Did Dawkins REALLY Disrobe Postmodernism?
Post modernism. A threat to science? Spend some time on youtube and you’re sure to see some video or comment talking about the universities in america being taken over by an unseen force of thought destroyers - using fancy words and sophistry to trick universities into denying the realities of science with philosophy. So what really happened anyways?
Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in 1998 released a book titled “Fashionable Nonsense”, something that may be the material for a future video, since I’m really in that intellectually masochistic mood recently. This book accounts what the authors claim is an attempt to disengage the reality of science from academic environments through verbose, meaningless language intended to impress the unaware. To Sokal and Bricmont, these French writers abuse terms from science to try to make themselves sound more important than they really are.
In July of 1998, Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist, released in esteemed scientific journal Nature a book review of of this book, which we’ll be reviewing today to start to understand what exactly is going on here. So does Dawkins, Sokal and Bricmont really present a good critique of post modernism here?
Not really. In fact, its questionable how this poorly written review was even published in Nature at all.
The very existence of this publication is a pretty big problem. It is frequently misinterpreted on the internet. For example, Wikipedia implies that Richard Dawkins directly read Guattari, Lacan and others, but it is ambiguous if he even read either or is simply quoting from Sokal’s book. This leads to this article, being by the famous Richard Dawkins and published in Nature, sounding legitimate to less eagle-eyed readers.
A major problem is obvious right away - The article starts with a quote from Felix Guattari - you know, that guy everyone says is super hard to understand even in context - but provided with no context. The book is mentioned nowhere in the article. After searching through my collection to try to locate the quote, I discovered it was from page 50 in Chaosmosis. Likewise, this quote, from Gilles Deleuze, is from The Logic of Sense on page 103. Now, I happen to really like Deleuze and Guattari, so I was really interested in finding the original quotes, but I felt this was a subtle, underhanded tactic on display. In 2021, this is simply annoying, but in 1998, it is a very shady tactic. Think about it - someone may have to sift through thousands of pages to find the context of what he’s even talking about!
So what Dawkins says here is that Guattari is a “fashionable french intellectual” who writes with a lack of clarity and lucitiy… No, I’m not sure if Dawkins is aware of the irony in that statement. Worse, he implies that his complicated language is because Guattari is a charlatan trying to fool people into injesting philosophical bullshit. An extremely aggressive claim especially considering Guattari wasn’t just a philosopher, but was involved in psychiatric practice!
Indeed, he points out in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, that he is “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”. I’m sorry this is just funny to me like guattari litearlly does not give a single shit cry harder
But what does this quote actually say?
“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, multidimensional 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. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis. The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms. What fractal machines traverse are substantial scales. They traverse them in engendering them. But, and this should be noted, the existential ordinates that they “invent” were always already there. How can this paradox be sustained? It’s because everything becomes possible (including the recessive smoothing of time, evoked by René Thom) the moment one allows the assemblage to escape from energetico-spatio-temporal coordinates. And, here again, we need to rediscover a manner of being of being - before, after, here and everywhere else - without being, however, identical to itself; a processual, polyphonic being singularisable by infinitely complexifiable textures, according to the infinite speeds which animate its virtual compositions.”
Yeah… I can see why this is intimidating. It really does sound like nonsense. In fact, Felix here is REALLY well known for having a very difficult writing style. He is very choppy and often forgets things. But I don’t think it’s because he’s hiding that he doesn’t have content - if anything, he’s embedding a lot of content here! And he’s also clearly compensating for his own limitations through style and expression. It takes getting used to, but it is manageable. Since he’s really hard to read, I think I should take the time to demonstrate that he isn’t just saying “Fashionable Nonsense”.
First, lets get a little context on where this quote is from. In the paragraphs before, Guattari is comparing the semiology, or system of symbols and signage, of an ATM, with music. This might seem strange to compare, but recall that he’s not saying that an ATM is music, or that they are interchangable, but that the symbols are produced with the ATM are produced in a way that can be compared to how they are in music.
Wait a second, but what does he mean when he says “asingifying semiotic machines is constituted by point signs?”
It helps to have a little context, since these ideas are pretty complicated. When he talks about asignifying semiotic machines, he means that there are abstract structures, kind of like a physical machine, that do not have a signifier, like a word or concept, but still have an impact. An example in science we can think of, is how research helps scientists learn about new phenomenon that never had a structure before. These invisible things are real, and they are influencing indirectly how we see things that we have described, but we haven’t described them yet. And what he means by “point signs” is that the machines themselves are consisting of signs that are like mathematical points - they dont have an area or volume, but they do have a position that can be compared to other points. In this way, it makes a lot more sense when Guattari uses the word “constellation” to describe the relationship between them!
