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THEORY, LITERATURE, HOAX
May 10, 2010 5:22 PM   Subscribe

THEORY, LITERATURE, HOAX (in the style of Borges)
posted by puny human (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Curious, why link to this blog posting (that doesn't seem to have any additional insight or commentary) instead of the NYTimes essay that the blog excerpts?
posted by el io at 5:29 PM on May 10, 2010


Having gotten a degree in literary theory, I've been subjected to polemics like this (i.e. the Sokal hoax, or How to deconstruct almost anything) for a long time. The idea is always to invalidate the discourse of literary critics through humorous scrutiny from the outside, superficially comparing it to other disciplines (often physics or math) which are assumed to have more internal integrity, mocking the methods and broadening scope of critical theory. It's exhausting to think of counterarguments, because of course both physics and math as fields contain technical jargon and domains of study that seem to make little sense to an untrained outsider; many uncontroversial fields of study present unfalsifiable claims; also, it's useless to argue against a joke.

It reminds me of an excellent comment on the subject of expertise I saw in mefi the other day. I'd be interested in seeing a more informed critique of literary theory with a positive bent, something like a contemporary version of Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, something that actively shows what else literary theory could be, rather than just taking the same cheap shots.
posted by doteatop at 5:43 PM on May 10, 2010 [14 favorites]


To amend the above a bit, I don't mean to label this essay 'uninformed'. If anything, in its form, it's the most informed critique of literary theory I could point to. It's obviously the work of an insider (entertaining, too). But if you read purely for the specifics of the complaints rendered against contemporary theory, the substance is the same you'll encounter elsewhere.
posted by doteatop at 5:48 PM on May 10, 2010


Yeah, this is pretty stupid (and not very well-written as a satire or Borgesian "tragicomedy" or whatever else the author thinks it is). Prof. Goldstein seems to think it's still 1988 or something. And I'll disagree politely with doteatop and say that I think the author is totally misinformed, at least when it comes to anything resembling "literary theory" that has been produced since the Sokal hoax (which itself is much overrated, IMHO). It reeks of academic "get off my lawn"-ism.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:55 PM on May 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


Someone set up the Joel Stickley Signal, someone just saved him a lot of work writing his next entry of How to Write Badly Well.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:11 PM on May 10, 2010


The Sokal hoax is notable precisely because Social Text was incapable of discerning pure gibberish from real postmodernism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:18 PM on May 10, 2010


You're just re-posting today's AL Daily, aren't you? The Borges interview (text version) was interesting, but this piece was not.

Analytic philosophers have been bashing literary theory for decades, and many of them (including Denis Dutton himself) have done a much better job of it than Goldstein does here.
posted by k. at 6:24 PM on May 10, 2010


The Sokal hoax is notable precisely because Social Text was incapable of discerning pure gibberish from the real cultural logical of late capitalism.

FTFY
posted by matkline at 6:25 PM on May 10, 2010


logic*
posted by matkline at 6:26 PM on May 10, 2010


Pope Guilty: Does Social Text's weak editorial standards make Sokal's troll notable? Yeah, I'll agree with that; we are talking about it, after all. But the intent wasn't to be notable, but to puncture the pretensions of literary theory as a field, and it's often treated as a success. Would anyone ascribe the same success to the Bogdanov Affair? Another step along we see the same thing in medical publications with a profit motive. I don't think weak editorial standards are either A. news or B. sufficient as an indictment of a whole field (as Sokal's hoax is framed).
posted by doteatop at 6:29 PM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Describing this as "in the style of Borges" is not particularly charitable to Borges.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 6:39 PM on May 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


But it is necessary for anyone to recognize it as a satire of Borges.
posted by rusty at 6:54 PM on May 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


But "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Funes the Memoreous" have been touchstones or marking places to me since I was allowed/afforded the pleasure to/of read those stories.
Theory means nothing in the end. I do not regret not pursuing it. Just read and see what happens. Sorry for no links.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:19 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


My zen teacher said: no theory. hip boot approach. jump in and decide. but that too a theory.
posted by Postroad at 7:51 PM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


But "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Funes the Memoreous" have been touchstones or marking places to me since I was allowed/afforded the pleasure to/of read those stories.

Yes, I understand totally. Borges is my favorite author, and I think the pastiche in the FPP is totally missing the point.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 7:51 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Goldstein laments that "The study of literature as an art form, of its techniques for delighting and instructing" has been superseded and I hear that.

But... students of literature still study literature for these reasons. It's just that they've realized that literature does other things as well: circulate propaganda, nation build, reflect social relations.

