Intellectual vibrations from out there beyond the fringe

June 27, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Almost every week The Nation, the venerable leftish magazine, appears in my mailbox like a homeless waif. And each time I take the ragged little thing in, wondering vaguely why it keeps coming even though my subscription lapsed long ago.

If it ever does fail to show up I guess I'll have to renew, because whatever its shortcomings, and there are plenty, The Nation keeps me in touch with the latest intellectual vibrations from out there beyond the fringe. If I didn't get The Nation I might start to think I lived in just any old country.

The current issue devotes considerable space to the campaign by the prominent scold and celebrated Corvair-killer, Ralph Nader, for president of the United States as the candidate of the Green Party. Not only does the great man himself explain the rationale for his decision to set forth, Perot-like, on the hustings, but a gaggle of other eminences chime in, too, to tell Nation readers what it all means.

The Green candidate, whose name will be on the ballot this fall in several states not including Maryland, has concluded that elections tend to offer us a choice between the Bad and the Worse. His view is that Democrats have become so ''corporatized'' during Bill Clinton's presidency that they're almost indistinguishable from Republicans. (The Wall Street Journal says the same thing, only about Republicans.)

To progressives, Nader the Nominee declares that he and the Green Party will offer ''a voice, not an echo.'' This prospect enchants some on the left even as it worries others.

The excited Texas journalist Ronnie Dugger thinks there's a chance -- ''depending on unforeseeable events'' -- that Mr. Nader could win. Dan Hamburg, a former one-term Democratic Congressman from California, opines poetically that ''it's time for progressives to leave the shore. Hopefully, adrift, we will chart a course toward a more just and harmonious society.''

Horrors upon the land

But the motherly Gloria Steinem isn't having any of that. Vote for Mr. Nader, she says, and you might unintentionally defeat Bill Clinton. And if you do that, untold horrors may be loosed upon the land.

''There is still a life-threatening gulf on everything from environmental protection to affirmative action, from assault weapons to nationalizing women's bodies by declaring the fertilized egg a person,'' she says, presumably implying that the man from Hope wouldn't want to do anything like that to women's bodies.

''We're not only talking corporate power here,'' Ms. Steinem predicts, um, dolefully. ''We're talking Kinder, Kuche, Kirche.'' The Nation, obviously, considers itself an organ of common sense and not the voice of America's loony left. But it's keenly aware that somewhere out there, and certainly in the turgid pages of a magazine named Social Text, the loony left does exist.

In a recent issue, The Nation published a tartly amusing piece by the feminist writer Katha Pollitt about the hoax that made Social Text briefly and embarrassingly famous.

Social Text, it may be recalled, published an article from Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, purporting to explain how the hard sciences could and should be ''deconstructed'' by left-wing politics just as the humanities and social sciences have been.

It was a wonderful piece of incomprehensibility entitled ''Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.'' And even if it didn't make sense it seemed to make all the proper points, duly footnoted, about the need to subordinate science to ideology.

Professor Sokal cited ''Irigary's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics,'' and called for ''a future post-modern and liberatory science.'' He noted, deadpan, that ''physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.''

And he went on to assert, ringingly, that ''the discourse of the scientific community . . . cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.''

Right on! Trouble was, it turned out to be what it read like, a parody. Lots of people, including Katha Pollitt in The Nation, made fun of it. The editors of Social Text heard the snickering, coming even from their perceived inferiors, and they didn't like it at all.

One editor stiffly accused Dr. Sokal of ''a breach of ethics,'' and told Ms. Pollitt that left-wing magazines really ought to be supporting each other, not stirring up trouble in the family. But the thing is, as sitcom writers and White House reporters all know very well, trouble in the family always makes great reading.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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