Postmodernism and the Left

Barbara Epstein

originally published in New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997

ALAN SOKAL’S HOAX, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which was published in the “Science Wars” issue of Social Text (1), and the debate that has followed it, raise important issues for the left.

Sokal’s article is a parody of postmodernism, or, more precisely, the amalgam of postmodernism, poststructuralist theory, deconstruction, and political moralism which has come to hold sway in large areas of academia, especially those associated with Cultural Studies.

These intellectual strands are not always entirely consistent with each other. For instance, the strong influence of identity politics in this arena seems inconsistent with the poststructuralist insistence on the instability of all identities. Nevertheless, no one who has participated in this arena can deny that it is dominated by a specific, highly distinctive subculture. One knows when one finds oneself in a conference, seminar, or discussion governed by this subculture, by the vocabulary that is used, the ideas that are expressed or taken for granted, and by the fears that circulate, the things that remain unsaid.

There are many critiques of the literature that informs this arena, which can for convenience be called postmodernism (though the term poststructuralist points more specifically to the dominant theoretical perspective).(2) But there is little if any discussion of postmodernism as a subculture.

The subculture of postmodernism is difficult to locate precisely. It is more pervasive in the humanities than elsewhere, but it has also entered the social sciences. It cannot be entirely identified with any particular discipline, but in some sense constitutes a world of its own, operating outside of or above disciplinary categories. Within the world of postmodernism intellectual trends take hold and fade into oblivion with extraordinary rapidity. Many of the people who play major roles in shaping it refuse such labels as “postmodernist” (or even “poststructuralist”), on the ground that such categories are confining.(3)

The difficulty of defining postmodernism discourages discussion of it as a particular intellectual arena. Nevertheless it does constitute a subculture. It has increasing reach and power within the university; it has become increasingly insistent that it is the intellectual left.

Many people, inside and outside the world of postmodernism (and for that matter inside and outside the left), have come to equate postmodernism with the left. There are many academic departments and programs that associate themselves with progressive politics in which the subculture of postmodernism holds sway. This is especially the case in interdisciplinary programs, especially those in the humanities; postmodernism is most likely to be the dominant perspective if the institution is relatively prestigious and if the faculty has been hired since the 60s.

These programs tend to draw bright students who regard themselves as left, progressive, feminist, concerned with racism and homophobia. The result is that many students with this sort of orientation have come to associate progressive concerns with a postmodernist perspective. Many professors and other intellectuals, of all political shades, also accept this equation. Left intellectuals who object to postmodernism tend to complain in private but remain largely silent in public, largely because they have not learned to speak the postmodernist vocabulary. The equation of postmodernism with the left poses problems both for the intellectual work conducted under the aegis of postmodernism and for efforts to rebuild the left in the U.S. Alan Sokal’s hoax, and the debate that has followed it, provide an opportunity to address these issues.

A physicist at NYU, Sokal was inspired to write a parody of postmodernism two years ago, having read Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science,(4) which describes attacks on science, and on concepts of truth and rationality, in areas of the humanities. Sokal is a leftist, and was particularly upset that these attacks were being made in the name of left and feminist politics. He was also taken aback by the apparently intentional obscurity of the language in which these attacks were being made. At first Sokal found it difficult to believe that the statements quoted by Gross and Levitt could be representative of any significant trend. However in checking the quotes he found that these were not isolated instances but part of a growing and apparently influential literature. Believing that mockery would be the best way of combatting this trend, Sokal wrote an article that begins with the following statement:

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, expect perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an independent world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in eternal physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the objective procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method. 5

The article presents what is described as a review of developments in quantum gravity, and claims that this research justifies the conclusion that physical reality, no less than social reality, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific knowledge, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it. In the article Sokal extensively cites real research but (according to his subsequent critique of his own article) exaggerates and distorts its implications. His article consists of assertions that are backed up, not by evidence or careful argument, but by appeals to authorities — the postmodern masters, Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Aronowitz, and others, whose vacuous remarks on quantum gravity and other areas of science Sokal quotes as if they were authoritative. Sokal makes vague statements implying some connection between scientific discoveries and the need for vast changes in thinking in other areas. For instance, Sokal claims that general relativity calls for new ways of thinking about time, space and causality not only in the physical realm but in philosophy, literary criticism, and the human sciences. He supports this point by a quote from Jean Hyppolite:

With Einstein…we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of time-space, which does not belong to any of the experiments who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constant — is this the center? (p. 221)

Sokal responds to Hyppolite’s question with a quote from Derrida, which he describes as going to the heart of classical general relativity:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability — it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something — of a center starting from which an observer could master the field — but the very concept of the game. (p. 221)

Further on, Sokal quotes Lacan on the importance of differential topology:

This diagram [the mobius strip] can be considered the basis of a sort of essential inscription at the origin, in the knot which constitutes the subject. This goes much further than you may think at first, because you can search for the sort of surface able to receive such inscriptions. You can perhaps see that the sphere, that old symbol for totality, is unsuitable. A torus, a Klein bottle, a cross-cut surface, are able to receive such a cut. And this diversity is very important as it explains many things about the structure of mental disease. If one can symbolize the subject by this fundamental cut, in the same way one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject, and on a cross-cut surface to another sort of mental disease.

