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March 07, 2007

Internet Classic: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"

This is old classic, and I just came across it again in a link provided by a commenter. I'll let Jonah Goldberg explain:

The greatest exposé of postmodern asininity appeared, in 1996, in the pages of a respected postmodern magazine called Social Text. The editors of Social Text, as part of their long campaign against facts-without-quotation-marks, dedicated an entire issue to the problem of "science." For obvious reasons, PoMos hate science more than dogs hate vacuum cleaners, and they bark at it about as much. You see, scientists work on precisely the opposite assumptions as PoMos; they actually think that facts exist outside of clever word games. You can say all you like that physics is phallocentric, but it's not going to change the rules of thermodynamics. This really pisses off PoMos, because scientists keep making really cool gadgets that work while, to date, Duke's English department hasn't been able to make an airplane run on metaphors or to illuminate a football stadium with the adverbs from James Joyce's Dubliners.

Anyway, a physicist named Alan Sokal decided to have some fun and submit a paper to Social Text entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." After a zillion pages of jargon, it concluded that "physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." The editors loved the piece and published it. At which point, Sokal admitted it was a parody and he was just kidding. A few PoMos insisted it didn't matter if Sokal was joking, because he was right anyway. But most of them were angry enough to spit hermeneutic nails.

Anyway, the hoax is more talked about than actually read, because it's a good hoax, which means it reads pretty straight, except for the fact that when you think about it he's talking about perfect nonsense. But superficially, he seems to be making a pretty good case. You can't really blame the unscientific know-nothings at Social Text for being taken in.

The actual paper is here.

Perhaps he gives the game away a little early, here proposing that the constant pi is not a constant at all, but depends upon the observer and his "non-centeredness," or something:

In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation [omitted] under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

He writes later:

The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics...

Which doesn't sound funny, until you check out footnote 95 that's appended to it:

For an example in the context of the Sandinista revolution, see Sokal (1987).

Of course. The Sandinista revolution. How could he have spoofed the genre without getting around to that at some point?

And what the hell could the Sandanista revolution possibly say about purging the teaching of science and math of its authoritarian, elitist characteristics? Who the hell knows. The reference -- Sokal (1987) -- seems a likely hoax itself, a reference to a previous article Sokal never in fact wrote.

A later footnote states:

. As with the feminist critique, the multiculturalist perspective has been ridiculed by right-wing critics, with a condescension that in some cases borders on racism.

His rousing conclusion:

Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, ``neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.''

Here the footnote begins: "For a vicious right-wing attack on this proposition, see Gross and Levitt..."

And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: ``mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.'' Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches -- entire new theoretical frameworks -- of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive.

Again, the whole thing reads pretty straight -- and dense, and dull, its lifeblood restricted by dangerous buildups of leftist cant -- but if it were more transparently fraudulent, the hoax never would have worked.

I kind of enjoyed multiple references to "vicious right wing critics," and the shout-outs to Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh in the footnotes.

Ba-ba-booey to y'all.


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posted by Ace at 03:17 PM

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