Theorist abases herself in dust and ashes….

Oh boy! Our conversation partner named Hi strikes again! And so, as a result, I have a terrible confession to make. And you poor scientists, no wonder you tend to think you ought to hate us lit theorists….

So I go over on Hi’s link to read Bruno Latour’s mea culpa issued in about 2003 (it looks like) and I am stunned at the words Latour is now “taking back.” Well, he should take them back! I cannot believe he ever said them in the first place. Science’s findings have no objective reality and are purely “socially constructed”!? Good grief….

I have to tell you that I have taught the history of literary theory for 25 years and I have studied French and Continental Saussurean structuralism and post structuralism for 28 years and yet I never knew exactly what our American scientists were referring to when they conveyed to me their scorn for “social constructionism.”

However, I am not alone in my lofty aristocratic theoretical ivory tower and my pure theoretical blue-bloodedness. I have been so deeply engaged with the four decades of Continental structuralist thought, which shifts into post-structuralism during the career of Roland Barthes and is so intellectually dynamic in the thought-work of Derrida and in Lacan and their compatriots Julia Kristeva and Helene Cicioux and Luce Irigaray (the fire-brand of the group but a wildly amazing theorist) and how all of this intersects with the phenomenological lines of thought running from Husserl through Heidegger and back to the first group (and now add Levinas) — this entire great generation of French theorists now passing off the scene (and often crudely imitated in the US because of the lack of structuralist foundations in our intellectual tradition) — well that’s a run-on sentence!

But I was so engaged with all of this that I failed somehow to focus on this upstart group over in the American social sciences who were actually doing something called social constructionism! They weren’t at my university, and they weren’t in my reading of theory. But I am appalled that I was so unaware!

I apologize and abase myself in dust and ashes! No wonder Hi thinks I am intellectual dishonest in painting my own theoretical movement as “a breath of fresh air,” which he insists it was/is not.

However, if you take a look at two very useful guides, Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism and David Macey’s Penguin Guide to Critical Theory, just for an example, you will read about poststructuralist and postmodern theorists for a long time without encountering this social sciences movement, which I guess is American, although Bruno Latour is French and was working out of the French philosopher of science Baudrillard (and I have encountered both of their names but not studied them).

Clearly, we need to have some big clarifications made here, as to what I am defending and what goes waay beyond the pale. Remember, I was very disappointed to find Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense misinterpreting (in my honest and appreciably informed opinion) some of the best and most difficult theoretical minds — Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva — and travestying them and conveying false impressions of them to American scientists.

But I am in no way defending this American movement of social constructionism, which appears to have some of its roots in John Searle and the Anglo-American analytic tradition, which is very different in style of thought from my own theorists. (I do not find most analytic philosophers “breaths of fresh air” — I’m sorry! I don’t hate them; they sometimes do very interesting things; they just aren’t my style of thinkers. Besides, doncha know, “some of my best friends are analytic philosophers”! )

So in the days to come I will do a post or two setting out the various threads of what we so confusingly call postmodernism. Right now, though, I want to say that I am comfortable only in talking about and advocating for the rigorous thought of the poststructuralists! (The French folks I named above.)

Also, there is always the huge question of the cultural context, in determining what is and is not “a breath of fresh air,” and no one is a better theorist for that than Derrida, by the way…. (His work is set in the context of the strong and stable totalizing claims of the French Enlightenment, and would not be liberating in a less stable environment. You could do some Lorentz transformations on it, though.)

This contextualism is part of what poststructuralism teaches us. Never forget that poststructuralist thought is always first of all structuralist and Saussurean, except sometimes in the U.S., when it can become a parody of itself as a result, I’m afraid. (See my “Very Poor Postmodern Thought” post and my son’s couple of very poor postmodern courses at university! He also had some superlative theoretical courses.)

In Saussurean thought, any x takes its meaning from the y’s and z’s (and actually, from the other x’s, as in f(x), x = x, we find three different x’s) with which it is most often and most strongly contrasted, in terms of the operative functional and formal relationships.

Accordingly, there can be a strong contrast in our perception of things only where there is a great deal of identity, as with “black” and “white” being strong contrasts only by being identically “elements on a single spectrum of colors” and furthermore by each being located at an extreme end of the spectrum. (Things take their identity from their positions in a system, not their physical constitution.)

Or in politics, shifting to a somewhat different semiotic structure in play, Republicans and Democrates (because we have a binary, two-party system) necessarily make the strongest contrast with one another precisely because they are so alike, in the potent center of the political spectrum. So it can certainly be the case that in one sense “there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them,” viewed in a wider political spectrum of possibilities, and yet those very differences can still make all the difference in the world. (Can you tell that I was tempted to vote for Ralph Nader in the Al Gore/George W. race in 2000? I shudder to think of it, though it didn’t matter in the end…) Also, in the same way as with black and white, the two extreme ends of the political spectrum are frightening alike….

In Saussure, with respect to human sign-systems, a “relationship” is always inherently constituted out of a structure of “identity” and “contrast.” This is so different from our Anglo-American intellectual tradition, which is oriented toward knowing physical objects scientifically and mathematically within the Cartesian paradigm, that it take quite a bit of getting used to. (I would say about five years of constant thought and work in the semiotic disciplines, in my case….)

But remember that the formal-kinds-of-things in view here are quite distinct: science studying physical structures and theory studying perceptual, semiotic structures of human perception. Maybe this would help us formulate some of the differences between the various disciplines in the liberal arts, at some point?

