Deeper Complexities of the Sokal Affair

In December 1996, against my better judgement, I went up to Amherst, Massachusetts for a conference sponsored by the journal Rethinking Marxism. A nurse I knew from Nicaragua solidarity work had told me that she had been to the last one and didn't understand a word they said. Someone had told me once that the organizers were Althusserians. That was no incentive to go up to Massachusetts in the dead of winter, no-sirree Bob.

At the opening night's reception, I downed 3 scotches in rapid succession to put me in the proper frame of mind for the opening plenary. Vandana Shiva spoke on how the ecological crisis can be traced to Descarte's mind-body duality. I can't remember who the other speaker was, but after Richard Wolff opened up the floor for discussion, I was ready to biff someone good. I was the first to speak and denounced the conference organizers as excluding the Sokal point of view and running a bunch of postmodernist bullshit down our throats. Those were about my exact words. Wolff wore an expression of shock on his face as if I fired a revolver into the ceiling.

The next night Judith Butler spoke at the plenary and singled out the "Sokal affair" as a conservative Marxist backlash against the new social movements. I didn't attend her talk or any of the remaining plenaries, because I just wasn't interested. I remained in my hotel room reading a history of coffee production in Central America.

At the next night's plenary, all hell broke loose. Etienne Balibar, who is idolized by the editors of Rethinking Marxism, had begun the third hour of a talk on national oppression that had a 45 minute time limit. The audience started standing up and shouting at him. Where did he get the nerve to treat other people in such a disrespectful manner. The protestors seemed to be mostly Indian female graduate students, who were fans of Meera Nanda. Meera, who is Indian herself, is a scientist and colleague of Alan Sokal's, and had written articles recently for New Politics and Monthly Review lambasting postmodernist science. The irony of women of color protesting a white expert on the subject of national oppression was lost on few, especially me.

The conference organizers now were seeing some kind of conspiracy. After my drunken tirade and this outburst, they were now worried about a full-scale riot. Can you imagine that? How times had changed. The last riot I could remember was when Maoists tried to attack Vance Hartke at an antiwar conference in 1971. Now we ready to trade punches over how to interpret the Enlightenment.

At the time, Doug was pro-Sokal but has shifted all the way in the other direction. His big complaint seems to be that Sokal knew nothing about Lacan and company, whom he sent up in his famous Social Text spoof. Meanwhile, my complaint about Alan Sokal has a different character. I don't care about his knowing nothing about Lacan. That is a feather in his cap, as far as I'm concerned. It is that he knows next to nothing about Marxism that bothers me. More about that anon, dear reader.

In the course of digging into all these questions, Doug has seen merit in the other side, to the point of becoming a great admirer of Judith Butler. Over on his LBO-Talk mailing list, they are apparently about to begin a cyberseminar on her work. I suppose my flame war with Rakesh was a subconscious mechanism to get me thrown out before the blasted thing started. All that talk about penises, vaginas and deconstructing the self would have made me uncomfortable, because I am a bit of prude.

Independently of that, I decided it was about time to take a look at what she was saying myself. Doug, like Sokal, is a very smart guy, so I wanted to see what Butler was about. If he was so impressed, maybe there was something I was missing. Her Amherst plenary talk is titled "Marxism and the Merely Cultural" and is contained in the January/February 1998 New Left Review. I now want to turn my attention to it and show where it goes wrong.

Butler's article is a defense of the "merely cultural" against conservative Marxism. Conservative Marxism, you see, analyzes everything from the standpoint of production but the new social movements often involve struggles that have nothing to do with production, the gay liberation movement in particular. Those hidebound Marxists would throw everything overboard that was not tied to the production of surplus value or the reproduction of the family.

For some reason, the Sokal hoax gets thrown into the hopper. Why? She writes:

"Thus, the result of parody is paradoxical: the gleeful sense of triumph indulged by the avatars of an ostensibly more serious Marxism about their moment in the cultural limelight exemplifies and symptomatizes precisely the cultural object of critique they oppose; the sense of triumph over this enemy, which cannot take place without in some eerie way taking the very place of the enemy, raises the question of whether the aims and goals of this more serious Marxism have not become hopelessly displaced onto a cultural domain, producing a transient object of media attention in the place of a more systematic analysis of economic and social relations. This sense of triumph reinscribes a factionalization within the Left at the very moment in which welfare rights are being abolished in this country, class differentials are intensifying across the globe, and the right wing in this country has successfully gained the ground of the 'middle' effectively making the Left itself invisible within the media"

This is just a long-winded way of saying that Sokal has divided the left, with old-fashioned base/superstructure types on one side and trendy, post-Marxists on the other. While they poke each other's eyes out, welfare mothers are getting thrown into the street. Yes, I know--it is a ridiculous notion. I can't think of anything more incongruous than Judith Butler marching in a welfare rights demonstration.

