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Created 3/10/1998
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If you have not been following the "Sokal affair"--Alan Sokal's "experiment" to see if the editors of the journal Social Text could identify nonsense when it was submitted to them (with negative results: they could not identify deliberate nonsense)--you have missed the most delicious academic joke of the decade.

And of all of the "texts" generated by the affair, the following summary of the remarks of Social Text defender and apologist Stanley Fish is--in my view at least--the funniest.


Stanley Fish at Lagado University

Some have claimed that the account below of Professor Stanley Fish's appearance at Lagado University is entirely spurious--that it is a "hoax" as was the original Sokal piece in Social Text. Others claim that the remarks of Professor Fish, and the explanations offered by members of  STET, the Social Text Explanation Team , are so close to other, independently verifiable accounts (texts appearing in places like the New York Times) that there can be no serious question about their authenticity.

We take no sides in this matter because we do not have to: post-modernism has decentered the role of the author. Whether the text below summarizes the "remarks" of a "Professor" "Fish" is of not of the slightest concern to anyone: the text stands on its own, subject to the free play of critical discourse.

The text identifies itself as having been "originally published in LU/English, the English department newsletter of Lagado University."


The Social Text Explanation Team, under the leadership of Professor Stanley Fish, made a presentation at L[agado] U[niversity] at the beginning of Fall semester.

Professor Fish began the session by explaining that the STET visit should not be understood as an effort at "damage control." It had nothing to do with "damage control." It did not resemble "damage control." It partook of not the slightest flavor, soupcon or hint of "damage control." Professor Fish explained that he, Fish, is a detached and witty maverick universally admired by "advanced" graduate students for purveying cynical and glittering paradoxes, not the sort of fellow who indulges in santimonious bombast and insincere pieties in the name of "damage control." "Damage control" was, he explained, no part of his concern there today.

What really concerns Fish is the threat to the integrity of science from people who, like Alan Sokal, put its rules to devious and fraudulent uses. Science, Fish pointed out, is a communal effort that relies on trust, on exemplary models, and on standards. The scientist must be able to rely on the reports of his colleagues. Editorial collectivities of scholarly journals must, to precisely the same extent, be able to rely on the sincerity of their contributors.

Sokal has imperilled this confidence. He put forward his fraudulent undertaking as reliable, he surrounded his deception with all the marks of authenticity, he camouflaged his "prank" in a dense thicket of footnotes, he shamelessly deployed the names of the century's greatest scientists with intent to deceive, and he craftily larded his treacherous submission with genuine scientific terminology.

Some people, subsidized by a coalition of powerful, well-financed, right-wing groups and associated with individuals who are known to be acquainted with persons whose grandfathers may well have been members of the Ku Klux Klan, affect to find Sokal's hoax funny. It is not funny and they know it isn't funny. They are just pretending to think it's funny.

The far from comical consequence of this episode is the attitude of deep and corrosive suspicion now in full flower in the offices of learned journals all across the United States. The simple faith of scholarly editors is a thing of the past. Where before they eagerly seized upon submissions with the naive delight of children opening Christmas presents, they must now look uneasily upon the manila envelopes flooding into their offices as potential infernal devices threatening to explode with deafening horse-laughs.

Trust, a small word of large meaning, is gone. Gone forever. Now every article will have to be warily checked for logical consistency. Every paragraph and sentence will have to be painfully studied to determine what it means, if anything. Never again can an editorial collectivity feel entirely safe publishing an unintelligible and incoherent paper.


At the conclusion of Professor Fish's moving peroration, the meeting was addressed by Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins, speaking for the editorial collectivity of Social Text. They made the following points:

 


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone; (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

 

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