Stanley Fish wrote an interesting article last week re-visiting the so-called Sokal Hoax. While Fish specifically related a contemporary issue within the culture of wine-review readers to how trust did or didn’t operate in the 1996 fart of a scandal, I had a thought about the very claim Alan Sokal made to perpetrating a hoax.
Why even let what Sokal did obtain the dignity of his self-proclaimed hoax? The guy waited until the article was accepted and published, but barely let any time pass for people to actually read it before, with infinite smugness, he flailed about frantically “admitting” his submission was a hoax. This claim here to a hoax is the biggest crock of the so-called “Sokal Hoax.”
If Sokal were serious with his hoax-attempt, he would have let it not only get accepted and published, but he would have waited to see if it received any (positive) attention. What he did was make sure that the readers of Social Text couldn’t falsify his essential thesis, that (postmodern) Leftists in the Humanities can’t tell the difference between bullshit and obtuse abstraction. If from Sokal’s perspective prior to his publishing the paper we could say it was all a bit of an experiment, it clearly was biased in order to achieve the bare minimum of a coherent point with the least potentially falsifying evidence possible. In other words, it was like carefully faking an unimpressive orgasm, and begs the question of who are you aiming to impress, if not precisely those impressed with the pathetic?
As an experiment in the strict sense, it was plagued by not just cock-surety, but an uncertainty apparently so unbearable that Sokal had to let the cat out of the bag as soon as he did. To the extent that he was trying to test academic standards, he may have made an extremely narrow point. Compare, however, the narrowness of this point—that a handful of academic editors, in part at least for the reasons Fish argues in his article, could (gasp) at best be fooled or at worst happily embrace the blur between bullshit and theory—to the stupendous breadth of the academic Left, or at least the usual audience for Social Text, and it is not hard to see a sampling bias.
It’s hard for me to believe that Sokal is simply so dumb that he oversaw that though, much in the same way that I have a hard time believing he thought the same of the Social Text audience. His “hoax” relied on sheer deception more than out-witting his targets, as well as a careful selection of his targets so as to maximize the limited power of sheer deception in the face of his situation. Sokal didn’t want to let the “hoax” get beyond the point of mere publishing, because that would mean its success as a hoax would depend on the duping of a much wider audience, which Sokal’s paper could not have done. The “hoax” was its own cover-up; Sokal’s official point against the academic Left existed only to cover-up a hoax that was not.