Friday, November 28, 2014

Secular Mysticism

"Fashionable Nonsense – Post-modern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,” by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, 1998

This book originated as a hoax article published in the American academic journal ‘Social-Text” in 1996 from Duke University in the U.S.  It was a parody of the normal writers in that journal, yet the editors did not notice.  As Sokal/Bricmont point out, the adulation of these mostly French writers has become an intellectual ‘force’ in American and British academics as well.  Many reputable intellectuals are cited as endorsing the wonders of post-modernism in its various forms – Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Debray, Havel - while others like Stanley Aronowitz are part of the post-modernist method.  The parody itself is included and even for a ‘dim’ reader such as myself it provided guffaws.  Of particular humor is the massive amount of quotes, sub-quotes, parenthetical points, false or non-connections and useless references that clutter the document, visually creating an image of ‘knowledge’ but actually portraying little except name-dropping. 

The authors are professional physicists who analyze flawed humanities’ writers’ attempts at intersecting with science and its methods.  They describe how the humanities' writers don't get the science or math right.  Sokol, in the epilogue, says he is also an ‘old school leftist,’ so there is more going on here than scientific rigor.  At bottom it becomes a philosophical debate.

The book is a take-down of some post-modern, post-structuralist, deconstructionist and semiotic ‘intellectual-speak’ – but it is not a must-read.  It is a book for specialists – and yet it is an intentionally hilarious book too.  It is a slog getting through dense gibberish to get to somewhat more sane mathematical and scientific explanations and footnotes of why these pompous writers are wrong.  Which means skipping over the crap you don’t understand to the points you do.  I figured in high school that getting basic geometry and algebra was all I would need for a lifetime.  That has proved the correct decision – except when you have to read material like this.  However the authors know this and do their best to be clear. 

Just as certain statements by alleged geniuses like Stephen Hawking read like science fiction, and have no factual basis as yet – so some of the key texts of these ‘philosophies’ actually don’t make sense if looked at carefully.  As they put it, many of the writers exhibit ‘a self-assurance that far outstrips their scientific competence.’  What the authors really attack is a sort of radical skepticism or cognitive relativism that questions the existence of objective reality.  Extreme post-modernism can philosophically be called ‘idealism’ – where facts disappear and only 'the observers' verbiage and ideas remain.  It is an academic form of mysticism.  This book is part of the struggle against a fake ‘leftish’ idealism in science and sociology, history and feminism.  In their epilogue, Sokol/Bricmont state that they want to help the Left by combating alleged progressive nonsense disguised as profundities.    

The first target is Lacan – Zizek’s favourite inspiration.  As they put it, Lacanian psycho-analysis “is too vague to be tested empirically.’  If you have wondered why Zizek goes from writing rationally about politics or culture to veering into some hellish underworld of post-Freudian double-speak and bogus associations – Lacan is the answer.  In Lacan’s sacred word-salad, erect penises pop up in the middle of mathematical equations, with no connection between them except proximity   Here is that choice Lacan quote: 

“Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image:  that is why it is equivalent to the √-1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).” 

The authors remark that this is more like Woody Allen then Freud.  ‘Psychology’ by way of fractured math.

Another target is Julia Kristeva, who attempts to mathematize linguistics and political philosophy, among other things.  A random quote – “The desire to form the set of all finite sets puts the infinite on stage, and reciprocally, Marx, who noticed the illusion of the State to be the set of all sets, saw in the social unit as represented by the bourgeois Republic a collection that nevertheless constitutes for itself, a set (just as the collection of the finite ordinals is a set if one poses it as such) from which something is lacking:  indeed, its existence or if one wants, its power is dependent on the existence of the infinite that no other set can contain.”

This is one reason why some interpreters of Marxism have not been a total success. 

Sokol/Tricmont take on unfamiliar (to me) people like ‘anything goes’ Feyeraband, Latour, the feminist Irigaray, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, Virilio and even the editor of ‘Social Text.’  Based on some of these readings, it seems petit-bourgeois feminism has found a weapon against class analysis in post-modernism, as have other narrow approaches.  Irigaray thinks because most mathematics has been done by men (as have other sciences) the scientific method itself is ‘masculine’ and hence flawed.  Irigaray rejects the ‘belief in a truth independent of the subject’ or observer.  She advises women not to: “accept to or subscribe to the existence of a neutral, universal science, to which women should painfully gain access and with which they then torture themselves and taunt other women, transforming science into a new super-ego.” 

This is a rejection of empiricism and fact-finding.  I won’t go on more, but you get the idea.

In their epilogue, the authors account for the rise of post-modernism and subjectivism among certain ‘progressive’ academics to the weakening of Marxism after WWII, as well as the fall of other enlightenment attitudes.  The authors themselves were called ‘culturally conservative Marxists’ at an academic conference in California held by post-modernists.  However the authors then spend a page or so attacking some Marxists for practicing ‘scientism’ too – which is no doubt correct at times.  Yet in the process they accuse historical materialism itself of not being scientific, which is not quite the same thing.  They say this without evidence – not very empirical, but certainly fashionable.  'Sub-textually' they are red-bashing to win sympathy from their adversaries.  This is a liberal habit you might have noticed.  This in spite of the continual historic and economic facts that Marxists nearly always employ when talking about historical materialism - the farthest thing from idealism. 

If you are interested in the topic of post-modernism, this book fills a gap.  I read it so you don’t have to – or perhaps you do.

Reviews of Zizek books below:  Living in the End Times,” “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?” and “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.”  Mentions of post-modernism regarding art below – “9.5 Thesis” and “Art is Dead.” Mentions of idealism in science below – “Reason in Revolt,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Ten Assumptions of Science.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 28, 2014

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