Postmodernism disrobed

by Richard Dawkins

Intellectual Impostures
by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
Profile: 1998. Pp. 274. £9.99
Published in the USA by Picador as Fashionable Nonsense in November 1998

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.

This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Intellectual Impostures, previously published in French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”. Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, had a similar talent for writing:

In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed… In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.

This calls to mind Peter Medawar’s earlier characterization of a certain type of French intellectual style (note, in passing, the contrast offered by Medawar’s own elegant and clear prose):

Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought…

The remainder of this review is available here. [Originally published in Nature, 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143.]


5 Comments

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5 responses to “Postmodernism disrobed

  1. … And They were highly deluded and filled with themselves, a symptom of psychedelic use. All these combined: if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck. Probly a duck

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  2. While G and D i feel do have some good contributions, i think they couple micrograms to close to their LSD experience to be able to communicate clearly the meaning they intended. 😊 noone wantsto admit that LSD and psychedelics were the main components of postmodernism. We shall see what the less potent osychedeluc THC. Has In store for us in this age of legalization.

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    • Do you have any evidence that postmodernists have been affected by LSD?

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      • Yes. But not All post modern theorists. But the time period involved and the theory that developed. Deluze and Guttari are the most obvious. It is not difficult to see how 1) the want to describe ineffable experiences common to psychedelics; 2). The mood and environment of the 60s and70s It is kind of hard to imagine that curious and intelligent college students would have missed it. Along with D n G s. Ideas. And just how convoluted and ‘filled with effort’ their discourses are. 3). Their positions allotted them a prestige and consideration of their phrasings that would have otherwise been set aside.

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