The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory

The following is a talk that I gave this weekend at the Northeastern Modern Language Association conference in New Brunswick, NJ at a panel on Science and Literary Theory.

Several years ago, I took a 19th-century American literature seminar during my PhD coursework. During that class, each student in turn would guide the discussion of the week’s reading. One week, a student working toward his Masters was leading a fairly typical class, expounding at some length on the finer points of Moby Dick, and though I don’t remember the specifics of my fellow student’s conclusion, I remember that he offered a baroque hypothesis about the politics of race and gender and misrepresentation. Even though he had brought up numerous interesting observations about the text, I’m not sure I really had any idea what my friend was talking about, but I was politely professional and said nothing. When the student had finished and received polite applause, the instructor, an Americanist with whom I agreed on almost nothing, asked the one question that had been haunting me ever since my undergraduate studies of literature and culture had taken a theoretical bent in graduate school.

“Do you really believe all that?” he asked.

I can’t think of a less polite thing to ask a graduate student, or, honestly, a more important question.

I’m a relative latecomer to the subject of the so-called “science wars.” I suspect that a lot of what I have to say has been covered by any number of philosophers, scientists and academic pundits. I tend to agree with the severest criticism directed at many of the major figures in theory, the type of criticism leveled by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their Higher Superstition. I think that the Sokal Hoax offers an important warning that academics in the humanities fail to heed at the expense of disciplinary credibility. The hoax, you’ll remember, was perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal against the postmodernist journal Social Text in 1996. Social Text published Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Saturated with scientific absurdities, the article aped postmodernist jargon, political posturing, and rhetorical habits. The fact that something which, had it appeared on the Internet (presumably in ALL CAPS), would have been blasted as purest pseudoscience, had appeared in a professional academic journal produced a scandal that was about as polarizing as any you are likely to find in the academy. The furor over what were widely taken to be the broader implications of the hoax, that literary and cultural studies is vacuous, deceptive and infantile suggests that Sokal had chomped down hard on an exposed nerve.

As I prepared my thoughts on this topic, I was struck by how similar at first glance the similarity between literary /slash/ cultural theory and the preparadigmatic state of the natural sciences that Thomas Kuhn describes in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The state of literary theory is one in which practitioners are “able to take no common body of belief for granted” and “each writer…[feels] forced to build his field anew from its foundations” (13). Certainly, a major contributing factor to this state of affairs is that the proper object of Capital-T-Theory remains, despite, more than 30 years of practice, undefined. Possible candidates include literature and other communicative acts, social structures like institutions, the nature of power, systems of meaning, and the process of making meaning. Now might this might not be such a large problem when you are comparing different theories—certain texts which raise questions that postcolonial studies are better equipped to answer than, say, fat studies, which is now apparently a thing. But even within the various schools of thought, the proper object of study varies. Take, for instance, the range of possibilities in psychoanalytic theory. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him (Krims, introduction xv). I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed.

Now, I write and research about pseudoscience and other forms of pseudoscholarship, and as I was reading and reviewing commentaries on the state of Theory, some patterns emerged, which worryingly (for reasons I will explain later) are informed by my other work. The factions of theory, including identity (including feminist, race and queer), Marxist, psychoanalytic and deconstruction camps share numerous characteristics of the type of diseased, self-perpetuating thinking typical of conspiracy theorists and other demonstrably flawed systems of thought.

The first way in which literary and cultural theory behaves like a conspiracy theory (and other forms of wishful pseudoscholarship) is how very often the absence of evidence, or even direct counterevidence, is taken as evidence for the phenomenon or theory in question. By this logic, the more counterevidence a critic produces, the more the more powerful the theory appears to become. In the lore of UFO cover-ups, the overwhelming lack of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, much less piloted by aliens, is taken by the advocates of “disclosure” as positive evidence of the size of the conspiracy. When you present UFO theorists with evidence that no, aliens did not crash in Roswell, and that balloons with classified instruments designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests did, they reply that the documents and testimony is forged, and they walk away with a sense that you have only confirmed what they have been talking about.