Sokal adds: “As Althusser rightly commented, Lacan finally gives Freud”s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires.” (p.224)After what he presents as a review of research in the field of quantum gravity (and in related areas of science and mathematics) Sokal goes on to claim that in order to have a truly liberatory science, it is not sufficient to dispose of the outdated view that there is such a thing as objective reality. One must also subordinate science to progressive politics. In elaborating this point Sokal first quotes Andrew Ross that we need a science that will be publically answerable and of some service to progressive interests. This is a reasonable remark, tangentially related to Sokal’s point, but not a call for subordinating science to politics. Sokal then presents a quote from Kelly Oliver.

In order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, natural facts. Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories — not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories. (p.227)

In approvingly quoting this remark, and linking it to Ross’ comment about the importance of science serving progressive goals, Sokal makes the leap from a call for a socially responsible science to a call for an approach that sets aside questions of truth or falsehood and is driven by already given political goals. Sokal submitted his article to Social Text, which accepted it for their “Science Wars” issue. After his article had been accepted but had not yet appeared, Sokal began working on a piece disclosing his own hoax and explaining why he had felt that it was necessary to mock postmodernism in order to save the left from its own silliness. Sokal wanted to find humanists critical of postmodernism, like him, from a left/feminist perspective, to comment on his piece. Through a string of associations he was led to me. I began working with him on the piece in which he disclosed his own hoax. At that point Sokal wanted to allow some time to elapse between the publication of his hoax and his disclosure. He wanted to see how long it would take for someone to discover his hoax. If, after a few months, no one had caught it, he intended to send his self-disclosure to Social Text with a request that they publish it.

The course of events went differently. While the article was in press, an enterprising free-lance journalist, David Glenn, overheard a remark (made, presumably, by one of the by this time fairly large circle of people who knew of Sokal’s hoax) which led him to believe that a scandal was brewing within Social Text. Some skillful investigation led Glenn to the page proofs of Social Text‘s forthcoming issue. It seemed to Glenn, on reading Sokal’s article, that even for the world of Cultural Studies this was a bit extreme. Glenn contacted Sokal and asked him if the article was a hoax. Sokal acknowledged that it was and congratulated Glenn on his detective work. The two took the story to Lingua Franca, whose editors offered to publish a statement by Sokal in their forthcoming issue, disclosing his own hoax and explaining why he had done it.

The result was that the “Science Wars” issue of Social Text, with Sokal’s article, appeared in mid-April of 1996, and Lingua Franca, with Sokal’s statement about his article, about a week later. The story was picked up by the media. On May 17 there was a story about Sokal’s hoax on the front page of the New York Times. After that the story spread; articles about it appeared not only in newspapers throughout the U.S. but in Europe and Latin America. Probably no one concerned with postmodernism has remained unaware of it. People have been bitterly divided. Some are delighted, some are enraged. One friend of mine told me that Sokal’s article came up in a meeting of a left reading group that he belongs to. The discussion became polarized between impassioned supporters and equally impassioned opponents of Sokal; it nearly turned into a shouting match. The astonishing thing about this, my friend said, was that actually no one had read the article, because that issue of Social Text had sold out so quickly. Members of this group knew about the article only from having read accounts of it in the press, or from discussions with others who had read it. Clearly Sokal’s article has brought to the surface intensely felt divisions, raising the question: what are these differences about?

Some of us who were delighted by Sokal’s hoax, at one time had a more positive view of postmodernism. The constellation of trends that I am calling postmodernism has its origins in the writings of a group of French intellectuals of the 60s, most preeminently Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-François Lyotard. Those who developed postmodernism tended to be associated with the radicalism of the 60s, and to see May ’68 as a formative moment in their intellectual and political development. French postmodernism expressed many aspects of the ethos of May ’68: its anti-authoritarianism, its rejection of Marxism and view of it as implicated in unacceptable structures of authority, its celebration of the imagination and resistance to all constraints.(6)

In addition to being shaped by the politics of May ’68 (including the French Communist Party’s betrayal of the student movement and support for the authorities), French postmodernism developed out of the debates that were taking place in French intellectual circles at that time. It included a rejection of humanism, in particular of Sartre’s view of the self as the center of political resistance and his quest for an integrated, authentic selfhood. Postmodernism rejected aspects of the structuralist legacy, particularly its emphasis on the stability of social structures but retained its focus on language, the view that language provides the categories that shape self, society. This could be extended to the view that all reality is shaped by language; it could suggest that language is real, everything else, constructed or derived from it. Such an approach could suggest a critique of social analysis or radical politics emphasizing the economic level, or overt structures of political power. It could suggest the need for a critique of culture and a call for cultural transformation.

