In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of—ethnic studies? Not exactly the trochees that Tennyson would have chosen, perhaps, but such are the vicissitudes of academic life today. In what has become nearly as predictable—if not as welcome—as the appearance of daffodils, disgruntled students at Columbia University once again took advantage of the first sign of clement weather to act like spoiled children and “demonstrate” against the university. It was all a far cry from the violent events of 1968. Still, in early April about two hundred students took part in various protest activities, including rallies, hunger strikes, and the brief occupation of Columbia’s Low Library. This year, the “issue” was establishing an “ethnic studies” department. According to a manifesto published in a Columbia student newspaper, such a department would seek to create “post-disciplinary scholarship which counters white hegemony, not only in content but in form and epistemology,” overturning “the Eurocentric—and invariably racist— intellectual foundations of traditional disciplines.” You know, disciplines like English, history, classics, mathematics, philosophy: all that white, hegemonic stuff. The irony, of course, is that many of the students who agitate against the “Eurocentric” curriculum at Columbia and elsewhere are only present at the university in the first place because of the discriminatory practice of what is euphemistically called “affirmative action,” a.k.a. preferential treatment. But once admitted, it turns out that what many such students want is not an education but ideological training designed to confirm their coveted status as “victims.”
While the Columbia University administrators did not cave in entirely to these student demands, they did agree to hire more minority faculty and give students a role in their selection. All this was done in the name of fostering … “diversity.” Indeed, “diversity” has emerged as an epithet of talismanic power in our society. It has mesmerized not only American colleges and universities but also many businesses that, struggling to keep up with Federally mandated “affirmative action” quotas, have hired “diversity consultants” to improve their “diversity profile,” i.e., the number of specified minorities, women, handicapped persons, etc., that they employ. As the social commentator Heather Mac Donald reported in an essay on “The Diversity Industry” in The New Republic a couple of years ago, what counts for those charged with increasing diversity in the corporate world is not competence but such political criteria as race, sex, or ethnic origin. As one “diversity consultant” bluntly admitted, “‘Qualifications’ is a code word in the business world with very negative connotations.”
It has pretty negative connotations in the academic world, too, especially in admissions offices. In a short but brilliant article in The Weekly Standard (“Harvard Loves Diversity,” March 25), the political philosopher Harvey Mansfield used a report recently issued by Harvard’s president, Neil Rudenstine, on the subject of “Diversity and Learning” to make some much needed distinctions. “In the past,” Professor Mansfield noted, “diversity was sought for the sake of academic excellence; now it is sought at the expense of excellence.” The handmaiden of “affirmative action” policies, diversity as pursued in the academy no longer refers to intellectual diversity but to the effort to achieve proportional representation on the basis of race, ethnic origin, and other considerations that have nothing to do with a student’s academic qualifications or achievement. According to President Rudenstine, although it is important to maintain high academic standards, “the more difficult and genuine challenge” for Harvard is to achieve “diversity.” But, as Professor Mansfield pointed out, this just is not true: “It is easy to indulge ‘other significant values’ than excellence… . What is hard is to sustain excellence against the temptation of other values that appear to be more significant.” Now that total fees at some of our premier universities exceed $30,000 per year, it is worth stepping back once again to ask just what the mania for diversity has wrought: to ask just what students are getting in exchange for their tuition dollars at a time when colleges and universities are everywhere willing to compromise educational standards for the sake of meeting political quotas.
One thing that almost all colleges and universities these days are trumpeting is a species of extreme relativism that goes under the name of cultural studies. The adjective “cultural” makes it sound harmless enough; but in fact cultural studies encompasses activities and doctrines that are far from harmless. Despite its name, cultural studies is fundamentally an attack on everything that was traditionally meant by culture. Its primary motive is not knowledge but politics, specifically the radical, anti-Western cultural politics that is fired by feminism, multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, deconstruction, post-colonial theory, queer theory, and all the other unlovely allotropes of post-Marxist leftism that deface American colleges and universities like so much intellectual litter. The story of the rise of cultural studies—and make no mistake, it is on the rise everywhere in the academy—is a sorry tale composed partly of misguided political activism, partly of arrogant intellectual chicanery, and partly of pusillanimity among those who know better but are afraid to speak up. As usual, the biggest losers are students, who instead of receiving an education are treated to an expensive and corrupting form of ideological indoctrination. In the end, cultural studies is an intellectual coefficient of the spurious demands for “affirmative action” and diversity.
