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Saturday, June 28, 2008
Star Books Review

Making sense of so much nonsense?

An unusual book takes Farseem M. Mohammedy's fancy

This book exposes many luminaries/philosophers/cultural theorists' abuse of scientific terms in their writings. Particularly, intellectuals belonging to the genre 'postmodernism' are caught by this endemic. The writers of this book are professional physicists who have examined the various treatises written by these intellectuals and shown that oftentimes they used scientific terms without any honest regard to their true meanings. It is as if to show-off the rigour of their work. “The story of this book starts with a hoax”. Disturbed by the 'abuse of science' or more explicitly “…an intellectual current characterised by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration,” a “myth” or a social construction among many others”, one of the authors, Alan Sokal, wrote a “parody” of the type of work that was “fashionable” in the mainstream American cultural-studies journals. This was titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” and got published in a special edition of the journal Social Text in 1996. When Sokal revealed this hoax, it was a big embarrassment for the postmoderns. This particular parody was constructed “around quotations from eminent French and American intellectuals about the alleged philosophical and social implications of mathematics and the natural sciences”.

Sokal just supplied the “glue” to make these apparently disjointed quotations to sound coherent, juxtaposed with trendy words from the latest theoretical physics jargon. Later on, debates and discourses gradually developed on the effects of this parody. Criticisms and counter-criticisms ensued. The authors felt a need for collecting their thoughts and making them available in a single volume. The goal of this book is to criticise the “admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called “postmodernism”. We make no claim to analyse post-modernist thought in general; rather, our aim is to draw attention to a relatively little-known aspect, namely the repeated abuse of concepts and terminology coming from mathematics and physics”. This makes the book extremely interesting.

This book has altogether twelve chapters and three appendices containing the original parody itself and some discussions. In the main body of the book, the authors discuss various paragraphs and quotations from Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Paul Virilio. Individual chapters are devoted to the works of some of these luminaries.

Consider Lacan's student Luce Irigaray:

“If the identity of the human subject is defined in the work of Freud by a Spaltung, this is also the word used for nuclear fission. Nietzsche also perceived his ego as an atomic nucleus threatened with explosion. As for Einstein, the main issue he raises, in my mind, is that, given his interest in accelerations without electromagnetic reequilibrations, he leaves us with only one hope, his God. It is true that Einstein played the violin: music helped him preserve his personal equilibrium. But what does the mighty theory of general relativity do us except establish nuclear power plants and question our bodily inertia, that necessary condition of life?”

Again she went more bizarre:

“Is E=Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest …” .

What to make of it? Nietzsche could have no way know anything about the nucleus or nuclear explosion simply because all these concepts developed much later in the 1930s 0r 1940s; “accelerations without electromagnetic reequilibrations” is a bizarre concept only meaningful to Irigaray; and finally the famous mass-energy equivalence equation being “sexed” is beyond comments.

This book exposes, author by author, the “fashionable nonsense” prevalent in their narratives. They clearly defined how they are defining “abuse” in pages 4-6: Firstly, using scientific terminology without bothering much about the original meanings and context that they were used; secondly, importing ideas, based on vague analogy, from natural sciences into humanities or social sciences without giving any clear justifications; thirdly, “displaying superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant”; fourthly, “manipulating phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless”.

Postmodernism has three principal negative effects: a waste of time in the human sciences, a cultural confusion that favors obscurantism, and a weakening of the political left”. Katha Pollit has commented: “the comedy of the Sokal incident is that it suggests that even the postmodernists don't really understand one another's writing and make their way through the text by moving from one familiar name or notion to the next like a frog jumping across a murky pond by way of lily pads”. The postmodern idea of deconstructing “facts” as “intellectual constructions,” or for that matter as mere fiction, has been criticised by historian Eric Hobsbawm and linguist/critic Noam Chomsky. The authors in the book declare that their true focus is “limited to certain intellectual aspects of postmodernism that have had an impact on the humanities and the social sciences: a fascination with obscure discourses; an epistemic relativism linked to a generalized skepticism toward modern science; an excessive interest in subjective beliefs independently of their truth or falsity; and an emphasis on discourse and language as opposed to the facts to which those discourses refer”.

The euphoria of the Third World intelligentsia with postmodernism had appeared particularly “depressing” to Noam Chomsky when he noted with frustration that Egyptian elite circles, under the brutalities of Nasser's regime, were attracted to the “latest lunacies from Paris culture” and took it too seriously. On a personal note, unfortunately our country is not immune from such trend and is also very actively immersed in this sort of fashionable nonsense. I knew one such junior Lacanian postmodernist, who while walking in the Dhaka streets back in the late 1990s asked me about my opinion on Baul Lalon Shah. Suddenly he veered his conversation to Jacques Lacan and enquired whether I knew about the similarities of ideas between “faqir Lacan” and “faqir Lalon”. I expressed my honest ignorance. Upon my curiosity, I bought some books on these issues and could not fathom anything. So far, I had believed it was my inability that I failed to understand anything out of the postmodern texts. Now that I read this book, it is small wonder that all those texts appeared all Greek to me. Good Heavens, the emperor is actually naked (and the queen too)!

Farseem M. Mohammedy is engaged in full-time electrical engineering research.

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