Someone interested in the muddling of language endemic to the modern era could not have asked for a better example than the Sokal hoax.
In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal succeeded in getting published in a respected cultural studies journal a bit of obviously meritless deconstructionist nonsense, just to prove how shoddy and solipsistic cultural studies had become. My friends in academia no doubt already know about the affair, but for those unfamiliar with you, you can read Sokal's original article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" over at Sokal's Web site, here. The very same day the article was published in Social Texts, another article (also by Sokal) was published in Lingua Franca exposing the hoax (full text here).
Even a casual glance at the original text of the article by a normal person should have revealed its unquestionable idiocy. Some money quotes:
Rather, [natural scientists] cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
Describing reality as an objective fact is artifactual of the lingering Enlightenment scientific metanarrative?
At one point, he declares that quantum gravity is "an archetypal postmodernist science," meaning it is "free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth." But, he goes on to say:
However, these criteria, admirable as they are, are insufficient for a liberatory postmodern science: they liberate human beings from the tyranny of ``absolute truth'' and ``objective reality'', but not necessarily from the tyranny of other human beings. In Andrew Ross' words, we need a science ``that will be publicly answerable and of some service to progressive interests.''
(Ever notice that the modern PC mind sounds pretty much exactly like Milton's Lucifer?)
Finally, postmodern science provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science, as well as an empirical basis for a democratic approach to scientific work. For, as Bohr noted, ``a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description'' -- this is quite simply a fact about the world, much as the self-proclaimed empiricists of modernist science might prefer to deny it. In such a situation, how can a self-perpetuating secular priesthood of credentialed ``scientists'' purport to maintain a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge?
The coup de grace is his call for an "emancipatory mathematics":
But all this is only a first step: the fundamental goal of any emancipatory movement must be to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge, to break down the artificial barriers that separate ``scientists'' from ``the public''. Realistically, this task must start with the younger generation, through a profound reform of the educational system. The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.
Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, ``neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.'' And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: ``mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.'' Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations.
Really quite profoundly stupid stuff. Sokal, in his Lingua Franca article revealing the hoax, acknowledges the endeavored from the outset to answer the question, "Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"
He answers in the positive, and concludes:
Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literarytheory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and ``text,'' then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and ``language games,'' then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.
Sokal is no friend of ours, but we owe him a modest debt of gratitude for exposing the corruption of language endemic to the modern age. It's not only the case that certain words no longer refer to the same concepts (i.e., "love" to affection and sentiment rather than goodwill and charity); it's that the purpose of language itself is slowly shifting.
Language is coming to be used not as a means of communicating ideas, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, or intentions, but to disguise and obscure them.
Obscurantism is the norm in the academic class. Modern scientific output is now largely unreadable to the modestly-educated layperson. (It doesn't help that the standards by which we deem someone to be a "modestly-educated layperson" have fallen dramatically in recent generations. My standard undergraduate background in statistics was apparently sufficient to equip me with the skills to analyze and write up the results section of a research paper which one of my team members, an MPH at a respected East Coast university, termed unreadable to anyone but an MIT statistician!)
Obscurantist discourse is especially endemic in the humanities, which lack technical jargon compared to the hard sciences but make up for it with agonizingly long and torturous sentences of unintelligible PC buzzwords and insane hermeneutical styles. Robert Locke, commenting on deconstructionism in Front Page Magazine years ago, wrote:
One of the clearest signs that deconstructionism is a con is that it is invariably expressed in the most complicated possible language, not the clearest, a sure sign that the writer is trying to sound clever rather than convey information. The summary I have just given would take months to extract from the average deconstructionist. The effort required to glean the actual meaning from their spaghetti tangles of runon sentences, larded with a standard repertoire of tortured constructions and verbal tics, is a kind of hazing ritual required for initiation into the deconstructionist illuminati.
They have a number of these standard verbal tics by which they can be recognized. Gratuitous plurals are one, as in "homosexualities," a favorite term intended to convey the great insight that not all homosexuals are alike. But not even Jerry Falwell thinks this! When I saw the home decorating section of the New York Times Sunday Magazine headlined "domesticities" a few months ago, I knew for sure that some deconstructionist young pup had finally made it to the editorial chair.
Curiously, though, the unintelligibility of modern academic writing seems to have the simultaneous effect of shutting out right-thinking people from participating (how can the psychiatrists commune with their straitjacketed patients?) while allowing a (marginally coherent) leftist narrative to form, which of course then trickles down to the masses; it's the ability of the left to form and propagate such narratives, quickly if necessary, that gives them such a tremendous advantage over the right, which persists to this day.
But this corruption of language is not unique to the university: it's everywhere (as should be expected, since the university is the spawning pool from which every modern idea and institution and leader emerges).
Political speech, for instance, is widely hated: no one trusts politicians and everyone instinctively assumes they're lying. They lie about something, get caught lying, and then lie about their lies -- and everyone knows the second round of lies are no less lies than the first. Flattery and lies are basically the essence of democratic discourse.
There is widespread and growing recognition that the media is either shot through with dishonesty and corruption or else is grossly incompetent; hence newspapers across the country are failing as preferences shift toward online news sources.
Dr. Charlton notes that dishonesty is the norm in Britain even in its private life, and, as Jim Kalb notes in the comments section (where he traces the etiology of modern dishonesty through its corporate, political, and ultimately academic channels), it is more or less the norm in America now, too. Nearly everyone lies, almost constantly; it is a wonder anymore that people are surprised by this.
To backtrack to the academic for a moment, Peter Drucker identified the rise of academic obscurantism as a second treason of the intellectuals (the first, in reference to Benda's titular work, was their selling-out to the Nazis and communists):
I consider the obscurantism of today's intellectuals to be betrayal and treason. In large part they bear the blame for the debasement of culture, especially in the United States. The intellectuals themselves plead that the laity has lost receptivity to knowledge, to science, to discourse and to reason. But this is simply not true. Whenever a scholar deigns to write decent prose he or she immediately finds a wide audience. I myself am an example. But so was Barbara Tuchman, among historians, Rachel Carson or Loren Eisele among ecologists of the physical universe, Irving Louis Horowitz among sociologists, and a good many others. The receptivity is there, and so is the need. What today passes for scholarship is nothing but arrogance.
Incidentally, Drucker goes on to say:
But then, the Vienna in which I grew up was also the home of Karl Kraus (1874-1936), arguably the greatest master of the German language in this century. And for Kraus language was morality. Langauge was integrity. To corrupt language was to corrupt society and individual alike.
. . . And Kierkegaard [too] preached the sanctity of language. For Kierkegaard, language is aesthetics and aesthetics is morality. Long before George Orwell I therefore knew that the corruption of language is the tool of the tyrant. It is both a sin and a crime.
For the social ecologist, language is however doubly important. For language is in itself social ecology. For the social ecologist lanuage is not "communication." It is not just "message." It is substance. It is the cement that holds humanity together. It creates community and communion.
I had previously wondered whether the corruption of language was antecedent to modernity or whether it was a deliberate affectation enacted in order to advance it -- that is, whether the modern mind degenerates into nonsense because he doesn't have the language to think clearly, or whether the modern mind intentionally corrupts language so as to render antimodern concepts intellectually inaccessible and to sew confusion within which he can advance his subversive and evil agenda.
I'm increasingly inclining toward the latter view, which matches my increasing inclination to see modernity as not merely a human error but as an antimiracle, a work of the Devil.