POSTMODERNISM ENTERED THE U.S. IN THE LATE 70S AND EARLY 80S, by a number of routes simultaneously. There were academics, especially philosophers and literary critics, who were drawn to poststructuralist philosophy. Many feminists and gay and lesbian activists became interested in the work of Michel Foucault, whose attention to the social construction of sexuality, view of power as dispersed through society, and insistence on the connection between power and knowledge, intersected with their own concerns. Foucault’s work seemed to provide a theoretical ground for shifting the focus of radical analysis away from macrostructures such as the economy and the state, and toward daily life, ideology, social relations and culture. Foucault’s view of state power as always repressive and his identification of resistance with the marginalized and suppressed made sense at a time when radical struggles were being led by groups peripheral to mainstream culture and power relations, such as disaffected youth and women, blacks and other racial minorities, gays and lesbians.

The attractiveness of postmodernism, in the late 70s and early 80s, had something to do with the cultural and political currents with which it was associated. It was loosely affiliated with avant-garde trends in architecture and art, and also with the impulse of many intellectuals to set aside the old distinction between high and low culture and begin taking popular culture seriously. Poststructuralist theory emphasized flux, instability, fragmentation, and questioned the validity of claims to authenticity and truth. These concerns overlapped with emerging themes in popular culture: distraction, absence of rootedness in the past, a sense of meaninglessness. More important, these poststructuralist, or postmodernist, concerns spoke to levels of reality that seemed increasingly salient and that more conventional theories, including left theories, did not address. Postmodernism seemed to refer to a set of cultural changes that were taking place around us (and within us) as much as it referred to a literature or set of theories about those changes. The increasing use of the term poststructuralism to refer to a set of theories in part grew out of the need to distinguish between theory and the cultural realities to which it responded.

In the latter part of the 70s, many young people whose center of attention was shifting from the movements of the 60s to intellectual work, often in the academy, were avidly reading Foucault. Many were also reading other French intellectuals, including French feminist such as Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, the eclectic theorists of society and psychology, Gilles DeLeuze and Felix Guattari, the Marxist structuralist, Louis Althusser, the psychoanalytic structuralist, Jacques Lacan. Through the works of these writers and the debates in which their work was embedded, the poststructuralist ideas that had come to dominate French radical intellectual circles in the late 60s and 70s filtered into parallel intellectual circles in the U.S. By the early 80s an intellectual subculture was emerging in the U.S. which tended to use the term “postmodernism” to describe its outlook. Though it was located primarily in the university, it had links to avant-garde developments in art and architecture and a strong interest in experimental trends in popular culture. Postmodernists tended to feel strong sympathies for feminism and for gay and lesbian movements, and were especially drawn to a politics that was tinged with anarchism and oriented toward spectacle — a politics that happened to be quite salient in a cluster of movements that emerged in the U.S. around the late 70s and early 80s.

The excitement of postmodernism, certainly in the early 80s and to some degree through the decade, had to do with its links to vital cultural and political movements, and the fact that it was pointing to rapid changes in culture and examining these through the poststructuralist categories of language, text, discourse. Through the 80s, original and provocative books and articles appeared, loosely associated with a postmodernist perspective or at least addressing questions raised by postmodernism. Though everyone would have a different list, most would no doubt include James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Jean Beaudrillard’s For a Critique of The Political Economy of the Sign, Jacques Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition.(7)

Others examined postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon and criticized from a broadly Marxist perspective. Works in this vein would include David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (and his influential article, “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism.”)(8) In the 80s and 90s a great deal of European postmodernist (or poststructuralist) literature was being published in English, and was widely read in the U.S. In fact, postmodernist books by European authors may have been read more widely in the U.S. than in their authors’ home countries, since by this time interest in postmodernism had faded considerably in France and elsewhere in Europe. DESPITE THE ATTRACTIONS OF POSTMODERNISM, SOME OF US WERE UNEASY about it from the start. Postmodernism not only pointed to processes of flux, fragmentation, the disenchantment or draining of meaning from social life, but tended to be fascinated with them. It often seemed that postmodernists could see nothing but instability, and that a new set of values was being established without ever being acknowledged, according to which the shifting and unstable was always preferable to the unified or integrated. Despite the brilliance of much of the literature there seemed at times to be a kind of flatness of vision, a tendency to insist on one set of qualities while refusing to recognize their necessary counterparts, as if one could have up without down, hot without cold. There seemed to be a celebration of the fragmentation of self and society that ignored the need for balance, for new level of coherence. Not that all writers who addressed the questions posed by postmodernism fell into this trap. But on the whole those who escaped it were those who addressed questions raised by postmodernism rather than adopting it as their own perspective.