For example, the great poet Nana Asmau, who was a teacher in 19th century Nigeria, brought beautiful poems to the women of Northern Nigeria. These poems certainly delighted and instructed -- they still do when I read them today. But it is undeniable that these poems were also tools to solidify the Islamic caliphate that had recently happened. She would have said so herself.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 8:21 PM on May 10, 2010


This is why the word "twee" was invented.
posted by kozad at 8:25 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do agree, I think, of course emhutchinson. Besides, who needs theory when we can dance :) can dance ?
posted by puny human at 8:50 PM on May 10, 2010


doteadope nails it re: the "importance" of the Sokal Hoax. Many scientists were fooled by false claims of success in discovering cold fusion; does that discredit the field of physics?
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:04 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, because it was scientists applying the scientific method who debunked cold fusion and declined it a place in the consensus. The Sokal Hoax was followed by Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, which documented a widespread trend in postmodern philosophy of using scientific terms and concepts in completely nonsensical and inappropriate ways. The point is that postmodernism's problems with science don't begin and end with Alan Sokal making things up- Sokal and Bricmont identify these problems with Lacan, Latour, Baudrillard, and Kristeva- some of the biggest names in their tendency.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:04 PM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Solon and Thanks: Someone set up the Joel Stickley Signal, someone just saved him a lot of work writing his next entry of How to Write Badly Well.

Signal received. Hi.

You know how there are some bands whose songs you really like, but who you would never identify yourself as a fan of because the people who are fans of that band are not people you'd want to be like? That's how I feel about Borges. He's the Manic Street Preachers of postmodernism. Taking him too seriously would just be embarrassing. Even parodying him because oh-ho-ho-we're-all-so-clever-let's-share-an-in-joke feels more than a little pretentious and cliquey.

That said, I will most likely write a Borges parody for the blog because I'm running out of ideas and I have no pride.
posted by him at 2:53 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty:

So all we have to disprove postmodernism* is a poor instance of peer review and misuse of scientific terms?


On the idea of misuse... I haven't read the article in question but if the crime is "using scientific terms and concepts in completely nonsensical and inappropriate ways" really that much of a problem for literary theory which is a completely different register? Not snarking here, haven't read it, but isn't it a bit of a pot shot to say that literary theorists are not using scientific terms in a scientific way within their literary and social theories?


*small side note: it's great when postmodernism is treated like a coherent body with a couple of main ideas, rather than a fairly inappropriate umbrella term for a group of theorists who had the (mis)fortune to be writing at the same time. Particularly when Lacan, psychoanalytical theory, is lumped with Kristeva, intertextuality, poststructuralist(ish).
posted by litleozy at 3:39 AM on May 11, 2010


We in the Department of Philosophy understood it immediately as a grand hoax.

Which is the real issue - territory. Philosophers don't like anyone else doing philosophy, which is why Derrida and de Man got it in the neck from philosophy departments, because they encouraged students in literature departments to think they could do philosophy.
posted by Major Tom at 5:14 AM on May 11, 2010


Goldstein laments that "The study of literature as an art form, of its techniques for delighting and instructing" has been superseded and I hear that.

It's not clear that literature has ever been taught that way at the university level in the USA. Certainly, nobody who has ever described pre-New Critical pedagogy has suggested it was about "techniques for delighting and instructing." As Gerald Graff and others have pointed out, "criticism" (as opposed to, say, history of rhetoric, linguistics, biographical scholarship, philology, old historicism) became dominant in American universities only in the mid-twentieth century, after a lot of internecine battles between the New Critics and the old "scholars." (And, given that we now take close reading as a given, we also forget that New Criticism spawned its own theory wars that were every bit as nasty as the ones over postmodernism.)
posted by thomas j wise at 5:26 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


On the idea of misuse... I haven't read the article in question but if the crime is "using scientific terms and concepts in completely nonsensical and inappropriate ways" really that much of a problem for literary theory which is a completely different register? Not snarking here, haven't read it, but isn't it a bit of a pot shot to say that literary theorists are not using scientific terms in a scientific way within their literary and social theories?

Well, no, it isn't, because the postmodernists Sokal and Bricmont examine tend to use scientific terminology and equations (Kristeva in particular is bad about this) in completely nonsensical ways in order to lend unwarranted and unearned weight to their pronouncements and analyses, and apply nonsensical standards in order to attack scientific inquiry- see Irigaray's claim that fluid mechanics is less well-understood than solid mechanics not because solid mechanics are simpler and easier to model, but because fluid mechanics are "feminine" and therefore scientists don't care about them! People who manifestly have no understanding of science should not attempt to use science in their arguments; this applies whether you are into postmodernism or young-earth creationism!


