Over the course of the two preceding posts, I responded to the manifesto-cum-instruction-manual How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (2007), in which, as I wrote, “the author argues in favor of a spirited discourse about literature untrammelled by antiquated notions of any pesky obligation to actually read the books under consideration.” My analysis of Bayard’s argument led me to conclude that his project in this treatise constitutes “an energetic advocacy of [what we once called] talking through one’s hat.” Or, to put it more bluntly, bullshitting.
In passing, I made mention of Alan Sokal’s classic, still-controversial piss-take on postmodern jargon and the pomo pretense of “doing science.” This merits some elaboration, especially because, despite the international furore that erupted in the wake of Sokal’s intervention, you’re unlikely to meet anyone “doing theory” or teaching it who includes the Sokal hoax in the syllabus.
In brief, back in the ’90s Sokal, a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University, became acquainted with an assortment of purportedly classic postmodern texts in the area commonly referred to as”cultural studies” ― works by such figures as Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Lacan. Noting therein a plethora of uninformed and erroneous references to scientific concepts, Sokal conceived of an experiment. Could he write a pseudo-scientific article filled with scientistic gibberish masked by postmodern buzzwords and tropes, ostensibly buttressed by endnotes referencing the usual postmodern authorities, and get it published in a prominent journal of postmodern “thought”?
The result, which he titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was submitted to and indeed published in just such a forum, the highly reputed Social Text. It appeared in issue #46/47, pp. 217-252, spring/summer 1996, an issue devoted to what the editors described as the ”Science Wars.” Spoiler alert: standing atop a veritable mountain of postmodernist clichés, Sokal proposes therein that the force we call gravity is merely a social consensus, among other ridiculous notions.
Once the article appeared in print, Sokal blew the whistle on himself and the editorial crew at Social Text, revealing the parodic nature of his hodgepodge in a subsequent essay, “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” published in the journal Lingua Franca. This generated an uproar that ― fed by subsequent publications by Sokal, often in collaboration with Jean Bricmont, a Belgian theoretical physicist, philosopher of science and professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium ― continues to this day. (The academic left does not take kindly to its debunking, to put it mildly.)
You’ll find many of the relevant texts, including Sokal’s germinal hoax in its entirety as well as his disclosure thereof, at his New York University website. I commend them to you, as I do the first Sokal-Bricmont book, Fashionable Nonsense (1998) and its successors. No specialized knowledge of science required, and extremely readable to boot. Fun, in fact.
I bring up the Sokal affair, as it’s often called, to point out the longevity and pervasiveness of the insidious idea promulgated by Bayard, his confrères in the academic world, and their fellow travelers inside and outside the ivory tower ― all those who take pride in and celebrate their status as know-nothings, and advocate that position to others. Their posturing boils down to just another version of the pervasive anti-intellectualism of our time, different from the blatherings of a Rush Limbaugh or a Sarah Palin only in that they’ve managed to smear some faux-scholarly lip gloss on their oinker du jour.
DIY . . .
Just aborning as Sokal devised his hoax, the World Wide Web has enabled the production of an unprecedented volume of “fashionable nonsense.” By this I don’t just mean providing endless free space for the mostly mindless babble that swamps forums and the comment threads at periodicals, blogs, and other web publications. I’m referring specifically to online applications that purposefully use algorithms to generate meaningless prose which, randomly constructed from recognizable buzzwords and phrases organized into syntactically correct sentences, conforms to the style of a particular universe of discourse.
In my previous column I pointed out one such online system, The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator. Type any five-digit number into a field there, click a button, and you get a result like this: “I agree with some of the things that have just been said, but the sublime beauty of the purity of line seems very disturbing in light of the remarkable handling of light.” Or this: “With regard to the issue of content, the disjunctive perturbation of the sexual signifier threatens to penetrate the inherent overspecificity.”
Certainly sufficient to get you through a tight spot in a studio critique if called up surreptitiously on your smartphone. Lard enough of these gems of obfuscation judiciously into some prose that contains names, titles of works, etc., and you’ll have an essay likely to confound and impress the grad students who read and grade most college papers nowadays. You might even slip one past an editor at an art website.
