Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Hunt for the Sexed Equation

The Sokal Affair

In 1996, the journal Social Text published an article by Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University:
The article was an undetected parody of postmodernist / deconstructionist writing about science and, in an article for the journal Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed that he had perpetrated a hoax on Social Text.  The hoax and ensuing arguments became known as the "Sokal affair", or "Sokal Hoax".

The key documents in the debate that followed are usefully collected here:

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont quickly published a book, Impostures Intellectuelles (1997), reprinting the parody article and expanding on the issues raised. It was written in French because so many of the targets were French writers.

Impostures Intellectuelles: versions and editions

The following is an illustrated history of the French and English editions of the book leading into a discussion of the provenance of one particular quotation used by Sokal and Bricmont. 

Each edition listed is numbered, for convenience when citing them in the subsequent discussion.

Sokal and Bricmont’s book was first published in French as follows:

[#1] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1997). Impostures Intellectuelles. Paris, Éditions Odile Jacob.

A revised second edition, which included a new preface, was published a couple of years later:

[#2] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1999). Impostures Intellectuelles. 2nd ed. Paris, Livre de Poche. 

The preface to the first English translation (#3, below), published in 1998, included the following note of explanation:
“This edition is, in most respects, a straight translation from the French original. We have omitted a chapter on the misunderstandings of relativity by Henri Bergson and his successors, which seemed to us of marginal interest for most British and American readers. Conversely, we have expanded a few discussions concerning intellectual debates in the English-speaking world. We have also made many small changes to improve the clarity of the original text, to correct minor imprecisions, and to forestall misunderstandings.”
And the introduction provides the following useful information (it was the other way around in the original French edition):
“Many of the texts quoted in this book originally appeared in French. Where a published English translation exists, we have most often used it (sometimes noting our corrections); it is cited in the bibliography, along with the original French source in brackets. In other cases, the translation is ours. We have endeavoured to remain as faithful as possible to the original French, and in case of doubt we have reproduced the latter in brackets or even in toto.”

[#3] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1998). Intellectual Impostures.  London, Profile Books.

A second edition of this version followed a year later:

[#4] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1999). Intellectual Impostures.  2nd ed. London, Profile Books. 

The second edition was reprinted by Profile Books in 2003:

[#5] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1999). Intellectual Impostures.  2nd ed. Reprint, London, Profile Books, 2003.

The U.S. edition of the book – containing the same material as the first UK edition - was published in hardback under the title “Fashionable Nonsense” in 1998. A paperback version with the same cover design followed in 1999 (#7). The second edition has not, at the time of writing, been published in the U.S.

[#6] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1998). Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science. New York, Picador USA.

[#7] Sokal, Alan and Bricmont, Jean (1999). Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science. New York, Picador USA.

Irigaray and the 'Sexed Equation'

For some reviewers of the English translation of the book, one of the quotations Sokal and Bricmont present as damning evidence of the scientific illiteracy of postmodernists and cultural theorists seemed to stand out more than the others: it was re-quoted widely and gleefully. It was even cited by reviewers who were less positive towards Sokal and Bricmont's position: for example, John Sturrock in the London Review of Books ("Le pauvre Sokal", LRB, 20 (14), July 1998, p.8-9 [Link]) asserts of the quotation, "far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont". 

The quotation – the ‘sexed equation’ quotation of my title - was attributed to Luce Irigaray, and has become famous, or infamous. People who otherwise know little about Irigaray know about this.   

But did she actually ever say it?   

