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4.4.03

A few weeks ago I read an article (I don't recall where or who the author was) about the Sokal Hoax. Some years ago physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article to the postmodern journal Social Text arguing that gravity is a social construct. After the article was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax -- he didn't believe what he had said, and the "argument" was just a jumble of postmodern jargon. This hoax proved quite embarrassing to the editors of Social Text, and is often referred to as an expose of postmodernism, revealing that it has no standards of intellectual rigor because nobody saw that Sokal's article was entirely BS. While I have certain sympathies with postmodernism, I'll admit to a desire to perform a similar hoax when reading some of the more infuriatingly relativist authors.

The author of the article I read was critical of Sokal for surrendering his scientific standards by using a trick to "disprove" postmodernism. The author is correct to point out that the hoax proves nothing when judged by the rules of objective positivist science that Sokal champions. His conclusion was that the hoax was an instance of stooping to his enemies' level in order to score PR points. But I think there is a sense in which Sokal's hoax was on the right track. The issue here is the framing of a discourse. Every school of thought operates in a certain frame (roughly the same as a paradigm for Kuhn or an episteme for Foucault) that sets out what the rules for making valid statements are. This frame allows members of the school to critique each other and evaluate competing theories. Philosophical disagreements -- such as the positivism versus postmodernism issue -- are often quite intractable because the combatants share no overarching frame that would help them adjudicate between their arguments. In most cases, a person uses the rules of her own frame to construct an argument demolishing other frames (for example, by showing that postmodernism violates the rules of scientific reason). But these sorts of arguments don't do much to convince the holders of other frames. It's as if the person is speaking a different language. What Sokal attempted to do is to construct an argument against postmodernism using postmodernism's own rules -- particularly its love of word play and irony as discursive strategies. (Postmodernism, incidentally, began as an attempt to create a critique-from-within of the modernist frame.) To avoid criticisms that he doesn't understand the postmodern frame, Sokal enacted his hoax through a peer-reviewed journal, on the assumption that any article that was not valid by postmodernist standards would be rejected (though this argument is complicated by the fact that it was not just Sokal's article, but the whole hoax apparatus -- not all of which was peer reviewed -- that constitutes his critique of postmodernism).

Without knowing more about the hoax, I can't say whether Sokal was successful in disproving postmodernism on its own terms. But I think it's too narrow a view to say that he gave up his scientific rigor in the process of criticising people for having no scientific rigor. Rather, he became frustrated with arguing against postmodernists on positvist terms and decided to take the argument to the enemy's turf.

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