Readers of The New Criterion will be familiar with the radical agenda at the heart of cultural studies. Over the years, we have had occasion to report on numerous manifestations of this politically charged intellectual virus, which at many institutions has transformed the teaching of the humanities into a kind of intellectual freak show. These are harsh words; but they are not, alas, an exaggeration. As a specimen case, consider the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of the left-wing quarterly Social Text. Largely the brainchild of Stanley Aronowitz, a professional Marxist who teaches sociology and (of course) cultural studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Social Text is a bit of an atavism among trendy gauchiste academic publications. In tone, anyway, it tends to display a dour, old-fashioned struggle-of-the-masses variety of Marxism. Instead of listing an editor on its masthead, for example, it brandishes an “Editorial Collective.” That sort of thing. No doubt it makes Professor Aronowitz feel that he is doing his mite for the Revolution.
Still, he is learning. Social Text is now published by Duke University Press, one of the trendiest of academic publishers. And its current special issue is devoted to one of the trendiest of academic topics—the so-called “Science Wars,” i.e., the war against science and its canons of rationality that is now being waged by deconstructionists, post-structuralists, feminists, multiculturalists, and other partisans of diversity and cultural studies. Appropriately, the editor of this special issue of Social Text is Andrew Ross. Readers of The New Criterion will remember Professor Ross. He appeared, for example, in our report on the 1994 meeting of the Modern Language Association, where he participated in a panel called “Who Qualifies to Critique Science?” A Scot by birth, Professor Ross has parlayed an accent (proletarian chic), adolescent attire and intellectual interests, and large dollops of Marxist rhetoric into an amazingly successful academic career. He first made a name for himself teaching English at Princeton University, where his proclaimed goal was radicalizing “the children of the ruling class.” A few years ago, he was enticed away from Princeton to New York University to become director of its American Studies Program.
Professor Ross, who recently announced that he had given up on books for television and pop culture, was the perfect choice to edit this chrestomathy of animus against science and rationality. His own book on the subject, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, was dedicated to “all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.” And he has assembled a roster of contributors who are, for the most part, just as militantly ignorant of science as he. Notable among the sixteen contributors to this volume is Joel Kovel, the Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College. (No, this is not a joke: someone actually paid to establish a chair at Bard to honor this convicted felon.) True to the spirit of his patron, Professor Kovel assures us that “Marxism, though very much in shambles, is given new life by the relevance of its critique of a capitalism gone berserk.” Then there is one Hilary Rose, whose contributor’s note informs us that she has been active “initially as a socialist and later as a socialist feminist, in the politics of science since the radical science movement came into existence as part of the opposition to the Vietnam War.” And we mustn’t forget Ruth Hubbard, whose essay “Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender” brings the memorable news that “when it comes to sex, the Western assumption that there are only two sexes probably derives from our culture’s close coupling between sex and procreation. That coupling, if it does not grow out of the teachings of Western religions, is surely reinforced by them.” Well, yes. I suppose it is. “Male and female created he them,” and all that. But this duality—this (horror!) “binary opposition”—strikes poor Professor Hubbard as an intolerable impudence. So she scours the historical record for some unfortunate freaks of nature—enthusiasts for cultural studies are very high on hermaphrodites— and offers them up as evidence of human sexual polymorphousness. “The time is ripe,” she concludes, “for physicians and scientists also to remove their binary spectacles and, rather than explore what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female,’ look into what it means to be neither or both, which is what most of us are.” Really? In his introduction, Andrew Ross bemoaned the “asinine anecdotes about feminist algebra, queer quantum physics, and Afrocentric molecular biology” that critics of science studies have been pleased to cite in their criticisms. But what about the asinine examples that he has gathered together to “demystify” the practice of science?
The bête noir for almost all the contributors to this issue of Social Text is Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Indeed, ever since it appeared, in 1994, this magisterial attack on the mind-boggling ignorance, arrogant pretentiousness, and political posturing that have characterized the radical “critique” of science has been high on the list of the academic Left’s most hated books. Andrew Ross sets the tone when he notes in his introduction that Higher Superstition “belongs fair and square to the tradition of Alan [sic] Bloom, William Bennett, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Dinesh D’Souza”—than which, of course, nothing worse can be imagined. Other contributors decry “the hysteria of Gross and Levitt,” their “unintelligent critique of science studies,” their “malicious” spirit, “philosophical naïveté,” etc. An amusing collection of charges, that, especially considering, on the one hand, the combination of venom and ignorance displayed by the contributors to this volume (and by practitioners of science studies generally) and, on the other, the intellectual sophistication and sprightliness with which Messrs. Gross and Levitt deployed their own criticism.
