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  • Just Doing Your Job: Some Lessons of the Sokal Affair
  • Bruce Robbins (bio)

The December 3, 1996 issue of the French left-wing newspaper Libération contains a full-page article, plus photograph and interview, devoted to Alan Sokal’s hoax in Social Text and the media coverage that has followed. The article begins like this: “‘Does reality exist?’ It’s difficult to believe, but for the past six months, the American intellectual left has been gorging itself on the question.”

This is not an even approximately accurate account of the Sokal affair—no one in this argument has in fact taken the position that reality does not exist—but it is a representative sample of how scrupulously journalists have reported it, in the U.S. as well as abroad, on the left as well as elsewhere on the political spectrum. That’s a load of inaccuracy to crawl out from under. And these are the people who complain that others don’t respect standards of evidence! As the journalists will sometimes tell you off the record, they are “just doing their job.” Perhaps it’s in the nature of their job that they need not worry whether anyone remembers the provenance of this excuse. But it would be too easy simply to blame either them or their profession. After all, the professional deformation is not all on their side.

Asked how it feels to know he has provoked this avalanche of malicious half-truths and outright misrepresentations, Alan Sokal could of course respond that it’s not his field, not the point he wanted to make about science studies, not his responsibility. As a physicist, should he have been required to consider what the media would do with his stunt? What are a physicist’s responsibilities in or to the public sphere? (This is of course one of the questions that science studies was attempting to bring to the public’s attention when the hoax came along and diverted that attention elsewhere.) But in addition to being a physicist, Sokal has also declared himself a leftist. As a leftist, he could surely be expected to weigh the likely consequences—consequences not just for the quantity of his email correspondence and lecture invitations, but for untenured, highly vulnerable students of culture around the country, some of whom are already seeing their projects endangered and their reappointments blocked in a gathering backlash. Still, to appeal to politics is not to [End Page 467] end the discussion. For Social Text, too—and it’s also our mistake that has brought discredit on the work of so many other practitioners of cultural politics—a certain obscurity lingers over the question of how responsibilities to politics and to everyday academic business are supposed to be balanced or reconciled.

Toward the beginning of Sokal’s essay, there is a little sentence which goes as follows: “physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.” To the best of my knowledge, no one on the Social Text collective believes this. After more than a decade of editorial meetings, I can’t think of anyone who is entirely comfortable within the constructivist paradigm, anyone who doesn’t bump up against its limits with every intellectual move they make. Andrew Ross’s largely unread introduction to the largely unread science wars issue does what it can to move the focus away from epistemology to matters like the politics of funding and agenda-setting, and I think that’s both right and more characteristic of the journal. For years I’ve been using Diana Fuss’s Essentially Speaking (1989) to tell incoming graduate students they cannot assume they are doing anything intellectually or politically significant by sole virtue of showing that something is a social construct, since saying that X is a social or cultural construct only displaces the “reality” question from the X and onto the “society” or the “culture” that’s supposedly doing the constructing. The papers I want from my students, and the submissions we have tended to welcome for Social Text, have the tact or savvy to acknowledge the potential interpretive regress (what constructs “society” and “culture”? and so...