Philosophers don't like anyone else doing philosophy, which is why Derrida and de Man got it in the neck from philosophy departments, because they encouraged students in literature departments to think they could do philosophy.

This is enormously true. Philosophy departments tend to teach rigorous logic and argumentation, which is intended to ensure that your output is defensible, coherent, and as free from nonsense as possible. Without such an institutional culture of rigor, you get nonsense.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty: see Irigaray's claim that fluid mechanics is less well-understood than solid mechanics not because solid mechanics are simpler and easier to model, but because fluid mechanics are "feminine" and therefore scientists don't care about them!
Luce Irigaray seems to be a goldmine of these kinds of quotes. From the Wikipedia page for Fashionable Nonsense:
Luce Irigaray is criticised for asserting that E=mc2 is a "sexed equation" because "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us"
Maybe Irigaray is being taken out of context, but this is pretty funny.
litleozy: I haven't read the article in question but if the crime is "using scientific terms and concepts in completely nonsensical and inappropriate ways" really that much of a problem for literary theory which is a completely different register?
Well, let's say for example that an astrophysicist describes the life cycle of a star in terms of the dramatic course of one of Shakespeare's plays, say Hamlet, except that s/he doesn't understand Hamlet at all and in fact the life cycle of a star is nothing like Hamlet, and it's clear to anyone who has read Hamlet that the astrophysicist is just using Shakespeare's name and cachet to give a hook to an otherwise uninteresting astrophysics paper which actually adds nothing to the field of human knowledge. Then say that the authorities in the field of astrophysics are unequipped to judge whether this use of Shakespeare is meaningful, but the paper gets published anyway because linking Shakespeare to astrophysics makes astrophysicists feel like they are more in touch with the human condition and the cultural history of our civilisation. Actual Shakespeare scholars, meanwhile, are disappointed at the misrepresentation of their life's work in the service of bad astrophysics. One of them writes a paper claiming to discuss the formation of galactic discs in terms of King Lear, except that the references to King Lear are actually a pastiche of Two And A Half Men and hit '80s comedy ALF with the names changed. It gets published.

That's kind of what the Sokal hoax was about. I think Sokal was making some other points as an old leftist about how critical theory was leading the new left down a whole lot of blind alleys (which as a student doing a BA just before the turn of the century I found difficult to argue with), but the misappropriation of the respect accorded to scientific discourse was his main point and the one he was particularly well qualified to address.

Also, as Borges homages go this one was particularly difficult to read. I can't imagine Borges every writing something that could be accurately translated as "O.K., that too".
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


ATBH, you said everything I wanted to with twice the eloquence I hoped for. Well done.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:06 AM on May 11, 2010


People trying to find meaning in things tend to find whatever serves their ends. So it makes sense that people who make a profession of finding meaning in things will try to find ways to make their professional output serve ends other than being right. Ends like making the professor look good.

It happens in every field. This book has a preface wherein the author tries to use arguments about linguistics to give cultural caché to the practice of programming. This leads to some truly headdesk-inducing moments like where he suggests that programming emerged in English-speaking countries because our use of an alphabet makes us better at grasping the concept of arbitrary variable assignments. It's bullshit. This is from a respected professional in computer science whose book is otherwise pretty good.

Literary criticism has additional problems because literature, in general, tends to address slippery subjects that you can't use the scientific method on and can't make any mathematical proofs about. (Of course that doesn't stop people from trying, why would it?) So when somebody publishes an absolute bullshit essay it's difficult to tell whether it's weird because it's bullshit or because it is dealing with an unusually slippery topic.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:28 AM on May 11, 2010


Lacan, Latour, Baudrillard, and Kristeva [and Irigiray]- some of the biggest names in their tendency.

Irigiray and Baudrillard I'll grant you; I've never been particularly fond of either -- and, really, I don't think Irigiray is all that influential anymore in literary studies, or even in Gender/Women's Studies (and Baudrillard has never been all that influential in my particular area of study). Lots and lots of people have criticized her work, although I think she does generate some useful concepts. And Lacan wasn't a literary critic but a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist with a medical degree -- hardly someone without any understanding of science -- and as Bruce Fink aptly notes in Lacan to the Letter, Sokal & Bricmont's attack on his work is based on an extremely superficial reading that doesn't actually consider Lacan's stated intentions in his work, how his use of mathematical symbols functions in relation to the body of his works, or his background in linguistics, philosophy, and logic:

"no known or even unknown form of mathematical calculation is being carried out here: Lacan never combines his algorithms ... in a way that has anything more than a passing resemblance to mathematical algebra (he even criticizes his students Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclair when they try to do so). Although he refers to his symbols as forming 'an algebra,' he never lapses into claiming that it bears any relation to algebra as a branch of mathematics. His symbols are designed to abbreviate important psychoanalytic concepts in a way that is easy to write and remember, allowing for a form of psychoanalytic 'formalization' that is unrelated to quantification" (132).
I am not an expert on Kristeva, but her use of scientific or pseudo-scientific terms is similar. None of them were trying to "do science."