One reads that this issue of Social Text was intended to supply a “concerted” response to Higher Superstition. But although most of the articles begin with a ritual denunciation of the book, what Professor Ross has assembled is not so much a response to the attack on science studies as yet another compendium of the intellectual evils that Messrs. Gross and Levitt dissected with such consummate patience and skill in their book. There is, first of all, a general weakness for portentous pseudo-philosophical verbiage and name-dropping. Stanley Aronowitz provides a sterling example of this in his long essay, “The Politics of the Science Wars”:
My argument is not only grounded in the persuasive positivism of all academic disciplines but depends on one of the more important interpretations of quantum theory suggested by physicists and philosophers as diverse as Neils [sic] Bohr, David Bohm, and Roy Bhaskar. In opposition to interpretations of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, according to which the problem of measurement of the electron is chiefly epistemological, that is, following Kant’s famous doctrine that knowledge of the real is inevitably mediated by the categories of the mind, Bohm, for example, offers an ontological interpretation of quantum theory.
And so on. Professor Aronowitz depends so extensively on Niels Bohr that he cannot even spell his name correctly. He also neatly illustrates my rule of thumb that anyone in the humanities or social sciences who invokes Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle should be considered guilty until proven innocent. (The same goes for those invoking Thomas Kuhn’s phrase “paradigm shift”: what a lot of fog that little notion has conjured!) It has been clear for some time that trendy professors of English oughtn’t to read philosophy: it gives them gas and confuses them. As Professor Aronowitz shows, this is equally true of trendy sociologists and professors of cultural studies. Kant is bad for them. If they insist on citing him, they ought first to be made to explain why Kant was right to define truth as “the correspondence of thought with its object.” All and all, Professor Aronowitz confirms the observation made by the classicist Hugh Lloyd-Jones that Geistesgeschichte is really only a polite term for Quatsch—a polite term, that is, for twaddle.
But ignorant pretentiousness is the least of the evils afflicting cultural studies. There are two other intellectual debilities that are particularly in evidence in this issue of Social Text and that deserve notice. The first is the inability or unwillingness to distinguish effectively between language that is figurative and language that is predominantly discursive. Consider Sharon Traweek, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Cultural Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine at UCLA. In her contribution, “Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science,” Professor Traweek begins by recalling that the announced purpose of the issue was to “coordinate views about the current state of the contests between social rationality and scientific rationality.” The term coordinate sparks an intoxicated orgy of free-association. “The word,” Professor Traweek writes, “brings to my mind Descartes’s orthogonal measuring lines and the social niceties in the late 1950s of getting the colors of one’s clothes aligned or even getting the lines of our high school drill team perfectly straight.” In other words, Professor Traweek suffers from essentially the same deficiency as the children’s book character Amelia Bedelia who, told to dress the turkey, proceeds to find some clothes into which she can stuff the unfortunate bird. It is worth keeping this in mind when, at the end of “Unity, Dyads,” etc., we read that “the law of the excluded middle isn’t always interesting and it doesn’t always hold, especially in the best compositions. Let’s dance.”
The second intellectual handicap on prominent view in this issue of Social Text is the inability to distinguish between the uses to which science might be put and the truth or cogency of the knowledge which it supplies. Thus Andrew Ross writes that “if there has been one constant in the history of science, it is the relationship of applied research and technology to military force. Nothing belies the myth of pure science more than the evidence that it has served as the handmaiden of warfare.” But of course Professor Ross has it exactly wrong. The fact that wave theory might prove to be useful in implementing the guidance systems of cruise missiles in no way compromises the purity or truth of the relevant mathematics. (And one feels constrained to remind Professor Ross that his cozy post at NYU is secure only because the United States has been lucky and prudent enough to put science to effective military use.) Another contributor, Sarah Franklin, inadvertently touches on the key issue when she criticizes, with italics, Messrs. Gross and Levitt’s view of science “because it is ultimately one that positions knowers as less powerful than the reality they describe.” Indeed. This is the fundamental choice: either knowledge must defer to reality or, as the epistemological relativists would have it, reality must defer to the knower. Science—no, more: genuine knowledge of any kind—requires the former; cultural studies and its academic cousins embrace the latter.
