from the pages of../


Sokal 2

By Michael Albert

Last issue I addressed (1) the illegitimacy of extrapolating from the many misuses of science and the ill behavior of some scientists to a claim that science, rationality, or even truth intrinsically produce oppression, and (2) the ill effects of doing this.

I indicated that scientists and scientific projects are sometimes macho, racist, classist, unduly reductionist, and domineering. I decried widespread commercial and ideological sell-out by scientists. But I also offered many reasons for rejecting the rejection of science.

Amidst all this I wrote: "Most pomo is a swamp of needlessly obtuse language hiding (a) sophomoric truisms, (b) patent falsehoods, and (c) meaningless, barely literate phraseology, all melded incoherently together and dolled up to seem like wisdom. Sure there is some serious work done under the broad rubric of postmodernism, but it is against the grain and beside the main point of the school of thought." This formulation offended many people, I think.

Was I too harsh? Maybe I should indicated more precisely that there are many important and useful insights about culture, communications, and gender, that come from postmodernists. And I certainly agree that if any of these important and useful insights derive from what I would lump under "b" and "c" above, then my critical characterization of "b" items as false and "c" items as needlessly obtuse would be wrong. But if insightful postmodernist work rests only on truisms and insights from outside the postmodernist school and is independent of or even contrary to all the "b" and "c" items, then, no, I wasn’t too harsh. The "b" and "c" part should be jettisoned. But I should reply to the letters we received.

Steve and Heidi wrote that "we see much of the body of postmodernist social theory as not saying that there is no truth, but rather that there are multiple truths." To clarify they noted that Marxism, feminism, nationalism, etc. reveal multiple truths about oppression, while no one of these perspectives is alone true.

Yes, there are many truths, not just one. But isn’t this an a truism (an "a" item) well known by all. Steve and Heidi added: "It’s just to admit that we see the world through culturally mediated ways of seeing, verifying, smelling, hearing; and its to admit that positivism too, is not immune to this, even in its most pure form." But realizing this doesn’t require heavy theory, or the rejection of truth, science, and rationality. Of course people see the world through what they have picked up over the course of their lives in social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. This is another "a" item.

Jack says "The real import of the pomos…is not their misguided attempt to junk rationality but their ambitious attempt to point out that rationality and the scientific method are only extremely limited tools in our understanding of the world and our experience." If the "attempt to junk rationality" is peripheral, dump it. As to revealing the limitations of scientific method: Yes, we can’t know by science that we love a son or mother, or the feel of grass to our feet, or what honesty is and how we feel about it. But no scientist would deny this. What scientists will say, however, is that (1) there are limited domains of inquiry where we can effectively utilize evidence, experiments, and logical consistency--for example, in assessing the impact of lead paint on children, or the trajectory of the moon, or the components of sulfur atoms. And (2) if these methods yield clear-cut knowledge in these domains, then this knowledge of these domains should take precedence over what we want to be the case, or hope is the case, or feel is the case, or dream is the case, or just plain experience to be the case (but without careful testing). To argue over what domains can be usefully scientifically addressed or whether particular scientists are over-extending or doing a good job or even being scientific at all, or over who should decide what we should do with attained knowledge, is of course desirable. But to say there are only stories, all with equal claim, and therefore science is just another story, is, well, a "b" item.

Let me put the same point another way. If pomo is only saying that about love or hate or awe at a rainbow, Dostoevsky, Poe, or Plath is a far more informative read than Newton, Curie, or Feynman, then pomo is only telling folks what we already know. But if pomo is denying that Newton, Curie, and Feynman take precedence over non-scientific claims when they are applicable, then pomo is saying something new, but patently false.

Linda decries polarization and says Sokal’s "trick" was a "low blow" against a journal in which "academics venture outside their specialties, despite the risk involved in this sort of endeavor." But the academics make highly critical claims about science and rationality. If they know so little about the topic that they can’t distinguish idiocy from insight, which is what Sokal showed, doesn’t this cut through a whole lot of posturing to a relevant truth?

Roger says, "It is difficult to follow the logic of an article that simultaneously cautions against condemning all science on the basis of a few examples while doing just that in the case of literary theory." (And Jack too felt I was pitting the bet of science against the worst of postmodernism in an unfair manner.) I agree that this would be a gross inconsistency if it was what I was doing. Perhaps I was unclear. Let me try again.

We have science and scientists. And many scientists do bad things. We have postmodernist ideas and views and postmodernists. And many postmodernists do bad things.

Can we legitimately jump directly from instances of behavior that we don’t like by members of some group to a rejection of the underlying intellectual tools of that group, from scientists to science, professors to postmodernism?

I agree with Roger. Of course not. To critique the underlying part we must show its strong connection to the bad things done. We can’t do this for the English language and crimes by English speaking people, for example. What about science? Does using the intellectual tools of science push scientists to design bombs or assembly lines? And postmodernism? Does using the intellectual tools of postmodernism push professors to promote harmful falsehoods and shun activism? I tried to make this case re postmodernism when I showed how certain underlying views, such as that there is no truth but only many competing stories, lead directly to political dead ends and to confusions that we find widely among the adherents. Did I do a good job? Maybe not. But do postmodernists even try to make such a case when attacking science? Do they relate being rational, or using logic, or utilizing evidence to being imperial or macho by showing how the former intrinsically yield the latter? If so, I would certainly like to see it.

