THE [POSTMODERNIST SCHOLAR ANDREW] ROSS star, like the NASDAQ index, continued its remorseless ascent, but only for so long. First came cracks, and then a bust. Reality started to mug Andrew Ross—albeit in distinct stages. The first crack in his brand came in May 1996, via an admirably executed literary hoax: the so-called Sokal affair.
Many of us remember this event as a turning point in American intellectual life (or at least a turning point for the cultural studies movement). Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, wrote a complete bullshit article, putatively about physics but mainly significant because it was chock-full of postmodern jargon and quotes from then-fashionable theorists. (Its absurd title: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”) Sokal sent it to Social Text, hoping Ross and his fellow editors would publish it, positioning him thereby to expose their vapidity. The trick was a wild success, even garnering front-page coverage in the New York Times.
What we might not remember is just how squarely Sokal’s blow hit Andrew Ross. It was Ross, after all, who took leadership in obtaining the article. He wrote Sokal back in November 1994, soon after the physics professor submitted the article, to say that the editors found it “interesting”; in March 1995, he followed up with a letter to Sokal requesting that he revise the piece for inclusion in a forthcoming science-themed issue of Social Text. The editors then went ahead and accepted Sokal’s piece as it was. And at that point in the trajectory of Ross’s career, the editors of an anthology called The Sokal Hoax recount, “Ross’s visibility helped to ensure that Sokal’s hoax reached a wide audience.” More to the point, though, Ross’s views on science—as just another fiction or belief system relative to other contested narratives—were just the kind of balderdash that Sokal wanted to mock. Here, for example, is Ross’s critique of “objectivity” in Strange Weather, his book-length meditation on the cultural politics of the Weather Channel: “Any picture of the world purporting to be ‘natural’ and fundamental is in fact heavily underscored by particular moral and political beliefs about nature and social behavior.”
The Sokal hoax showed, in other words, all the classic signs of an intellectual mugging. Ross himself described feeling “snakebit” in the wake of the embarrassing disclosure that the whole thing had been a put-up job. Still, stodgy empirical matters could never deter the appointed course of theory, so Ross and his co-editor Bruce Robbins engaged in acrobatic apologetics. They explained that Sokal’s article appeared “a little hokey” to them but “not knowing the author or his work”—and not even bothering to pay him a visit in his nearby office on the NYU campus—“we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that the article was” in earnest. But they didn’t send it out to anyone with a knowledge of science any deeper than what you might learn from the Weather Channel or the various philosophers of science published by Verso Books. In an especially telling maneuver, Ross tried to turn the political tables on Sokal, accusing the physicist of defending the science status quo. (The populist rebel in Ross just wouldn’t die.) At one point, Ross told the New York Times that Sokal had written “caricatures of complex scholarship,” now sounding like a boundary-policing academic elitist. He zigged this way and that. Katha Pollitt reported on a conversation with Ross in which he argued that “Sokal had possibly written his article seriously, and only now claimed it as a parody,” that “its being a parody was, in any case, irrelevant to its content,” and that “leftists should support Social Text out of ‘unity and solidarity.’” Solidarity, it seems, being the last refuge of the mugged.
Today, the idea that science is an elitist practice that excludes what ordinary citizens want to believe is no longer the domain of the populist academic Left. Like so many of the populist tendencies in cultural debate, it has become a hallmark of the Right.
A very interesting article, and worth reading all the way through. But I love the above part, and just had to share. The Sokal Hoax is one of my all-time favorite pranks.