If some of you are interested, I found a wonderfully clear and informative site that takes you briefly through Saussure’s theory of signs. I found it after Paul told me to prove I was not “a crazy person” by being a bit more clear and explicit! And then when he came back and re-entered the conversation and proved not to be a “crank” himself, I decided to post this link for his benefit, and that of others. So click here.

But I gotta tell you that I myself could never explain Saussure this clearly and distinctly (that’s Descartes’ imperative for “ideas,” by the way, that an “idea” is true by being “clear and distinct”!) — because if I were teaching it, I would be pacing around and drawing all over the blackboard about how each of the clear distinctions turns out to be constituted reciprocally and mutually out of all the dynamical relationships of identity and difference and how we can only make progress in formalizing this stuff by keeping that constantly in mind…. (If I were to put more of my lit theory course on line we’d get into this.)

Okay, I have my work cut out for me, learning about social constructionism, and I think I’ll use another post on Kevin Hart to separate out some various threads of “postmodernism” for us all . I also have another “Wily Socrates” post and something else brewing up on Saussure.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Gavin’s latest thoughts on the wonderful “ink-and-paper book” analogy, in which he raises the toughest questions of all. (Note the original description of my weblog at the top of this page….) Are we really ready for these questions yet? I get tired just thinking about it, right now. But I will re-enter that discussion eventually. What about the rest of you?

Gavin is in a way getting us back to the old “gnomes with shovels” discussion (which I partially side-stepped with my “immanence and transcendence”) and all the questions about the soul, about which I have said nothing, and yet I still get mild flack coming at me about this topic, from both sides simultaneously, from my soul-oriented poet friends and from anti-soul physical scientists. (I don’t mean to say all poets are soul-oriented or all physical scientists are anti-soul. I know personally that neither is the case.) That old “gnomes with shovels” discussion lapsed too soon, and maybe it should be renewed….

Is the concept of the soul a “supernatural” concept? Yes, in Cartesian terms. No, in Greek formalist terms. Eeek! I’m quaking in my boots, just mentioning these topics. It shows how much trust we’ve built up in our conversations here, that we are broaching these controversies at all.

So if you are new to the conversation, be sure to be thoughtful and respectful of everyone’s diverse backgrounds and views — remember that I won’t mind using my delete button, which I have never needed to do, hurray! (Saucy is okay. Blunt is okay. If you visit many blogsites, you know exactly what’s not okay, unfortunately…)


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17 Responses to “Theorist abases herself in dust and ashes….”

  1. Janet Says:

    About the particular occasion of Bruno Latour’s mea culpa, it concerns (as you can see) the way Republican apologists effectively forestalled the public’s awareness of global warming by arguing that the scientific evidence was incomplete or inconsistent (and by changing it and deleting it from reports!!).

    Did they really need some special “postmodernist” theory to arrive at these tactics!? (I gotta ask it!)

    I can certainly see how Latour in 2003 suddenly wanted to change his mind and argue for the objectivity of science rather than its relativism and indeterminacy (in HIS sense), but to me this all seems like very sloppy thinking — Latour’s initial stance especially, and then perhaps also the connections suggested between social constructionism and the neoconservative strategists.

    Of course those guys are smart enough to grab up ammunition from anywhere, but…. Is this what you scientists think I mean when I talk about quantum indeterminacy in a cultural context? N0, NO, I disclaim that sense of “indeterminacy.” I am never defending “relativism.”

    Here’s a quote from Douglas Hofstadter, a very respectable student of science (and of analytical philsophy, having worked closely with Daniel Dennett on language and consciousness) — but tell me if I’m wrong in this assessment — who looks at the cultural shift in the 20th century much as I do and as cultural historians in general do (in terms of the shift from a “totalizing” Newtonian worldview to the new and more carefully qualified paradigms and expectations during and after the critique of modernity). Hofstadter is talking about Godel’s theorum specifically and then he makes this more sweeping historical assessment:

    “Therefore Godel’s theorum had an electrifying effect upon logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers interested in the foundations of mathematics, for it showed that no fixed system . . . could represent the complexity of the whole numbers…. “[remember that Godel was working in terms of the analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell’s attempt to found science upon math by founding math upon logic — jlb]

    Hofstadter continues: “Modern readers may not be as nonplussed by this as readers of 1931 were, SINCE IN THE INTERIM OUR CULTURE HAS ABSORBED GODEL’S THEORUM, ALONG WITH THE CONCEPTUAL REVOLUTIONS OF RELATIVITY AND QM, and their philosophically disorienting messages have reached the public, even if cushioned by several layers of translation (and usually obfuscation). THERE IS A GENERAL MOOD OF EXPECTATION, THESE DAYS, OF ‘LIMITATIVE’ RESULTS — BUT BACK IN 1931, THIS CAME AS A BOLT FROM THE BLUE.” (_Godel, Esher, Bach_, p. 19)

    Maybe we should adopt this wonderful word, “limitative.” It well describes what I wanted to say about this large cultural shift, when in part # 4 I was trying to say that it happened in science as well as in other cultural institutions. For just one example more, I’ve always wanted to go back to the question of special relativity, taking just that one revolution, by itself, alone.

