The Sokal Hoax, Friedrich Nietzsche, Attacks on Deconstruction, and More Bad Writing

NYU physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was published in 1996 in Duke University’s Social Text, a cultural studies journal. The same day the article was published–with no peer review, incidentally–Sokal announced in Lingua Franca that the whole thing was a hoax, a collection of nonsense, buzzwords, and jargon, making liberal use of recontextualized quotes. Sokal’s intention was to provoke the postmodern tendencies of humanities professors, whom he viewed as having a poor understanding of the science they critiqued.

Now, anyone who has spent any time in any university’s cultural studies department or English department (they tend to be the same thing nowadays) knows that postmodernism is all the rage: the dominant thinkers tend to be of the deconstructionist/post-structuralist school of thought–Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler, and so on. The major goal of deconstructive analysis is to disrupt the traditional, metaphysical groundings that have been accepted as “natural” to philosophy–to free up marginalized and subjugated areas of thought and break through the layers of sedimentary “givens.” In this sense, deconstruction takes a major queue from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways Nietzsche provided not only some of the major questions that initiate a deconstructive philosophy, but also a model for how those ideas would be presented in writing.

Nietzsche’s writing is poetic and often ironically self-reflexive. In his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” he makes the claim that all language is an anthropomorphic jumble of metaphors, that concepts are only constructed upon other concepts, all understood through an anthropocentric viewpoint that is impossible to abandon. Nietzsche’s writing contains this awareness; he frames his argument in a series of illustrative metaphors and similes, arguing that language does not permit people to reach the true essence of “the thing in itself”; rather, concepts are the “fractured echo[es]” of the ego seeking recognition—deceptions and illusions. In Nietzsche’s view, science can only build on these empty metaphors and therefore all scientific, empirical knowledge is a house of cards waiting to collapse. Nietzsche prefers an irrational, intuitive, liquid approach to life—a “playing with seriousness”: by abandoning stoic, static reasoning, one will gain “illumination, cheer, and redemption.” This joyful disruption is one starting point for the deconstructionists who Sokal attacked in his hoax.

Sokal obviously disagrees with Nietzsche: as a physicist, Sokal clearly values empirical, rational thought. But his real disagreement is with his perception of an abusive misuse of scientific and mathematic terminology by humanities professors. Sokal views the majority of post-modern theorists as perpetrators of hogwash, arrogant elitists who obfuscate their hollow ideas in jargon.

Okay. Now. So. Is Sokal right? Is there a tendency in humanities departments toward obscurantism with elitist undertones? Absolutely. However, I see this as the academic byproduct of the writers under attack, the detritus of myriad misunderstandings and misreadings. Nobody’s perfect, obviously. I disagree that certain of the writers Sokal attacks–Julia Kristeva in particular (a hero of mine, whose writing I find to be both wonderfully lucid and poetically profound)–are purposefully difficult. Most of the deconstructionists mentioned above take their lead from Nietzsche, and thus employ a strange, elliptical, roundabout and often poetic strategy to their writing. The deconstructionist methodology itself is an affront to easy readings–simply put, it’s meant to make you think. Furthermore, philosophy, for most of us, is not beach reading.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Sokal’s gesture is an essentially postmodern move, a deconstructive move–a challenge to the new establishment of academic humanities and cultural studies. Even his use of recontextualized quotes is an affirmation of Derrida’s concept of iterability. The greatest value of the hoax is that it reinforces the tenets of deconstruction: to upset the places we feel are comfortable and safe, prompting constant re-examination of our aims and goals. Sokal’s hoax initiates a dynamic rethinking of the way we write and the way we read. Who are we writing for? How are we presenting our ideas? Do we understand what we are saying? More than anything, Sokal’s hoax calls attention to the constant need for peer review, for academia to question itself, its products, its institutions.