What hoax itself revealed was the poor editorial practices of one journal, and that some "postmodernists" can be taken in by jargon. Fine. No one besides the journal editors was hoaxed, though -- it's not like their article became some foundational text in literary or cultural studies that revealed that the discipline's new clothes didn't really exist. The follow-up book, though, is pretty shallow -- not too far above David Horowitz's skimming of online syllabi to criticize "radical" teachers based on looking for buzzwords and taking them out of context. And any critiques they may have attempted to make have already been made -- with far better understanding of the material -- by figures within the literary and critical theory fields.

A few other random thoughts: ATBH -- people outside of literary studies are CONSTANTLY using literature to supply them with metaphors, especially Shakespeare. Sometimes (most of the time?) it is a pretty facile metaphor, but it works because it establishes common ground, using shared cultural understandings to communicate multiple ideas in shorthand. I'm something of a Shakespearean, but I don't get pissed when someone references Hamlet in, say, an article about George W. Bush just because they don't know the entire body of scholarship on the play.

Re: "Postmodernism": A term that is overused in the extreme, especially by people who are "against" it. In this context, it generally means "something I don't understand that I don't like." Of the figures named, only Baudrillard is really within the realm of "postmodernism." And "postmodernism" is not (nor has it ever been) the single dominating philosophical school in literary studies. It may have been the sexy thing, it may have been what got the press, but literary studies has always been a complex mix of methodologies and approaches that jostle, cooperate, and compete with one another.

Re: the popularity of the various figures named. In my own field (Renaissance studies), the only names I hear with any regularity are Lacan and, to a lesser extent, Kristeva. Any time I've seen Latour cited (at, say, a conference), the scholar has usually been taken to task (I'm not really familiar with his work, so I can't argue about its quality or usefulness). Baudrillard -- probably more prominent among people dealing with ultra-contemporary and experimental works, but also a very controversial figure. So, none of these scholars are considered infallible gods within the field, despite what Sokal and Bricmont would have you think.

I have other thoughts on what I think S&B's motivations are (turf war) and other issues, but I've run out of steam this morning so I can't formulate them coherently. Maybe later, if the discussion continues.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:15 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


One last note:
Pope Guilty says "No, because it was scientists applying the scientific method who debunked cold fusion and declined it a place in the consensus."

Yes, but more scientists were taken in by cold fusion than literary critics taken in by the Sokal Hoax. And, despite S&B's attempt to appear like solitary glorious crusaders for truth, many, many, MANY literary theorists have challenged, well, every other literary or critical theorist you can think of.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:18 AM on May 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Before the New Critics in the 20s, studying literature was all about reading the author's biography, looking at historical contexts (roots of words, that sort of thing too.) They were the ones who said "Hey, new idea, let's just focus on reading the story and nothing else!"

So it's pretty silly to talk about some decline of the "study of literature as an art form, of its techniques for delighting and isntructing" when that's actually a newish idea. What's more, it's narrative theory (yes, the Big Bad T-Word) that asks questions like "what is the effect of reading this story on the reader? how does the author achieve this? is there anything the undermines the delight or instruction of the story?"

But I mean, I guess it'd be too much to ask that someone know the history of the study of literature before making grand assertions about its worth. You'd think people who see themselves as grand champions of reason would try a little harder on that point.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:07 PM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't have time to source this but the premise that the editors of _Social Text_ did not recognize problems with Sokal's article prior to publishing it is just plain wrong.

Granted, many humanists know nothing of science but at least half of literalists are too stupid to understand philosophy.

This means you.
posted by mistersquid at 9:03 PM on May 11, 2010


Anecdote only: I saw one of my profs in a postgrad class in film in Paris in 1998 utterly astonished that he could not give away 4 invites to the opening of an exhibition Kristeva had curated and was to speak at.

Hey, I'd have gone in a second were I not otherwise engaged that evening. Maybe everyone else was too.
posted by Wolof at 11:48 PM on May 11, 2010


News from China — Two twentieth century phenomena: the women's movement with Julia Kristeva, and Hitler.
posted by Wolof at 11:56 PM on May 11, 2010


Sorry for accidentally calling doteatop "doteadope." Whoops!
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:13 AM on May 12, 2010


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