Butler frames the fight with left cultural studies in one corner and "more orthodox forms of Marxism" in the other. The new social movements would seem to be lined up with the former, while stolid factory workers on the other. In reality, the new social movements in the United States of the 1970s and 80s got their acts together without any help from left cultural theorists. By the same token, stolid factory workers have happily ignored "more orthodox forms of Marxism" in the same period, which extends back to the beginning of WWII historically.

Butler only gets down to specifics when she deals with the gay liberation movement. Although she never mentions Sokal by name, she does single out Nancy Fraser as an example of Marxist conservatism in her "productivist" approach to gay oppression. According to Butler, Fraser, author of "Justice Interruptus," has developed a schema where genuine oppression is related to one's participation in the political economy either as workers or as family members. The worker produces capital, while the wife helps in the production of the family, which is essential to the overall production process. The gays, who just have fun like the grasshoppers, are not part of the very serious and Marxist production process of the ant workers and families. So what would be gay people's complaint? Fraser says they suffer because of "lack of recognition." In other words, they are culturally deprived because they are forced to the margins of society. This trivializes their situation, Butler argues. The only solution is to transcend the mode of production framework of traditional Marxism, because it can not explain homophobia. Since there is no profit in homophobia, it can not take on significance in Marxism. Thus Marxism would see no particular reason to struggle against it.

The only problem with this approach--and it is a huge one--is that Butler is fighting against economic determinism and not Marxism. Marxism does not explain every form of oppression as rooted in the political economy. The capitalist system is not some kind of clockwork contraption, which assigns a role to every form of injustice based on how it fits into the whole. It is much more complex and much more IRRATIONAL.

Back in 1967, when I first came around the Trotskyist movement, I asked an old-timer how he would explain the extermination of the Jews. How could this make sense from a Marxist perspective, because the Nazis would have been better off keeping them as slaves than killing them. Slaves produce value, while corpses do not. His explanation has stayed with me over the years. He said that Nazism was a system characterized by the institutionalization of all sorts of irrational beliefs. With a system like that, it is not so easy to keep self-destructive tendencies under check. It is like a snowball rolling down a hill that eventually turns into an avalanche. Hatred of the Jews, which had started as xenophobia, transforms itself into a full-scale exterminationist policy.

We should keep this in mind when we think about the nuclear arms race. The hydrogen bomb was developed as a strategic weapon when its actual use would have resulted in the destruction of the capitalist system. How can we explain what is perhaps the most defining element of the cold war when it can not be explained simply in terms of its role in the mode of production. While some would argue that the nuclear arms race was necessary from a Keynsian standpoint, it is important to take note of the numerous occasions when we were at the brink of war. If Kennedy had gone over the brink in a nuclear war with Krushchev over the Cuban missiles, would the recapture of sugar plantations on the island have been a sufficient explanation?

The same thing is true with respect to homophobia. Not every prejudice in capitalist society is rooted in the capitalist mode of production. In fact, just like our brain contains traces of our pre-hominid past, capitalist society retains all sorts of precapitalist institutions whose grip continues to be felt in present-day society. The Catholic Church is the prime receptacle for these sorts of phobias. More to the point, revolutionary socialists do not allow such a narrow economic determinism affect our political decisions. As Lenin explained in "What is to be Done," the vanguard party stands up for every oppressed and victimized layer of society, whether or not they produce surplus value.

Nancy Fraser's reply to Judith Butler in the subsequent NLR covers some of this same ground, but from a reformist outlook:

"Empirically, however, it is highly implausible that gay and lesbian struggles threaten capitalism in its actually existing historical form. That might be the case if homosexuals were constructed as an inferior but useful class of menial labourers whose exploitation was central to the workings of the economy, as African Americans, for example, have been. Then one could say that capital's interests are served by keeping them 'in their place'. In fact, however homosexuals are more often constructed as a group whose very existence is an abomination, much like the Nazi construction of Jews; they should have no 'place' in society at all. No wonder, then, that the principal opponents of gay and lesbian rights today are not multinational corporations, but religious and cultural conservatives, whose obsession is status. not profits. In fact, some multinationals--notably American Airlines, Apple Computer and Disney--have elicited the wrath of such conservatives by instituting gay-friendly policies, such as domestic partnership benefits. They apparently see advantages in accommodating gays."

Thus her program for uniting the gay movement with working class struggles would seem to be reinforcing the "enlightened" sector of the bourgeoisie. In essence, the debate between Butler and Fraser is between two highly-educated reformists. Which leads me to Alan Sokal.