Numerous commentators reflecting on the state of critical theory have found that this applies to various schools of theory. Jonathan Gottschall sums the problem up nicely:

Psychoanalysts have argued that citing evidence against their belief system is quite transparently–in itself–evidence for that system; criticism of Marxist or neo-Marxist notions can be dismissed as craven attempts to bolster the critic’s economic interests; and any criticism of the so-called race-class-gender-sexuality movements can be brushed off as spasms of rightist political reflexes […]. While these prophylactics against negative evidence have been potent, and while they help explain the impressive resilience of the dominant paradigm, they have also been primary obstacles to the generation of reliable knowledge. (39)

Embedded within this commentary is the assumption that theory means to be reliable, or at least in some sense apply to the real world. However, if there is to something to be saved of high theory, I believe that theorists must surrender this presumption of practical utility.

Perhaps the most direct contributor to the Sokal Hoax was the fact that these schools of theory have their own, alternative experts. This seems directly analogous to a group of 9/11 Truthers I have been corresponding with lately. One has told me, “Listen to the experts.” By experts, of course, he means his experts, who are an architect, a retired theologian and a physicist who happened to participate in one of the biggest science scandals of the 20th century, the cold fusion brouhaha of the late 1980s. As in the Truth community, certain groups of theorists have gurus whose credibility is left untouched by deep methodological and evidentiary flaws that would be unacceptable in any legitimate discipline, and whose work is immediately recognized as not just worthless, but misleading, by people who have genuine expertise. Take, for instance, Brian Vickers’ assessment of two of the largest superstars:

Freud’s work is notoriously speculative, a vast theoretical edifice elaborated with a mere pretense of corroboration, citing ‘clinical observations’ which turn out to be false, with contrary evidence suppressed, data manipulated, building up over a forty-year period a self-obscuring, self-protective mythology. The system of Derrida, although disavowing systematicity, is based on several unproven assumptions about the nature of language which are supported by a vast expanding web of idiosyncratic terminology (249).

These pseudo-experts misuse scientific terminology for opportunistic, rhetorical purposes, which I suspect are largely to lend them authority in the eyes of those who do not know better. And, let’s face it, this led to some of the most extravagant and embarrassing proclamations identified by Gross and Leavitt.

Conspiracy theories and critical theories also resemble one another in that the two are accompanied with a sense of righteousness or political commitment, that the theorist in some ways is crusading against an oppressive force. This is especially true in what Gottschall calls the “liberationist paradigm,” in which “Objectivity [is] just a synonym for white male subjectivity” (5). A colleague of mine who works on interregnum Caribbean slavery narratives found that Irish-Catholic males were forcibly impressed into indefinite periods of servitude and brought to tropical plantations in chains under Cromwell. When she named this, rightly I think, as slavery, a tenured colleague of hers who was a committed postcolonialist accused her of usurping the exclusivity of African slavery narratives in Caribbean studies. The correct answer to this, of course, is, “You’re damn right I am, if the African narrative alone doesn’t fit the facts,” but this is not a statement conducive to professional advancement.

Indeed, a lot the schools of theory seem to stem from popular political movements. One of the funny things about UFO contactees is how often the message that they receive from their extraterrestrial contacts are seemingly tailored to the relevant political movements and concerns of the day. During the Cold War, the benevolent Space Brothers warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons; after the Cold War, they warned us about polluting the environment. It is probably not a coincidence that ecocriticism arrived at about the same time that the little green men started lecturing us about the importance of going green, as it were. Indeed, ecocritic Simon Estok says that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, first by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections.” The editors of the ecocrit collection, Reading the Earth, argue that:

Implicit (and often explicit) in much of this new criticism is a call for cultural change. Ecocriticism is not just a means of analyzing nature in literature; it implies a move toward a more biocentric worldview, an extension of ethics, a broadening of humans’ conception of global community to include nonhuman life forms and the physical environment. Just as feminist and African American literary criticism call for a change in culture […] so too does ecological literary criticism advocate for cultural change by examining how the narrowness of our culture’s assumptions about the natural world has limited our ability to envision an ecologically sustainable human society. (qtd. in Estok)

In much the same way that conspiracy theories are fueled by political ideals, take, for instance the 9/11 Truthers who are absolutely convinced that they are exposing great evils, no matter how silly, and the anticommunists of the Cold War, who were convinced that they were doing no less than saving freedom itself, so too have critical theorists seen themselves as waging a good war on behalf of oppressed people, and in the case just mentioned, saving human society from itself.