See, the way that Guattari thought that language worked wasn’t that it was some special syntax that was carried through a medium. Rather, he thought the language emerged from the physical medium itself. Think about when you look at a machine, and you need to fix a part of it to make it running again - You make a diagram in your head of the machine to know how to fix it. This diagram organizes a bunch of information to help you figure out what you have to do and where you have to place your hands to get things done. Guattari believed that language emerges from this process, and has a bunch of complicated interactions that build up to the social processes that we see governing society today.
Here, he points out many ways that the composer Debussy connects to many different so called “ontological universes”. Think of these as different enclosed ways of analyzing something. Ontology is a philosophical term that is kind of like the rule set of how we understand how truth and facts are formed. So these different universes all have different ways that they arrange their internal rules about what is true or false, because they all have unique interanl ontological organization.
Now that we know a little about the context, lets try to get into the meat and potatoes. Get it? Potatoes?
Guattari is clearly talking about semiotics here. But what is he saying? What the heck is a bi-univocal correspondence? Well, lets break it down! Bi means “two”, and “univocal” must mean single voice. What he means then by this correspondence, is a two-way communication between singular channels, like two single-voices talking to each other. And he’s saying that this kind of two-way relationship doesn’t exist between so called linear signifying links or archi-writing, and multireferential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. What are these two things? Well, the first is like a long line of signifiers put in an order, like a basic language, while the other has many dimensions and goes in a bunch of directions. And he’s saying that whatever is producing this language is produced in a way that isn’t just a one-to-one relationship.
He goes on to say that:
“the symmetry of scale, 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 criticized previously.”
Well, it seems that all of these things seem to be part of what’s breaking down the binary exchange I described earlier. What are these things exactly?
By symmetry of scale, he means that these objects can embed themselves in each other and are symmetric across different scales, like fractals. For example, you can compare the relationships that you have with your dad with the one you have with the government - they both can replicate from a basic structure of family by repeating a triangular ontological structure that can embed itself inside itself.
With transversality, I give a pretty basic rundown of what it is in the video in the title card here. Its basically the process of crossing two or more of these existential universes together and learning about each one by informing each other through where they can connect together.
And by nondiscursive he means that they aren’t connected to movement of the signs. They are asignifying, after all! Rather, their relations are determined by relationships.
So, what Guattari is saying here is what causes this binary to not exist between the function of the fundamentals of language, and the physical machines thare are producing them, are all of these different properties of these asignifying semiotic machines themselves. It’s not that Guattari was covering up for having no content, its that he was overflowing with content!
Lets keep going. He continues:
“A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis.”
Wait a second - he’s connecting the idea of an assemblage of machines - a special arrangement of these asignifying semiotic machines - that cross over and transverse the ontological limitations of each universe - and pointing out how these relationships can form larger assemblages. You can think of this a little bit like the magic sauce of the two ontological universes connecting. In order to do this, they have to make transformations from one universe to another - transformations that are irreversible, because the state of them is inevitably captured by the other universe’s subjective space. In order for this process to occur, he is saying, the inherent structures of both ontological universes and the very structures that keep them stable, need to be pushed beyond their limit.
Now this is interesting. These subjective, differently coded universes can build larger assembalages of machines by interacting in a way that is constantly reacting to other machines in the structure. And not only this, but these interactions are constantly changing the state of these machines ever so slightly as they interact with each other. This is somewhat similar to how, in an old car, various car components can have various impacts and failures that lead to larger cascades that can cause a car that looked fine to suddenly break down.
“The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms. What fractal machines traverse are substantial scales. They traverse them in engendering them. But, and this should be noted, the existential ordinates that they “invent” were always already there. How can this paradox be sustained? It’s because everything becomes possible (including the recessive smoothing of time, evoked by rene thom) the moment one allows the assemblage to escape from energetico-spatio-temporal coordinates.”
Remember how I mentioned earlier how ontological structures can be symetrically nested in each other like a fractal? Well, that’s what he’s talking about here. These fractal machines self replicate through all these different scales, traversing them as they go along. They keep going until they break from this original set of coordinates and enters a new one by accelerating infinitely towards a limit. But what is strange is that these coordinates already - and always have - existed, even before they could be observed! How is this possible? It’s because in that brief moment when it breaks free - anything is possible, as soon as it breaks free from these coordinates.