Here is the original French version of the quotation as it appeared in the first edition of Impostures Intellectuelles (#1, above):
“[L]’équation E=mc2 est-elle une équation sexuée ? Peut-être que oui. Faisons l’hypothèse que oui dans la mesure où elle privilégie la vitesse de la lumière par rapport à d’autres vitesses dont nous avons vitalement besoin. Ce qui me semble une possibilité de la signature sexuée de l’équation, ce n’est pas directement ses utilisations par les armements nucléaires, c’est d’avoir privilégié ce qui va le plus vite …”
The citation given is “Irigaray 1987b, p. 110”, which leads to the following entry in Sokal and Bricmont’s bibliography:
Irigaray, Luce. 1987b. « Sujet de la science, sujet sexué ? » Dans : Sens et place des connaissances dans la société, p. 95-121. Paris : Centre national de recherche scientifique.
In the English translation (#3 etc), the quotation is rendered as:
“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 to us. 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 the fastest.”
The citation is still to Irigaray 1987b, p.110.

This is the bibliographic entry in the English translation:
Irigaray, Luce. 1987b. “Sujet de la science, sujet sexué?” In : Sens et place des connaissances dans la société, pp. 95-121. Paris : Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.
So the French and English editions are in agreement on the source of the quote.

Sympathetic reviewers of Sokal and Bricmont relished the Irigaray quotation, and often used it as an illustration of the problem – as they saw it – with postmodernism. For example:
Dawkins, Richard (1998). ‘Postmodernism disrobed’. Nature, 394, 9 July 1998, pp. 141-143. Reprinted in Dawkins, Richard (2003). A Devil’s Chaplain. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Chapter 1.7, pp.47-53. Text here and here (pdf).
Nagel, Thomas (1998). ‘The sleep of reason’. The New Republic, 12 October 1998, pp.32-38. Reprinted in Nagel, Thomas (2002). Concealment and Exposure, and other essays. Oxford, Oxford University Press. Chapter 15. Text here.  Also reprinted in Patai, Dorothy and Corral, Will H. (eds.) (2005). Theory’s Empire: an anthology of dissent. Columbia University Press. Chapter 37, pp.541-551.
Other works to comment on Irigaray’s line about the sexed equation include:
Bailey, Richard (1999). “The abdication of reason: postmodern attacks on science and reason.” In Swann, Joanna and Pratt, John (1999). Improving Education: realist approaches to method and research. Cassell. [Also A & C Black / Bloomsbury, 2003]. Chapter 3, pp.30-38. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.32]
Blackburn, Simon (2006). Truth: a guide for the perplexed. Penguin. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.139].
Cave, Peter (2009). This Sentence is False: an introduction to philosophical paradoxes. Continuum. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.171].
Humphrys, John (2005). Lost for Words: the mangling and manipulating of the English language. (Paperback edition). Hodder and Stoughton. [Citing Sokal on p.179].
Norris, Christopher (2000). “Sexed equations and vexed physicists: the ‘two cultures’ revisted.” In Deconstruction and the ‘unfinished project of modernity’. Athlone Press. Chapter 9, pp.175-201. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.186].
Scruton, Roger (2010). The Uses of Pessimism. Oxford University Press. [Refers to the sexed equation p.185. Sokal and Bricmont appear in bibliography].
Tallis, Raymond (1999). “Sokal and Bricmont: is this the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages in the humanities?” PN Review, 25 (6), no. 128, July-August, pp.35-42. [Irigaray quote p.39]. Reprinted as “Colonic material of a taurine provenance”, In Tallis, Raymond (2014). Epimethean Imaginings: philosophical and other meditations on everyday light. Routledge. Chapter 11, pp.140-166. [Irigaray quote p.153]. 
Walsh, Anthony (2013). Science Wars: politics, gender, and race. Transaction Publishers. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.31].
Walsh, Anthony (2014). Criminological Theory: assessing philosophical assumptions. Anderson Publishing. Also published by Routledge, 2015. [Citing Sokal and Bricmont on p.113].
Wheen, Francis (2004). How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: a short history of modern delusions. Fourth Estate. [Citing Sokal on p.85].
Sokal and Bricmont are the only writers I have been able to find who cite Irigaray directly when discussing the 'sexed equation' comment.  Everyone else either cites Sokal and Bricmont, or reviewers of Sokal and Bricmont – often Dawkins or Nagel.