A further point of similarity between literary theory and conspiracy theory is that they seem to come awareness of unknown truths about the ‘real’ nature of things through meticulous—some would say hypermyopic—attention to minutiae. For instance, take the typical JFK assassination buff. He can tell you about every little bit of evidence, the results of every single test, every little strange particle of nuance of evidence relevant and irrelevant to the events in Dealey Plaza. He is doing, essentially, a super-hyper close reading of the narrative of the assassination. The problem, of course, is that he has a bad grasp of the relative importance of various pieces of evidence to the narrative as a whole. On the basis of that extremely close reading, like the deconstructionist, he often stresses those elements that are external to the narrative. At the same time, both conspiracy theorists and literary theorists seem to evince a belief in the inevitability of political change caused by the simple fact that revealing that truth.

One of the characteristics of academic theory that allowed Sokal to convincingly impersonate serious theorists was deploying the specialized language of theory. While this is, as Kuhn recognizes, perhaps an inevitable part of professionalization and establishment of expertise in the empirical sciences, to the point that even specialists in the same academic departments might not even be able to communicate easily, in the case of theory (and especially in deconstruction) one wonders whether or specialists can communicate at all, as the verbal documents that they generate are at times grammatically correct, meaningless sentences rendered impenetrable with jargon. Edward Ervin’s Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, started as a database designed to help him clarify for himself the terminology of Lacan’s seminars, but as he later reported:

As I tried to make sense of Lacan’s bizarre rhetoric, it became clearer to me that the obfuscatory language did not hide a deeper meaning but was in fact a direct manifestation of the confusion inherent in Lacan’s own fault. But whereas most of Lacan’s commentators preferred to ape the master’s style and perpetuate the obscurity, I wanted to dissipate the haze and expose whatever was underneath. […] Ironically, it was this attempt to open Lacanian theory up to criticism that played a major role in leading me to reject Lacanian theory itself. (42)

This use of language seems to me to be more in line with mysticism or possibly cult-speak than with conspiracy theory as such. It turns out that difference may simply be to deconstruction what “engrams” are to Scientologists, insofar as they serve as markers for members of in-group members and out-group members. Obfuscatory language does not shield theory from criticism; it shields it from legitimacy and relevance.

There is some encouraging news, of course, and this is that the practitioners of theory who fall into the category I’ve outlined comparatively few in number—you rarely bump into someone outside of a specialty journal who espouses wholehearted devotion to a single school of thought. Most literary and cultural criticism appropriates only what is relevant to the topic at hand and disregards the rest. Nonetheless, the theorists whose work is taken to be representative of the various schools of criticism tend to be more sensationalistic. A peculiar feature of much theory is a tacit appreciation of its mere “boldness,” as if claims of radical destabilization are laudable in themselves. True, we have found it desirable and enlightening to reexamine our underlying assumptions, and this has led to genuinely enlightened, more informed views on issues such as sexuality and race, but it does not follow that destabilisation in itself is desirable. It is not clear what the impact of intellectuals championing these causes is on society’s perception of sexuality, gender, race or ecology. Nonetheless, when theorists declaim on subject about which they know nothing, they devalue the work of other, more responsible scholars through an unfair guilt by association.

So, what’s to be done; how do we avoid another Sokal Hoax? Wouldn’t it be great and ironic if I yelled enthusiastically, “REVOLUTION!?”

This is an important question, as the humanities are chronically starved for funding. The answer depends on how literary theorists decide to describe their job, whether they see themselves as producers of knowledge who are developing ever more accurate and detailed understandings of the nature and working of literature and culture, or if they see themselves primarily as artists. In the first case, if theorists decide, that they want, to use Gottschall’s phrase: “the ability to systematically and decisively narrow out allotted portion of possibility space–to zoom in toward truth in the immense multidimensional hyperspace of error and vacuity” (9), they have failed.

Gottschall makes an intriguing proposal about how to move forward with the project of reducing error in literary studies, and that is plying statistical sampling and analysis to literary texts. He points out that the quantification of social phenomena has always met with popular resistance, but it has revealed underlying order to any number of social phenomena. Why should literature be any exception? I think that there are two major obstacles, neither of which is insurmountable or easy. The first may be described as inertia, an unwavering devotion to the notion that there are some things like literature can’t be quantified. This, of course, is merely a bald assertion, and without trials to examine whether or not such a project would be profitable, there is simply no basis for making that claim.