With this, the last sentence concludes that instead of seeing being as something that exists for the sake of being, is actually a process of constant change that is defined by an ever changing system of universes of coordinates. And so, we have a better understanding of Guattari’s idea of what it means to exist - a continuous assemblage of asignifying semiotic machines are interacting with each others ontological universes to contiunally change their internal coordinates. In other words - it’s kind of like a video game. In fact,
“And, here again, we need to rediscover a manner of being of being - before, after, here and everywhere else - without being, however, identical to itself; a processual, polyphonic being singularisable by infinitely complexifiable textures, according to the infinite speeds which animate its virtual compositions”
Is exactly the mechanical process that a video game updates its internal state.
Looks like these two need to get a bit more creative with how they use their terms. But what is even more embarassing here is that, unlike both Dawkins and Sokal, Guattari actually has substantial experience in semiology and machines. He worked as a psychoanalyist, and studied under Lacan, who had a bunch of complicated theories that combined psychoanalysis with structuralist semiology, among other things. In order to understand the conversation, he had to have some real training in these subjects. Additionally, he ran pirate radio stations for years along with his son, a hobby that requires extensive mechanical and engineering experience, along with an understanding of signal processing. Clearly Guattari did likely know what he was talking about when it came to machines and semiology.
What experience does Dawkins and Sokal have? Dawkins spent all his years studying things like Giraffe neck anatomy while Sokal is a physicist. While both are important to the improvement of science, neither are trained anywhere near the level of expertise that Guattari has on either subject, and its far more likely that their inexperience - not Guattari’s lack of inteligibility - is what gets in their way. If anything, Dawkins and Sokal here are completely hypocritical, overstepping their boundary and being completely unscientific to try to humiliate someone’s understanding who they doesn’t even understand.
Lets take a look at what his response to Sokal’s criticism is of Lacan as well real quick.
Man I didn’t expect to listen to Dawkins talking about how angry dicks make him. a little weird tbh
Anyways, I think its worth pointing out that personally, I wouldn’t call Lacan post modernist. He’s clearly a structuralist in his theories. I think why they may be confused is because many people called “post modernist” are responding to Lacan’s influence, since he was very popular in France at the time.
Sokal’s main relevant critique of Lacan is that Lacan abuses mathematical operators in his theories, using gibberish as a way to gain influence in “humanities departments”. He claims these are used to hide any possible meaning to seem pretentious. While the point regarding the appropriation of mathematical symbols is true, Lacan really didn’t need to do that to seem pretentious.
Seriously this guy was something else.
However, The real problem though with this critique is that it doesn’t explain why, if Lacan decided to use some other system, like literature or biology, to explain his theory, why it would still be absurd. It isn’t really the use of the mathematical symbols, but the appropriation of them in such a way that reduces them into an absurd concept.
It seems neither Sokal or Dawkins is aware that Guattari was actually a close follower, student and massive simp of Lacan for over 10 years, and that Guattari made his break criticizing Lacan in co-authoring Anti-Oedipus with Deleuze. Lacan has already been “debunked” over 25 years before this article and book were even written. Deleuze and Guattari explain through a sophisticated model why. Basically, in short, they proposed that language emerges from unconscious abstract machines instead of language moving through things like social interactions, challenging the structuralist paradigms of the time. This enraged Lacan so much that he forced Guattari out of his inner circle. This isn’t even the only person mentioned in the article who was shut out by Lacan too - same shit happened to Irigaray!
To give the review some credit, Dawkins and Sokal does correctly point out that some theorists, such as Lyotard, Latour and Baulldrillard use mathematical or scientific concepts incorrectly - a major problem, since this leaves these theorists vulnerable to attack from conservative critics like these in Stem academia. What is apparent is that to both Dawkins and Sokal, making mistakes and being misinformed is not acceptable (even if they do it themselves constantly through the review). The review unfortunately doesn’t offer any real details about why its such a problem, either. Don’t worry. Someone already did. We’ll get to that.
As the paper progresses, Dawkins reveals his political motives. He implies that Post modernism is a leftist movement within academia that uses language to conceal honesty and meaning to suppress certain political opinions. To him, these kinds of thought have “completely overtaken american academic life”. Really? Where? Surely we would hear about it from somewhere besides very questionable websites and the same set of socially conservative scientists. He doesn’t mention where or how these events are occuring, he only vaguely alludes to “charlatans”, borrowing signs from the real problem of fake or counterfeit medicine to claim these theorists are trying to actively cheat people.