By the late 80s and early 90s, postmodernism seemed to have been taken over by the pursuit of the new or avant-garde. Radicalism became identified with criticism for the sake of criticism, and equated with intellectual or cultural sophistication. The aestheticization of postmodernism corresponded to the attenuation of its ties with any actual social movements, as the movements with which postmodernism had felt the greatest rapport shrivelled. Postmodernism had always been pulled between the agendas of the academy and the social movements; the agenda of the academy now took over. Politics became increasingly a matter of gestures or proclamations. By the 90s, the quest for success in an increasingly harsh and competitive academic world became the driving force. Claims to radicalism, oddly, seemed to serve this purpose.

ONE WAY OF UNDERSTANDING POSTMODERNISM IS TO SAY THAT THERE ARE strong and weak, or more ambitious and more restrained versions of it. According to the strong version, there is no such thing as truth. Because all perception of reality is mediated, because what we regard as reality is perceived through discourse, there is no truth, there are only truth claims. Since there is nothing against which these claims can be measured, they all have the same standing. Another way of putting this would be that there is nothing prior to interpretation or theory, nothing that stands outside of interpretation and can be taken as a basis for judging its validity. In the postmodernist or poststructuralist lexicon, the terms “essentialism” and “foundationalism” are used to denote a host of presumably bad attitudes, including the view that interpretation or theory can and should be judged in relation to some reality external to itself, the view that some social groups have characteristics or interests that are given rather than continually constructed and reconstructed — and reductionism, stereotyping, as in the view that all women are nurturent, or that African Americans have innate musical abilities. The fact that the term essentialism refers simultaneously to an epistemological approach and also to racist, sexist or at least naive politics tends to link these two and makes it difficult to have a calm discussion of whether there is such a thing as truth, and whether theory should be judged by reality external to itself. In many discussions the use of the term “essentialist” is enough to identify the philosophical stance as politically retrograde and therefore unacceptable.

Those of us who disagree with the strong postmodernist position do not object to the premise that our perception of reality is mediated. What we object to is the leap of logic between this premise and the conclusion that there is no truth, that all claims have equal status. We would argue that although we do not possess ultimate truth and never will, it is nevertheless possible to expand our understanding, and it is worth the effort to gain more knowledge — even if that knowledge is always subject to revision. This version of the strong postmodernist position is — in my experience — rarely explicitly argued in the literature; it is in discussion (in conferences, seminars, and private conversations) that one encounters it. It is often posed against a straw-person argument that would claim that the truth is readily accessible, completely transparent, unaffected by culture. This straw-person argument is used as a foil, to excuse the implausibility and logical weakness of the strong postmodernist view. On the whole postmodernist literature, instead of arguing this position explicitly, assumes an attitude of radical skepticism toward truth, or toward claims that there is an objective reality that is to some extent knowable, without ever clearly defining the grounds for this skepticism.

The strong position, as it appears in postmodernist or poststructuralist writing, tends to take the form of an extreme social constructionism, a view that identities, relations, political positions are constructed entirely through interpretation, that there is no identifiable social reality against which interpretations can be judged, no ground in material or social reality that places any constraints on the formation of identities or perspectives. Joan Scott, for instance, in her influential article “Experience,” argues that any account of experience takes for granted categories and assumptions that ought to be questioned, that to accept the category of experience, or to use the word without distancing oneself from it by surrounding it with quotation marks, is dangerous, and opens the way to essentialism and foundationalism. Scott admits that the concept of experience is too deeply embedded in culture to be done away with easily. In the end she suggests that we retain it but treat it with suspicion.(9)

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, apply the same approach to the formation of political positions. They argue that all political identities or perspectives are constructed, that there is no particular relation between class position, for instance, and political stance. In support of this, they argue that workers are not automatically socialist or even progressive: often they support right-wing politics. Laclau and Mouffe are of course correct that there is no automatic connection between class and politics, or between the working class and socialism, but this does not mean that there is no connection between the two, that all interpretations or constructions of class interest are equally possible and equally valid. For instance, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a socialist program, proposed by the capitalist class, was defeated by working-class opposition. Laclau and Mouffe make their argument by setting up a straw argument (that workers are automatically socialist — a view held by no one that I know of), knocking it down, and substituting a position that is equally extreme, namely that there is no connection at all between class position and political perspective. Without this straw economism as a foil, the problems of the extreme social constructionist argument become more apparent.(10)

