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Friday 10 March 2017

Social Text two decades on from the Sokal Affair

Social Text covers a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena, applying the latest interpretive methods to the world at large. A daring and controversial leader in the field of cultural studies, the journal consistently focuses attention on questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment, publishing key works by the most influential social and cultural theorists. As a journal at the forefront of cultural theory, Social Text seeks provocative interviews and challenging articles from emerging critical voices. Each issue breaks new ground in the debates about postcolonialism, postmodernism, and popular culture.
In 1996, the academic journal Social Text was hoaxed by an academic physicist, Alan Sokal, who submitted a deliberately absurd, ridiculous and partly unintelligible article - but laced with “Right On” references. A pre-Twitter furore and debate ensued. In connection with something I am writing now, I wanted to check what happened to Social Text. Well, surprisingly, it didn’t fold and above I quote from its initial self-presentation on its current website page.

I found myself thinking, What would a tutor say if this little bit of text was submitted in fulfilment of the requirement for a course in Writing Publicity Blurbs? Would the tutor wonder, Does this student want to fail the course? Or would they confine themselves to a Comment, Too many adjectives? Or Well, I suppose at least you avoided the ultimate cliché, "cutting edge".

The idea of reading and interpreting the “world at large” as if it was a literary text is not absurd and has a long pedigree, starting I suppose with the idea of the “Open Book of the World”. So we are already into centuries of effort. But in post-modernist / post-structuralist or simply low-grade academic writing, the genre has been much abused. You can try to get away with anything and you will probably be applauded if you provide enough Right On signalling.

The really idiotic part of this PR blurb is in the last sentence in which the breaking of new ground is confidently  programmed according to the requirements of a publishing schedule. Oh vanity! I thought that intellectual discoveries came along at ten or twenty year intervals and that then three came along all at once. But, no, your Subscription to Social Text  will guarantee Order.

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