social conventions about what is agreed to be “true,” why would I bother devoting a large fraction of my all-too-short life to it? I don’t aspire to be the Emily Post of quantum field theory.)

But my main concern isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit. Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse—and more generally a penchant for subjectivism—which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left. 2 Alan Ryan said it well:

It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth. . . . Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you’ve had it. . . . But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess. 3

Likewise, Eric Hobsbawm has decried

the rise of “postmodernist” intellectual fashions in Western universities, particularly in departments of literature and anthropology, which imply that all “facts” claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, that there is no clear difference between fact and fiction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. 4 [End Page 339]

(Hobsbawm goes on to show how rigorous historical scholarship can refute the fictions propounded by reactionary nationalists in India, Israel, the Balkans and elsewhere.) And as the acerbic sociologist Stanislav Andreski noted long ago,

So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of...

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