THE SOKAL HOAX: THE SHAM THAT SHOOK THE ACADEMY
by the editors of Lingua Franca
(Nebraska) $20

When Alan Sokal's now-infamous parody of poststructuralist writing wangled its way into a tiny but influential egghead magazine in 1996, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Newspapers high and low reported the hoax as reality, pundits around the world vied to debate the ramifications, articles (led by Sokal's own in Lingua Franca) tweaked the stuffed-shirt academics who were the butt of the joke while the academics in question responded with ever more humorless and asinine posturings. But nobody outside of some 800 readers of Social Text magazine had ever read the original article, titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."

Now you can. Thanks to the editors of Lingua Franca, Sokal's hilarious article, embroidered with a bravura display of footnotes and (true) listed sources is available for anyone who'd care to pass a circuitous sort of intelligence test. Pretend you're the editor of a magazine devoted to culture studies and science studies who knows nothing about science. In comes an article by a physicist who is apparently quite taken with the superstars of poststructuralist theory (many of whom are on the masthead of your magazine, many of whom he cites in this article) and who, unlike most of his peers, openly entertains the idea that science ought to be subject to examination by people who aren't scientists--people who are, say, literary critics.

He seems earnest, but when you read, "[F]eminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the facade of 'objectivity,'" doesn't your bullshit detector begin to go off?

Most of the book documents the reactions to Sokal's parody, in articles from the New York Post to Le Monde, Lingua Franca to The Nation to Dissent. These reactions focus on the food fight between common sense and intellectual snobbery, on the ethics of a professor who would submit a false article, and on the legitimacy of culture studies and science studies. Because of the way Sokal frames his prank in the Lingua Franca article (also reprinted in the book), much of the discourse is political. He says he did it because the Left, formerly a bastion of Enlightenment-grounded reason, had drifted under the influence of Derrida, Lacan, et al., so that it seemed ridiculously awash in mushy jargon, where arguments were based not on logic but on the citations of authorities. Indeed, what Sokal puts on parade in his parody is an argument built out of real quotes from some of the silliest claims these authorities ever made.

Something else he does--and something that none of the essays, comments, and reports of this affair admit--is create a piece of writing worthy of Nabokov. In fact, Sokal goes one step past Nabokov. It's one thing to publish Pale Fire as a novel based on the critical edition of a poem, and quite another to slip a fake article past the gatekeepers of intellectual discourse. An Italian friend of Sokal's does give him a backhanded compliment on the amount of work behind his stunt--Marco D'Eramo claims "no Italian would have taken things seriously as Sokal has done," i.e., none would have done all the background reading in order to perpetrate a hoax which, after all, can't really matter much to anyone outside of the academy.

Even in his polite response to those remarks (Sokal has a field day answering the call to action of reaction, wherever it rears its head), the physicist neglects to mention what I maintain is the best reason why "Transgressing the Boundaries" and all of the ensuing hoopla should matter: It's nothing less or more than a great work of art. He may have started out to set the Left straight or to defend his physical and physics turf, but the amount of care that went into this project and, above all, the brilliant rendering of the language he aimed to exploit and expose now exposes him as an artist.

This is, of course, a rather poststructuralist way of looking at all this. Forget what Sokal says. I, the critic, recuperate this sonofabitch for what it is: art, plain and simple.

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