‘The nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in the sciences in which the relatively small-scale 18th century disciplines of natural history (which recorded and classified the world) and natural philosophy (which explained and investigated natural phenomena) gave way to large, influential and powerful sciences – the specialised, professionalised and distinct disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and earth and social sciences.’ 

Timothy Boon,  Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary                                           Films and Television, 2008)

The purpose of this chapter is to provide guidance on some of the fundamental but nonetheless challenging concepts of art and visual culture – the three terms used in the whole terrain of theory

  • sign
  • representation
  • constructivism

The Sokal Affair and background research to answer the questions posed for this exercise

Exercise 3.0

The first idea that came to mind whilst reading the passage is:  if science can challenge its own boundaries, what more could art do? ….this sounds very Modernistic, then, second thought… read it out loud and trying to make sense of why I am  asked to be reading this.  I was struggling with a lot of academic jargon, felt overwhelmed and completely had no context to unpack these remarks.

After a google research on the author, I came to the understanding that the aim was to see whether the editors of the  Social Text Journal would publish an article liberally salted with academic jargon because  it

  • sounded good and
  • it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.


Sokal got his article published in Social Text Journal, 1996; without any peer reviews.  A Few weeks later Sokal published in the journal Lingua Franca the revelation that the paper in Social Text was an intentional spoof from his side. His twofold goals, he claimed, were not grandiose but, instead, quite simple: ridiculing would-be science writing and “gross abuses of scientific concepts by certain French [and British and American] philosophical literary intellectuals”.


Shocking and yet making one stop and think about the sense and grounds for academic writing.  During my readings I learnt a new word,   ‘Outré’ (unsual, rather shocking, outlandish, far-out, freakish, off beat, bi zarro)  – but as George Orwell reminded in his essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”  ( merely the fact that I am quoting this, and not having read the essay makes me smile at Sokal)

By now I had to read the whole article and some reviews of the books that followed this debacle. I found out that Sokal is a physicist professor and has degrees from Princeton (B.A. summa cum laude, M.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D.). He holds joint appointments as a professor of physics at New York University and University College London; his info web page lists his expertise or physics specialist foci as “statistical mechanics; quantum field theory; mathematical physics; and computational physics”.

Why it was right of Sokal to publish the article:

Academic writing comes to mind  – must good writing be complex and almost incomprehensible? I am of the opinion that the author not merely ‘joked’ with pretentious and pompous academic postmodernist, who for the sake of ‘modernity’ lost the plot when it comes to truth, reason and objectivity, which was a real concern for him as a serious academic and scientist.   I think this article also challenged why many academics in the postmodern humanities and social sciences have been hostile to the idea that the context of justification for scientific knowledge might in fact involve a form of epistemological realism.  I have been aware of “science and culture wars” – framed as for or against Truth and Objective Reality.  To Sokal, PostModernism was threatening not only the standards of determining objective knowledge but the scientific enterprise, the scientific method.  Social Sciences are judged for taking a relativist position that deny the objective character of physical law, and Science sometimes accuse others of taking a completely relativist view, of not believing in objective reality.  Sokal touches on deconstruction that disrupt and mime in an attempt to ‘open up’ issues – I do believe there is a bias and sensitivity towards sociology that could be seen as an enemy of tradition, and that this also played out in this “hoax on social science” attempt.   Sokal argues that quantum gravity and physical reality are social and linguistic concepts. His charge of “epistemic relativism” against postmodernists, characterising them as asserting there is no objective, external reality,  drew much blood in the time to follow.  Austen and O’Connell ( 2016) refers to his “coming out that the paper was a hoax, by saying Sokal called his paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations.”

In the article by Reynolds (2011) he refers to Sokal’s lines:  “revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science as casting doubt on the post-Enlightenment dogma that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole.”  I think context also comes into play when we look at any critical discourse – Derrida reminds us, not to bury the idea of ‘objectivity’, but like Kant to formulate more than just ‘ding-an-sich’ – he refers to transgression, and not to stay with the first reading.  We should not simply reproduce. I found an online reading of Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida by John D Caputo and it opened my perspective of how we read and interpret.

The following is a copy of Derrida’s reply on Sokal, as Sokal showed in the bibliography of his hoax article, referents of Derrida: “The last thing Derrida is interested in doing is undermining the natural sciences or scientific knowledge generally. A “deconstruction” of natural science, were it undertaken seriously and with a sufficient sense of gravity, would be good news. Its effect would be to keep the laws of science in a self-revising, self-questioning mode of openness to the “other,” which here would mean the scientific “anomaly,” the thing that defies or transgresses the law (nomos). A deconstructive approach to science would keep the scientific community open to the upstarts, the new ideas, the audacious young graduate students who come up with unexpected hypotheses that at first look a little funny and then a little brilliant. A deconstructive approach to natural science would maintain that the “laws” of science are always deconstructible (revisable) just in virtue of an science to come, one that is presently unforeseeable. A deconstructive approach to science would be good news and hard science. The sneaking suspicions that something may be wrong with what we currently believe, while keeping a watchful eye that current paradigms not be taken dogmatically, that something else, something other, still to come, is being missed–that deeply deconstructive frame of mind goes to the heart of hardball science, if it has a heart. “

David Bowie and William Boyd staged a big art world hoax by creating a fake artist.  In 1998, Boyd wrote said biography, called Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960. Boyd arrived at the name by combining the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. Boyd made Nat Tate a New York–based abstract expressionist painter and fabricated the detail that Tate destroyed 99 percent of his work before committing suicide—which is why no one had heard of him. As for the surviving paintings, Boyd painted them himself, and Bowie claimed to own one. Nat Tate was created out of a desire to experiment–to see if something entirely fictitious could experience a life in the world as something wholly credible, real, and true.  To really welcome Nat Tate into the world, Boyd held a book-launch party for the book on April Fools’ Day at Jeff Koons’ New York studio, at which Bowie read several excerpts. An air of reality was created by this fiction and some people of the art world walked right into the trap, claiming to remember Nat Tate and bemoaning his tragic death. A few days later, the secret was out.