The second obstacle to the successful completion of the project is that the infrastructure of literary studies, as it currently exists, is not designed to produce scholars of the type that Gottschall proposes. It is designed to perpetuate theory as it already is. The problem with this is that programs in literary theory—or cultural studies writ large—do not have the expertise in statistics needed to become this sort of scholar at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As a result, I am afraid that it will take a rather substantial overhaul of theory programs to even begin down this road. That or interdisciplinary training through other departments.

One reform, I think, immediately available to all departments, and one that I believe is fundamental to improving the standing of theory, is raising awareness of cognitive biases and their ability to corrupt research. One of the most damaging and pervasive flaws in modern humanistic scholarship is the lack of awareness or concern for confirmation bias, which is a dangerous mental habit that determines what one accepts as relevant evidence. It is the propensity for people to seek out confirmatory instead of disconfirmatory evidence. For example, when you are posed with the question, “Is Ted an extrovert?” you are likely to ask questions like, “Does he have friends? Or does he like going out on weekends?” instead of paying attention to the fact that he plays chess and reads, the types of things introverts are likely to do. In life we unconsciously notice and value elements of the world that confirm our worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t. Numerous swindles depend on this very human propensity, and currently, when we are trained in theory we are being trained to give confirmation bias free range. When confronted with a mass of data, say, a novel or a culture, and you are able to forgive yourself for squinting a little bit, it is very, very easy to find evidence for anything. If your academic kink happens to be imperial conquest, you’ll find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, you’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, you’ll find pandas. And we don’t pay any attention to this tendency. I searched the entire MLA database for the phrase “confirmation bias” and it appears only once.

Another vital element of a program of reform that will lead to literary theory becoming a reliable tool for discerning the real world will be to replace scientific pseudoexperts like Freud and Lacan with actual experts in the relevant empirical sciences, especially in the science of the mind. This will require some additional training, and I’m not sure it’s the type of training that could reasonably be confined to a graduate education, but if you are going to invest the time in writing a dissertation about the products of the human mind, you cannot but improve your work by informing it with an awareness of the state of the empirical science. And when you address scientific matters you need to understand the limitations of that science as well. When you are talking about indeterminacy, you need to be aware that this is a property that is only useful when it is applied to the world of particles. You may employ indeterminacy as an artistic metaphor, of course, but when you do so, you must not mistake your metaphor for the real thing or imagine that because you have used the metaphor that you have somehow altered particle physics. When you critique the content of science, or any field of knowledge, as many theorists have, you need to address the relevant issues at the level of the experts, and this is very, very difficult without specialist training. It reminds me of a situation I believe Carl Sagan described when he looked into the claims of the pseudoscientist and psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsy, that Jupiter ejected the planet Venus and that a series of close passes by Venus to Earth caused a number of the miracles described in the Bible. Religious scholars scoffed at Velikovsky’s interpretation of biblical events but were impressed by his astronomical knowledge. Scientists thought that the biblical stuff was ok, but thought his astronomical proclamations were ridiculous.

The other option is to surrender pretentions to objectivity and describe theorists as artists. Art makes no claims on objective reality, and some very artful and elegant readings of texts can come out of even the most badly flawed pseudoscience. I think that it would be folly to not consider an Oedipal reading of Hamlet, even if there is no evidence of an Oedipus complex in the real world. Exciting art can be made when you filter a work of literature through a novel perspective. In doing so, you are doing what artists have done for ages, drawing on and responding to the zeitgeist. I consider that project to be akin to the various repinterpretations by Dali and Picasso of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, wherein something of the original artwork remains, but the style and aesthetic concerns of the modern artists dominate the interpretation. Take the Freudian example. In psychoanalytic criticism, a theorist may in practice substitute any symbol for any other symbol. This is immensely liberating for the imaginative, creative mind. But one should not imagine that the substitutions that the theorist makes are anything but the products of their own mind. So, if theory and interpretation abandon pretenses of objective analysis and embrace the posture that they are using science as a metaphor, we will do much to clarify the work that literary and cultural critics are accomplishing.

Something needs to change. High theory, as it is currently conceived and practiced, is a celebration of disordered thinking. To prevent further embarrassment to the profession and improve the quality of our work, we need to hold our theorists to high standards; and when it comes to matters of science, we need to hold them to the standards of the field they mean to critique. We need to raise the scientific literacy of our humanities faculties and educate our students about confirmation bias. Finally, when we deploy science as a metaphor, we need to frankly acknowledge it as such, just a metaphor. Thank you.