An even more extreme example of strong postmodernism is Judith Butler’s argument, in her book Gender Trouble,(11) that sexual difference is socially constructed. Butler accepts Foucault’s now widely accepted view that gender is socially constructed; she goes beyond this and criticizes Foucault for his unwillingness to extend an anti-essentialist perspective to sexuality itself. She argues that not only gender but sex itself, that is, sexual difference, should be seen as an effect of power relations and cultural practices, as constructed “performatively” — that is, by acts whose meaning is determined by their cultural context. Butler argues that the conventional view of sex as consisting of two given, biologically determined categories, male and female, is ideological, and defines radical politics as consisting of parodic performances that might undermine what she calls “naturalized categories of identity.” Her assertion that sexual difference is socially constructed strains belief. It is true that there are some people whose biological sex is ambiguous, but this is not the case for the vast majority of people. Biological difference has vast implications, social and psychological; the fact that we do not yet fully understand these does not mean that they do not exist. Butler’s understanding of radicalism shows how the meaning of the word has changed in the postmodernist arena. It no longer has to do with efforts to achieve a more egalitarian society. It refers to the creation of an arena in which the imagination can run free. It ignores the fact that only a privileged few can play at taking up and putting aside identities.

There is a weak, or restrained, version of postmodernism which is much more plausible than the strong version described above. This version argues that language and culture play a major and often unrecognized role in shaping society, that things are often regarded as natural which are actually socially constructed. This is a valid and important perspective. Those of us on the left who criticize postmodernism reject the strong version, not this more restrained approach. The difference between the two lies in the excessive ambition, and the consequent reductionism, of the strong approach, and the greater modesty or caution of the weak or restrained approach. Strong postmodernism is cultural reductionism: it represents the ambition to make culture the first or only level of explanation. It is no better to argue that everything can be understood in terms of culture or language than to argue that everything is driven by economic forces, or by the quest for political power. The project that frames postmodernism is the critique of Enlightenment rationality; there are aspects of that tradition that deserve to be criticized, such as the tendency to take the white male as the model of rational subjectivity, and the equation of truth with the discoveries of Western science, excluding other contributions. But the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment is one-sided. It forgets that a universalist view of humanity was a major (and only partially accomplished) step away from narrow nationalisms, and that the concept of truth is a weapon in the hands of progressive social movements, that they rely on opposing the truth of oppression to hollow official claims that society is just.

THE PROBLEMS OF POSTMODERNISM THAT I HAVE NAMED, and more, have been displayed in the public response to the Sokal article. The first response was from Stanley Fish, Professor of English at Duke University and a leading figure in the field of Cultural Studies. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke,”(12) Fish tried to shift the terrain of the debate from postmodernism to the social sciences, suggesting that the field of Science Studies consists of scholars whose modest aim is to investigate the ideas that drive scientific research. The work of these scholars, he implied, hardly goes beyond the bounds of conventional sociology. In this article, Fish appeared not to have noticed the more extreme positions that have been taken in the name of postmodernism or Cultural Studies, inside or outside the field of Science Studies. It is hard not to see Fish’s piece as a strategic move, a slide to the weak or restrained position when the strong position has begun to look foolish.

The next piece to appear was a statement in Lingua Franca, by Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, editors of Social Text.(13) Robbins and Ross wrote that they had regarded Sokal’s article as “a little hokey” and “not their cup of tea” but that they published it to encourage a natural scientist who appeared to be interested in Cultural Studies. Next, Tikkun published an article by Bruce Robbins,(14) who wrote that the editors of Social Text had published the article because of the merit they saw in its argument. Robbins asked what conclusions should be drawn and what should not be drawn from the fact that Social Text had published Sokal’s piece. One conclusion not to draw, he wrote, is that postmodernists can’t recognize an unintelligible argument when they see one.

When Sokal said his essay was nonsense, most reporters instantly followed his lead. After all, he should know, right? But we thought Sokal had a real argument, and we still do. Allow me to quote Paul Horgan, senior writer at Scientific American, summarizing in the July 16 New York Times: Sokal, Horgan says, “proposed that superstring theory might help liberate science from dependence upon the concept of objective truth.'” Prof. Sokal later announced that the article had been a hoax, intended to expose the hollowness of postmodernism. In fact, however, superstring theory is exactly the kind of science that subverts conventional notions of truth.(p.58)

Robbins went on to argue that the concept of truth is questionable on political grounds:

Does subverting conventional notions of truth really have anything to do with being politically progressive?…Is it in the interests of women, African-Americans, and other super-exploited people to insist that truth and identity are social constructions? Yes and no. No, you can’t talk about exploitation without respect for empirical evidence and a universal standard of justice. But yes, truth can be another source of oppression. It was not so long ago that scientists gave their full authority to explanations of why women and African-Americans (not to speak of gays and lesbians) were inherently inferior or pathological or both. Explanations like these continue to appear in newer and subtler forms. Hence there is a need for a social constructionist critique of knowledge.(p.59)

