Sokal Redux?

Fenster writes:

When making sense no longer makes sense it is very tempting to stop making sense, this urge itself a form of sense-making.  In 1984 the interrogator tells Winston Smith that two and two can equal five if the state says so.  But on this point Dostoevsky has the better take: “the formula two plus two equals five is not without its attractions.”  People can be drawn to a lack of sense as moths to a flame, if the alternatives are less palatable.

In this regard, consider the rich night soil that is the modern postmodern mind.  It is a fecund thing but it lies shallow on the earth, discouraging the deep rootedness that would provide for sturdy growth and favoring instead the rapid spread of a kind of mental kudzu across the landscape.  It is hard to hold this kind of thing in check, and no good solution has yet to be found.  The limited success to date has come from a kind of “fighting fire with fire”, as with the famous Sokal Hoax.

When Sokal wrote his debunking piece in 1996 the kind of postmodern writing at which he took aim took the form of gibberish, and his spoof was structured as meaningless tripe.  As you will recall it was waved through the gates of the journal Social Text by the peer review watchmen and the rest is, alas, mostly only history.  The Sokal Hoax caused delight in some quarters and consternation in others but it hardly stopped the kudzu spread.

In part this hardiness is a function of adaptation.  In some measure meaninglessness has given way to meaning again and this is, in a way, a kind of progress.  A lot of writing nowadays may be nutty but it is getting explicable.  It is trying to say something.

Here’s an abstract from a recent issue of Social Text:

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is a film whose glossy surface belies its investment in history—cinema’s history, Spain’s history, transnational history. It tracks a correspondence among cinema, transsexuality, and medium specificity through the trope of transgenesis: skin has been manufactured by the film’s plastic surgeon to cover the character upon whom he has also forced a sex change. The transgenic skin is also produced extratextually, by way of a digital effect that implicates cinema’s analog-to-digital transformation. Both of these technological transformations—the cinematic and the biological—carry with them ethical and political implications, which are explored in the film. For this purpose, the article contends that Almodóvar brings his own cinematic language to its limit, particularly around his representation of transsexuality, as if to point us toward the limit that a politics of representation has reached in our increasingly biopolitical environment. The article argues that the film’s digitization of artificial skin functions as an anchor for a complex imagining of the sociopolitical contexts that bind identity to history. The surface of the skin, as deployed in the film, melds political and cinematic memory to resurrect traces of repressed histories and absent bodies, allowing Almodóvar to build a transtemporal and transnational allegorical universe that moves against the grain of the loss of history that cinema’s digital transformation purportedly represents.

Hold on, one more:

Considering the question of the recovery of marginalized voices in the archives, this article reflects on the problem of finding and interpreting the personal responses of African Americans to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Black freedom was central to the post–Civil War nation, yet direct black voices remain submerged, available most often in public sources like newspapers and sermons or in scant and skeletal personal writings. The most vivid black voices are to be found in more troublesome sources: those mediated by sympathetic whites who recorded the words and actions of African Americans. Such sources lack a crucial dimension of experience found in the more voluminous direct personal responses of Lincoln’s white mourners: the persistence of everyday life (matters of labor, health, romance, leisure) in the face of shock and grief, an absence that stems from the particular motivations of white observers. Scholars must also reckon with the question of how to present these methodological challenges to our readers and how to shape both the content and structure of our narratives to move marginalized voices to the center. In sum, ventriloquized voices in the archives must not be dismissed but must instead be approached with rigor and imagination.

Sorry, last one:

This article cross-reads the 2005 trial of Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong American man who was convicted of murdering six Caucasian hunters in Wisconsin, with the 2008 film Gran Torino, a story of a Korean War veteran who mentors a Hmong American teenager. An examination of the trial transcript and journalistic coverage of the Vang case illustrates a need to establish a history of racial violence in order to explain the altercation in the woods. This need assumes that a history of racism must be identified in order for a word to be considered racist and that acts of violence can be explained only through that corresponding history. This article uses speech act theory to problematize that assumption, arguing instead that the power of hate speech rests in its ability to displace history rather than affirm it. Coverage of the case demonstrates this displacement, as Vang is positioned via multiple and contradicting contextual frames. In turn, Gran Torino, which this article reads as a response to the Vang case, illustrates how codes of conduct shift depending on who is in the position to dictate them, and how words that historically signify a racial threat can also erase the very histories that give those words meaning. Thus, the film offers an explanation for why Vang’s claim to racial victimization could not hold.

While these abstracts give off a certain forbidding air there seems little question but that the authors are trying to do more than display their knack for unintelligible prose.  They are taking aim at things.  Hallelujah they are starting to make sense!

Thus it is that as the kudzu adapts and morphs a new generation of weed retardant is called for.

A updated version of the Sokal Hoax arrived in the form of the article “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences.  This is the article that made the connection between the penis and climate change, a connection that had somehow been overlooked until 2017.

Once again, the abstract:

Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vismaleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.  Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.

Yes, this is a rich stew of words but, like the Monkees, it’s got something to say! Perhaps a conversation is possible. If and we can see which sensemaking is the most sensible.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to Sokal Redux?

  1. Brian Gardam says:

    The second abstract starts to make sense to me, perhaps because it’s point (be mindful of the bias of the reporter) is so obvious. It’s been tackled many times before – Mark Twain comes to mind, just for one example. I can’t get to firm ground with the other two non-satirical (I.e. Non-penile) abstracts you quote. But I love the phrase “mental kudzu”. I think that describes much of my Facebook feed this morning.

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    • Fenster says:

      OK I may have been stretching the point rhetorically to argue with a straight face that the newer Social Text quotes don’t contain a fair amount of gibberish. Still I do think that the authors’ intentions are a little clearer than the authors’ intentions in the kinds of articles that Sokal was spoofing, which are essentially unreadable from stem to stern. And it is no real surprise that the sense that is being made nowadays tends to relate to the gnarled intersection of the various components that comprise, appropriately enough, intersectionality. People can if pressed make intersectional arguments in plain English, and they do make a kind of sense.

      You will remember the sixties–in fact we spent some of the headier years of it hanging around together. The progression from the Port Huron Statement to Vietnam resistance to Maoist ideology to bombing Amerika also had a kind of logic to it. You might not agree with it but you could see the logical process that would take someone from point A to point Z. And it is good that one could see this, since seeing the cold, ruthless, ultra-rational logic permits one to engage, dispute, disagree, reject. The problem I always had with 1990s style pomo rhetoric is that it presents itself to you with no traction, no foothold. It is sheerest and most impenetrable ice all the way.

      I don’t think Sokal’s article said anything, and that was the joke. The new article is actually saying something about penises, real and metaphoric, and climate change. That’s what makes the current stunt so powerful. The Sokal piece merely showed the emperor had no clothes, and that no one really knew what anyone was saying. The new article actually makes recognizable claims–and yet the guardians still waved it through. I call that “progress” but only insofar as one can aim at an actual target now.

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  2. j says:

    We are progressing, no doubt. Do material penises actually exist? May be it is just male performance (like in performance arts, i.e. a pretension, an illusion) because the real thing is a platonic idea.

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  3. Pingback: Sokak Redux Reflux | Uncouth Reflections

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