    Hofstadter happens to mention in his book that no one can really “visualize” how the speed of light remains constant regardless of every observer’s reference frame (though I was so glad to see him write this and that it wasn’t just us humanists, though my physicist friends had suggested this fact as well, I think).

    In contrast, historically, it was perfectly easy and done all the time for people in the 18th and 19th centuries to visualize Newton’s clockwork universe as though it were laid out on an “absolute” and “universal” three-dimensional grid of spatial extension, on which every event had its own unique space-time coordinate.

    And at the same time, they thought that human beings, in the form of themselves, as modern Westerners, were at long last possessed of the ultimate time-piece — it was in their hands and with it they could possess final and absolute truth and take control of the world. This is such a HUGE and bold innovation in how humans viewed themselves that I think we must not take it for granted or forget about it, but teach kids about it and continue to assess it and view the post-modern critique and plea for epistemic humility in light of this.

    The scientists tell me that Newton had relativity (Galileo’s relativity, I know) and that he distinguished absolute space from the space of his computations — and I believe you and it fascinates me, the science of it — but I think you can see how in cultural terms the Enlightenment was likely to think in terms of the absolute and inevitable “facts” of its own scientific rationalism inside of its utterly perfect and mechanistically static and “rational” cosmos, and how they assumed that we Westerners now had all the answers and that Western Reason alone was the perfect guide into a peaceful and rational future. This is how we developed our central cultural mythos of Progress.

    And this is why our Declaration of Independence could confidently say, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Yet, in practice, we could withhold voting rights from property-less men or slaves or give them 3/5 of a vote, because we are thinking that they were not fully possessed of our own distinctive scientific Reason, just as, after all, women clearly were not. (This isn’t ranting, btw; this is a calm and mild description of the way the thinking ran. It makes sense in terms of its period. It also shows how every movement for good has its blindspots and its suppressions built into it. We cannot escape this. We can only struggle over and over again in each generation to gain and regain a working amount of critical awareness of it.)

    Please, I’m not criticizing or attacking the Enlightenment (or Newton!) here. Historically Western Modernity introduced science and human rights as greatly good things. But I am trying to describe or elucidate the totalizing mindset that was so prevalent, and that was so shaken up by relativity, QM, Heisenberg, and Godel, in spite of the continuity and credibility of the science, AS SCIENCE, which shouldn’t ever have been disputed, IMHO.

    All of this is helping me to understand why it appears to me (and to people I talked with in the 60s and 70s and 80s) that the Copenhagen group’s consternation was greater than current scientists tend to see or credit. It doesn’t show up in the science or math itself, but those highly educated thinkers were grappling with absorbing a new orientation to scientific “fact” and to the scientific description of the “facts of nature.” The “limitative” nature of the results was a shock if you grew up in the older worldview!

    I.e. Nature got suddenly much more mysterious and much less submissive (bless her soul). And scientific results suddenly got more limitative in their very structure: less totalized and less simply self-evident and less inevitable-seeming, in a certain cultural sense of those terms. “The facts change; the laws remain the same” after Einstein. But in Newton’s day a fact was a FACT. Once established, it ought never to change at all. Then we could add up all the facts into a universal encyclopedia of all human knowledge. (Remember when a dissertation added facts, any facts, to the universal store?) “Fact” was in this sense a modern Western construct.

    They did not yet understand that theoretical shifts could so profoundly alter the meaning and significance of the facts, even while they remained “true facts.” I think scientists today understand that facts are always theory-laden in a way that Newton or Maxwell could not.

    Of course, we still have scientific fact today, but it is not that same kind of rigidly absolutized fact, expected to demonstrate perfect coherence and consistency with every other established fact. (I’m speaking semi-metaphorically here, just to try to get the general idea across. I do know that variables have always been variables, of course.)

    This is one reason why current scientists now emphasize ingenuity and creativity and the incredibly hard work of thinking up the questions and the cross-checks and the theoretical approaches in science. Do you think 19th century people used those terms when they thought of what science does? NO!

    Science in the 19th century was seen as inexorable and mechanistic and steadily progressing to its ultimate absolutely determined goal of a total and complete explanation and domination of everything by the human SCIENCE-MIND. Creativity was its soft-headed opposite, reserved to those unreliable and self-indulgent humanists and artists over there in the corner! Today that end goal of a complete explanation is controversial and not strictly part of science, as we saw in the “Mind, Matter, Math” paper by three physicists issued from Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

    And to come round full circle, if you will let me run with these terms, SCIENCE-MIND used to have to define itself in opposition to some other kind of mind — in other words, something like a “soul” or “spirit.” As long as you have a fundamental mind-nature dualism like Descartes’, this is bound to make whatever is not mechanical nature something “free” and even “supernatural.”

    But the West did not have mind-nature dualism until the rise of science. This is easy to miss, though because the earlier West did have a strong strain of mind-body dualism, in the form of a strong “platonizing” and gnostic element that was always outside of Christian theology (though not outside everyday Christian practice!).

    Humans were never seen as outside of nature (the way they became by Victorian times) or as not being animals like the other animals, and the mediating element that ran through all of human and natural reality was the reality of the presence of the elegant Form-ality of things.

    Reality was FORMAL. Divinity was FORMAL. If the human mind were to possess any kind of immortality or spiritual transcendence or likeness to the divine, it had to come through the mind’s ability to formalize. This was Greco-European Thought 101, as much for Plato and Aristotle as for Augustine or Dante or Milton. (This is a large aprt of why there was no faith-reason dichotomy in the earlier West. This is a huge subject. Why did I get talking about it. Gavin had to bring in many worlds and normalization and I had to bring in Virgil and Beatrice….)

