Sokal Redux Reflux

Fenster writes:

I recently contrasted the hard-edged doctrine of diversity in today’s academy with its emerging form, still then subject to some level of skepticism, in the more innocent 1990s.

Way back in the 1990’s, back before our current sophisticated understandings of intersectionality and other advanced concepts, the Diversity Dynamo was just warming up. It was a more innocent time, though a time still redolent of ideas like multiculturalism and privilege, albeit in crude and truncated form.

Jordan Peterson is hardly the first to notice that underlying much of today’s fashionable doctrines is the presence of postmodern thinking.

Another example of how this set of ideas has morphed over time is now on display in an article in Aero entitled Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.

The article is the occasion for its three authors to come clean on a Sokal-style unmasking of the corruption of scholarship in what they call “grievance studies.”  By way of background, and to contrast the 1990s with today, you should first recall the 1996 Sokal Affair that the Aero unmasking resembles:

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a scholarly publishing sting perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.

The Sokal affair was a relatively big deal in the 1990s but it hardly moved the fundament.  For one, it was one article taking a jab at a relatively easy target.  Additionally while the acceptance of gibberish in a peer-reviewed journal was hardly a welcome development there are limits to how far you can go in arguing for its destructive capabilities.  Sokal’s article, and the articles it so slavishly imitated, were, after all, gibberish.

But the authors of the Aero piece are after bigger game.  We no longer live in the more innocent 1990s and, as we have seen in the weaponization (apologies for that overused term) of diversity so we now see the migration of postmodern concepts into forms of expression that actually start to make sense.  That does not make them sensible--but you can read a current article derived from the postmodern worldview and clearly understand the main thrust of the language.

So how did the authors of the Aero article proceed to take on the newer manifestations of postmodernism in the academy?

We spent that time writing academic papers and publishing them in respected peer-reviewed journals associated with fields of scholarship loosely known as “cultural studies” or “identity studies” (for example, gender studies) or “critical theory” because it is rooted in that postmodern brand of “theory” which arose in the late sixties. . . . We undertook this project to study, understand, and expose the reality of grievance studies, which is corrupting academic research. . . .

So they undertook over a period of year to grind out twenty “outlandish” papers and submit them to a variety of peer reviewed journals.

Our paper-writing methodology always followed a specific pattern: it started with an idea that spoke to our epistemological or ethical concerns with the field and then sought to bend the existing scholarship to support it. The goal was always to use what the existing literature offered to get some little bit of lunacy or depravity to be acceptable at the highest levels of intellectual respectability within the field. Therefore, each paper began with something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon.

The papers they produced were not gibberish, if by that term one means prose that a monkey and a typewriter might possibly produce given enough time.  The articles made–I hesitate to say this but it is true–a certain kind of sense.

What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lacanian psychoanalysis? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” as a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat Studies.

As of the writing of the Aero article seven of the twenty articles were accepted for publication.  Six were rejected. At the time the authors called a halt to the exercise the remaining seven were still under consideration, with several in the “revise and resubmit” category, indicating probable approval for publication.

What to make of all this?  The short answer is provided by the authors:

What we just described is not knowledge production; it’s sophistry.

As to the consequences:

(T)hese fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while trading upon their good names to keep pushing a kind of social snake oil onto a public that keeps getting sicker. For us to know anything about injustice in society and be able to show it to those who are unaware or in denial of it, scholarship into it must be rigorous. Currently, it is not, and this enables it, and social justice issues with it, to be dismissed. This is a serious problem of considerable concern, and we must address it.

It is important to note the distinctions that can be made between this set of events and Sokal in 1996.  For one, Sokal was a rifle shot aimed at the journal Social Text.  OK, Social Text screwed up.  What of it?  Does it really mean the field is corrupted?  The academy in need of serious reform?

But in this case the authors took on the entire field by seeking publication in the best known peer reviewed journals, the ones that often serve as the basis for tenure.

More importantly, to the extent that the articles make a certain kind of sense is this not even more damning than the publication of gibberish?  As postmodernism emerged from its nonsense cocoon and flew off into the real world it started to become about real things.  Nonsense alone is seldom harmful; it is the marriage of sense and nonsense that is more likely to create monsters.

Fenster commented on this meme movement back in 2017, in a post here on UR entitled Sokal Redux? The post commented on several recent examples of sense emerging from nonsense, including an early paper by the enterprising Aero group, that piece looking to make a connection between–yes–the penis and climate change.

From the blog post:

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.

What is the something that is struggling to be said?