Jack adds, "By concentrating on the muddled, obscurantist, anti-rationalist side of postmodernism, you do a grave injustice to the powerful ideas that are behind some postmodern analyses."

Lots of people seem to feel this way, and I don’t get it. Isn’t critiquing the nonsense a constructive act that makes room for better more powerful ideas to come forth and have more influence?

Suppose someone said about a criticism of Stalinism that concentrating on Stalinism’s authoritarianism did "grave injustice" to the "powerful ideas that are behind" Stalinist analyses of the class basis of capitalism. It would be off base because it is precisely the weak, misleading, or wrong ideas that need critique. If the flawed ideas are peripheral to the school, good riddance, small loss, the project continues. If the flawed ideas are at the core of the approach, then supplant the whole thing, and the good ideas will resurface in new forms.

Postmodernists attack oppressive acts of some scientists, and I join them in doing this. Reciprocally, I attack the false claims of some postmodernists. Shouldn’t sensible postmodernists avidly join this critique? If self critical postmodernists want to defend some core pomo beliefs and say that I go too far with my criticisms, like I want to defend the core scientific method and say that they go too far with their criticism, fine. I would be quick to listen to hear about the valuable insights that I shouldn’t throw out with the bath water. I think this is Jack’s perfectly reasonable stance, but I just don’t hear what the core beliefs are that I have gone overboard on. I think that the useful ideas we find in postmodern writings, like ideas about the diverse ways culture influences us. will universally prove to be held independently of the stuff I am attacking and are in zero danger of being flushed.

Jack adds that "The claim that science is simply another story serves to point out that scientific inquiry, like any genre of storytelling, chooses certain aspects of a situation to cover and follows certain narrative conventions and evaluative criteria…."

Yes, science "chooses certain aspects" and "follows certain conventions and criteria," though I can’t see why we need references to story telling to discern what scientists freely admit. This is still another "a" item.

Jack continues, "…Pointing out that science is like a literary genre indicates that modern science’s emphasis on causality, reproducibility, and predictability is connected to certain (generally imperial and masculine) goals--namely the mastery of the earth which is the centerpiece of both colonialism and capitalism."

Excuse me? First, is writing poetry (another literary genre) connected with imperialism and masculinity? Second, to say that dropping bombs, or spending time designing them, is impacted by the imperial and sexist dynamics of society is one thing. But the quote from Jack seems to also say that trying to understand causes, recognize recurrent situations, and to predict, lead to being imperial or masculine. And certainly many pomos say things like this. But really? Show me a person, anywhere on this planet, who does not act when able to on the basis of knowledge of causes based in part on experience of recurrent situations and using their ability to predict. Is everyone thereby imperial and sexist? Does being a "true woman" mean decrying looking for causes? For that matter, I wonder which scientists, even, are motivated by desire for mastery of the earth as opposed to curiosity (on the good hand) and filthy lucre or personal status (on the bad hand). Ecologists? Biologists? Physicists? Jack’s letter was sober and reasoned except this single passage, which is where the "it ought to be jettisoned" "b" side of postmodernism crept in, I think.

We all know it would be absurd to say that a person was racist or classist for speaking English on grounds that English is often spoken in racist, classist ways. Isn’t it clear that it is equally absurd to say that a person is imperial or sexist because they use evidence, logic, reproducibility, and prediction which are often used to further colonial and sexist ends.

Finally, Steve and Heidi write: "To blame pomo academics as even one of the reasons for the lack of campus activism to us sounds highly dubious, baseless, and even reactionary. How many students actually take postmodern courses vs. business and management courses?"

Of course I know the real PC on campuses is in economics and political science departments where the constraints impeding investigation into the nature of corporate structure and its human implications, for example, are powerful and vile. And I know that the main anti-activist impetus on campus comes from conformity coerced by an oppressively designed and run context, from competition to attain corrupted roles, etc. But in a discussion of pomo and activism, other things come to the fore as well.

Many young folks arrive at campuses. Some, for whatever reasons, bring considerable predilection toward social concern and left insight. For the most part, these are the students who provide the initial energy and force that first gets campus activism going. So what happens to these folks nowadays?

I think that on many campuses these young people find the faculty who call themselves leftists and who espouse leftist values and take their courses and become pals with them. My generation did this with people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and many others who were lesser known, but had similar orientations and commitments. But nowadays I think that in many places connecting with left faculty means jumping into pomo. And I think it is probably a very debilitating experience for many of these students who find pomo horribly opaque, irrelevant, and elitist, and who leave the left in disgust. And I also suspect that of the students who stay and get involved in pomo, many sweat bullets to learn the requisite lingo and in the process of succeeding "transcend" activism for some of the reasons I enunciated last issue. I grant that this may be a false perception. But it is what many students have told me. Perhaps young folks on campuses will write to tell us whether this has been happening or not. For that matter, are most left pomo faculty giving some of their time to the New Party, the Greens, and the Labor Party, to local organizing projects, to labor struggles, to anything political, for that matter, beyond classroom deconstructions and pomo conferences? I hope so. I would be very curious to hear.