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Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading List: Fashionable Nonsense

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador, [1997] 1998. ISBN 978-0-312-20407-5.
There are many things to mock in the writings of “postmodern”, “deconstructionist”, and “critical” intellectuals, but one of the most entertaining for readers with a basic knowledge of science and mathematics is the propensity of many of these “scholars” to sprinkle their texts with words and concepts from mathematics and the physical sciences, all used entirely out of context and in total ignorance of their precise technical definitions, and without the slightest persuasive argument that there is any connection, even at a metaphorical level, between the mis-quoted science and the topic being discussed. This book, written by two physicists, collects some of the most egregious examples of such obscurantist writing by authors (all French—who would have guessed?) considered eminent in their fields. From Jacques Lacan's hilariously muddled attempts to apply topology and mathematical logic to psychoanalysis to Luce Irigaray's invoking fluid mechanics to argue that science is a male social construct, the passages quoted here at length are a laugh riot for those willing to momentarily put aside the consequences of their being taken seriously by many in the squishier parts of academia. Let me quote just one to give you a flavour—this passage is by Paul Virilio:

When depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-establishes appearances; then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn't actually light, a subliminary, para-optical light of which sunlight is only one phase or reflection. This light occurs in a duration measured in instantaneous time exposure rather than the historical and chronological passage of time. The time of this instant without duration is “exposure time”, be it over- or underexposure. Its photographic and cinematographic technologies already predicted the existence and the time of a continuum stripped of all physical dimensions, in which the quantum of energetic action and the punctum of cinematic observation have suddenly become the last vestiges of a vanished morphological reality. Transferred into the eternal present of a relativity whose topological and teleological thickness and depth belong to this final measuring instrument, this speed of light possesses one direction, which is both its size and dimension and which propagates itself at the same speed in all radial directions that measure the universe. (pp. 174–175)

This paragraph, which recalls those bright college days punctuated by deferred exhalations accompanied by “Great weed, man!”, was a single 193 word sentence in the original French; the authors deem it “the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have ever encountered.”

The authors survey several topics in science and mathematics which are particularly attractive to these cargo cult confidence men and women, and, dare I say, deconstruct their babblings. In all, I found the authors' treatment of the postmodernists remarkably gentle. While they do not hesitate to ridicule their gross errors and misappropriation of scientific concepts, they carefully avoid drawing the (obvious) conclusion that such ignorant nonsense invalidates the entire arguments being made. I suspect this is due to the authors, both of whom identify themselves as men of the Left, being sympathetic to the conclusions of those they mock. They're kind of stuck, forced to identify and scorn the irrational misuse of concepts from the hard sciences, while declining to examine the absurdity of the rest of the argument, which the chart from Explaining Postmodernism (May 2007) so brilliantly explains.

Alan Sokal is the perpetrator of the famous hoax which took in the editors of Social Text with his paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which appears in full here, along with comments on construction of the parody and remarks on the motivation behind it.

This book was originally published in French under the title Impostures intellectuelles. This English edition contains some material added to address critical comments on the French edition, and includes the original French language text of passages whose translation might be challenged as unfaithful to whatever the heck the original was trying to say.

Posted at June 10, 2011 21:28