It Was Just Blather

In the Critical Theory Archives at UC-Irvine, deep in a file of the Stanley Fish Papers, is a statement on Duke University letterhead by Fish when he was Executive Director of Duke University Press. The statement isn’t dated, but we can assign it to the year 1996, appearing as it does in response to the infamous Sokal Hoax.
Probably most Minding the Campus readers recall the episode. Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, objected to theoretical and postmodern critiques of science coming out of the humanities (“science studies”), and he wanted to test the actual scientific and mathematical knowledge of the critics. He submitted a paper to the editors of Social Text with the title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and he filled it with tendentious assertions such as:

The content and methodology of postmodern science thus provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project, understood in its broadest sense: the transgressing of boundaries, the breaking down of barriers, the radical democratization of all aspects of social, economic, political, and cultural life.


He also inserted errant citations and bizarre descriptions of math and science, for instance, connecting the axiom of equality to nineteenth-century liberalism (as if equality in set theory had something to do with equality in politics). Sokal outlined some of those mistakes in the pages of Lingua Franca, in which he announced his spoof just as the issue of Social Text appeared. Yes, the editors accepted the essay for publication.
Their decision became front page news across the country and in Europe. Laughter and contempt poured down upon Social Text, and extended to deconstruction, cultural studies, and other theory sectors. (See here for a full casebook, including discussions in the New York Review of Books, TLS, Dissent, Le Monde, etc.) Theorists had long proclaimed their sophistication, acuity, and ideological insight, but now they looked like half-learned buffoons. It was their competence, not their politics, that was on the line (Sokal was, in fact, a leftist who worked in Sandinista Nicaragua), and it jeopardized the credibility of the journal and the press that published it.
The press happened to be Duke, and Fish stood in the awkward position of defending the professionalism of its publications. With scorn piling up, he composed his statement, which appears here in full:

Duke Press has supported and continues to support Social Text, a journal dedicated to initiating conversations about matters of the largest cultural significance and dedicated also to inviting into those conversations as many diverse voices as possible. It is this combination of openness and adventurousness that renders the journal and its editors vulnerable to the kind of deception practiced by Alan Sokal, a physicist who offered his work under the rubric of his professional credentials and later revealed that those same credentials were only the cover for an elaborate hoax. Any scholarly enterprise depends upon and assumes the good faith and intellectual honesty of those who participate in it. No journal publishes only essays with whose arguments it agrees, but every journal presumes itself to be publishing essays by authors who are what they advertise themselves to be. There is no defense against a skillful imposter who is pretending to be himself, who fashions a bogus confection and studiously surrounds it with the marks of authenticity with the intent of using it as a device against those whose trust he had solicited.

I do not know if and where the statement was published, but Fish kept it in his Sokal files. It is an illuminating paragraph, and while we need not rehearse the Sokal Affair yet again, it bears close analysis, for it helps explain why the humanities have so diminished on college campuses today.
Consider the assertions one by one.
Fish says, “It is this combination of openness and adventurousness that renders the journal and its editors vulnerable to the kind of deception practiced by Alan Sokal.” In judging Sokal’s deception, remember that the editors of Social Text read the paper that he submitted and had full opportunity to reject it. He didn’t hide his work or bypass the review process. The paper did slide through, however, and Fish attributes that to the “openness and adventurousness” of the editors.
In doing so, Fish echoes judgments that one often heard in the 80s and 90s, ones that characterized changes in critical practice in honorific, exciting terms. Gender theory, postcolonialism, cultural studies, and so on accrued the virtues of courage, edginess, risk, transgression. People spoke of a book on imperialism and Hollywood film as “brave,” aligned a study of gender construction with abolition, suffrage, and other great political movements. Their boundary-breaking exercises gained cachet by extending not only to other perspectives and outlooks, but to the very canons of evidence and argument on which the discipline rested. Indeed, to stand firm on conventional standards of scholarship was to appear hidebound and reactionary.
You see the impasse. In romanticizing the “transgressive,” they stigmatized the normative. And without respected norms within, disciplines shrink in respectability without.
Next, Fish terms Sokal “a physicist who offered his work under the rubric of his professional credentials and later revealed that those same credentials were only the cover for an elaborate hoax.” Fish is mostly correct here, but his statement reflects poorly on Social Text. That the editors relied so much on the credentials of the author suggests that they didn’t examine his manuscript on its merits. If they had done so, they would have sent it back, for the paper itself was certainly not an “elaborate hoax.” It was outright blather, and it should have rendered the credentials of the author irrelevant.
That his credentials could, in fact, succeed as “cover” underscores another symptom of a discipline in decline. Why do people resort to credentials when judging a work of scholarship? Because they don’t believe in objective standards by which to judge the work itself.
Next, Fish asserts, “Any scholarly enterprise depends upon and assumes the good faith and intellectual honesty of those who participate in it.” Not really. In fact, science assumes the opposite, acknowledging straight up that scientists can be clouded by ambition, corrupted by money and power, and biased by theories and world views. That’s why scientific method demands that experimental results be held in abeyance until others repeat the process and reach the same results.
By contrast, for all their claims to sophistication, humanities profs seem naive, for they do rely upon “good faith” and “honesty” among one another, saving their skepticism for people outside the walls and sliding into cliquishness and groupthink. They forget one of the paradoxes of academic institutions: healthy fields contain people casting hard looks at one another.
Next, Fish says, “No journal publishes only essays with whose arguments it agrees, but every journal presumes itself to be publishing essays by authors who are what they advertise themselves to be.” True, but beside the point. Sokal did not misrepresent his credentials, and he did not disguise his submission. He only misrepresented his intentions. On that point, Sokal stated, “Now, it’s true that the author doesn’t believe his own argument. But why should that matter? The editors’ duty as scholars is to judge the validity and interest of ideas, without regard for their provenance.” Indeed, if the editors trusted in their judgment, they would have supported the essay even after Sokal renounced it. But they accepted his expose immediately, a sign of how much the humanities have become oriented toward “subject positions” and relativist perspectives. Once again, we see the loss of objective standards disabling smart people from making firm judgments.
Finally, Fish concludes, “There is no defense against a skillful imposter who is pretending to be himself, who fashions a bogus confection and studiously surrounds it with the marks of authenticity with the intent of using it as a device against those whose trust he had solicited.” No defense at all? The assertion contradicts itself. “Transgressing the Boundaries” was most certainly a “bogus confection” and it would have taken little competence to recognize it as such and defend against it. And while Sokal neatly imitated the diction and rhetoric of science studies, he was no “skillful imposter.” If he were, he would not have sprinkled so many flatly false characterizations and outrageous assertions into the piece. That was the whole point—that Sokal set the bar of expertise so low.
We should modify the conclusion. There is, to be sure, no defense against imposture in a discipline in which “marks of authenticity” count more than evidence and reasoning. Fish’s defense of Social Text, in other words, marks a sweeping diagnosis of the ills of the humanities. His statement is not erratic or misleading. Rather, it pinpoints the weaknesses that have left the humanities scrambling for respect on campus and left humanities professors searching for convictions and grounds. Fish was entirely correct to invoke the reigning protocols in the humanities—openness, credentials, good faith, authenticity. What he didn’t mention was that no discipline can survive if it depends on them, if it doesn’t set objective criteria at the forefront.

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