Jan 13th, 2006 by ravi
Criticism of Pomo Feminism

Over at K’s blog, she writes:

Bitch responds: Is Cultural Feminism Pomo Feminism?
But, anyway, I’d say that, no, cultural feminism is rather different from postmodern thought. And I will warn you: While I wouldn’t say I’m a postmodernist, I certainly didn’t spend my time studying it and in fact mostly wrote criticisms of it, I do have a big problem when I read dismissive crits of their work.

Since I posted recently about the Sokal prank and the uncharitable (and inconclusive) attack it represents, the above jogged my memory of an interesting paper by Gabriel Stolzenberg, a mathematician at BU, in response to the attacks on postmodernism by various physicists and philosophers (Sokal, Weinberg, Nagel, to name a few). The paper is Reading and Relativism (PDF) and is a wonderful read and includes this section, a quotation from Luce Irigaray by Thomal Nagel, which Nagel then goes on to criticize:

Is E = Mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary tous. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes thefastest….”

Stolzenberger comments on Nagel’s response:

This may send Nagel into convulsions but how does he know that it is her problem not his? How can he possibly know unless he knows what Irigaray means by “sexed” and “privileges” and that her reference to speeds is not an ironic metaphor? If he does not know these things, he is kidding himself. But if he does know, why does he not tell us, so we can join in the fun of mocking Irigaray? Instead of fulfilling his obligation as a philosopher to give us a reason to believe what he says, Nagel encourages us to trust that whatever Irigaray means is refuted by the authors’ “comically patient” observation,

Whatever one may think about the “other speeds that are vitally necessary to us,” the fact remains that the relationship E = Mc2 between energy (E) and mass (M) isexperimentally verified to a high degree of precision, and it would obviously not be valid if the speed of light (c) were replaced by another speed.

This shows especially poor judgement. If Sokal and Bricmont think that something privileged can easily be replaced, there is little reason to suppose that they have any idea of what Irigaray is talking about. And by mocking her instead of giving us an argument, Nagel makes it appear that neither does he.

As Stolzenberger points out elsewhere, a kinder reading of the text might produce other interpretations which make a lot more sense than the narrow sense in which Nagel uses it.

I am reminded of Heidegger’s famous “science does not think” essay. One reading of Irigaray’s text may yield a point similar to the one Heidegger makes.

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3 Responses

  • Anonymous says:

    What possible interpretation of Irigaray’s quote isn’t ridiculous?

    You can’t just fall back on the old “it was a just a metaphore/joke/ironic remark” every time someone points out the falsity of such claims.

  • milo says:

    I just came across this admirably civil comment. Here is reply six years late.

    1) What possible interpretation of Irigaray’s quote isn’t ridiculous?

    Ask Arkady Potnitsky what Irigaray means.

    Some of Arkady’s credentials: All but Ph.D. in mathematics with Gromov (one of the world’s greatest mathematicians) in the USSR, graduate studies in physics in the USSR, Ph.D. in English literature in England, doctoral thesis on the history of the romance novel, currently professor of literature at Purdue, kindly helped to save Sokal even greater embarrassment by explaining that the humanists he mocked for talking nonsense about chaos theory were not talking about chaos theory. They were talking about chaos in the original sense of the term (e.g., as in Milton).

    Also, see how Nagel’s gibberish about special relativity theory is handled in the section “Hatchet jobs” of “Reading and relativism.”

    2) You can’t just fall back on the old “it was a just a metaphore/joke/ironic remark” every time someone points out the falsity of such claims.

    I agree. However, I see no false claim here on the part of Irigaray. It’s rather that Sokal outrageously misrepresents what she says to make it seem so. (E.g., by his apparently willful misunderstanding of Irigaray’s use of the term “privileged.”)

  • milo milo says:

    I added this remark before but in case they weren’t received:

    I forgot to mention that Plotnitsky used to teach Irigarary, whom he sometimes jokingly referred to as “one of the crazies,” to remind us how Sokal, in his pretentious ignorance, referred to her and, presumably, still does.

    You can learn all you need to about Sokal’s mind-boggling incompetence in these matters by reading his bizarre complaints about Irigaray’s utterly uncontroversial comments about boundaries of vague predicates. (E.g., a ‘D’ morphed into an ‘O’ and back. Where is the boundary of ‘D’? Is there one?) Sokal tells us that these concerns are addressed in differential topology. In differential topology!! I’m not kidding.

    And the readers say, “Yes, wise one. Yes.” It’s as if the inmates
    are running the asylum. Hooray for scholarship.

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