June 19, 2010

The Philosophy That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Reading (in some cases, re-reading) the essays and notes in Alan Sokal's "Beyond The Hoax: Science, Philosophy, And Culture" (Oxford, 2008) it's hard for me not to be struck by how much of it seems to be from a different world entirely. It's a world in which the self-identified academic Left often seemed to be using a combination of epistemological nihilism and pessimistic relativism in the name of Postmodernism to fatally bring down the authority of science and scientific narratives (can one discuss 1990's academic culture without using the word "narrative"?!) in the name of liberation of minority and other "truths".

What a world. The world I'm reading his book in is dominated by right-wing narratives that stress that same combination of epistemological nihilism and pessimistic relativism in a triumphalist attack on scientific theories like global warming or evolution, with potentially-dire consequences for all of us, left or right; by contrast, for the Left it's surely staid old science that's liberatory. Even the academic Left that's the target of so much of Sokal's ire might see that when you think there's no truth to speak to power (or there's only a whole bunch of tiny "truths" to be mumbled to power, or you think that truth's spoken only in power in the sense of being — urgh — inscribed in it), there's not much to go on to protect anyone from the majority or from Power.

It's the Right that's now whole-heartedly co-opted what Sokal thinks of as the Postmodern approach, without being able to quite own up to it or claim it as its inspiration. Not a new observation, I know — check out (e.g.) Bruno Latour's somewhat equivocal and self-serving mea culpa sometime — but it's quite striking to be faced with that old 1990's world and see what a difference a decade or two makes.

(As someone who used to read Social Text occasionally (with a mixture of exasperation and interest), Sokal's original hoax struck me at the time — and now, I guess — as funny but a wasted opportunity. I hew close to the view that it's not enough to see whether Andy Ross, et al would publish the paper — as Ross and others have pointed out, Social Text really wasn't in a position to evaluate it, and took it on faith — Sokal should have waited to see whether the paper was ever cited in a suitably serious and adulatory context. That would have said it all.)

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