Here we have an argument that has become hopelessly tangled, perhaps through the effort to see everything through a postmodernist lens while refusing to acknowledge that postmodernism is a lens, that it is anything other than pure Truth. Robbins is of course right that some people say things about African Americans, women, etc., that are not true. This does not mean that we should reject the concept of truth. It means that we should reject false assertions.Robbins goes on to deride critics of postmodernism as “know-nothings of the left [who] delude themselves: Capitalism is screwing people! What goes up must come down! What else do we need to know?” Robbins continues, “It seems likely that what is really expressed by the angry tirades against cultural politics that have accompanied the Sokal affair is a longing for the days when women were back in the kitchen and it was respectable to joke about faggots and other natural objects of humor. These are not the family values I want my children to learn.” (p.59) Presumably Robbins is referring to people who have expressed support for Sokal, such as Ruth Rosen (a feminist historian), Katha Pollitt (a feminist journalist), Jim Weinstein (editor of In These Times), Michael Albert (editor of Z Magazine), myself. Robbins’ remark is self-righteous posturing, and unfortunately it is not an isolated example. In the arena of postmodernism, left politics is often expressed through striking poses, often conveying moral superiority, greater sophistication, or both. There often seems to be a sneer built into postmodernist discourse, a cooler-than-thou stance. This enrages the critics of postmodernism, and it is one reason why it has been so difficult for supporters and critics of Sokal to discuss their differences calmly.

THERE ARE SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITHIN THE POSTMODERNIST SUBCULTURE. There is an intense ingroupyness, a concern with who is in and who is out, and an obscurantist vocabulary whose main function often seems to be to mark those on the inside and allow them to feel that they are part of an intellectual elite. This is not to object to the use of a technical vocabulary where it is needed to express ideas precisely. The world of postmodernism has unfortunately come to be flooded with writing in which pretentiousness reigns and intellectual precision appears to have ceased to be a consideration. There is the fetishization of the new: the rapid rise and fall of trends, the collective deference to them while they last. For a while it seemed that every debate in this arena entailed accusations of essentialism. The exact definition of essentialism was never clear, but it nevertheless seemed that essentialism was the source of all error, and the use of the term as invective was enough to halt discussion. There is the inflation of language and the habit of self-congratulation: it has become common practice in this arena to advertise one’s own work as radical, subversive, transgressive. All this really means is that one hopes one is saying something new. There is the worship of celebrities. This is a culture that encourages and rewards self-aggrandizement and grandiosity. There is intellectual bullying, the use of humiliation, ridicule, implicit threats of ostracism, to silence dissent. All of this stands in direct contrast to the endless talk of difference that takes place in this arena.

Efforts to raise criticisms from within this arena have not had much effect; those who have made such efforts have been treated with hostility or at best ignored. Those of us who supported Sokal’s hoax felt that a public act of mockery was required to open up discussion. Now that postmodernism has lost its aura of invincibility people have begun to laugh, and it does not seem likely that the laughter will stop anytime soon. For instance, in a review of a book entitled Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, by Calvin Thomas (University of Illinois Press), reviewer Daniel Harris writes,

In the fast-paced intellectual environment of postmodern cultural studies, the line between ostensibly serious scholarship and outright parody is not just thin but, in many instances, nonexistent, as became embarrassingly evident last month to the editors of one of the house organs of contemporary theoretical discourse, Social Text….One can only hope that Sokal’s brilliant act of intellectual terrorism…will be the first of many similar practical jokes. If even a handful of the numerous critics of cultural theory did their part, postmodern journals and academic presses would be swamped with fraudulent manuscripts that would shatter the self-confidence of the entire field. This vast industry would collapse into a state of total disarray were its tightly-knit ranks to become infiltrated by jargon-spewing moles posing as the real McCoy, double agents cloaked in the uniform of the American university’s elitist new brand of paper radicals.

Harris goes on to speculate that the book under review must be another hoax. How else, he asks, can one explain the bewildering statements that appear in this book, such as:

The excrementalization of alterity as the site/sight of homelessness, of utter outsideness and unsubiatable dispossession figure(s) in…Hegel’s metanarrational conception of Enlightenment modernity as the teleological process of totalization leading to absolute knowing.The anal penis…function(s) within a devalued metonmymic continuity, whereas the notion of the phallomorphic turd functions within the realm of metaphorical substitution.

If the bodily in masculinity is encountered in all its rectal gravity, the specular mode by which others become shit is disrupted.

