Part Three – Exercise 3.0: Sokal

Do you think Sokal was right to publish the article? Give reasons in a short paragraph.

When you first read the passage did it seem suspicious?

Has anything else you have read so far in this course book seemed suspicious? Briefly say what and why.


What a start into the new part of Sign, Presenation and Constructivism! I did just before a short reflection on an article from the Swiss newpaper NZZ (click here) and it seems to me that the questions coming up in this part will be full of subjective interpretations. A ballgame full of topics to challenge, and topics that I might not even understand at all. So, this ‘Sokal Hoax’ and the long aftermath in media should perhaps comfort me. Whether I will be able to identify an hoax or not, to feel cheated or not, to sense truth or not might be just a question of my own critical thinking skill. In the aftermath it might be easier.

How did I perceive it after first reading? 

Well, I am always careful when thinks are getting linked together in a suspicious way. In this case relating ‘political project’, ‘radical democratization’ with ‘new ..science can serve the need’. Overall, it reads for me like a Marxist pamphlet. Whether this was done intentional or not I don’t know. But suspicious overall.

The point might be that I got long time ago a higher degree in science and engineering and the notion of relating scientific exploration with politics seemed to me always far fetched.

line and point- a scientific investigation

Fig. 1: line and point- a scientific investigation

Reminds me of a story one professor told us once about some scientific publications that look rather weird. Example: How to draw line with a certain direction? Typically one need to points.The example the professor gave us was like that: one directional line through one point. How did this guy know that? Was this hoax and bullshit?

But coming back to Sokal. The other suspicious aspect to me is the length of sentences, for me typical for German language but not for English language. But perhaps more than the length of the sentence I feel annoyed by the choice of words bundled together – feels quite constructed.

However, I have to put this perhaps in context – as my reading of the text was already mediated by the context of the course text. And that I learned since the beginning of the course to stay critical and not to take for granted anything.

Questioning this position brings me back to a core paragraph written by Benjamin Buchloh, professor for Modern Art at Harvard, about modern avant-garde art: ‘A continually  renewed struggle over the definition of cultural meaning, the discovery and representation of new audiences, and the development of new strategies to counteract and develop resistance against the tendency of the ideological apparatness of the culture industry to occupy and to control all practices and all spaces of representation. (Cottington, 2005, p.23)

Is this less suspicious? Cottington explored that phrase intensively in his for me excellent overview on Modern Art. Is this than the language one is used to? Is there than a risk of over-using certain lingustic elements that rather separates groups?

Do you think Sokal was right to publish the article? 

There might a debate about whether the subversive way he chose was ‘nice’ or ‘adequate’ or ‘fair’ or ‘respectful’. The point for me is that within a system itself it could be hard to step out and look at different perspectives. The point Sokal tried to make was to contextualize the speech and interpretations of postmodern writers as Derrida and Deleuze.

One sentence from the article where Sokal quotes Derrida ‘The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability-it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something-of a center starting from which an observer could master the field-but the very concept of the game.’ (Sokal, 1996, p.221). Commentators afterwards found those ideas ‘degenerate into babble’ ‘ not in what Sokal himself has written, but in the writings of the genuine postmodern cultural critics’. (Weinberg, 1996). The key point of criticism highlighted by Sokal, as by other post-modernism critiques, is how scientific evidences are being translated into political context through use of metaphors. Either relying on an authority of science to build at times ‘nonsense’ world scenarios. Or to use as an argument against a so-called political bias of science. Christopher Butler mentioned the example of fertilization and the egg and the sperm, and how the image of an ‘aggressive’ sperm intruding the egg was used by post-Modernists to imply a large female- male social relationship. An used image that scientifically was not true since beginning of the 20th century and being mis-used for political agendas of post-Modernists (Butler, 2002, pp.41-43).

The point here – as I described in my earlier blog post – is the question of authority and critical reflection. Do we tend towards one perspective because of a reasonable line of reasoning or because of the author?  (Beller, 1998).

Overall, I find Sokal’s submission rightful as it triggered massive responses, what tells me that there was a need to that discussion. Wondering if that could happen in other ways? How would we tackle it nowadays?

Has anything else you have read so far in this course book seemed suspicious? 

There were already a few  topics in this course material  I found ‘suspicious’ for various reasons (material reference: Belshaw, M. (2016):

  1. Page 20 – Carlstrom case: interpretation of painting in context of an assumed political subversive expression by Renoir
    => I find this very far fetched and without evidence of primary sources a mis-interpretation and re-contextualization for ones own purpose. This goes for me into the direction of policial progenda and post-mortem slander and defamation (I am exaggerating and do not necessarily think that this was Carlstrom intention)
  2. Page 35 – ‘But doesn’t the absence of agreed methods, competences and general principles serve as quality control in a given quasi-science by recognizing shared judgements even where they conflict?’
    => I cannot believe how the absence of something can be the proof for it. This seems to be rather a realitistic perspective that whatever is written is correct and truthful, and the opposite statement would just confirm it. This would possibly lead towards rejection of critical judgement at all.
  3. Page 48 – Fried on Manet ‘the first painter whom consciousness itself is the great subject of his art’.
    => In the sense as Merriam-Webster  defines consciousness ‘the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself’ I would not agree with that  (example Rembrandt self-portrait and his conscious and at times deliberatley depction of his inner state of mind through external features). I feel as if the author tries to make a point in relating external (alienation of modern urban life) with internal personal aspects (struggle and consciouness) without providing sufficient evidence from primary sources.
  4. Page 69 – Ralph Waldo Emerson lived 1803 – 1882. How could it happen that  ‘a lecture given by …in 1934’ post-mortem?
    => Actually it was 1834 and the error came possibly from the source: http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/naturalist.html where it is stated that the lecture was ‘Delivered to the Boston Natural HIstory Society, 7 May, 1934′
    It is suspicious as I would have thought the author of the course material did check this. Or just a test? I will send a note to the office anyway.

    But what worries me more is when the author of the course material continues and saying that Emerson was writing in 1934 he might well have replaced ‘buried cities, ‘abraded characters’ and ‘Romans’ with the Wall Street Crash, esperanto, and the Soviet Union.’ (Belshaw, 2016, p.70)
    => I can only explain this that the author translates Emerson’s ideas into 20th century context and convince the reader of his ideas. Nevertheless, the consequence is none.

 

Reference:

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