Postscript: After I gave this talk, a guy came up to me and said, “My dissertation adviser was one of the editors at Social Text. Oops! Heehee.  (I almost typed Sokal Text–eek!). He did in fact say that the editors schooled themselves in science afterwards, which is encouraging.


Estok, Simon C. “A Report Card on Ecocriticism.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 96 (Nov 2001): 220-238. Online at <;

Evans, Dylan. “From Lacan to Darwin.” The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Eds., Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. 34–55.

Gottschall, Jonathan. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Gross, Paul R. and Leavitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Krims, Marvin Bennett. The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

Vickers, Brian. “Masters and Demons.” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 247-270.

25 Responses to The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory

  1. David Gerard says:

    I’d take the hype about Sokal with a grain of salt – even Sokal didn’t take it quite as far as the popular myth. He deliberately submitted his paper to a poor and unregarded journal that wasn’t peer-reviewed, that saw its calling as to print any old crap disregarded works. Basically, he was playing a minor prank on some silly people. The narrative of “Sokal conclusively slayed the dragon of postmodernism so all those annoyed by it have to do is say ‘Sokal'” is not in fact what happened, but is compelling enough that it’s propagated regardless.

    • Simon Spooner says:

      David, I think you’re guilty of using the no true Scotsman fallacy. You’re dismissing the Sokal hoax by claiming that Social Text, published by Duke University Press, was an “unregarded journal” and implying that a proper (true) journal would never have been fooled. I’m skeptical of this claim, but I’d like to see another Sokal run the experiment again, today.

  2. David Gerard says:

    Format error: The words “any old crap” in the above comment should have been struck through, WordPress kindly removed that formatting 🙂

  3. Bob says:

    Oh, I think that all Sokal ultimately demonstrated was that Social Text was not up to snuff at that point and that its editors were lax and scientifically illiterate. I think that he is right when he asserts that lit theory gurus generally don’t have the credentials to make useful statements about or contribute to science, but you can’t base that conclusion on just Sokal or just Higher Superstition. This represents a lifetime of dissatisfaction for me.


  4. Ken says:

    I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures.

    Would it be too reductionist to note that only one thing on that list actually has a psyche to analyze?

    (Unless of course Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next stories reflect the true nature of literature.)

  5. […] Re: Topography of Ignorance I read yesterday a blog post entitled ‘The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.’ I found it to be an interesting read, and although I do not feel compelled to make a full, formal […]

  6. Bob says:


    No. You can never go too low. And that’s another goddamned thing (heheh). We often see lit crit twits taking intellectual tools (no matter how badly designed, like psychoanalysis) and then using them for…whatever the crap they want. Wanna analyze a character? Sure! The author? Sure! Culture? Why the frack not! No standards. They are totally slutty with their models.


  7. Rob says:

    I really enjoyed this blog post, not so much for the direct application to literary criticism, but for the parallels I see with financial pro forma analysis. Most of my work involves helping clients think through the effects of both cognitive and motivational bias (you mention the cognitive biases of critics, but I bet motivational biases are just as strong, if not stronger) in business analysis and using effective means to overcome their effects. I actually laughed to myself when I thought about the implications of comparing typical pro forma and traditional business analysis to claims of UFO sightings and cult rhetoric.

    At the risk of “seeing pandas everywhere”, I wonder if there isn’t a fruitful paper for you in looking at the potential similarities and differences between traditional business analysis and paranormal claims literature. Just a thought.

  8. Bob says:

    There has a been a good deal of work done on business forecasting and the problems therein. I need to look into motivational biases…I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for that!


  9. Bob says:

    “Pandas, pandas, everywhere! And not a thought to think!”

    –Rime of the Ancient Panda Tamer

  10. Rob says:

    The panda’s thumb is up.

    Forecasting as a science is well established, but there are pitfalls to avoid that are well documented. However, I was thinking more broadly along the lines of traditional business case justification that ultimately gets expressed as pro forma statements and related attempts at analysis. The state of practice today is shockingly poor, the failures ranging from just sloppiness to the biases and preconceived notions that underlie assumptions to the methodologies that people employ.

