Fashionable Nonsense by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont is a reminder of the vulnerability of our means of communication to absurd confabulations . Immaterial of whether it is read or not, one need to know that such a compilation exists. It documents an important phenomenon that is prevalent in the nature of language of our everyday communication: It testifies the central thesis of this blog that Languages of common use (LCUs) are a very poor tool to reason; rather the book documents language as a good tool to confuse and obfuscate.
The theme of Fashionable Nonsense emerged from a hoax Alan Sokal played on a humanities journal called Social Text. He constructed a grandiosely titled article –Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity- by interspersing conclusions from quantum physics with the quotation from influential ‘postmodern’ theorists commenting on relationship between ‘new physics’ and ‘postmodern thinking’. Sokal got inspired to develop such an hoax from the commentary by science writers Paul Gross and Normal Levitt who stated that new generation humanities journal would publish anything as long it ‘sounds’ postmodern.
Postmodernism is a heterogeneous movement in literary theory, sociology, architecture and philosophy that emerged in the second half of 20th century as a radical departure from the sensibilities of what was considered ‘modernity and modernism’. ‘Modernity’ loosely emerged from the 17th century European ideas known as ‘the Enlightenment’ that broke away from the medieval ideas of the nature of state, government and freedom. It has its origin in the works of European thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume. These thinkers upheld social and political doctrines based on reason and delimited the influence of religion on affairs of state ( see for example, Social Contract). They promoted the ideas of liberty, democracy, citizen rights, rationality and the separation of religion and politics. Western scientific revolution and industrialization closely followed the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Colonization that followed the discovery of oceanic trade routes, however, met with a conflict of values and interests with the native population of the new-found continents. True to the pragmatism of the merchant class, the colonizers conducted their trade in the ways that suit their mediveal instincts. These involved marginalisation of the native population and destruction of their habitat. Back home, many of the thinkers who preached the ‘Enlightened values’ to their population, rationalized the excesses of the colonizers by describing the colonized population as inferior in many values common to the Christian Europeans. For instance, John Locke, who was cardinal to the development of ideas of citizen rights and limits of power of the state, and the principal influence for the American declaration of independence, justified the subjugation of Indian-Americans in the ‘New World’ of Americas.
John Locke wrote: God gave the World to Men in Common; but … it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational, not to the Fancy or Covetousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious1 .
Locke, in effect, justified removal of Red Indians from their land, stating that they do not have the ‘rationality’ to put those tracts of land to use. Locke justification of appropriating the land of Red Americans came upon as the general justification of European colonization throughout the world ( See Manifest Destiny).
“Among the categories of persons denied the benefits and rights that liberalism theoretically promised to all human beings were, variously, indigenous people, the enslaved, women, children, and the mentally disabled, those whom Locke called ‘mad Men’ and ‘Idiots’. The main criterion used to exclude such persons was their lack of rationality, and it has been argued that ‘[t]he American Indian is the example Locke uses to demonstrate a lack of reason’”2
Thus, the ideas of rationality and liberty associated with modernity were also associated with European imperialism, colonialism and atrocities related to the subjugation of native population. The two world wars were the culmination of the European scramble for global domination and mutual competition. The second world war, in many ways, was the climax of this ‘theater of modernity’. It reached its orgasmic peak with the two critical events: The postwar unraveling of the extend of Nazi atrocities, and the destruction that followed the atomic bomb holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I would date the definitive origin of postmodernism with these two catastrophic events. In both these situation modernity, rationality, science and the instruments of power it created were clearly associated with catastrophes witnessed. In subsequent years the relationship between modernity and the wanton exercise of its instruments of power was closely interrogated. Postmodernism emerged as the product of the skeptical ‘revision’ of the ideas of modernity. Many of the postmodern writers found deep fissures and violence in the very narrative of modernity that drew different standards for different people. The universalism of the ideas of modernity was questioned, and the dynamics of violence in its structure was examined.
Postmodernist thinkers tried to associate ‘rationality’ and ‘science’ with western imperialism and its devastating consequences. A breed of writers who started to think in the reverse direction started to emerge. Thus, there were thinkers who started to discuss various heterodox relationships like that between power and knowledge, power and gender and power and social institutions.