Harris suggests that if Thomas wants to become an academic success he should follow Sokal’s example and proclaim his book to be a prank. Only slightly less tongue in cheek, he speculates that what he describes as the central metaphor of this book, the comparison of writing to “productions” of the body, especially shit, may be apt in a field in which jargon is used as an offensive weapon, to score points against competitors in the battle for tenure and prestige.15POSTMODERNISM DID NOT INVENT INTELLECTUAL BULLYING. This is not the first instance of dogmatism on the left. In the 30s people on the left (at least those in or close to the Communist Party) felt considerable pressure not to admit, or even consider the possibility, that the Soviets were anything less than angels. In the late 60s a kind of Maoist politics swept the left, in particular the radical core of the anti-war movement. Under the aegis of “Marxism-Leninism” a politics was put forward that revolved around the assumption that revolution was possible in the U.S. if only people on the left would follow the example set by revolutionaries in the Third World. Strategies were proposed that were utterly inappropriate to the U.S.; questioning these strategies, or for that matter suggesting that a revolution was not very likely in the U.S., was tantamount to labelling oneself a defector from the cause. Similar things took place in the radical wing of the women’s movement: extreme conceptions of feminism, such as the belief that having anything to do with men amounted to fraternizing with the enemy, took hold in many circles, and questioning these ideas was likely to earn one a reputation as a friend of the patriarchy. The left in the U.S. seems prone to being seized by ideas which, when recollected a few years later, look somewhat mad. But it is worth asking why particular ideologies take over at particular moments. After all, in the case of postmodernism, it is not clear why culturalism, a social constructionism set in competition with other levels of social analysis, should be equated with radicalism.

Terry Eagleton, in his article “Where Do Postmodernists Come From?”16 argues that left intellectuals in the U.S. have adopted postmodernism out of a sense of having been badly defeated, a belief that the left as a political tendency has little future. Culturalism, he argues, involves an extreme subjectivism, a view of the intellect as all-powerful, a mindset that might be described as taking the May ’68 slogan “all power to the imagination” literally, combined with a deep pessimism, a sense that it isn’t worth the effort to learn about the world, to analyze social systems, for instance, because they can’t be changed anyway.

I would add two points to Eagleton’s analysis. First, postmodernism takes many of its ideas from the 60s. To some extent it represents a rigidification of ideas that were widespread in movements of that time, especially the voluntarism or hubris of a generational cohort that tended to think that it could accomplish anything. The widespread view among leftists of the 60s that revolution was waiting in the wings, and the fact that so few people openly challenged this, reflected a grandiosity, a loosening of the collective grip on reality. In the heated atmosphere of the late 60s it was possible for radicals to take fairly crazy positions without utterly losing their audience or becoming irrelevant to politics. In the 90s there is considerably less room for extreme voluntarism, or grandiosity, cast as a political position.

There was also a widespread tendency in the movements of the 60s to equate personal and cultural change with broader social change. One of the most important contributions of the movements of the 60s (especially feminism and the countercultural left) was the critique of a culture that promoted consumerism, that equated happiness with individual striving for power and wealth. But in rejecting a politics that left this element out it was easy to fall into the opposite problem of believing that creating communities in which people tried to live according to different values would inevitably move society as a whole in the same direction. This made change seem easier than it was. The prosperity of the late 60s and early 70s allowed alternative communities to flourish, and it seemed plausible that the more egalitarian relationships and humane values developed in them might serve as models. But as it turned out the egalitarian impulse that found expression in these communities was overshadowed by the shift to the right that has taken place in American society as a whole since the mid- to late 70s. Alternative communities themselves were weakened and destroyed by social changes over which they had no control, especially the depression of the 70s and the withdrawal of support from the public sector in the 80s and 90s. In the 90s it would be very hard to make a convincing case that cultural change equals social change. The equation of the personal or the cultural with the political was a mixed blessing for the movements of the 60s. In the 90s it tends to mean retreating into one’s own community and allowing politics to drift further and further to the right.

POSTMODERNISM SUFFERS NOT ONLY FROM ITS RELIANCE ON a conception of radicalism that made more sense in the 60s than it does now, but also from the fact that it is located in academia and reflects its pressures. The logic of the market is not a new presence in the American academy, but it now seems to be sweeping all other values and considerations aside. There has been a dramatic increase in the pressures toward intellectual specialization and a frantic pace of publication. There is intense competition between and within fields. In the years following World War II there was a widespread belief, in government and business circles, that the U.S. economy would benefit if a broad liberal higher education were widely available. In the wake of Sputnik there was a sudden rush of support for science education; this resulted in more government support for universities without diminishing its commitment to the humanities. Through the 60s it was mostly the children of the white middle class who attended universities, public or private. Since the 60s the economy has changed, the values governing public spending have changed, and the composition of university student bodies has changed. In a society increasingly stratified between haves and have-nots, an economy in which technical expertise seems more important than familiarity with history and literature, support for liberal education is hardly reliable.

