Sokal Squared come out fighting

The so-called ‘Sokal Squared’ collective who effectively trolled a series of journals a few years back with spoof articles intended to satirise the methodologies, findings and content of social science journals, have been defending their work.

By way of aide-memoire for anyone who doesn’t recall the ‘Grievance Studies’ debacle, in 2017 and 2018, three academics submitted a range of papers for submission to academic journals primarily dedicated to topics such as cultural, queer, race, sexuality and fat studies. The academics – Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose – contended that the level of scholarly standards in these journals, and indeed in those fields, was low and eroding the reputation of academia generally.

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Lindsay and Pluckrose, chuckling over the content of one of their bogus articles

When some of their articles were published, they went public to condemn what they saw as poor academic standards in these fields, and critique what they termed the prioritisation of ‘social grievances’ over rigorous academic scholarship. Their contention was that certain fields were underpinned by the assumption of certain grievances, and the scholarship which took place within those fields amended and adapted theories and findings to reinforce those grievances.

The reaction was varied; they received praise from some quarters, including some of the journal editors themselves, but they were also on the receiving end of serious criticism for what many perceived as unethical behaviour. After the debacle reached the pages of the New York Times, Boghossian was even investigated by his own employer in relation to academic ethics.

This current paper, some years on, in the journal Sociological Methods and Research, suggests that the Sokal Squared authors are still not happy about how their experiment was received. In response to a journal article supporting them last year, they have come out with this latest attempt to explain their methods and motives. I expect likewise that there are many people working in those particular academic disciplines who remain unhappy with the ‘Grievance Studies’ papers experiment in the first place.

Mostly, I’m noting this because I cited most of these papers in one of my own, an article which also aimed to highlight what I perceived as a shoddy corner of academia engaged in dubious practices, which could best be highlighted by actually engaging with the process of submitting a paper.

My target was, I think, much less ambiguous than that of Boghossian et. al. I took aim at the predatory open access journals which have sprung up in recent years, looking to prey on primarily emerging academics and academics from developing nations by charging sky-high article processing fees. In order to highlight that my article was a hoax, I cited not only the Grievance Studies articles which had made it into print, but also Sokal himself, the granddaddy of the practice, whose 1996 spoof of postmodern cultural studies led ultimately to a book, and an argument with Jacques Derrida.

I think I was able to categorically demonstrate the shoddy and debased academic practices, if you can even call them that, of these journals. I’m not entirely convinced that the Sokal Squared team made their case as definitively, but in this latest article, they do manage to convince that theirs was a serious attempt to expose what they felt was of serious concern.

In short, it wasn’t a hoax, folks.

Deriding Derrida

Obfuscatory and certainly overrated he was, but perhaps we are slowly approaching something like an honest appraisal of Jacques Derrida, a midwit philosopher not without nuance, though it was often difficult to identify among the verbiage.

He was, for a time, the king of theory, the verbose form of analysis that gobbled up literary criticism in the Anglophone world in the 1980s and onward, emerging initially from the May 68 generation in France (though intriguingly, Derrida himself sat that one out.) The theory wars of those years have created generations of critics who have learned to theorise but not to criticise, arguably. But perhaps, like all pendula, it has begun to swing back again as that generation ages and a new generation has its own concerns and modes of expressing them.

Undoubtedly, though, literary analysis has suffered at the dead hands of Derridean deconstruction. We have lived in the long shadow of what Anthony Burgess might have termed Frenchified madness for far too long. However, it must be said that, among the anti-semites, paedophilia apologists and spoofers of that era, Derrida (and Cixous, and certainly Arendt) is far from the worst.

Prospect mag features a review of a new biography of Derrida, which is intended to provide some nuance to the polarised perspectives he generates. For some, and I find myself largely in sympathy, he is one of a school of French obscurantists who had little love of language or literature and a significant debt to Marxism, and who did more damage to literary criticism than contributing to its development. For others, he was a key voice in a generation of French theorists who provided new ways of looking at cultural production.

Anyhow, Derrida’s star may have waned, and perhaps not enough, but it seems that he will be with us for some time yet. One waits (in vain) for similar sober reappraisals of others of that era, in particular the preposterous Badiou, the overblown Foucault and especially the charlatan Lacan.