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This review is taken from PN Review 225, Volume 42 Number 1, September - October 2015.

Fashionable Nonsense Paul Peppis, Sciences of Modernism: Ethnography, Sexology, and Psychology Cambridge University Press (321pp, £60)

The 1996 ‘Science Wars’ edition of the postmodern cultural studies magazine Social Text carried an article by the physicist Alan Sokal satirically entitled, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article was a kind of cultural hoax at the expense of the left-wing humanistic institutions. Sokal had ‘liberally salted’ the article with nonsense in an attempt to see whether the editors would publish it just because ‘(a) it sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions’.

In his article Sokal argued that gravity was nothing more than a linguistic construct – shrewdly placed fodder for the presumably Foucaultian editorial staff at the Social Text. Sokal had been provoked into writing the article by what he perceived as an intellectual laziness at the heart of the academic left and after a few brief skirmishes with the editors of Social Text he went on to co-write Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. As a physicist Alan Sokal’s point throughout was that postmodern academic studies had eroded the distinction between literary studies and science, and was treating scientific subjects as if they were fiction. The controversy sparked by the Sokal Affair serves to highlight the existence of C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, with the ‘literary intellectuals at one pole’ and the scientists at the other, separated by a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension, hostility, dislike’, and most of all a ‘lack of understanding’.

Paul Peppis’s argument in Sciences of Modernism is that before the ‘Two Cultures’ hardened into opposites there ...

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