In the 50s and 60s academics could believe that their profession was held in high esteem. They were well paid, and at least some found their opinions sought by the White House or by large corporations. Over the last few decades it has become harder to believe that public esteem of the academy is unqualified. The loss of prestige (and of resources) is felt most sharply in the humanities. In the 50s the social sciences tried to show that they could be as rigorous, quantitative, and ostensibly value-free, as the natural sciences. This encouraged huge quantities of unimaginative, narrowly-conceived, jargon-ridden papers. Now it seems to be the turn of the humanities to try to raise their stock within academia, though this time the strategy is not to imitate science but to assert the supremacy of a vocabulary and theoretical perspective nurtured in the humanities over all fields of knowledge. But postmodernism only highlights its own weaknesses when it overreaches its scope. I have heard many postmodernists denounce Sokal on grounds that his hoax could lead to funds being withdrawn from Cultural Studies or the humanities generally. It seems more useful to look at postmodernism’s internal problems. Sokal’s hoax and the laughter it generated shows that the field had become ripe for parody.17

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS FOR THE LEFT? As restraints on capitalism have loosened and the logic of the market has crept into virtually every area of life, the more human values of the left have come to seem archaic and irrelevant. We certainly need a critique of this culture. But postmodernism is not that critique. There are too many respects in which postmodernism accepts or revels in the values of the marketplace for it to serve as a critique. On a deeper level the problem is that postmodernism is a stance of pure criticism, that it avoids making any claims, asserting any values (or acknowledging its own implicit system of values, in particular its orientation toward sophistication and aesthetics). Left politics requires a conception of a better society and an assertion of a better set of values than those that now prevail. This does not mean that any particular vision of society or any particular definition of those values is the last word; a left perspective requires ongoing discussion and debate. But it is not possible for a purely critical stance to serve as the basis for left politics.

No doubt, one reason that postmodernism has taken hold so widely is that it is much easier to be critical than to present a positive vision. Being on the left means having a conception of the future and confidence that there is a connection between the present and the future, that collective action in the present can lead to a better society. It is difficult these days to articulate any clear vision of the future, even more difficult to figure out how we might get from where we are to a more humane, egalitarian, and ecologically balanced society. A friend of mine recently told me that her image is that we are on a log that is slowly drifting down the Niagara River, and we can begin to hear the roar of the Falls. But because we do not know what to do, we are not roused from our lethargy. It seems to me that postmodernism has become an obstacle to addressing urgent issues, including impending environmental and social disasters, and how to build a movement that might begin to address them. Clearing away the fog won’t automatically provide us with any answers, but might make it easier to hold a productive discussion.


NOTES

  1. Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46-47, Spring/Summer 1996: 217-252. return
  2. For critiques of postmodernism, or poststructuralist theory, see Brian Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London: Verso, 1987), Alex Callinocos, Against Post-Modernism (London: Methuen, 1982); Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen, 1982), and Deconstruction and the Interests of Theory (London: Pinter, 1988), Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 1984), and Somer Broberibb, Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism (North Melbourne: Spiniflex Press, 1992). return
  3. See, for instance, Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism'”, 3-21, in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992). return
  4. Paul Gross and Normal Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994). return
  5. Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46-47 (Spring/Summer 1996), p. 217. return
  6. See Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, French Philosophy of the 60s: An Essay on Antihumanism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985) on the ways in which poststructuralism and the spirit of May ’68 coincided, and differed. Ferry and Renault point out that while a politics of authenticity, of the self as agent of social change, was central to May ’68, poststructuralism emphasizes fragmentation and incoherence to the point of denying the existence of the self and the possibility of authenticity. return
  7. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), Jean Beaudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981), Jacques Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). return
  8. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: an Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), and “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism,” first published in New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984): 53-92, later included in Jameson’s book of the same title (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991). return
  9. Joan W. Scott, “Experience,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, (New York: Routledge, 1992), ed. Judith Butler and Joan W, Scott: 22-40. return
  10. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985), pp. 82-85. return
  11. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). return
  12. Stanley Fish, “Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke,” New York Times, Op Ed, May 21, 1996. return
  13. “Mystery Science Theater,” Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, Co-Editors, of Social Text, Lingua Franca, July/August 1996: 54-57. return
  14. Bruce Robbins, “Anatomy of a Hoax,” Tikkun Vol. 11, No. 5, September-October 1996, pp. 58-59. return
  15. Daniel Harris, “Jargon Basement,” review of Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, by Calvin Thomas (University of Illinois Press). Bay Area Reporter, June 13, 1996, p. 40. return
  16. Terry Eagleton, “Where Do Postmodernists Come From?” Monthly Review Vol. 47, No. 3, July-August 1995, Special Issue: “In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda,” pp. 59-70. return
  17. For a discussion of the public view of academics and how postmodernism has made a bad situation worse, see Loic J.D. Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” Academe, July-August 1996, 18-23. return