    You see how different everything starts to look if you work at teasing apart all these strands in our thinking, by using other historical periods for comparison and contrast?

  2. Rick Says:

    you said: “Creativity was its soft-headed opposite, reserved to those unreliable and self-indulgent humanists and artists over there in the corner!”

    This is certainly not true for mathematics. I doubt that anyone would argue that Cantor’s diagonal argument for the countability of rationals was not creative. Creativity, and beauty, was always a part of mathematics. Mathemeticians do not like ugly proofs and like beautiful, elegant, and yes, creative, proofs.

    In science finding some neat, creative way of approaching a problem, is, and was, valued. This myth of “cold, hard” rationality of science is not true, and does not reflect how science was ever done. Without creativity we would be not be able to advance; it is the creativity of these new approaches, these new ways of putting together that which we know with ideas of where this might take us how sience and mathematics develop. Was not Darwin’s theory creative in any reasonable sense of that word? Was not Mendeleev’s periodic chart of the elements creative?

    Or course the creativity is creativty in service to the science and to the mathematics; it is a “neat”, creative way of approaching and solving a problem in the science or in the mathematics, not “creativity of the sake of creativity”. But certainly creativity runs deep, as a necessary part, in the sciences and in mathematics, and this was no less true in the 19th century that is was in the 18th or the 20th centuries.

  3. Paul Says:

    Dear Janet —

    I don’t mean to pile on, exactly; but while you’ve got the dust
    and ashes out I wanted to bring to your attention a tiny sliver of
    available reading on postmodernism before you find it yourself
    (and, let’s face it: how often will I get such a chance?). I gather
    that you’re going to settle Professor Sokal’s hash in the near
    future, but while he’s still breathing you could pick up some
    further clues from him about the kinds of writing that have been
    getting some of us so … peeved. Regarding your astonishment:

    “Science’s findings have no objective reality and are purely
    “socially constructed”!? Good grief….”

    Prof. Sokal will be glad to provide you with examples,
    if you want to see how widely the weed has spread (this is
    clipped from ):

    “…the social-constructivist dogma that
    sees scientific knowledge as the mere
    encoding of social forces. Lest the reader
    imagine this … view to be a caricature
    that no one seriously advocates [I think he’s
    talking to you, here, Janet], let me cite
    a few claims made by prominent science
    studies theorists:

    [T]he validity of theoretical propositions
    in the sciences is in no way affected by
    factual evidence [Gergen 1988:37].

    The natural world has a small or non-
    existent role in the construction of scien-
    tific knowledge [Collins 1981:3].

    Since the settlement of a controversy is
    the _cause_ of Nature’s representation, not
    the consequence, we can never use the
    outcome – Nature – to explain how and
    why a controversy has been settled [Latour
    1987:99, 258, emphasis in the original].

    Science legitimates itself by linking its
    discoveries with power, a connection which
    _determines_ (not merely influences) what
    counts as reliable knowledge… [Aronowitz
    1988: 204, emphasis in the original].

    The list could be extended.”

    It may be that Sokal is playing us for fools, taking
    things wildly out of context or just making it up;
    but personally I don’t think so. This stuff is certainly
    out there in a certain humanities community in the US,
    and so your stated intention to distinguish clearly between
    what _you’re_ out to defend/explain and what you’re not
    is a very imporant first task. (Later you may wish to take
    up the obvious question: where did these people come
    from? I trust they’re not your students.)

    OK, back to you; regards,


  4. Janet Says:

    No, they’re not my students. But I don’t mind a little piling on of the dust and ashes. We do need to make some very clear distinctions and I’m working on it. I’ll be getting back to everyone soon.

    The firecrackers are going off outside my window as I type and while this isn’t the case in David’s Holland, the Fourth of July is upon us here and family events and comforting the quivering kittycats. We’ll take up these issues again later in the week. Best to all!

  5. Rick Says:

    While we are piling it on…

    You said: “I was very disappointed to find Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense misinterpreting (in my honest and appreciably informed opinion) some of the best and most difficult theoretical minds — Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva — and travestying them and conveying false impressions of them to American scientists.”

    You mentioned Irigaray. What are we supposed to do with things like E=mc^2 is a “sexed equation” because it “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, or that physics “privileges” masculine solids over feminine fluids? Why should Sokal be condemned for “travestying” them when they present such a travesty of physics? Turnabout is fair play, no?

  6. Janet Says:


    Irigaray is the hardest to defend of all the theorists that Sokal pillories — and the easiest! She is wonderful! She stands up to the French male psychiatric association and she really gives it to them. Hyperbole? You bet.

    She is far and away the wildest of the French theorists and yet one of the best. After all, she is speaking out years of working with schitzophenic patients day in and day out, where the deep latent meaning of language and “subject positions” emerge in the pain and evasions of these wounded minds. She does what Socrates and what every theorist in history does — contests the culture in its most complacent and most blandly insensitive self-assurances and self-aggrandizements and self-delusions.

    When a woman colleague of hers committed suicide in despair over the association’s refusal to credit the insights of female psychotherapists in dealing with female patients, she blasted that organization to their faces at a famous conference and I suspect that most every woman who’s ever read that speech is secretly cheering in her heart. Once in a great while, we have to “vent.” She does it for us!