What motivated them to do this? An exposé of the pretentious glitterati circling the art world at the time?

A journalist from the Independent newspaper in the UK wrote the following: “So what did it all prove? Aside from the fun aspect, and the cleverness of Boyd’s use of and allusions to so many aspects of 20th century art, it showed, as his imaginative and brilliantly executed project probably intended, that the art world, perhaps the whole cultural world, is scared ever to admit to a lack of knowledge, scared ever to use the words: “I’ve never heard of him.” How quickly the great and the good of that world convinced themselves of Nat Tate’s existence. That’s something we could still all do well to ruminate on.  William Boyd’s objective in writing the book was an intriguing and sophisticated one. Looking back, he has said: “My aim was, first of all, to prove how powerful and credible a pure fiction could be and, at the same time, to try to create a kind of modern fable about the art world. In 1998 we were at the height of the Young British Artists’ delirium. The air was full of Hirst and Emin, Lucas, Hume, Chapman, Harvey, Ofili, Quinn and Turk. My own feeling, was that some of these artists – who were never out of the media and who were achieving record prices for their artworks – were, to put it bluntly, not very good.”

Suspicious during the course:

During my studies of this subject, I had many a time to re-read and make sense – cross referencing and or search for further explanations on google or books, due to the ‘linguistics’ , which I did not understand.   I remember during the Introduction to the course, page 5 in this course book, I already had been confused about the ‘theorizing practice’ and how a growing understanding will me serve in the years to come, also the part on the  reflexive nature of art-writing, page 17 in this course book.  I do think looking back on this process that having studied before in the social sciences made me aware of the academic language I have to try and understand and need to use in the course of my understanding of the ‘visual’.

Extra reading for this discussion

Relativism is a simple and basic issue in epistemology, which asks, how do we know we know the universe or objective reality?  . Robert J. Deltete saw the article challenging the epistemological agenda of the publishers in language they liked. He said that Sokal’s declared aim was “to argue that the emerging theory of quantum gravity decisively shows that physics does not describe an objectively real world, but only offers ‘narratives’, social constructions that are ‘ineluctably relative and historical’ “.

Science seeks continually to remove “observer bias” from its calculations, while philosophy not only accepts the observer, but requires as fundamental in the knowledge enterprise study of human consciousness, the medium and constructor to whatever degree of both what is observed and of “what is”, or being.

Berube (2009) contemplates his proposition that “science is a human endeavor, and
like any other human endeavor it merits being subjected to rigorous social analysis.”  He sees the crucial distinction for Sokal (as for most reasonable people) is the difference between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification”, and states that Sokal is willing (as are most reasonable people) to acknowledge that a potentially infinite number of factors, scientific and nonscientific, can contribute to the discovery of natural laws. The context of discovery can include variables ranging from the details of laboratory life to the vicissitudes of research funding, from Newton’s willingness to believe in alchemy to Einstein’s reluctance to believe in an expanding universe.

But Berube remarks that the context of justification is quite another matter: “The determination of the existence of x rays or of the precession of Mercury’s perihelion does not and cannot depend on factors extraneous to the scientific evidence relevant to the determination. But properly scientific belief is distinguished from all other forms of belief precisely by its insistence—one might want to call it a meta belief—that justified true beliefs can be validated only by rigorous rational inquiry.”  He is of the belief that Sokal attempted to give philosophers of science their due with regard to the context of discovery, and to hold the line on the context of justification.  He also eludes to say that Sokal is, by his own admission, an autodidact in science studies.

This also made me think about why people are gullible, blind to truth, believe fake news and conspiracy theories – all these things challenge reality of everyday where we have the benefit of hindsight and are connected and can have ideas verified.  Are we seeking for meaning, wanting to be part of a group/affiliation and overplay our innate abilities to recognise lies from truths, facts from fiction?  Can it also be that we mistake  representations, signs, symbols, models for the real things themselves? I do think it is necessary for us to reconstruct our daily environment in order for us to ‘manage’/cope, and then, no two people, although living in the same environment will think and feel the same way.


Austen, Siobhan and O’Connell Darren, 2016:  Two Decades after Sokal, Is academic writing any better?  Published in Social Science Space, (downloaded on 6 January 2019)

Berube, Michael, 2009,  American Scientist Magazine, Book review: Beyond the Hoax (pdf file downloaded on 06 January 2019)

Boon, Tim, 2008 , BSHS, Viewpoint Magazine, No 78, October 2008, page 1 – 3.  Accessed online on 14 January 2019.

Deltete, Robert J  2010, Philosophy in Review XXX , no. 2, Alan Sokal Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.  Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. (Downloaded PDF file on 06 January 2019)

Reynolds Jonathan, 2011 Online Spike Magazine: The Sokal Hoax Fifteen years later. (online publication read)

Sokal, A (1996) Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity Social Text pp 217 – 252, Duke University Press

My tutor thought my conclusions were spot on.

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