I have no fucking clue what my focal text is. How to Write About Books you Haven’t Read sounds super on the nose, but I haven’t read it and happen to know that it’s had a pretty unremarkable publication history. Pierre Bayard hasn’t led that wild of a life either (his wiki page is two sentences followed by his bibliography).
So, I’m going to talk about Alan Sokal. Sokal and “The Sokal Affair” were introduced to me as something that I “probably wouldn’t be able to avoid” in my thesis — which I’ve been trying harder and harder to figure out ways to do the more I’ve learned about it (while I read an academic retrospective on the affair, the wikipedia page was more succinct and still accurate [as far as I can tell] so I’m mainly referring to that here).
Essentially, Sokal submitted an article titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text, in which he made an intentionally nonsensical argument about how the methods used to study quantum gravity have positive corollary implications for the burgeoning methods of postmodern criticism and philosophy, a school of thought which Social Text subscribed to. His modus operandi was to bait the journal with rhetoric they’d like and a conclusion that appealed to their philosophical and political sensibilities to see if he could get a crappy paper published in the hopes of pointing out that
My thesis is going to have something to do with the faulty appeal to authority argument implicit in a lot of citations in literary criticism. So, even though the Sokal ‘Affair’ runs pretty tangentially to my topic, it’s going to be hard to talk about people getting away with pretending to know more than they do without bringing up this very famous incident.
However, I’m really hesitant to bring it up for a few reasons.
First off, the Social Text responded to Sokal’s admission of the hoax by saying that they’d asked him to make edits to the paper, but he was able to get away with refusing to do so because he was a well-known figure. That fact calls attention to a couple key points: A- it’s unclear how egregious of an oversight the paper’s publication was and B- Sokal’s celebrity was a very big factor that he didn’t properly take into account. Journals are businesses, and while there is an element of tacit endorsement that they lend to the papers they publish, their readers consist both of people who read everything in the journal because they trust it and people who want to read articles from specific, big names. So, journals have undue pressure on them to publish work from these big names. Therefore, for a big name like Sokal to single out this one journal is pretty unfair.
I’m also hesitant to talk about it because Sokal seems like an ass, got into an ill-tought-out argument with Derrida because of the paper (putting him on the wrong side of history), and because a “study” with the same goal was done much more scientifically to less fanfare before Sokal came along.
To linger on that second-to-last point: the Sokal ‘affair’ has a weird mix of pro and anti-intellectualism to it. If I do end up talking about it, this point will probably be my takeaway. While Sokal was supposedly motivated by a desire to point out a lack of thoroughness in academic work, he also discredited some valid intellectual work (such as Derrida’s philosophy) because it seemed too involved to him. That’s sort of like the opposite of having your cake and eating it too: pointing out that journals need to think really hard about and research the shit out of everything they consider publishing because it’s really hard to tell whether the author actually knows what she’s talking about while simultaneously not thinking hard enough about valid scholarly work because he didn’t want to waste time thinking about something that may have been bullshit.
One takeaway of the double edged sword of cynicism and guillibility this whole thing brings up is that academic-speak of the kind used by Sokal (and the author I’m presenting on tomorrow) really needs to be burned because it makes a really hard job even more difficult. There’s a sort of appeal to authority implicit in overly-complex writing — a suggestion that the author knows what he’s talking about because he can manipulate language and use the words oft associated with academic writing (trust me on this count — in my experience, this is usually a defense mechanism to mask ideological floundering on some level or another).
I’m over the word count so I guess I’ll figure out a more compelling takeaway at a later date (but don’t worry, I definitely know what to make of the whole thing — I read the wiki page).
EDIT: I wrote the title before I knew what I was writing and then I accidentally published without changing it. I was going to think of something that made sense, but then I realized that it actually worked with the writing — you have no choice but to assume it was an intentional statement about something or other, then you probably read a little bit of the post and figured it had something to do with incoherence, then got sort of pissed because it’s a really fucking pretentious thing to do. That works super well because that pretty closely parallels my thought process regarding Sokal’s stunt, which makes it infuriatingly applicable. Since it is applicable, you as the reader must have assumed it was intentional, while it was really a mistake. My concluding point was that it’s damn-near impossible to tell whether writers actually know what they’re doing, so it functions as a really good meta-point. However, the same mechanism that renders is valid (the fact that it was unknowably unintentional) also renders it invalid as an artistic statement because it was an accident and not a statement. Now that I’ve written this, affirming that it was an accident originally, you know it’s now intentional because I didn’t change it. I assume you think I’m a pretentious little shit for doing that, because that’s exactly what I think of Sokal, but since I know I’d hate me I’m somehow better (?).