The Aero authors are most concerned about

the belief that in urgent need of “disrupting” is the simple truth that science itself—along with our best methods of data-gathering, statistical analysis, hypothesis testing, falsifying, and replicating results—is generally a better way of determining information about the objective reality of any observable phenomenon than are non-scientific, traditional, cultural, religious, ideological, or magical approaches. That is, for grievance studies scholars, science itself and the scientific method are deeply problematic, if not outright racist and sexist, and need to be remade to forward grievance-based identitarian politics over the impartial pursuit of truth. These same issues are also extended to the “Western” philosophical tradition which they find problematic because it favors reason to emotion, rigor to solipsism, and logic to revelation.

So just as the doctrine of diversity has hardened since the more innocent 1990s the underlying expressions of postmodernism have mutated from a landscape-clearing nonsense into actual expressions of sense, harmful as they may be.  The authors have done the academy a great service by moving from Sokal’s rifle shot approach to that of a large blunderbuss aimed at several academic disciplines and, by implication, the academy as a whole.  Will the academy take notice?

Watch the Provosts and Deans.  That is the level where you are mostly likely to observe a “tell”.  Boards and presidents are too far above.   Grievance studies departments are already marinated in the goop.  Faculty in other disciplines won’t be willing to challenge the grievance crowd out of disinterest, bogus “collegiality”, reflexive left sympathy or fear of challenging orthodoxy.  If there is to be change this time it will need to be led by true academic leaders— provided there are any to be found.

UPDATE:  “Sokal Squared” has gotten tons or press and has been more entertaining than the original Sokal.  The question remains whether it will have an impact.  Sokal 1 did not, after the first entertaining flurry.

Jordan Peterson has tweeted his skepticism.

I believe sadly that this revelation-through-satire will produce no positive effect. Why? The “serious” papers currently published are already indistinguishable from satire, and that hasn’t doomed the degenerate fields. Why would actual satire make a difference?

And while several high profile academics have applauded the effort there has been a lot of grousing, too, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here’s one example:

Karen Gregory, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh, wrote that “the chain of thought and action that encourages you to spend 10 months ‘pulling a fast one’ on academic journals disqualifies you from a community of scholarship. It only proves you are a bad-faith actor.”

My advice remains the same: watch the Provosts and Deans.  That’s the only part of the academy where real change may originate.

However, my instincts remain skeptical, like Peterson’s, and watching the Provosts and Deans is likely to be like watching the grass grow.

UPDATE 2: The one exception to the above: while it is almost certain that no board of a private university would seek to abolish such departments it is in theory possible that a state government might opt to get into a ruckus with a public institution over grievance studies.  This could take the form of an outright ban of the type that Hungary is implementing.  More likely it would take the form of hearings and public skirmishes that might put public institutions on the defensive and on notice.  I have not heard any rumblings on this yet but it is possible that some red state would consider taking a whack.

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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2 Responses to Sokal Redux Reflux

  1. “These fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements”

    That’s either a misconception or an irrelevancy.

    The goal is social justice, and the current understanding of social justice is that it’s achieved by concentrating more power in the hands of people who are into social justice. It’s believed that this will result in desirable outcomes. It’s also believed that any limits on their power (e.g. law, democratic norms), or anybody else having any power, will result in undesirable outcomes.

    Whenever they get any power, they always insist that the only important priority of the organization must be social justice, and the only important priority of social justice is always more power for the social justice person.

    It will all produce more desirable outcomes just as soon as they have enough arbitrary, unchallenged power. “Enough” is always tantalizingly close, but regrettably always just out of reach. Remember, they’re sincere. They deeply believe that the perpetual motion machine will be perfected with just one more round of funding, or the Nigerian interior minister’s millions are, finally, just one more legal fee away. The internet is full of rich playboys who want to marry fat bored housewives they’ve never met, if they can only find somebody with faith and trust to lend some help ironing out this one little embarrassing difficulty…

    The whole thing works because they’ve conned themselves. It’s like Scientology, but somebody else writes the checks and endures the “audits”.

    So, tl;dr: Who are the authors trying to persuade here? The deans are fine with social justice; it’s an immensely appealing ideology: “More for me because I’m better than you; I’m better than you because more for me — and when I get enough ‘more’, everybody gets to go to paradise”.


    • Fenster says:

      It’s not clear who they are trying to persuade, or whether anyone persuadable is to be found. But they only have a little corner of the world to work from and, given that, it is better for them to say what they can say than not. You never know what meme will go viral. Granted this is less likely to go viral than the latest funny cat video but it is in the right direction and for good reasons. If they are progressives and interested in “civil rights” (what an old fashioned term!) that’s fine. Scholarship can be put to as many uses as people have motivations to do it. But the state of corruption in these disciplines is out of control. Better they should be abandoned, as Hungary is doing. There’s nothing to reform, or reclaim.


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