    One of my favorite business “superstitions” is the reliance on intuition; that is, that idea that we should learn to trust our gut and march heroically forward. I would never rule out including intuition in analysis. The history of science is replete with stories of intuition leading people to fruitful exploration. But the intuition among the successful scientists/engineers was never sufficient. They always used their intuition as a discovery guide, not an end in itself. Among business leaders, intuition sometimes leads to success. Successes are remembered and honored. But intuition that leads to failures is rarely examined. The result is a selection/confirmation bias among those leaders (and eventual crashing failure) and a cultural mythology that lionizes their heroic, fly-by-the-seat behavior.

    Another “superstitious” methodology employed by people making complex decisions is Analytical Hierarchy Processing (or other similar weighted objectives scoring methods). It seems to reduce the complexity of decision making significantly by giving people a means to score the utility of different approaches to achieve the same goal by breaking a problem down into objectives that are separable and additive. It seems imminently rational. But from the very beginning, some people noticed flaws in it (i.e., violation of transitivity of preferences, rank reversal, inconsistency in scoring when the scaling changes, etc.), and they pointed these out. The advocates of AHP engaged in the usual responses that would lead you to believe they were involved in a cult (seriously, and it wasn’t like anyone’s soul was in danger of hell, either). Recently, Dr. Tony Cox has done some research that indicates that using AHP-like methods leads to results that are worse than just randomly selecting decision pathways. Still, the practice persists, largely, I believe, to its placebo nature: “I did something that seemed reasonable, and it was easy to explain and use.” It’s not much different from looking for your nickel under a street lamp just because the light is better even though you lost it in the bushes.

    I could go on an on. There has been no shortage of inquiries into the reasons why decision making fails, especially in a business context. What fascinates me is the possible relationship between the language and process of traditional business analysis and that of cults and conspiracy theorists. I wouldn’t say they are the same, but I think they are related. Maybe in the end, all failures of reasoning are related regardless of the categories we’ve established to understand them.

    Sorry to be so long winded.

  11. Pacal says:

    The Sokal hoax was an amusing incident. What was even funnier was the way some defenders of “Literary Theory” conjured up silly excuses for their carelessness. Since then there has emerged a whole cottage industry dedicated to attacking Sokal and excusing the carelessness. Sokal in subsiquent works attack some of the absurdities of modern “Literary Theory” esppecially some of the dumber things they said about Science. There is one guy, whoose name I can’t remember, who devoted his philosophical training to a detailed, word by word, sophistical, socolastic analysis of the the absurd statements in order to show that they were really “correct”. THe contortions of semantic “logic” that this guy went through to “prove” his point were compulsively sidesplitting. Also funny was his adament refusal to understand that a Physicist might be perfectly competant to make a statement about whether or not a statement about physics from one of these “Lierary Theorists” was dumb.

    Another excuse was the idea that “Literary Theorists” were using a specialist vocabulary / jargon and that there was nothing wrong with that. After all all sorts of disciplines do that. Well there is the fact, and it is a fact, that this jargon frequently was used to express banalities and that all to frequently the same idea could be expressed in a less convoluted manner. Usually a specialist vocabulary is used as series of verbal, literary shortcuts to say something that in a less specialist vocabulary would be said in a more convoluted less clear fashion, (to those who know the vocabulary), in the case of modern “liteery theory” the jargon seems to be used to make the clear less clear and to replace a shortcut with a maze.

    Unfortunately the debate over literary theory has been hijacked to some extent by the whole debate over “political correctness”, The book Higher Superstition, unfortunately reflects some of that. In my opinion right from the start the campaign over “political correctness” is a political campaign waged against thoughts and opinions certain so-called “conservatives” wish to shut down. The decible level hysteria, sometimes, of this campaign is amusing. Basically all sorts of opinion are dismissed has “politically correct”, and shriks and screams about the great “politically correct” machine of oppression pour forth from megaphone and pulpit. The fact that much modern day “literary theory” is so much hot air is not in my opinion a political opinion has a critical one.

    Has for writers like Derrida. Well just read his absurd defence of de Man when it was found that during World War II de Man had published dozens of anti-Semitic articles in a Belgian Fascist newspaper. In fact given de Man’s arguement that the text really isn’t the author’s and similar notions, it is obvious that de Man was seeking via his “literary theory” to absolve himself of any responsibility for his writings. That de Man in effect suppressed his war time writings was ignored by Derrida.

    Also Derrida’s writing is obscure to the point of absurdity. English translations of his stuff are generally clearer than the original French!

    One word I would say to modern “literary theorists” is wright clearly!!