All the contributions to this volume of Social Text are bad; but without doubt the most egregious effort is the concluding essay, “Transgressing Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” by the physicist Alan D. Sokal. In its way, Professor Sokal’s essay is a model performance. Some fifteen pages long, it is followed by thirteen pages of pseudo-scholarly notes and ten pages of references. Although slightly more deferential than the other contributions to this issue—Professor Sokal refers early, fulsomely, and often to work by Stanley Aronowitz, Andrew Ross, and other luminaries of cultural studies—in tone and content his essay is utterly of a piece with the others, from its rebarbative title to its goal of outlining a “liberatory postmodern science.” Along the way, Professor Sokal dispenses all the usual subjectivist clichés, arguing, for example, that “it has … become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct” and that “scientific ‘knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it.” The scare quotes around “reality” and “knowledge” are a nice touch. And the way Professor Sokal links the theories of Jacques Lacan and differential topology will be the envy of many a student of Cultural Studies: “In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts,” etc. Pure drivel, of course, but how expertly phrased! There is a great deal more that might be said about Professor Sokal’s offering; anyone wanting a compact illustration of what’s wrong with science studies will want to savor it.
There is a lot of whining about “alternative rationalities” and the like in this issue of Social Text. Andrew Ross, for example, writes that “science does not have a monopoly on rationality,” and he looks forward to contriving “different ways of doing science, ways that downgrade methodology, experiment, and manufacturing in favor of local environments, cultural values, and principles of social justice. This is the way that leads from relativism to diversity.” For the most part, all this is a degraded form of politicized romance: a kind of academic New Ageism, in which political correctness unites with the poisonous dogmas of deconstruction to produce a notably fatuous form of nihilistic posturing.
And yet there is a sense in which it must be admitted that Professor Ross and his like-minded colleagues are straining to articulate an important insight. For although the notion that the truths of science are mere social constructions—that they are, for example, somehow subject to the claims of “diversity”—is arrant nonsense, it is nonetheless true that science by no means exhausts our experience of the world. The realities of love, of aesthetic or religious experience, the call of duty or conscience: these most exigent claims on our attention are not matters that can be reduced to scientific data. Then, too, the enormous power that science has given us over the natural world is a double-edged blessing. That power is real—which means that it continuously belies the efforts, so abundantly represented in this issue of Social Text, to read science as just another form of “discourse.” But it also confronts us with manifold questions—moral questions—that science itself cannot answer. The real problem with science studies, quite apart from its juvenile politics and insufferable posturing, is not that it wishes to criticize the place of science and technology in our culture, but that it does not sufficiently acknowledge the truth and power of scientific rationality. By attempting to rob science of its special epistemological force—by denying, that is to say, the ideal of objectivity that stands behind and guides modern scientific inquiry—science studies assures that its criticism will be precisely the kind of fictional construct it accuses science itself of being. One may well wish to criticize the “hegemony” of scientific rationality in our culture; but one can do that effectively only by first facing up to the reasons for that dominance and acknowledging the extraordinary explanatory power that science affords us. The philosopher Karsten Harries seems to me correct when he observes that
the pursuit of objective reality … has liberated our understanding … and granted us a more adequate understanding of the workings of nature. Technology demonstrates daily the power that the pursuit of objectivity has granted us. And if we see with ever clearer eyes the frightening dimensions of such power, we abdicate our responsibility of meeting that threat when we seek refuge in a rhetoric that suggests that our science is not really superior to all science that has gone before it or that out technological way of life is just another.
But we abdicate our responsibility also when we view technology as an autonomous force, a dictator who will dispose of our lives, regardless of our wishes.
The key, Harries suggests, is to recognize that “the task facing us is not simply that of guiding technological progress, but the much more difficult task of establishing boundaries of that progress.” Exactly where one will discover criteria for establishing those boundaries is not perhaps clear. Certainly, a recognition that many human problems are not, and should not be, susceptible to technological manipulation and management is a necessary first step. But it is just as certain that the naïve political fantasies fostered by cultural studies, which begin by denying the truth and power that science offers, succeed primarily in exhibiting their own impotent frivolity.
- See “A Farewell to the MLA,” by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, in The New Criterion (February 1995). Go back to the text.
- See my review of Higher Superstition in The New Criterion (May 1994). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 9, on page 4
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com