    Don’t worry, she paid. Irigaray was driven out of the association and out of academia and it never silenced her incisive and courageous voice. In our field of theory, a certain wildness that could never work legitimately in scientific research is invaluable to helping us in pressing deeper into the complexities and enigmas of human meaning structures.

    For Alan Sokal to pull those Irigaray quotes out and use them to horrify American scientists in his “secret war” on an American movement that has very few if any connections to the French theorists is unconscionable!

    He is a rabble-rouser! Look at the defense of himself that Paul gave us the link to. Sokal finds four appalling quotes from four individuals, FOUR individuals, one of them being Bruno Latour who admits himself he was “guilty” of social constructionism, and then he proceeds to tar many many credible individuals in the rest of the essay with the same brush and never quotes them or supports his charges in any way.

    Good grief. Ellen Fox Keller is a “social constructionist”? Caroline Merchant is a “social constructionist”? Never in a miliion years!!! Every time I know the work of any individual he happens to mention, I am shocked and heart-broken that he could so impugn the incredibly valuable work of these scholars, who also fully support the enterprise of science — Keller is an excellent physical scientist who also studies the rhetoric language of scientists past and present. What a wonderful woman scientist. And Merchant’s The Death of Nature is a classic in seventeenth-century studies and has not a word in it against scientific method or findings!

    Well, Rick, you sent me off an my own “wild” venting of indignation here. Maybe I said it better here, though, in the heat of righteous indignation, than in the more calm and judicious post I was drafting this week!

    Anyway, you can see in the constantly patronizing and badgeringly dismissive tone of Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense that something is amiss. This is not a judicious operation being carried out; it is demagogery!

    And to start his book with a chapter on Lacan! Lacan is the most difficult of all the psychoanalytic poststructuralists and the most brilliant by all accounts. In some of his famous seminars, almost no-one knows what in the heck he was talking about and we still know he is worth studying for years and years and we listen intently to those who do it and report back to us.

    I don’t even happen to like the man — he seems to me to be the prototypcial “male chauvinist pig” if you don’t mind my saying so (abbreviated p + r + i + c + k — please excuse my French….) But his work is profound ( and “seminal”).

    The reason Lacan talks about advanced scientific concepts is that he had brilliant physicists and other scientists attending his seminars and they discussed these possible correlations together.

    Socrates says that the folks who possess the ike are the ones who can discern when someone is “speaking well” or “speaking poorly” about the ike in question. Well, apart from the consensus of those who know in our field — the leading minds and contributors — if you want a quick assessment, take a look at Terry Eagleton’s beautiful meditation titled _After Theory_. You’ll see he is paying homage to precisely these theorists — and no matter how irritating he can be, Terry Eagleton is a brilliant, brilliant theorist.

    You can see from the above that the disciplinary “standards of excellence” — called by the Greeks the “orthot-ike” or the ike of rightness or correctness — in our discipline are very different from those in each of the sciences — though please note that the different branches even of physics are guided by rather different principles and priorities…. I’ve read Sean Carroll on that subject, for instance.

    Thanks for setting me off.

    How intellectually dishonest is it for Sokal to feed indignant scientists these quotes from Irigaray and then use that to imply that all these French theorists are “social constructionists” and that they somehow gave rise to the American movement in social sciences. He never demonstrates these implicit allegations or even attempts to. DO NOT BE MISLED BY HIM!

    Yes, he catches some pretentious overreaching in a few instances. Yes, Irigaray sure as heck did say those outrageous things (and they are wonderfully funny!) But to use these loaded quotes to generate a mob mentality and direct it against innocent people is unconscionable. Lacan was never in doubt about the “objective” validity of scientific findings (though he did find negative impacts of science on psychic structure — he has the right to that view). His best interpeter and theorists in his own right, Slavoj Zizek, happens to mention that Lacan was anything but a social constructionist, in his recent introduction to reading Lacan. (I’ll get the title for y’all, later…)

    No — talk about divisive and misleading! That’s Sokal. He is playing to precisely that militant mentality and that almost blood-lust that shows up in the Jerry Springer show on science blogs. This is not scholarship! I’ll also give y’all a link to one of the reviews of the book that I think is particularly helpful, in part because it admits more pretentiousness on the part of the French than I am willing to do and so may be more disarming and credible than my impassioned outbursts.

    I don’t have the time to formulate my own careful parsing of Sokal’s bad behavior; it would distract me too much from my own work. Let me just say that his hoax paper was hilarious and I am on the floor laughing whenever I peruse the footnotes! — and getting it published (by an on-line, experimental, unjuried journal) was a marvelous coup!

    And I have already admitted that the American scene has experienced a lot of sloppy thinking and empty pretention covered up with poststructuralist jargon. This is largely because, imho, we in the English-speaking world did not spend four decades thinking out Saussure and that made it harder for us to grasp the precision of their thought.

    That fact does not excuse us over here for our sloppiness and shallow trendiness, but it does not mean that French poststructuralist thought was not brilliant and rigorous!

    The hoax article made a valid point, but Sokal’s follow-up book and his defense of himself in that Social Anthropology article are travesties of the worst kind.