For example, the following cite Nagel:

Bornedal, Peter (2010). The Surface and the Abyss: Nietzsche as philosopher of mind and knowledge. Walter DeGruyter. [Citing Nagel on p.229].

Stolzenberg, Gabriel (2001). “Reading and relativism: an introduction to the science wars.” In Ashman, Kevin and Barringer, Phillip (eds) (2001). After the Science Wars: science and the study of science. Routledge. Chapter 4, pp33-64. [Citing Nagel on p.38].

The following item by Edelman is an oddity, because although Sokal and Bricmont are discussed in the text and cited in the bibliography, Edelman refers readers to Dawkins for the Irigaray quotation and other examples:
Edelman, Shimon (2008). Computing the Mind: how the mind really works. Oxford University Press. See p.230 note 14.
David Silverman, while discussing Sokal and Bricmont, reprints an extract from a review of Intellectual Impostures by Max Wilkinson in the Financial Times Weekend, which mentions Irigaray and the sexed equation:
Silverman, David (2013). A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Sage. [see p.141].
And of course there are other writers who quote Irigaray without bothering to cite any sources at all. For example:
Caldwell, Roger (2003). “How to get real”. Philosophy Now, issue 42, July/August, pp.35-38. [Link].

Sexed Equation Scepticism

The validity of Sokal and Bricmont’s citation of Irigaray has been challenged by those writing in defence of 'postmodernism' and deconstruction in general, or Irigaray in particular, as well as by those who feel although Sokal and Bricmont might have a point, they are too sweeping in their criticisms and/or too uncharitible towards the targets of their criticism.

The lack of independent directly-cited quotations – in other words, the dependence of so many anti-postmodernist authors on Sokal and Bricmont's citation, or on a couple of their reviewers – is one of the causes of scepticism about the provenance of the infamous 'sexed equation' quote, so widely but - it is sometimes, and perhaps not unreasonably, concluded - dubiously attributed to Irigaray.

For example, Jane Clare Jones, in her article on Luce Irigaray, “The Murder of the Mother” (part of the New Statesman’s ‘Rereading the second wave’ series, published 14 May 2014), notes that, “the Belgian-born feminist's public image consists largely of the fact that she once said something unfathomably silly about E=mc2 being a ‘sexed equation’”.   In a footnote to this comment, Jones complains about the difficulty of tracking down the source:
“I’d like to give you a link to this quote, but discover I can’t. The many instances of it being cited on the interwebs (Oh, that silly woman!) all give Sokal and Bricmont as the source. And the reference in Sokal and Bricmont is to this text - here - which has never been published in English, and as you can see, doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence that it even contains an essay by Irigaray (if you happen to own this somewhat obscure little book, I’d be grateful for a scan of the offending portion). The one thing I could find, however, is an essay with a name very similar to the one Sokal and Bricmont reference, which was published here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say anything about sexed equations.”
It’s understandable, of course, that there would be suspicion of a reference to an obscure text (obscure outside France, at least), which is apparently only available in French, and which appears not to have been cited by anyone except Sokal and Bricmont.  This is partly Sokal and Bricmont’s fault, because their citation lacks some detailed information which would help readers track down the source. 

However, I found that it wasn't that difficult to locate, and it is surprising that apparently no English-language writer has identified the correct source until now...

The Source of the 'Sexed Equation' Identified (for probably the first time ever in English!)

First, let's remind ourselves of Sokal and Bricmont’s citation:
Irigaray, Luce. 1987b. “Sujet de la science, sujet sexué?” In : Sens et place des connaissances dans la société, pp. 95-121. Paris: Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.
Jones's article links to the page for this book:

And indeed it is perfectly true that no Irigaray contribution will be found therein.  

But Sens et place des connaissances dans la société was published in three volumes, and Jones, unaware of this, has zeroed in on the wrong one. 

