Fashionable Nonsense

Re. Joseph's comment on the previous post, about the theorising of poetic language as inaccessible to lived experience. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense - Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science discusses the abuse of concepts and terminology in talking, in their case, about philosophy and the natural sciences, but in a way equally applicable, as their examples show, to conversation about poetry, in an attempt to give discourse "a veneer of rigor." It seems to me that much of contemporary poetry - I was looking at polyaesthetics and mathematical poetry yesterday, for example - is incomprehensible, but much of contemporary discussion about poetry is equally opaque, and often, I suspect, for the reasons Bricmont and Sokal give below. I don't mean to say that poetic discourse uses scientific language, but that a clever person could change a few words in their introduction and produce an exactly parallel critique of what Joseph called ' the epistemological dead end of theorized language' about poetry. The common caution - "the opinions expressed in this posting are not necessarily those of the guys in charge" - obviously applies here.

"The goal of this book is to make a limited but original contribution toward the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called "postmodernism". We make no claim to analyze postmodernist thought in general; rather, our aim is to draw attention to a relatively little-known aspect, namely the repeated abuse of concepts and terminology coming from mathematics and physics. We shall also analyze certain confusions of thought that are frequent in postmodernist writings and that bear on either the content or the philosophy of the natural sciences.

The word "abuse" here denotes one or more of the following characteristics:

1) Holding forth at length on scientific theories about which one has, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea. The most common tactic is to use scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean.

2) Importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities or social sciences without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification. If a biologist wanted to apply, in her research, elementary notions of mathematical topology, set theory or differential geometry, she would be asked to give some explanation. A vague analogy would not be taken very seriously by her colleagues. Here, by contrast, we learn from Lacan that the structure of the neurotic subject is exactly the torus (it is no less than reality itself, cf. p. 20), from Kristeva that poetic language can be theorized in terms of the cardinality of the continuum (p. 40), and from Baudrillard that modern war takes place in a non-Euclidean space (p. 147)--all without explanation.

3) Displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader. Even some academic and media commentators fall into the trap: Roland Barthes is impressed by the precision of Julia Kristeva's work (p. 38) and Le Monde admires the erudition of Paul Virilio (p. 169).

4) Manipulating phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless. Some of these authors exhibit a veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.

These authors speak with a self-assurance that far outstrips their scientific competence: Lacan boasts of using "the most recent development in topology" (pp. 21-22) and Latour asks whether he has taught anything to Einstein (p. 131). They imagine, perhaps, that they can exploit the prestige of the natural sciences in order to give their own discourse a veneer of rigor. And they seem confident that no one will notice their misuse of scientific concepts. No one is going to cry out that the king is naked.

Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too). But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism. In particular, we want to "deconstruct" the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.

There are many different degrees of abuse. At one end, one finds extrapolations of scientific concepts, beyond their domain of validity, that are erroneous but for subtle reasons. At the other end, one finds numerous texts that are full of scientific words but entirely devoid of meaning. And there is, of course, a continuum of discourses that can be situated somewhere between these two extremes. Although we shall concentrate in this book on the most manifest abuses, we shall also briefly address some less obvious confusions concerning chaos theory (Chapter 7).

Let us stress that there is nothing shameful in being ignorant of calculus or quantum mechanics. What we are criticizing is the pretension of some celebrated intellectuals to offer profound thoughts on complicated subjects that they understand, at best, at the level of popularizations.

At this point, the reader may naturally wonder: Do these abuses arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two? We are unable to offer any categorical answer to this question, due to the lack of (publicly available) evidence. But, more importantly, we must confess that we do not find this question of great interest. Our aim here is to stimulate a critical attitude, not merely towards certain individuals, but towards a part of the intelligentsia (both in the United States and in Europe) that has tolerated and even encouraged this type of discourse. "

1 comment:

JeFF Stumpo said...


What thoughts might you have on aspects of science that do dovetail neatly with postmodernism? For example, it's not uncommon to hear a scientist say (in a room containing those who will not mistake the intent of the message) that you never prove anything in science, only amass evidence suggesting a position. Alternately, Stephen Hawking's rejection of a Theory of Everything, based in large part on the idea that we are within a system (universe) and therefore cannot possibly fully describe said system (universe)? Which is a simultaneously specific and generic way of asking - do you think there's a place for the worlds to meet outside of a pursuit of Truth, and if so, how might we educate our humanities theorists to approach it?