    Turnabout is fair play, no? No! Irigaray was not setting out to talk about physics and to discredit it. That was not the purpose or the context of her work. She was not speaking to science-haters to stir up their antipathy to science — quite the contrary! But Sokal IS setting out to dismiss an entire branch of thought as totally empty nonsense, by pulling out a few quotes and then blowing a lot of hot air that implies without evidence very bad things about the entire French movement and its implied influence on American academics (in a completely different field, by the way, in the social sciences!).

    Okay, pile it on.

  7. Rick Says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to set you off that much.

    But, what are we from the outside to make of what you agree are “outrageous things”; how are we from the outside to distinguish between the those “outrageous things” and the “outrageous things” that arise through “sloppy thinking and empty pretension”?

    I am here, and I am confident that others who are here,are here because we know (or at least suspect) that there is something to your field; that it is not all “sloppy thinking and empty pretension”. You may not be preaching to the choir, but we are at least trying to give you a fair hearing and to understand at least a little. But the facts remain that what we, from the outside, don’t have the knowledge to sort through the various claims. That is what is rather frustrating about your “I can’t explain it in simple language” that Paul was complaining about in his June 26th post over at “Session One, part 4”, we are left still unable to sort out the various claims.

    For example, your “take” on Sokal’s “Fashionable Nonsense” seems to be different than that of the Author(s) of the Wikipedia article Fashionable Nonsense, which credits Sokal and Bricmont as claiming that “they do not intend to criticize directly the philosophical or sociological methods or conclusions of the authors they quote”, but only “explain why they consider his or her use of scientific terminology to be faulty”, and that “they chose to make long quotations to avoid accusations of taking sentences out of context”.

    How are we form the outside, without your years of study, to make sense of the various claims. I’ve tried to read Derrida, and have left with little more than “huh?” (perhaps I choose the wrong book; I don’t remember which one(s)).

    You said: “Don’t worry, she paid. Irigaray was driven out of the association and out of academia”.

    I certainly don’t take any pleasure at this. But again, from the outside, what are we as scientists to make of these “outrageous” (your word) statements like our equations are “sexed” because they “priviledge the speed of light over other speeds”. What, we could rewrite physics to not “priviledge” the speed of light? We don’t accept E=mc^2 out of some “preference” for the speed of light; nature forced us into it. You may be right about the statements about “solid” verses “fluids” were “not setting out to talk about physics and to discredit it”. But from this side treating solids is just mathematically much easier that treating fluids, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the sex of physicists past or future. They may be taken out of context, but from this side the comments sound like some kind of “constructivism”.

  8. Rick Says:

    I posted a longer response that somehow got “eaten” by the cyberspace goblins, and don’t have time to reproduce it all now.

    Anyway, Janet, I didn’t mean to set you off so much. If I offended you, I’m sorry. I see how my very last comment about “turnabout” went a little to far.

    There is a point here, which I obviously botched in my previous post, which is how are we, from the outside of your field, to judge such these things? We just don’t have the knowledge of your field to make these kinds of considered judegments. While you are not here exactly “preaching ot the choir”, I think all of us here are at least trying to give you a fair hearing, and perhaps learn a little. But we don’t have the knowledge to separate the “good” outrageous from the “outrageous” that is the result of “a lot of sloppy thinking and empty pretention covered up with poststructuralist jargon”? I don’t doubt you that Irigaray is being misunderstood when she makes “outrageous” (you word!) statements, but how do they look from the outside?

  9. Janet Says:

    Drats! I am so sorry your post didn’t get through. (The same thing happened to Hi I think.) And I find that it is so easy to just accidentally delete a comment after spending a lot of time on it — I’ve done that several times — on this weblog set-up.

    No, I wasn’t offended at all! In fact, I was afraid I had offended YOU earlier in the week when your comments were rather short…. (I didn’t know if it was good “short” or bad “short,” bad as in “Rick was a little bit short with me.”) So I guess we’re all doing okay here and we can all relax! Hi’s enjoying himself, too, I come to find out! If we’ve gone on this long without being mortally offended by one another or totally dissuaded from conversation, then it’s unlikely that we’re going to stamp off in a huff in the future.

    I have a question in response to yur question. How would Socrates (with his “formal features” of an ike, so far) respond to your question about how to know the difference between good “outrageous” and bad “outrageous” in a discipline other than your own? (I’m very serious about the importance of Plato’s formal analysis of the nature of the arts and sciences.)

    I’ll wait for a reply (from anyone) on this question first. And then I’ll give you a fuller response. (I’ve thought a lot about this — ever since the Sokal hoax was first called to my attention by scientists as the source of their animus against poststructuralisms or postmodernism. (By the way, I doubt that Sokal could distinguish between poststructuralism and any other kind of postmodern thought. I’ll still do a post on that topic, using Kevin Hart to keep on track and off of tangents.)

  10. Paul Says:

    Janet —

    I’ve been reading the annotated dialogue, but I have no idea what to expect Socrates(/Plato) would have said to the question of judging good outrageous vs bad outrageous. Perhaps I’m just slow. What I can offer, though, is the answer I would give to the general question of how to judge people in fields other than your own. If I were Socrates — and what a thought that is — I would suggest this advice:

    To judge whether someone in another field knows what they’re doing and are not just making things up, follow these two steps:

    (1) Have the person tell you, in plain language that you can understand, some well-defined, non-obvious, non-trivial statement about the world which can be checked.

    (2) Independently of that person, look at the world and check the statement to see if it’s true.

    Feel free to repeat a few times to give the person a fair chance, but it shouldn’t take very long to reach your judgement.