Here is the set:

Irigaray’s article does exist, and can be found in the third volume. Sokal and Bricmont could have made life easier for everyone by making it clear which volume they were referring to:

I have obtained a copy of this book, which apparently makes me the first person in the entire history of the English-speaking world to have done so!

According to the blurb inside the book:
“Cet ouvrage présente la troisième et dernière partie (premier semestre 1985) du cycle des conférences-débats organisées à Bellevue sur la thème général du sens et de la place des connaissances dans la société.”
My French is poor, but with some help from this translates, more or less, as:
“This book presents the third and final season (first half of 1985) of the cycle of panel discussions organized at Bellevue on the general theme of the meaning and place of knowledge in society.”
Here is the contents page of my copy:

Sokal and Bricmont cite p.110, and I can confirm that their citation is accurate: the quote about sexed equations can indeed be found there.  But rather than just reproduce the relevant page and call it a day, it is worth providing some further context.
Irigaray’s piece consists of two parts: Irigaray’s paper (pp.95-108), and then a transcript of the question and answer session that followed (pp.108-121). Irigaray does refer to E=mc2 in her paper, but the quotation that Sokal and Bricmont supply appears (as will be evident from the pagination) in the latter section, in which she is responding to a specific question. I’ll come to that in a second.

Irigaray’s first reference to Einstein’s equation is as follows (p.102):
“Les sciences procédent donc à une escalade technique, à l'abstraction par équations et formalisme, sans s'interroger beaucoup sur qui les produit et quels en seront les effets individuels et sociaux. Jusqu'à présent, les plaidoyers de certains scientifiques pour la vie, la paix dans le monde, n'ont pas modifié sensiblement le discours scientifique. Certains scientifiques le savent. La question est celle des modalités d'application, de leurs affirmations pacifistes. Ainsi la célêbre formule d'Einstein, E = Mc2 (ou d'autres formules qui s'en sont suivies) a eu comme effet non seulement l'invention des armes nucléaires (comme retombées) mais correspond peut-être (c'est une question que je me pose), à une accélé­ration du temps qui n'est pas dans nos possibles humains. L'humanité devient malade de vitesse.”
Here’s my poor attempt at a translation (with some help from
“So science proceeds through technical escalation, abstraction and formal equations, without questioning the product and what the individual and social effects will be. The pleas of some scientists for life and world peace have not until now significantly changed scientific discourse. Some scientists know this. The issue is putting their pacifist words into practice. Thus Einstein's famous formula, E = Mc2 (or the other formulas that followed) has not only led to the invention of nuclear weapons (as fallout) but may be linked (it’s a question I have asked myself) to an acceleration time that exceeds human potential. Humanity becomes sick of speed.”
Here’s a scan of the page:

During the question and answer session, E=mc2 comes up again (p.109):
“Je trouve que beaucoup des choses que tu dis sont très provocantes, nuancées, originales — comme tout ce que tu as écrit, tout ce que j'ai lu de toi. A d'autres moments, j'ai un malaise: les moments de malaise viennent quand tu fais des extrapolations vertigineuses d'un domaine de réflexion à un autre. Je ne sais pas si c'est seulement le passage du microcosme au macrocosme mais ces analogies me semblent souvent discutables. Pour l'équation E = Mc2 par exemple, on peut bien admettre que cela a conduit aux armes nucléaires mais est-ce que tu la décrirais comme une equation masculine?”
Here’s the same passage translated very approximately into English:
“I find that many of the things you say are very challenging, nuanced, original - like everything you have written, everything I have read about you. At other times, I feel uneasy: there are moments of discomfort when you perform dizzying extrapolations from one area of thought to another. I don’t know if it’s only the transition from microcosm to macrocosm but these analogies often seem questionable. For example, one can admit that the equation E=mc2 has led to nuclear weapons, but is it what you would describe as a male equation?”
It is Irigaray’s reply to this question that Sokal and Bricmont seize upon (Intellectual Impostures, p.110).   Here are scanned images of p.109 and p.110, showing the question and Irigaray’s reply:

My translations may be pretty shaky, but nonetheless it is clear that Irigaray really does say the words that Sokal and Bricmont attribute to her.   Their citation has now been proved to be accurate after all.

