Over the weekend, Steve Fuller published this blog post which has understandably been the object of many complaints. Steve is one of a number of people who have accounts which enable them to post directly on the site, without the intervention of an editor. For the six years he has been posting on the site, this has been unproblematic until now. But I’m in complete agreement with the criticisms made of this post, through e-mail and Twitter, regretting the fact that it was ever posted. I’ve decided we should continue to host the piece but also carry responses to it, as well as linking to this note. If you’d like to write one, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss ideas or with your completed response.
Thorstein Veblen notoriously wrote of the ‘trained incapacity’ of academics, by which he meant the inability of scholars to apply their vast learning to public problems by virtue of the narrowness of their training. In effect, academia had caused them to lose both their grasp on empirical reality and their power of imagination. I believe that Veblen was correct, but the pathology also has an inward expression. It appears as a kind of autism that renders academics incapable of engaging with each other’s arguments if they make claims that transgress one’s own disciplinary norms, ranging from the assertion to facts to the deployment of concepts.
The physicist Alan Sokal triggered a celebration of such ‘academic autism’ in 1996 with his notorious ‘hoax’ article in the pages of the cultural studies journal, Social Text. The article was a pitch-perfect politically correct piece of postmodern theorizing that interlaced references to noted theorists and fake physics. The failure of the editors to spot the fake physics by itself was widely taken to have demonstrated their lack of intellectual integrity. That the article may have contained some interesting claims and arguments — notwithstanding the fake physics that Sokal planted and in spite of what he himself may have intended — was never taken seriously.
Because I draw on many fields in my work, sometimes casually, I am susceptible to autistic treatment by fellow academics. It is epitomized in the following question: ‘How do you expect to be taken seriously if you make these egregious errors in presenting material from my field?’ One might have thought that the simple answer is that one reads to the end and then judge the extent to which the ‘errors’ matter to the argument. (Indeed, there may be some other concept, fact or figure from the interlocutor’s field that actually helps the argument.) But all too often the interlocutor responds that the errors blind her from determining what the argument is. At that point, one might question the interlocutor’s ability to handle semantic ambiguity more generally.
Of course, academia provides an institutionalised way of getting around its self-induced autism. It involves the cultivation of a fan base, aka ‘school’, the job of which is to immunize the chosen transgressive academic from autistic assault. Remember when Rudolf Carnap excoriated Martin Heidegger’s misapplication of the logic of negation? When Lawrence Stone took on Michel Foucault’s sloppy scholarship? When John Searle diagnosed all of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy in terms of a failure to appreciate the difference between cause and effect? When Denis Dutton invented a ‘bad writing’ prize just to award it to Judith Butler? When Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont charged Bruno Latour with systematically confusing relativity and relativism? Perhaps not – and that’s the point.
The fans come to the rescue, interpreting the offending the texts in a more charitable light or, if that proves to be too great a labour of love, making explicit what the offending author should have said in order not to have cause such great offence. Much of this work, which may constitute the bulk of scholarship in the ‘human sciences’, is probably best seen as a species of historical fiction. But over time it does the job of keeping the accusers at bay, basically by turning the ‘errors’ of the accused into ‘aporiae’ whose depths can be plumbed in perpetuity – or at least over several academic career cycles.
Jacques Derrida understood this point especially well, as he both wrote about and exemplified this process. It enabled him to face the very many detractors in his lifetime with complete equanimity. As someone who came of intellectual age as Derrida was reaching his peak reception in the Anglophone world, his example left a lasting impression on me, which I encapsulated in my first book Social Epistemology in the phrase, ‘Hobbesian hermeneutician’. Textual interpretation is a war of all against all in semantic space: Your words can mean whatever your readers let you get away with.