the arrogance of postmodern mumbo jumbo
Stephen Barnard (steve@megafauna.com)
Fri, 13 Sep 1996 17:42:03 0800
In May, 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, published a paper in
_Social_Text_, a leading journal of cultural studies. The title of this
paper was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."
It was transparent bullshit, or a brilliant parody, depending on your
point of view. Sokal's intention was to see whether such a journal
would accept this parody at face value, just because it parroted the
required postmodern jargon and reached the politically correct
conclusions that the editors liked.
That this journal could be taken in by such a broad parody, which was
obviously a parody to any reasonably intelligent undergraduate in
physical science, reveals a lot about the arrogance of the postmodern
campus left. The editors never even considered sending it for review to
someone who might be able to understand the technical "arguments."
By the way, Sokal is a leftist and has impeccible leftist credentials.
He just doesn't like the sloppy thinking that he sees in academic
humanities.
If anyone is interested in learning more about this fascinating event
take a look at the web page
http://weber.u.washington.edu/~jwalsh/sokal/.
Steve Barnard
P.S. I've included an except from Sokal's article to give the flavor of
it:
SIDEBAR: EXCERPT FROM ARTICLE
Thus, general relativity forces upon us radically new and
counterintuitive notions of space, time and causality; so it is not
surprising that it has had a profound impact not only on the natural
sciences but also on philosophy, literary criticism, and the human
sciences. For example, in a celebrated symposium three decades ago on
_Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l'Homme_,
Jean Hyppolite raised an
incisive question about Jacques Derrida's theory of structure and sign
in
scientific discourse ...
Derrida's perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general
relativity:
The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center.
It is the very concept of variability  it is, finally, the
concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept
of some_thing_  of a center starting from which an observer
could master the field  but the very concept of the game ...
In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance
of the
Einstein field equation G_{\mu\nu} = 8\pi G T_{\mu\nu} under nonlinear
spacetime diffeomorphisms (selfmappings of the spacetime manifold
which
are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key
point
is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'':
this means that any spacetime point, if it exists at all,
can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinitedimensional
invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed;
the \pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant
and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity;
and the putative observer becomes fatally decentered, disconnected from
any epistemic link to a spacetime point that can no longer be defined
by
geometry alone.
