WASHINGTON -- Novelist Walker Percy defined a "deconstructionist" as an academic who claims that the meaning of all communication is radically indeterminate but who leaves a message on his wife's answering machine requesting pepperoni pizza for dinner.
Deconstructionists read things like Social Text, which will never again be called a "learned journal."
In it Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist, has perpetrated a hilarious hoax that reveals the gaudy silliness of some academics.
He submitted to Social Text for publication an essay that was a tissue of pseudoscientific solecisms and gaseous philosophical rhetoric, flecked with the political jargon that causes leftists' pulses to race.
Social Text published his parody as serious scholarship, thereby proving that any nonsense, however prolix and preposterous, can win academic approval if it includes "progressive" murmurings about feminism and the baneful effects of "the Western intellectual outlook."
Professor Sokal's essay was intellectual cotton candy -- the mere appearance of nourishment -- spun from the patois by which certain charlatans disguise their lack of learning.
He laid down a fog about "liberatory" this and "postmodernist" that, "nonlinearity" and "emancipatory mathematics" and "transformative hermeneutics" and the "morphogenic field," and did not neglect that old reliable, "the crisis of late-capitalist production relations."
All this supposedly pertained to physics.
Any competent undergraduate physics or math major would, Dr. Sokal says, recognize the essay as a spoof. So what, beyond ignorance, explains why Social Text's editors swallowed it?
Arrogance, for starters, the arrogance of what the professor calls a "self-perpetuating academic subculture."
It is defined by its ideology, which holds that ideology permeates everything, so there is no truth, only "sublimated" power relations "encoded" in various "texts."
Social Text's editors never thought to ask scientists to review Dr. Sokal's "argument" because to do so would be to "privilege" a point of view and concede the existence of objective truths.
After all, the editors were smitten by his ridicule of the "Western" notion that "there exists an external world" the physical laws of which can be discovered by the "so-called" scientific method. And the editors surely liked the political tone of his exhortation "to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge."
He is indeed a leftist, having taught mathematics for Nicaragua's Sandinistas. But as he says in Lingua Franca, the magazine of academic affairs in which he revealed his spoof, the left has become hospitable to intellectual sloppiness.
More sinister than sloth
Actually, he is too kind. Something more sinister than sloth is involved.
The lumpen Marxists and other theory-mongers begin with Nietzsche's assertion that there are no facts, only interpretations. They proceed to belabor certain banalities, such that developments in science are influenced by political and social forces, and that literature is conditioned by writers' contexts.
And they arrive at an encompassing relativism, by which they justify seeing everything through the lens of politics.
Everything, they assert, from science to sexuality, is a "social construction," and thus arbitrary. The issue of Social Text containing Professor Sokal's parody includes excruciatingly serious essays that read like parodies, such as "Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender," which reports that "transgender theorists and activists" are refuting the "Western assumption that there are only two sexes," and are promoting "increased fluidity" and "a 'rainbow' of gender" purged of "the binary male/female model."
No wonder Social Text's editors nodded approvingly even as Professor Sokal strained to be, as he says, "especially egregious" in his conclusion concerning "the dialectical emphases" of "catastrophe theory" becoming a "concrete tool of progressive political praxis."
Interrogating the text
Well, if, as academics who read things like Social Text like to say, we are all captives of racial, sexual and class conditioning, and if any "text," properly "interrogated" (sorry, but they talk this way), reveals not the writer's intention but power relations and the hidden agenda of our phallocentric society's dominant cliques, then let's get on with the agenda of academic victimology.
That agenda involves using higher education's curricula to dole out reparations to "underrepresented cultures."
Professor Sokal's spoof became still more entertaining when Prof. Stanley Fish shoved his oar in. Dr. Fish is professor of English and executive director of the Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text. Professor Sokal having demonstrated the comic potential of Social Text's poverty of intellectual standards, Dr. Fish denounced Dr. Sokal as a threat to, of all things, "intellectual standards."
Say what? Science, says Professor Fish, is a "communal effort" but because of Dr. Sokal, communal efforts may be more difficult because there may be "a deep and corrosive attitude of suspicion" in the offices of learned journals.
Learned people hope so, and hope especially for suspicion of the likes of Stanley Fish.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/30/96