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The Sokal Hoax

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Ah.  Great.  I’d forgotten that one, and it’s about the best introduction to what I see as The Problem in the Humanities as I can find.

Sokal and his partner wrote a book about his experiences with Social Text, which was the journal that published his joke article, but even the name of the journal should tell you that neither the journal nor the people Sokal was dealing with were Humanists–that is, people working in the Humanities.

What Social Text is–or was at the time, I don’t keep up with these things–is the flagship publication of an academic movement called Cultural Studies, and it is just as much a denial of the content and significance of the Humanities as any rant about pointy-headed intellectuals by  Spiro Agnew.

Culture Studies is what happens when entire academic departments decide that the Humanities are supposed to be “for” something, and especially that they are supposed to be “for” forming “good” personal or political behavior.

The reality is this–the Humanities are the record of activity that is peculiarly and exclusively human.  Biology tells us very little about what it means to be a human being.  The best it can do is to tell us that our bodies behave the way most other mammalian bodies do, and maybe that, while we are doing philosophy,  a particular set of neurons is going off in our brains that probably produce the thought.

Biology cannot tell us what our lives mean, or how to face death and what to think of it, or what love is, or even what hatred is.   The reason the mind-body problem is as compelling idea as it is is that it seems to fit our lived experience of being in some ways separate from–and often antagonistic to–our physical existence.

The Humanities present to us the history of the ways in which human beings have faced these questions and the answers they have found for them.   The point of studying the Humanities is to understand the process, and to experience the range of human engagement in that process.   That tells us something about human beings–again, about what it means to be human, which is more complex and comprehensive than any individual can replicate in himself–that nothing else can tell us.

What it doesn’t ell us is “what should we be doing?”

For most of the important questions out there, human beings have come up with more than one answer.  And the answers they have come up with vary because of a lot of different factors:  realities on the ground at the time; the temperament of the individual doing the asking; the access the society and the person had to some kinds of information and not others.

The Humanities cannot tell you which of the options out there you should choose. At best, they can provide you with information you can use to make a decision, and the examples of systems other people constructed to make those decisions.  You might then want to use one of those existing systems of evaluation, or to construct one of your own now that you know how it is done–but whatever you do, the answer you get isn’t, and shouldn’t be, “the” answer, like the result of a quadratic equation.

For a lot of people, on the left and on the right, the problem with all this is that it doesn’t get them what they want–a course of moral formation for the young.  Robert is annoyed at the Humanities because they continue to include things he thinks are dead ends–like  Marxism.  

The Cultural Studies people felt the same way about the Humanities because they continue to include things the CS people felt were dead ends:  capitalism, individualism, gender roles.

Cultural Studies was invented as a way to ditch the Humanities for an ideological project, to approach the content of the Humanities–to the extent that it was approached at all–by assuming ones conclusions and trying to make everything fit.

For Cultural Studies, this was a project to prove that there was no reason to “privelege” Western modes of thinking, because all modes of thinking are “socially constructed” and therefore equally subjective.

Asolutely nobody who had actually studied the Humanities would make a mistake like this.   If anything, a thorough grounding in the Humanities tends to make people suspect (rightly, I think) that human nature is not infinitely malleable, but largely fixed, and that reality, far from being socially constructed, stubbornly refuses to get with our programs at all.  

Cultural Studies people rarely have any but the most superficial grounding in any Humanist field, and even their superficial groundings tend to be tendentious.  These are the people who, if they ever read a novel by Jane Austen, learned only to “unpack” it to show that she was a secret feminist and probably gay.  They know Shakespeare only as an exemplar of white male heterosexist Christian privelege whose work is mainly distinguished by anti-Semitism.  They haven’t read Chaucer at all, although they’ll happily tell you that the Wife of Bath is a “transgressive figure.”

The Cultural Studies people went after science for two reasons.  The first is personal pique.   Having given up any claim on the public consciousness by ditching everything that was valuable about their fields, they found themselves increasingly isolated in a world in which nobody was paying any attention to them any more.  When they looked around, what they saw was all the prestie and a lot of the money going to the sciences.

Thus was something called “physics envy” born.  If Cultural Studies was going to get itself taken seriously, then the guy i t had to knock off the top of the mountain was the natural scientiest.

The other reason Cultural  Studies went after the sciences was that the sciences were both uncompromisingly “Western”–that is, a product of the Western intellectual tradition, and no other–and uncompromisingly objective.  The foundation of the sciences exist in two assumptions:  first, that the universe exists outside ourselves and without regard to our wishes and second, that we can understand that universe if we study it systematically.

Actually, those two assumptions are also the assumptions of the study of the Humanities–which is why Cultural Studies people get particularly venomous on the subject of the Humanities.  The difference is that there is a huge scientific establishment in place that i nsists on the integrity of scientific approaches to research.  No such establishment existed in the Humanities after the 1960s.

It’s the Cultural Studies people who do the kind of jargon-filled nonsense Sokal exposed so well, and they do it without shame.  Of course, they also do it in isolation.  So many of these people are lodged in English departments that English has gone from being the department with the largest number of majors on any campus to one of the departments with the smallest.  

People who are actually interested in studying literature won’t go anywhere near most modern departments of English.

If you want to know what a  Humanist in literature actually does, let me suggest almost anything by George Steiner–Bluebeard’s Castle, The Death of  Tragedy, that kind of thing.

And if you want to look at some essays on the way in which Cultural Studies have nearly destroyed another Humanist area 9classics, this time) I’d sugest Victor Davis Hanson, et al, Bonfire of the Humanities:Rescuing the Classics in an  Impoverished Age.

Written by janeh

May 3rd, 2009 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Sokal Hoax'

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  1. Fair enough, but in defense of Spiro T, let’s do remember the academic humanists of the Steiner and Hanson sort are academia’s equivalent of marsupial tigers–known to have existed once, and there are sometimes reports of sightings, but they look pretty extinct from here.

    Speech codes? Sometimes the ACLU fights, but I’e not heard of any instance in which the professorate as a body, or any substantial body within a faculty led any resistance. Summers was canned at Harvard for suggesting that the world might not be the way we would prefer it to be. No substantial objections–or at least “not for attribution.” As we speak, Congress is looking at using Title 9 to put equal numbers of females in top mathematics and science courses WHETHER THEY MEET THE ENTRY AND GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS OR NOT, “gender equality” trumping mere mastery of the material. Again, if there are any academic humanists out there, they’re being good Germans about the whole thing.

    Good, solid well-credentialed academics hired these nutcases, and the generation being hired now is worse than the ones we already have. You can imagine who THEY will hire in their turn.

    I expect an eventual recovery, but I don’t think we’ve hit bottom yet, and the crash when we do will be spectacular. Pity it won’t happen in my lifetime.


    3 May 09 at 3:40 pm

  2. I’ve been trying to read a book of philosophical essays by David Stove called “Scientific Irrationalism Origins of a Postmodern Cult”. I’m finding the essays tough going – I seem to have lost my taste for philosophy. However, there is a very readable foreword by Keith Windshuttle that does a very good job of discussing what used to be called History and Philosophy of Science and is now called Science and Technology Studies,

    He discusses the Sokal Hoax and a marvelous book called “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science” by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Some of the things discussed by Gross and Levitt include a feminist claim that Newton’s Principia is a “rape manual” and a claim by other feminists that there needs to be a “feminist algebra”.

    I agree with Robert that we are due for a spectacular crash.


    3 May 09 at 5:56 pm

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