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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Philosophical Phonies on the Left Bank
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0234  Tuesday, 17 March 1998.

From:           Lee Gibson <
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Date:           Saturday, 14 Mar 1998 15:38:52 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        Philosophical Phonies on the Left Bank

A forward of interest for the ongoing "postmodernism" debates.

( from _World_Press_Review_ January 1998, p. 17 )

Furor on the Left Bank:  Philosophical Phonies?
   -----------------------------------------------

Only in France do postmodern structuralists and relativist
post-structural modernists become television stars.  Only in Paris can
people seriously state their profession as thinker.  And only on the
Left Bank could a slim but plain-speaking volume written by two foreign
scientists cause such an uproar.

American Alan Sokal and Belgian Jean Bricmont have dared to say what no
one else would:  Modern French philosophy is a load of tosh.  "Our aim
is to say that the emperor has no clothes," the pair write in the
introduction to _Les_Impostures_Intellectuelles_ (Intellectual
Imposters, available in French only, published by Editions Odile
Jacob).  Even before publication, the book was a topic of furious-and
unfathomable-debate in Latin Quarter cafes.  "We want to 'deconstruct'
the reputation that these texts have of being difficult because they are
deep," write Sokal and Bricmont.  "If they seem incomprehensible, it is
for the very good reason that they have nothing to say."

The authors-a physics professor at New York University and a theoretical
physicist from the University of Louvain in Belgium- slaughter the
sacred cows of contemporary French thought one by one, from the
psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the semiotician Julia Kristeva to Bruno
Latour, the scientific sociologist, and prominent left-wing philosopher
Regis Debray.

"They talk abundantly of scientific theories of which they have, at
best, a very vague understanding.  They display a superficial erudition
by throwing words at the reader in a context where they have no
relevance. They demonstrate a veritable intoxication with words,
combined with a superb indifference to their meaning," Sokal and
Bricmont write.

Quoting extensively from some of France's greatest minds, Sokal and
Bricmont set about systematically demolishing their writings as
deliberately obscure, excessively convoluted, pseudo-scientific
claptrap.

Jacques Lacan, one of the best-known psychoanalysts of the century, is
criticized for "arbitrarily mixing key words of mathematical theory
without in the least caring about their meaning."  The authors take
particular exception to one of Lacan's lesser-known theories, in which
he argues that "the erect male organ, not as itself, not even as image,
but as the missing piece of the desired image, is thus equal to the
square root of -1 of the highest produced meaning."

In attempting to construct a mathematical formula for poetic language,
Kristeva, too is guilty of "trying to impress the reader with scientific
words that she manifestly does not understand."

The works of Gilles Deleuze, a leading contemporary French philsopher
who died recently, are "principally characterized by their lack of
clarity ... stuffed with very technical terms used out of context and
with no apparent logic."

And of Jean Baudrillard, an influential sociologist and regular
columnist for [the leftist daily] _Liberation_, the authors conclude:
"In the final analysis, one could ask what would actually remain of
Baudrillard's thoughts if one removed the verbose veneer that cloaks
them."

Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented attack has inflamed the Left Bank,
home to the cream of France's intellectuals since the days of Jean-Paul
Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and prompted outrage in the press.  "This
is war," the daily [conservative] newspaper _Le_Figaro_ proclaimed,
while the cover of the [leftist] weekly _Le_Nouvel_Observateur_
demanded:  "Are our philosophers imposters?"

Stung, thinkers have hastened to respond:  "What's the point of such a
polemic, so far removed from present-day preoccupations?" asked
Kristeva. "It's an anti-French intellectual escapade."  Writer Roger-Pol
Droit saw the broadside as part of a sinister new vogue for "scientific,
as opposed to political, correctness."

It is clear the philosophers have been shaken.  In the words of another
of the book's targets, the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari:

"Existence, as a process of de-territorialization, is a specific
inter-mechanic operation that superimposes itself in the promotion of
singularized existential intensities.  It is barely livable."

 - Jon Henley, "The Guardian" (liberal) London, Oct 1, 1997

Lee Gibson
Department of English
Southern Methodist University
 

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