The publishers boast, “We here at Pixmaven have developed The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator so you need never again feel at a loss for pithy commentary or savvy ‘insights.’ With this device you can speak about Art with both authority and confidence.” (Separated at birth from M. Bayard, were they?) But they’re stingy, doling out the gobbledygook one sentence at a time ― all of them quite generic, and none of them including the oh-so-necessary references, citations, and other scholarly apparatus.
For that you’ll have to turn to the Postmodernism Generator, every visit to which yields a brand-new, lengthy essay in classic pomo style, complete with title, fictitious author with fictitious academic affiliation, and endnotes. A sample extract:
“The Defining Characteristic of Expression: The cultural paradigm of reality in the works of Stone”
John E. Werther, Department of Politics, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Mass.
1. Stone and the cultural paradigm of reality
“Reality is unattainable,” says Foucault. Marx uses the term “the textual paradigm of consensus” to denote not, in fact, theory, but subtheory.
The characteristic theme of Drucker’s model of Sontagist camp is a self-supporting paradox. But the premise of the postdialectic paradigm of context implies that the goal of the participant is deconstruction. An abundance of discourses concerning patriarchialist modernism exist.
However, in The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Burroughs analyses the cultural paradigm of reality; in Queer, although, he examines the postdialectic paradigm of context. The subject is contextualised into a Debordist image that includes sexuality as a reality.
Therefore, Sontag uses the term “the postdialectic paradigm of context” to denote the bridge between sexual identity and class. D’Erlette suggests that we have to choose between the textual paradigm of consensus and structural Marxism.
In a sense, Marx uses the term “the cultural paradigm of reality” to denote a mythopoetical whole. The neodialectic paradigm of context implies that truth is part of the economy of consciousness, given that reality is interchangeable with art.
But if the textual paradigm of consensus holds, we have to choose between the postdialectic paradigm of context and textual desublimation. A number of narratives concerning the common ground between sexual identity and class may be discovered. . . .
1. Drucker, M. ed. (1999) The textual paradigm of consensus in the works of Burroughs. University of Illinois Press.]
2. d’Erlette, E. C. (1983) Neocultural Narratives: The cultural paradigm of reality and the textual paradigm of consensus. Loompanics.
(I’m particularly taken with this author’s affiliation with Miskatonic University, as I’d expect no less from anyone associated with H. P. Lovecraft’s alma mater.)
. . . with a Little Help from Your Friends
Based on an algorithmic structure called the Dada Engine, “a system for generating random text from recursive grammars,” the Postmodernism Generator was written by Andrew C. Bulhak of the Dept. of Computer Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, in 1996 ― the same year in which Sokal perpetrated his seditious deconstruction of the pomo façade. (Coincidence? You decide!)
You’ll find a paper by Bulhak explicating this program, “On the simulation of postmodernism and mental debility using recursive transition networks,” here. Like Sokal’s work, it’s reasonably comprehensible to the lay reader, and enjoyable too. (Perhaps facetiously, Bulhak dated it April 1, 1996.) Meanwhile, like pomo monkeys with wordprocessors, macros, and ample time, Bulhak’s “Pomo Machine” produces endless pastiches not notably different from Sokal’s (except for the scientific terminology) and resembling very much the sort of stuff you find gracing the pages of Social Text and similar publications.
The Postmodernism Generator offers its output under a Creative Commons license, which includes remix permissions. So you can substitute your own name for those of the invented authors of these papers. Likely, therefore, that at least two generations of students have availed themselves of it for the creation of papers submitted in classes where they’re obliged to “do theory.” And conceivable that any given postmodernist text you happen upon in print came from this source. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say, since postmodern theory hypothesizes that no original ideas exist, only regurgitated ones. A recycling machine for the standardized, predictable locutions of postmodernist theory comes as a logical extension of that philosophical position.
This post supported in part by a donation from Michael Zastre.