    That, to me, is the essence of science: making well-defined (simple?) statements/predictions about the world that can be checked, and then checking them. It’s not necessarily the only procedure that’s fruitful for advancing human knowledge, but it’s a reasonable “baseline” against which to contrast other approaches.

    Hope this helps,


  11. Janet Says:

    But Paul, you have entirely left out of account the mediating formalisms that each scientific discipline, for example, uses to set up its experiments and determine their meaning, si that they can make any well-defined and non-trivial statements abut the world at all.

    Ask Gavin or David to make such a statement about any part of quantum mechanics, for example. They can’t. Because for them to know it and me to understand it, we all have to learn and know all sorts of rudimentary things about math and physics and then add on the more advanced developments and then adroitly employ all kinds of different formalisms with differing histories, like Schrodinger equations and summing over histories, grabbing formal tools from here and there, and checking all of these against experimental data and figuring out how to devise new tests, in order to say one non-trivial and well-defined statement about it. (I can’t do this, and I can barely follow what they are doing after 60 pages of explanation built on top of a lot I already knew.

    And then, I challenge you to go out in the world and look to see whether that statement that Gavin or David just made is the case!

    Your baseline doesn’t work even for the sciences, let alone other disciplines, some of which our intellectual tradition has much less familiarity with.

    However, I am working on some relatively simple “explanations” of my field, along the lines of what Gavin and David have provided for QM. I think we have gone over the groundwork enough to start to attempt that.

  12. Janet Says:

    By the way, Paul will be quite happy, unless I am mistaken, when we get to the third and last section of the dialogue “Ion,” because in this section our Socrates-Paul will demand to know from Ion exactly, in plain language, what it is that Ion will know, that cannot be known by any other art except the art of the rhapsode. Name the formal kind of thing you specialize in, Ion, and don’t let it be confusable with any other formal kind of thing.

    It will be our gruff-tough Socrates/Paul in action, who wants the theorist to ‘fess up in plain and understandable words, and abandon all this obfuscating and dancing around the issue….

    And poor Ion will get exactly ONE SHOT AT IT, at last, by Socrates…. The one and only time Socrates actually lets him get to try to speak for himself and his art. (Don’t mess it up, Ion!)

  13. Janet Says:

    I just found Rick’s and Hi’s old comments that had been put by Askimet into my Spam folder. Hi’s finally got through, but Rick’s I have tried to post and we’ll wait and see. But Rick talked more about how hard it is for scientists to wait for clarification or explanation from me about what is important about the field of literary theory!

    Okay, okay, I will do posts on “always already” and on the Saussure langue/parole distinction, for instance….

    But really, I am kind of at a loss that you aren’t seeing what is important about my field by some of the things I am saying as we go along, about history, about worldviews, about Socrates (or the figure of “Socrates”)
    I am applying my field and my scholrship in these commentaries and responses to y’all. I am DOING theory. Are these just “throw-away” lines for y’all, or just Janet off on a rant again? I’m frequently summarizing an awful lot of work by myself and by many others! Hmmm.

    This reminds me of an experience I had in the honors physics course one year. (Now I hope that Hi won’t find this “slightly insulting” or some such, because I think it is quite revelatory — or it was for me — about the different ways we all have of thinking and knowing.)

    That year the physicist I was team-teaching with was a brilliant young woman who set out to teach from Galileo to QM basically using trig rather than calculus. We had a standard physics textbook and a history of physics textbook (Seven Ideas that Shook the World). One day after class we all spontaneously told her that she looked like Princess Di, I remember. (She has since died of cancer.)

    A pre-med major had to miss a session, and I heard him ask a history major if she would take notes for him. I happened to be sitting nearby when he returned her notes to her. He stood there looking quizzical for a minute, and then he said something along the lines of: “Gee, I feel really silly. Until I read your notes, I never even realized that her lectures had all this structure and historical detail in them and that she’s arranged them to came to a strong conclusion at the end each time.”

    We were all sort of chuckling about his honest bewilderment over how he had missed all this. Then he said, “I guess in my science classes, what I’m used to is, we all sit there listening for the formulas! And when the teacher gets to the formula, we write it down. So I guess I have to start listening differently in this class, even though it is a physics class”

    Now, over in Session One of my lit theory course, I’ve made some asides about Derrida (Rick mentions that he tried to read Derrida), that are as good as you’re ever going to get anywhere — by way of a quick and condensed explanation of what he was trying to do, of what his significance is. Similarly in the course of my comments on “Ion.” Derrida does philosophy through THE WAY THAT HE READS. He doesn’t make statements, because it can’t be done that way. He teases open the strands of meaning-structure that are formally composing the text he is working on.

    Thus he is able to show us how the text is constructed, not just on its macro-level, but on its molecular and atomic and sub-atomic levels (actually he gets us just to the sub-atomic and can press it no further, but we will in time), and he is superlatively precise and endlessly suggestive of broader principles of interpretation as we read him doing this. But heck, I do a whole theory course before we ever try to read Derrida.

    (My best piece of advice for reading Derrida is to find a book or essay of his where he is treating something you already know about — Rousseau, or Marx, or for me, Saussure — and then you stand a chance. But what he is doing is on such a high level that he wastes no time speaking to learners; that’s what you need me for. Yet I have never read a more exciting and empowering and honest philosopher.)

