MAXWELL:  The babble of academe

11/2/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a graduate student in Chicago during the early 1970s, I often wondered how much of the material being passed off as legitimate knowledge was nothing more than high-toned hogwash. This old worry returned the other day when I opened the October issue of the University of Chicago Magazine to an article titled “Jumping into the Culture Wars.”

Clever illustrations of 19th century impressionist Claude Monet and his famous painting of water lilies spread across two pages. The article’s teaser reads: “A new master’s program in the humanities takes as its subject the big questions _ and the heated battles those questions often start.”

And what, pray tell, are some of those “big questions”?

Consider: “Is art inherently political? How does one distinguish between “high’ and “low’ art? Is art a reflection of human essence, or is “humanity’ an artificially constructed category?”

Sitting at my paper-strewn desk at home, I mulled over these weighty queries until I felt a headache coming on. Then, by pure serendipity, my hand fell upon an article, titled “Profound, or merely preposterous,” that I had clipped from a recent issue of the Baltimore Sun. The article, distributed by Reuters and datelined Paris, discusses a mano a mano of words and ideas that is embarrassing France’s larger-than-life intelligentsia.

In their new book, Intellectual Impostures, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal and Belgian theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont demonstrate that many of France’s academics are phonies who routinely misuse the complex language of science and mathematics to discuss squishy topics in the humanities and the social sciences.

How can anyone, Sokal and Bricmont ask, keep a straight face while using terms such as “definitively Euclidian war,” “dromospheric space” and “parabolic curve of history” to discuss, say, sexuality and the meaning of the Persian Gulf war?

Well, consider samplings of the opaque prose the French intelligentsia use to intimidate and deceive readers. Here, Jacques Lucan, one of the most celebrated psychoanalysts of this century, attempts to capture for all time the efficacy of, you guessed it, the penis:

“It is thus that the erect (male) organ comes to symbolize the place of climax, not in and of itself, nor as an image, but insofar as it is the missing part of the desired image: that is why it is equatable with the square root of minus one of the highest significance produced, of the climax which it restores by the coefficient of its utterance in the function of a lack of signifier: (-1).”

Rivaling Lucan’s highfalutin mumbo-jumbo is that of deconstructionist Julia Kristeva. Here, she defines poetic language: “Poetic language (which we will henceforth designate by the letters “pl’) contains the code of linear logic. Further, we can find it in all the combinatory figures that algebra has formalized. . . . This stipulates that there is a univocal correspondence . . . which associates all of the entities which are not empty of the theory (of the system) with one of its elements.”

Then, we have sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard using the language of math to explain that, as viewed on television, the U.S. attack on Iraq was essentially an “artificial war” created by the media: “It is the sign that the space of the event has become multiply refractable hyperspace, that the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidian.”

Euclid, the Greek mathematician (300 B.C.), must be as confounded as we moderns are over the contrived uses of his geometric principles in explaining the end result of Saddam Hussein’s stupidity.

In addition to its humbling effect, this rumpus is wonderful because Sokal is the perfect scientist to expose these French frauds. If you recall, he is the same American who, last year, persuaded Social Texts, one of the most pretentious scholarly journals in the United States, to publish his article titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

After the journal had been distributed and other scholars had praised the article’s brilliance, Sokal informed his red-faced editors that the article had been planned and written as a hoax, that everything in it _ including its existential psychobabble _ was fabricated, that he had slipped it all past their famous hauteur.

Why did Sokal do it? And how did he get away with it?

Sokal writes that he has contempt for academics whose “goal is . . . to make an impression and above all to intimidate the nonscientific reader.” He wanted to show them up for all of their postmodernist superficiality and dishonesty. He got away with it precisely because many of these windbags, along with their French counterparts, are propped up on affected knowledge.

I think back on my own graduate school days and wince at how I was mesmerized by silken tongues, how often my classmates and I fell into a pit of oral and written obfuscation.

Finally, I must acknowledge that, for all of my fulminating against French intellectuals, some of my professors and the editors of Social Texts, I loved every bit of the high-minded hogwash at the University of Chicago.

And if I were there today, I most certainly would take a course daring to determine whether or not art is a reflection of human essence or whether or not humanity is an artificially constructed category.

Already, I can hear the erudition (high-toned hogwash), the like of which is found only in academe.