I would argue that all academic writing is political, especially those of who he’s criticizing. However, representing their fight as one where “anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else” is a complete misrepresentation of every author featured!
Absolute objective truth, despite being a commonly touted belief for pop science, is not something that is a commonly accepted believe in philosophy - there are too many issues with both language and perception that lead to differences in how we interpret things to make it ontologically impossible. For example, if we have two truth testing machines that have a series of trials to test the truth-value of each question, we will find that if we simply rearrange the information’s order, they will lead to different results. This is because information processed earlier will have higher priority in this system than later data. Knowledge, and likewise truth, is never unconditional - its condition is contingent on being observed in the first place.
Instead, many of these writers, like Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, Baulldrillard and Derrida were interested in issues like the relationship a subject has with society, how power is structured and proliferated in society, and the question of difference. These all change how a person may interpret truth, and they were interested in understanding how these things influence society and people’s lives. It is true that many of these writers overextended their boundaries and wrote about subjects they weren’t aware of, and this leads to failures in their works that were criticized by others in their circle. This is not relally anything new.
Additionally, through this paper, Sokal and Dawkins try to nail down these writers for scientific literacy mistakes. Some, like with Guattari, they completely miss the mark because they don’t understand the source material, while others like Lyotard, and Bauldrillard have some legitimate critiques against them. Unfortunately, these critiques are never explored in the article. Are they explored in the book? Will I have to read Unfashionable Nonsense? Do I hate myself? Probably, yes.
And with that, it’s at this point that Dawkins unfolds the real subject of Fashionable Nonsense, and the real thing he wants people to know about - the Sokal Affair.
The Sokal affair is… dirty, to say the least. CCK philosophy did a pretty detailed video on it that you can see on the cards, but I’m going to give a quick rundown on why it was so shitty.
Basically, Social Text was this tiny publication that was initially started similar to a zine. You know, those self-published edgy anarchist magazines that you see at music shows. It was an independent collection of minority literature, like queer, feminist, black studies with pieces on environmentalism and marxist themes, that was eventually picked up by Duke University in 1992.
It’s a small minor journal that has little direct impact on their fields and more captures minority perspectives. It never was intended to be. This piece, edited only by sociologist Andrew Ross at the time, was not something that you would actually want to peer review in the same way you would peer review Nature. Think about it - its a paper that used to be an independently published radical paper - not a scientific journal. Peer review would have a high chance of sterilizing these marginalized discussions.
Alan Sokal devised a plan - he would create a paper that sounded like a legitimate intersection of what he believed was post modernism with physics, but in a way that only physicists would know it was absolute bullshit. This of course skated past the editor inexperienced in this field. The paper was published, and Sokal announced his trap - he really wrote the paper as a fraud to prove the journal was a fake.
So basically, what Alan Sokal wants you to think happened was that minority studies and “post modernism” are illegitamate charlatans that are trying to trick people into believing lies for political power in academia, when really Sokal approached a journal outside his field, purposely injected a bunch of shit that someone not trained in physics would not notice, and betrayed Ross’s trust through the lack of a physicist to peer review. Yeah, it really was that shitty. I don’t know anything about Ross as a theorist or writer, but this treatment is unprofessional and completely unproductive. Sokal also drags Social Text through the mud for not peer reviewing their material repeatedly, as if it is a cardinal sin for such a small and measely journal to make a mistake. Even prestigeous science publications like the Lancet infamously have published and later redacted misleading papers, such as famously that of Andrew Wakefield. In fact, this mistake was so bad that it fueled over 20 years of anti vaccination propaganda, the same kind we’re dealing with right now with Covid-19. What did the Sokal affair do? It only served as a malicious attack against a small paper. In comparison it barely changed society. Whose mistakes should we really be focusing on here, then?
So Yeah, He really did target a small vulnerable publication instead of something serious with a bait and switch just to make a stink. It really was that shitty.