  12. Tony Lloyd says:

    I don’t think the claim that literature is unquantifiable is quite “bald assertion”. That nobody has managed it yet is neatly explained by it not being quantifiable and it certainly doesn’t look quantifiable. The quantifiable sciences start off with stuff that is quantifiable: lumps of …er… stuff moving at speeds. We can measure speed, weigh stuff, count things etc. so we have a neat theory to explain why science is quantifiable and can see that the theory doesn’t apply to literary theory.

    And, if Literary Theory is not quantifiable there are dangers in trying to make it so.

    Science cannot establish moral injunctions; say that “torturing babies for fun” is wrong. What science can do is investigate certain facts surrounding morality:do most people think torturing babies is wrong? Why people think torturing babies is wrong? What are the effects of torture on the psychological and physical health of the baby and so on? None of these, though, are moral injunctions, they just superficially look like them.

    So, faced with a question such as “is torturing babies for fun wrong”? You cannot both do science and answer the actual question. There would be the same risk in a mistaken (if it is mistaken) pursuit of quantifiability in Literary Theory: you drop the Literary Theory questions which cannot be quantified in favour on non-Literary Theory questions that can.

    Another danger looms if you refuse and absolutely insist on quantifying Literary Theory. Take Rob’s example of Analytical Hierarchy Processing. Conflicting aims can often be unquantifiable, but we’re unwilling to choose between quantifiability and answering questions about conflicting aims. So we’ll just make the quantities up.

    The lack of quantifiability may reveal a problem with Literary Theory, though. What the hell is it for? What use is it? It’s not art, that comes with writing literature not theorising about it. It may have provided useful critiques of colonialist or patriarchal assumptions in texts and their effect on society, but that suggests that there are bits of useful sociology done by Literary Theorists. There is a suggestion that the confirmation bias common in the subject applies to the subject as a whole. “This tiny thing was useful” is taken to confirm the usefulness of the discipline, whereas the general tendency of trying to do more than aesthetically critique artisitic works is utter failure. At best.

  13. Bob says:

    Thanks for the reply, Tony.

    Well, your definition of quantifiable science needs to take account of the social sciences, where speeds and velocities and kiloparsecs squared don’t apply, but where data is nonetheless quantifiable. You have to have a rigorous set of criteria and apply them strictly, and even then the social sciences are “mushy” sciences because the phenomena they examine are so dang complex. I think that any quantifiable examination of lit/culture would likely be at that end of the science spectrum.

    And it seems to me that you could possibly quantify aspects of literature. Take a set of, say, fairy tales. Establish criteria for what represents “patriarchy” (independently of the data set–otherwise you are just cherry-picking data), and then do a head count. Or if you are going to say that “Jane Eyre reinforces the idea that ugly chicks can be moody and irritating,” then see what percentage of the novel is devoted to that topic (all of it, heheh) and then decide if that is what the novel is really about.

    “Science cannot establish moral injunctions; say that “torturing babies for fun” is wrong. What science can do is investigate certain facts surrounding morality:do most people think torturing babies is wrong? Why people think torturing babies is wrong?”

    But literary theory flouts about saying, “Well it all depends on what you mean by ‘torture’ and ‘babies’ and ‘mean’.” Meanwhile, Pa is in the basement with a bullwhip and gimp outfit teaching Junior to squeal. If you want moral instruction, look to ethics, not literary or cultural theory. Science, anyway, never makes pretenses of providing moral instruction…maybe I’m missing the point here, because that seems like such a banal point to make.

    I agree, fitting your data to build up your theory is bad and it’s what we do instinctively, and this is why the criteria for inclusion in an analysis (again, say, “evidence for patriarchy”) is established independently of the text you are examining.

    You’ve just stated, on what basis I’m not sure, that lit theory isn’t art. It’s creative. You’re making something new that was not there before, providing artistic flourishes and metaphorical explorations of texts…what’s not artsy about it? True, most theory is so badly written that nobody would ever want to read it, but technical ineptitude does not instantly disqualify something from being art. I agree with Pacal, only I would use an outrageous French accent and shout it as a taunt from atop a castle wall: “Wright clearly, so-called literary theory persons!”


  14. Tony Lloyd says:

    “maybe I’m missing the point here, because that seems like such a banal point to make.”

    I don’t think you’ve missed the point, but unfortunately loads of others do! Dawkins devotes an entire chapter in the God Delusion to “ethics” that is, in fact, “biology” and don’t get me started on Sam Harris!