Is the subject of science sexed? - A Red Herring

My last job is to clear up the confusion over which essay Sokal and Bricmont were citing. Some commentators have mistakenly identified another admittedly likely-looking article as a possible source of the 'sexed equation'. 
To return to Jane Clare Jones: having failed to locate Irigaray’s quote about sexed equations, she notes the existence of an article, also by Irigaray, with a similar title to that cited:
Irigaray,Luce and Bové, Carol Mastrangelo (1987). “Le sujet de la science est-il sexué?/Is the subject of science sexed?” Hypatia, 2 (3), 65-87.
Of course, this is not the same article as that cited by Sokal and Bricmont as the source of their quotation from Irigaray, and the sexed equation isn’t there.

But in fact, Sokal and Bricmont do cite the Hypatia article in Intellectual Impostures:
Irigaray, Luce. 1987a. “Le sujet de la science est-il sexué? / Is the subject of science sexed?” Translated by Carol Mastrangelo Bové. Hypatia 2(3): 65– 87. [French original: Les temps modernes 9, no. 436 (November 1982): 960– 74. Reprinted in Irigaray 1985b.].
The reprint, “Irigaray 1985b” is then cited in their bibliography like this:
Irigaray, Luce. 1985b. Parler n’est jamais neutre. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
Irigaray 1987a and Irigaray 1987b (the Sens et place... citation) appear alongside each other in Intellectual Impostures’ bibliography, so it should be obvious that they are different sources.  

(Note that in French editions, Sokal and Bricmont do not cite the Hypatia article.  However, “Irigaray 1987b” nonetheless refers to the same item (i.e. Sens et place...) in both the French and English editions. "1987a" in French editions, just for completeness, is a citation to a lecture by Irigaray which in English editions is cited in the form of a 1993 translation).

As another example, consider this article:
Spurrett, David (1999). “Review article: Complexity and postmodernism: understanding complex systems, by P.Cilliers”. South African Journal of Philosophy, 18 (2), pp.258-274. [Link]
In this book review, Spurrett comments on the Sokal hoax (p.267) and cites Intellectual Impostures. But when he quotes Irigaray’s ‘sexed equation’ comment, the citation is given as “Irigaray 1987: 110”.   And checking the bibliography, Irigaray appears thus: 
“Irigaray, L. 1987. Is the subject of science sexed? C.M. Bové (Trans.). Hypatia, 2(3), 65-87.”
When an author includes an item in a bibliography it usually indicates that they’ve read it.  But if Spurrett has read this translation of Irigaray he would surely know that the ‘sexed equation’ quote can’t be found in it.  Furthermore, why is he giving the source page number as p.110, when the article he is ostensibly citing ends on p.87?

The question “Did Luce Irigaray ever actually say e=mc^2 is a sexed equation?” was also asked on the “askphilosophy” forum.
User “Provokateur” thinks the source was Irigaray’s book “To Speak is Never Neutral” (i.e. the English translation of Parler n’est jamais neutre):
“Sokal and Bricmont quote this claim about e=mc2 , saying it comes from "Parler n’est jamais neutre. Éditions de Minuit. 1987. p.110." In English, that's To Speak is Never Neutral (hence why that commenter referred to that text).”   
"Provokateur" concludes, "I'm skeptical Irigaray ever said it."  But in fact Sokal and Bricmont do not say that the ‘sexed equation’ quote comes from Parler n’est jamais neutre, or its English translation come to that.  However, “Provokateur” is not the only person to make that particular mistake, which can also be found in:
Crease, Robert P. (2009). The great equations: breakthroughs in science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg.  W.W. Norton. [Misattribution to Parler n’est jamais neutre on p.157 (follow the note for the bibliographic details)].
User “jorio”, on the other hand, provides a cut-down version of the correct citation as it appears in Intellectual Impostures: “Irigaray, “Sujet de la science, sujet sexué?”, Sens et place des connaissances dans la société, 1987.”   So far so good, although again lacking the crucial volume number detail. However, "jorio" then states that “it is said to come from this paper”, linking to, which is the Hypatia article again.  Of course, "jorio" is unable to locate the quotation in that article and on that basis cautiously says, "I'm leaning towards this being a bunk quote."  But "jorio" did not check Sens et place...

