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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 (?).

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English major, Dickinson College 2018. | Interests: writing, reading, anything that gives him the feeling that he's doing something productive, watching youtube videos in inventive new positions, throwing baseballs up to himself and hitting them, walking on the raised part of the sidewalk, climbing trees, and generally enjoying all the sensory wonders of life most commonly indulged in by small children. | Dislikes: Describing himself. | Go-to ice cream flavor: generally cotton candy, but leaning more towards pistachio these days. The growth both his maturity and palate have undergone has been incredible. | Favorite NBA player: Deandre Jordan– he seems like a well put-together adult and the only thing nastier than the slams he lays down is the stink eye he gives afterwards. Sam still feels bad for Brandon Knight, it seems like he really disappointed Deandre. | Favorite soccer team: He doesn't watch soccer and therefore doesn't have a favorite team. This was a bad question. | Filmic crush: Rooney Mara circa "Her" and nothing else. Not really sure why that is, maybe it has less to do with Rooney Mara and more to do with the fact that she's presented as being a former source of happiness that is now unattainable. | Favorite season: thinks they all have their own merits and that they're too different to be properly judged. | Favorite Season of Alf: Same answer. | Most potentially devastating celebrity death: Danny Pudi. The man is so full of life. | Favorite dog: His.

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