This incident was widely used to suppress minority expression, by trying to delegitimize these opinions through such a seemingly embarrassing affair to outsiders. In fact, it was much more powerful than sheer censorship - by teaching people to replicate the idea that the lack of peer review is what made this journal such a problem, they create a society that systematically controls these minorities into submission by invalidating their works through these spectacle media stunts. They reinforced not just the way we should look at minority studies, but how we should look at our own work, and the value of our own contributions - “Not unless it’s been peer reviewed” - a complete admission to the destruction of the subjective. Like the Anti-SJW clickbait videos, these minority politics writers are reduced into a hysterical whiny bitch who should just shut up and let the scientists do their job, having a massive impact on how they are treated in society as a whole. The Sokal fair did incredible damage to queer, feminist, black and disabled movements for decades after its resolution. Whether Sokal realizes it or not, his insistence on peer review as a protective measure against aggressive and malicious attacks against a tiny journal’s legitimacy is directly harming the ability for minority issues to express nuanced issues.
What would inspire him to do such a thing? Thankfully, Dawkins tells us - Sokal was inspired by Normal Levitt and Paul Gross’s book “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science”. Dawkins stresses urgently the shocking and terrifying problems revealed in academia, a book that Dawkins himself says “an important book that deserves to become as well known in Britain as it is in the United States.” It truly makes you wonder if Sokal read any of the authors he is criticizing or again drawing reference from somewhere else like how Dawkins seems to have, a question that can only be answered by unfortunately reading this shitty book too.
So looking at this book real quickly on Wikipedia, it mentions a criticism of Bruno Latour, Stanley Aronowitz, Jeremy Rifkin and Andrew Ross, of course. I wonder what they could have possibly done - oh. they’re a bunch of turbo leftists. And Levitt has an extensive bibliography of crytyping about lefties in academics.
The problem isn’t that these authors are or aren’t unscientific. I don’t know enough to be sure, but I think it’s possible to criticize them in a way that isn’t so malicious.
Take this example of when Stephen Jay Gould once criticized Jeremy Rifkin:
“I regard Algeny as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work. Damned shame, too, because the deep issue is troubling and I do not disagree with Rifkin’s basic pleas for respecting the integrity of evolutionary lineages. But devious means compromise good ends, and we shall have to save Rifkin’s humane conclusion from his own lamentable tactics.”
As this example here shows, we can be critical without resorting to completely underhanded tactics. Not only can it help improve someone’s work for the future, but it better explains to the public what went wrong. Weird how nobody tells you about that other evolutionary biologist who was debunking anti-evolution and creationism who made theories that opposed Dawkins and also happened to be a Leftist with prominent political activism, but maybe I’ll talk about that in a later video.
But nobody is truly not prepared for what comes next. Dawkins unloads us with a paragraph that must be seen to be believed.
“He and his fellow ‘cultural studies’ and ‘science studies’ barons are not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know — because many of them have told me — that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.”
Yeah. This dude seriously did just sneak a conspiracy of tenured appointment committees run by hyperpop communists trying to replace “Real science” with “post modernism” and silencing the views of these descentors. Where are these people that he’s talking about anyways? I really wonder what their take on the whole thing. Dawkins intentionally uses very alarmist writing to scare his audience into urgency over this threat taking over american schools and threatening even science itself. No longer are we just talking about theorists anymore, he along with Sokal and his co-author have established themselves as active aggressors to their enemies who are intending to influence the public for favor.
So why did Dawkins publish this frankly embarrassing and bitter piece? Well, like I stated earlier, it’s actually a book review of Fashionable Nonsense. But this article is also shared with people who don’t know better as a sign of legitimacy against post modernism. The combination of this article by Dawkins and the book allow for the Sokal affair to still have relevance with naive pop science enjoyers, who are unaware of how these issues are informing their political beliefs on these problems. They reinforce so heavily the culture that these beliefs are perpetuated both through mainstream society and many scientific circles almost imperceptibly.
This piece not only barely addresses any actual criticisms of most of the mentioned theorists, but serves as a thinly veiled political piece that pathetically attempts to hide its intentions from the unaware reader. In several occasions, Dawkins and Sokal are out of their intellectual league and makes amateurish mistakes from lack of engineering and technological experience. Dawkins unironically implies that a conspiracy of a cabal of leftists is trying to oppress the truth through confusing language, and attempts to delegitimize minority issues grouped into this “post modern’ label, by focusing on underhanded attempts to damage journals intended for minority politics. Issues in Latour, Lyotard and Baudrillard are identified but treated as incurable problems and fails to expand on these criticisms. Sokal, Bricmont nor Dawkins are interested in the improvement of their work but the eradication of them, and tries to scare the reader into believing a conspiracy of frauds are trying to take over academic life. These works are utterly worthless!
But that leaves us with the question… if Dawkins and Sokal didn’t destroy post modernism, then who did?…
[ roll the savage guatt post modern slam dunk ]