Some critics of Sokal and Bricmont seem as flaky about citations as they suggest Sokal and Bricmont are. Certainly the contributors to the thread are completely on the wrong track.

I think it might be helpful to correct some of the contributors’ misapprehensions about these similarly titled works by Irigaray.  Even the “bibliography of works by Luce Irigaray” published in Returning to Irigaray: feminist philosophy, politics, and the question of unity (State University of New York Press, 2007), edited by Maria Cimitile and Elaine P. Miller, gets it wrong by conflating the sexed equation essay in vol. 3 of Sens et place des connaissances dans la société with this second piece from Hypatia (see p.297).

In 1982, Irigaray published the following article:
Irigaray, Luce (1982). "Le sujet de la science est-il sexue?" Les temps modernes 9, no. 436, (November), pp.960-74.
This essay was reprinted, as part of a collection of Irigaray's writings, in 1985:
Irigaray, Luce (1982). "Le sujet de la science est-il sexue?" Reprint, in Irigaray, Luce (1985). Parler n’est jamais neutre. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
Also in 1985, Edith Oberle’s English translation (the first) of the 1982 original was published:
Irigaray, Luce (1985). “Is the subject of science sexed?” Translated by Edith Oberle. Cultural Critique, no. 1, Autumn, pp. 73-88. [Link]
In 1987, the journal Hypatia published a new translation by Carol Mastrangelo Bové, with a parallel reprint of the original:
Irigaray, Luce and Bové, Carol Mastrangelo (trans.) (1987). “Le sujet de la science est-il sexué? / Is the subject of science sexed?” Hypatia, 2 (3), pp.65-87.
... which is what Sokal and Bricmont were citing (but not as the source of the 'sexed equation' comment, as I have established above).

Bové’s 1987 translation, this time without the parallel original French text from 1982, was reprinted in 1989:
Irigaray, Luce and Bové, Carol Mastrangelo (trans.) (1987). “Is the subject of science sexed?” Reprint, in Tuana, Nancy (ed.) (1989). Feminism and Science, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.58-68.
In 2002, the 1985 anthology Parler n’est jamais neutre was translated into English, and therefore with it the 1982 article from Les temps modernes:
Irigaray, Luce (2002). “In science, is the subject sexed?” Reprint, in To Speak is Never Neutral. Chapter 13, pp.247-258. Translated by Gail Schwab. London: Continuum.
In summary: there are three different English translations of the original 1982 article: Oberle (1985), Bové (1987), and Schwab (2002).  The original French article has been reprinted twice: 1985 and 1987 (parallel with the Bové translation). Bové’s translation has been reprinted once, in 1989.  There are no sexed equations in any of these versions.


To conclude: I have tracked down the source of the “sexed equation” and clarified Sokal and Bricmont’s citation of Irigaray.   I have also resolved the confusion between the correct source and the various versions of an article which some people have presumptuously conflated with the correct source. Sokal and Bricmont were accurate in quoting Irigaray (although they could have made it clearer which volume they were citing), and some of those casting doubt on the sexed equation quotation have simply not paid proper attention to the text of Intellectual Impostures or made much real effort to track down the reference.

A revised version of research first published in May 2015

1 comment: