Things that don’t make sense

A co-worker recently showed me this automatic CS paper generator which seems to have been written to ridicule a make-believe academic conference. This is all very entertaining, but what really got me was the link to a similar project which served as inspiration: a parody article by a physicist named Alan Sokal entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. It was written to see if gibberish could get published in a social sciences journal, and apparently, the answer is yes: it was accepted by Social Text and published in 1996. The prank was intended as a statement about the lack of rigour in cultural studies, a field that is sorely needed yet often vacuous. The author is an old-school leftist (he taught at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua during the revolution) fed up with meaningless prattle masquerading as revolutionary praxis. From the article in which he reveals his parody:

Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity. The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. The editors of Social Text liked my article because they liked its conclusion: that “the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.” They apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion.

…Of course, none of this is as constructive a statement as, say, The Baffler, a journal started by Thomas Frank to both criticize cultural studies and put its methods to better use. I still remember being excited for days after first reading excerpts of it in Commodify Your Dissent.

Or maybe I should just shut up and accept that some social theory texts both make sense and make the world a better place. I mean, I haven’t even read anything book length by Michel Foucault, although Shannon is the latest in a long line of people trying to convince me to read some of his vast œuvre. (I suppose it won’t be long before I can read it all online thanks to Google, much like this book.) I’d still rather read more Thomas Frank, though, not to mention The Rebel Sell, which is still in cataloguing at my local library…