However, in doing so they tend to divorce the ‘clarity’ of thinking of many of the Enlightened thinkers. Whether this was a deliberate attempt, or rather a consequence of the flight of speculations these writers engaged in, is an issue that is debatable. My impression is that it was a sort of a ‘deliberate attempt’ to begin with ( eg. The style of writings of postmodern philosopher like Jacques Derrida who introduced the literary technique of ‘deconstruction’ ), but subsequently the lingo led many of the authors to get ‘carried away’ in their own narrative style.
Coincident to these developments in the humanities, but unrelated to the stream of thinking in humanities, there was a development in philosophy of science that apparently corroborated the standpoints of the ‘postmodernists’. This was a series of ideas starting from philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn that tend to show the ‘non-rational’ sociological influences in the way the community of scientists behave in different periods of history of science. This was in contrast to the ‘heroic’ depictions of staunchly rational science as described by many of Kuhn’s predecessors like Karl Popper and the logical positivists. Drawing extensively from the history of science Kuhn demonstrated in his highly influential book ‘The structure of scientific revolution’, the vagaries of scientist in their endeavor in the generation of scientific knowledge. Although Kuhn did not refute the basic validity of science in his writings, Kuhn’s demonstration of its ‘sociological issues’ lead to the ‘postmodern’ interpolation into the nature of science. Paul Feyerabend who followed up the strands of thinking of Kuhn described an anarchic view of philosophy of science that refuted its differentiation from other belief systems like myths and religion. The leads of these philosophers of science prompted many postmodern authors to argue that science is just one among the numerous other view points of world, and that it does not command a special status vis-à-vis beliefs systems of various native communities. Beyond this, there were authors who started to find ‘relationship’ between phenomena described in quantum physics and eastern mysticism. These ‘loose’ interpretation of the ‘facts’ of science was aided by kind of opaque language that many a times defies clarity of understanding. Language was used in unintelligible manner and connections were made with disconnected and dissimilar entities. I would argue that over a period of time, postmodernism developed a ‘sociological’ milieu for themselves where ‘opacity and disconnection’ was, as a matter of style, tolerated by a whole community of authors and readers. The style of writing was so well established in the mainstream discourse of postmodern humanities that it required a ‘child’ who do not share the ‘sociological milieu’, to call their bluff, and shout that the king is naked. Alan Sokal, physcists by training, turned out to be the child who didn’t share the fashion sense of the postmodernists.
Fashionable nonsense is a sequel of the ‘Sokal’s hoax’ on the manner in which ‘postmodern’ writers abuse language and scientific concepts. It describes a community of people who encourages obfuscation in their communications. Sokal and Bricmont give detailed excerpts of authors who tried to freely interpret concepts in mathematics and physics into unrelated terrains like literary and cultural studies. The authors discuss in length writers like psychoanalyst-feminist Julia Kristeva, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, feminist-psycholinguist-cultural theorist Luce Irigaray, philosopher-anthropologist-sociologist Bruno Latour, sociologist-philosopher-cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, philosopher-cultural theorist Paul Virilio, philosopher Gilles Deleuze and philosopher-psychotherapist Felix Guattari.
While Sokal and Bricmonts’s critique was limited to the abuse of concepts of science by postmodern writers, the larger issue the authors’ documented is the issue of intellectual ‘porosity’ of common place language that allow inconsistent and incredulous ideas to populate a variety of scholarly fields in humanities. It demonstrates the slackness of rational guard of audience in these fields. As mentioned before, I would consider this as a general problem with language itself. While grammatical errors are immediately detected by readers, logical flaws are seamlessly incorporated in the narratives in languages of common use. This blog highlights this as serious issue that perpetuate nonsensical thinking and flawed reasoning in social circles. In more than one ways, Fashionable Nonsense is a must-to-be referenced book for those who are concerned of irrationality in public spaces.
- John Locke, ‘Morality’ Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development. Cambridge, 1979. Quoted by Armitage D. John Locke: Theorist of Empire?. department of History, Harvard University.
- Barbara Arneil, ‘Citizens, Wives, Latent Citizens and Non-Citizens in the Two Treatises: A Legacy of Inclusion, Exclusion and Assimilation’, Eighteenth-Century Thought, 2007.