    If we manage to get through Plato’s Ion, reading it as we are on its “ostensible” level, then I can show you some Derridean things about the way it is formally constructed. And why it is that any text will invariably contradict and in some ways cancel itself, without which, it could not accomplish what it strives to accomplish. And why do we care? Because we too in our psychic structures are those kinds of texts. From Derrida and Lacan we learn of the tragedy of being human. And at the same time how to be faithful and just, as readers, in our readings of the “other” (and of the “otherness” within ourselves) and to combat our continually besetting drives to dogmatism and defensiveness and self-aggrandizement.

    Every discipline is seeking the truth, seeking to come to know better its own formal kinds of things, but in poststructuralism (Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Cixious, Zizek, and others) we are able to turn around from “within” our own texts and textuality, and those of our disciplines, and to see them in their constitutive desire-drivenness.

    This is a dimension of every human meaning-structure and every truth-seeking enterprise. And becoming aware of our fantasies does not dispell them, nor does seeing the omissions and absences that constitute every positive effort recup those negations. This is where we live and struggle for philosophically self-critical lives and ways of being. Derrida teaches us how to do this by showing us the limits of what we CAN do. (Or, to say it another way, by showing us where and how grievous the limits are, he enables us to do something. Something more aware, more responsible.)

    I’m sorry, guys. Literary theory is philosophy, after all. It has to ascend sometimes to meta-levels and it has to deal with imponderables. But we do this the same way you scientists do, by pushing back the frontiers of all we don’t know with well-defined and non-trivial formalizations of increasing power and rigour. It all starts with Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and that nice little course-module that some of you have been visiting….

    I will start some posts on Saussure as soon as I get the software working to put the diagrams that I’ve drawn onto my front page.

    By the way, here’s my short answer on Sokal. I’m in lit theory and you sicentists have been dealing with a social constructionism movement in the Anglo-American social sciences. I disclaim all responsibility for what they are or are not doing. But I’ve conversed with y’all long enough to know by now that theorists of human meaning-structures often sound to scientists as though they are denying the objectivity of scientific findings, i.e. denying the idea that science is in an engagement with a natural world that talks back and has its own resistances and formalisms — when they are NOT.

    However, some of THEM (in soc. sci.) do seem to deny that humans ever do or can come into contact with an external world. My theorists do not deny that. I do not deny that. Rather, we insist upon the reciprocity of the external and internal, if you will, and problematize the formerly strict boundaries between observation and observed, for example. I think we are on the right tract in delving deeper into reality by doing this, but not if we deny the validity and credibility of science as a way of knowing.

    The limits of science are those it shares with every human way of knowing. There are limits to scientific “objectivity” and to the “detached and neutral observer” and science is a social and a politically implicated institution and all those other things that we have all learned, but that is true of every discipline. I would really like to specify the amazing stengths of science in a responsible and affirmative way without falling back into the scientism that is raging out there, along with all the other fundamentalisms and “algebraicizations” that cause us to STOP THINKING.

    Ian Hacking, anyone? “The Social Construction of What?” Looks like he may be doing a good job of this?

  14. Janet Says:

    Here’s a review of Sokal I found pretty level-headed; I liked his general approach and he’s not partisan. Jim Holt in NYT Book Review.

  15. Janet Says:

    A ways back, Rick pointed out:

    “Janet said: “Creativity was its {scientific rationalism’s] soft-headed opposite, reserved to those unreliable and self-indulgent humanists and artists over there in the corner!”

    This is certainly not true for mathematics. I doubt that anyone would argue that Cantor’s diagonal argument for the countability of rationals was not creative. Creativity, and beauty, was always a part of mathematics. Mathemeticians do not like ugly proofs and like beautiful, elegant, and yes, creative, proofs.

    In science finding some neat, creative way of approaching a problem, is, and was, valued. This myth of “cold, hard” rationality of science is not true, and does not reflect how science was ever done.”

    I agree 100% with Rick’s points here. Creativity and beauty HAVE always been part of science for those doing it. Nonetheless, science textbooks always taught science in terms of the steady inevitable march of physics, naturally leaving out the wrong hypotheses (phlogiston, ether) and the dead ends. And as long as Newtonian determinism was in force all by itself, the Modern West DID regard the sciences as hard-headed, objective, even mechanistically methodical and steadily accumulating fields, diametrically opposed to the soft disciplines and far superior to them. This is not controversial among historians and cultural studies scholars.

    It was a big misunderstanding of science, a mis-characterization, yes, but nonetheless it was very pervasive culturally and not just among non-scientists. (Think of how doctors and scientists didn’t engage empathetically with their patients and subjects — a cliche, but a true one!) You see this “cold hard” idea of science and math in Bertrand Russell’s attempt to ground mathematics through an atomized, entirely mechanistic “logic” which is extraordinarily different from the creativity and beauty that mathematicians themselves generally feel and express and exemplify.

    There is a dynamic formalism in mathematics — discovered and exemplified first by the Greeks, that is utterly belied (it seems to me) by the project of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. Godel’s proofs were bound to come along, and of course it would be a mathematician who would explode the attempt to reduce mathematics to the mechanistic PM algorithms.

  16. Yousef Al-Janabi Says:


    you like james craig la driere?

  17. Janet Says:

    Yes, he was my mentor and dissertation director at Harvard in the early 1970s — and I owe him a lot especially on the Greek theorists. I wrote you at your Yahoo account — thanks for responding through Bebo! Best, Janet

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