I had never really given much thought to Alan's relationship to Marxism. I, like most people, just assumed that he had gone through volume one of Capital, etc., in the way that young orthodox Jews learn to read Hebrew. Anybody who describes himself as a "socialist" repeatedly in debates with Andrew Ross et al, clearly MUST have at least familiarity with, if not commitment to, the Marxist intellectual tradition.

I discovered that this is not true at all. Despite Alan's assertion that he is a socialist, in reality he is a left liberal. I had lunch with him on New Year's Eve in order to discuss my concerns about his defense of the "Kennewick Man" excavations near the Columbia River in Washington State. Alan had defended the scientists against the American Indian "creationists" in his debate with Andrew Ross and I hadn't given it too much thought at the time. Now that I had become thoroughly immersed in such questions, his position gnawed away at me like a piece of undigested food.

In the course of our discussion, it was revealed to me that Alan's defense of science has nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. It is virtually indistinguishable from everyday liberal concepts of the role of scientists in society. He said that bad science would expose itself in a free society, so there would seem to be little risk of running into the sort of horrors that took place in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia. All we have to do is criticize the excesses of archaeologists and everything would come out okay in the end. I sat there sipping my wine in a mood of total shock. Alan's trust in capitalist society was touching but a bit na´ve. After all, this was a free country when anthropologists and archaeologists wrote all sorts of racist nonsense throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Leaving this aside for the moment, I had a completely different analysis of how science is conducted. As a stodgy old Marxist, I had become convinced long ago that the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. Science was not immune.

I asked Alan if he had ever read Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins, co-authors of "The Dialectical Biologist." No, he had taken the book out of the library, but never read it. This was astonishing to me. How could Alan Sokal have become regarded as some kind of defender of Marxist rectitude when he had utterly no engagement with the main experts in the field. In his new book "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science," co-authored by physicist Jean Bricmont, there is no index entry for Marx, Lewontin or Levins. In the one chapter that deals with their own views on the science wars, as opposed to the follies of the pomos, they analyze Thomas Kuhn, not the Marxist analysis of what Lewontin and Levins call the "Commoditization of Science." That is the real issue, not what Lacan thinks of pi.

In point of fact, the Social Text issue that Alan's spoof appeared in is one of their better efforts. It is available now under the title "Science Wars" and contains first-rate articles by Levins and Lewontin. It turns out that the original Social Text issue was basically a rejoinder to Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal's ally in the so-called science wars. Alan told Lingua Franca that his spoof was inspired by Levitt's efforts to expose irrational tendencies in the academy.

Directing his attention to Levitt and co-author Paul Gross's "Higher Superstitions," Lewontin writes:

"What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation of scientific knowledge. They are scornful of 'metaphor mongers,' yet Gross's own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a metaphor, the metaphor of 'development' To describe the life history of an organism as 'development' is to prejudice the entire problematic of the investigation and to guarantee that certain explanations will dominate. 'Development' means literally an unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish desarollo, or the German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making manifest of an already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized egg, just as the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then 'developed.' All that is required is the appropriate triggering of the process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold. This is not mere 'metaphor mongering'; it reveals the shape of investigation in the field. Genes are everything. The environment is irrelevant except insofar as it allows development. The field then takes as its problematic precisely those life-history events that are indeed specified in the genome: the differentiation of the front end from the back end, and why pigs do not have wings. But it ignores completely the vast field of characters for which there is a constant interplay between genes and environment, and which cannot be understood under the rubric of 'development,' Nor are these characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous system, for which the life history of the nerve connections of the roundworm is a very bad metaphor."

This is the kind of discussion that matters most in the so-called science wars. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, Alan Sokal should be responding to these arguments. Instead, he has constructed strawmen that are easy to knock down.

This entire affair now stands revealed as something as a comedy of errors. Alan Sokal surfaces as a defender of classical Marxism, when he actually has next to zero familiarity with the basic ideas of Marxism. Doug Henwood, who would seem to have an affinity with postmodernism to begin with, recoils from Sokal's offensive and throws himself in the arms of Rethinking Marxism and Judith Butler. Today, Doug is arguing positions that I had first considered 32 years ago when I first encountered Marxism. Instead of asking why the Nazis acting against their own material interests when they exterminated the Jews, he asks, "Why does a horde of cops shoot a sleeping black woman in her car, like happened in Riverside the other week? Because of the objective factor, 'racism'? That would assume what you're trying to explain. You can explain class by the extraction and appropriation of surplus value - what's the surplus value of racism?"

What is the surplus value of racism indeed. If anything, this entire discussion has convinced me of the need for Marxists to reassert their position against all sorts of mystification put forward in its name. This is an exhausting task, since the well of academic and sectarian obfuscation seems bottomless. Of course, we have no choice in the matter since Marxism, in the final analysis, is the only analytical tool that can save the human race from capitalist war, economic ruin and ecological despoliation.