    I think the problem is elevating what we think is a good answer over the actual question. (Do I get to use the term “privileging” here?).

    There’s a passage in “Revolutions” (I don’t have it with me to cite) where Kuhn puts forward the idea that the reason the social sciences are so “mushy” is that they don’t have the luxury of addressing questions that have non-mushy answers. The “hard” sciences can pursue questions they have a likelihood of being able to give a precise answer to. The “mushy” sciences are almost built of those difficult questions that are still very interesting. But they are, unavoidably, “mushy” and any attempt at precision is going to involve distorting the question.

    I think there are interesting questions in the study of literature: “Jane Eyre is a great novel, for x, y z reason. Is the ugly-chick-thesis part of what makes the book great? Could it have been great without the ugly-chick-thesis and, if not, should we avoid writing books like that?” etc. (You’ll have way better examples than this). These questions, though, may not have crisp scientific-looking answers.

  15. Ken says:


    …in the case of modern “liteery theory” the jargon seems to be used to make the clear less clear and to replace a shortcut with a maze.

    I find the verbosity less troubling than the claim that language has no intrinsic meaning. Aside from any other issues (“it depends what you mean by torture”), how can anyone who legitimately believes that make an argument to support it?

  16. Pacal says:

    God! I really should write things in word first, spell check and then post!!

  17. Ken says:

    Oh, it wasn’t the “liteery” – I noticed it but thought you might be mocking some pronunciation – but the actual literary theory. If it indeed deserves that label.

    I am suddenly reminded of “raw food” (bear with me, please). I only recently learned of this diet, in which only raw foods are eaten; it sounded OK though it didn’t appeal to me. But when I looked up recipes, I found that most were ways to reproduce various cooked foods – hamburgers made of chopped dates, spaghetti that’s actually shredded carrots, and so on. That struck me as kind of odd; why try to so accurately copy the appearance of the foods you are avoiding?

    I get the same sort of feeling with some of the literary criticism stuff. Why copy the outer forms of science when your claim is that the entire process is only a social construct with no special insight?

  18. theory says:

    theory organizationa…

    […]The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory « Skeptical Humanities[…]…

  19. […] When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.” […]

  20. […] Well played. I elaborated on a similar theme back in the day in my NeMLA presentation, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory,” of which I am quite […]

  21. Science cannot establish moral injunctions; say that “torturing babies for fun” is wrong. What science can do is investigate certain facts surrounding morality:do most people think torturing babies is wrong? Why people think torturing babies is wrong? What are the effects of torture on the psychological and physical health of the baby and so on? None of these, though, are moral injunctions, they just superficially look like them.

    So, faced with a question such as “is torturing babies for fun wrong”? You cannot both do science and answer the actual question.

    On the contrary — you cannot meaningfully answer the question without doing science, broadly construed as rational and empirical inquiry.

    That’s not to say that science is sufficient. Attempts to root ethics strictly in science seem generally to fall victim to regress, in that while you can answer questions about what will in fact lead to the greatest good for the greatest number, or what have you, there’s no clear way to end the repetition of the question Well, why is that good?

    However, if we accept a few basic rules as axioms (suffering is bad, inflicting trauma is evil, &c.), then the rest of the moral calculus can be perfectly scientific in evaluating what does in fact minimise suffering, what factors affect trauma, and so on. And to whatever extent possible, it should be scientific, because it would be irresponsible to ignore verifiable truth where available: once we agree on the axiom that taking pleasure in the suffering of babies is wrong, then we’re obliged to pay attention to what induces suffering, in order to avoid it.

    It seems to me that in ethics, science has a role analogous to deductive reasoning in logic: A valid argument can lead to the wrong conclusions because deduction alone can’t provide your premises (not every valid argument is sound), but with an invalid argument no conclusion can be trusted. And more generally, Science can’t answer all possible questions is no reason to reject or to avoid science. Quantify all the parts that can be quantified. If nobody does it, how can you even meaningfully discuss the unquantifiable and the meaning thereof?

  22. […] with identity theory and Marxist theory (for concerns related to deconstruction please see this post; for concerns related to psychoanalytic theory, please read […]

  23. […] of difficult but rewarding ideas; in the annoying way of obfuscating language based on the kind of so-called Theory (usually imported Continental philosophy) I have come to dislike) and, what I did understand, […]

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