MICROCOSMIC HOAX: a phallic storm in a conceptual teapot


We do not have any statistics on how many « Sokal » hoaxes have so far been attempted and failed. To evaluate one publicised « success » however flimsy we would need to know what proportion of the the attempts at intellectual hacking it represents. Given the venom, the spite, the sugness, and the blind trumpeting, I think that there are probably many such attempts that we do not hear about precisely because they failed.


I do not condone shoddy scholarship or shady business strategies. There are many shady « intellectuals » in the Continental field. There are also shady intellectuals in the scientistic vulgarisation of a supposedly scientific worldview, trading their academic credentials for editorial validation as layman’s philosopher.


The authors of the « conceptual penis » hoax claim incoherently that it is false, absurd, and meaningless, affirming that even they can find no sense in it. A false or silly claim that is accepted because it confirms a bias is not the same as pure nonsense. The article does in fact have a sense, even if it reads like a sophomoric exaggerated, provocatively phrased, fundamentalist version of some familiar Continental ideas.


The distinction between the phallus (symbolic) and penis (real) is both elementary and well-known, and I conjecture that the authors came across this distinction (they seem incapable of inventing it) in their reading and merely reformulated it, extrapolating to the extreme the consequences. So this part of the article is not nonsense (as the authors claim) but unacknowledged plagiarism. They cannot wish the distinction away, and their attempted parody fails, not only for its disingenuousness about sources and sense-status, but also intellectually.


Further it shows the authors adhering to a simple-minded empiricism with respect to gender theory. They refuse a conceptual approach that breaks with common sense. They are exactly like those who made fun of atomic theory because with all the empty space between atoms we should be able to pass through walls. The implicit thesis of their parody is that reconceptualisation is permissible for physics (where the scientific image must prevail), but not acceptable for gender (where the manifest image must be presupposed). They show not only their own ignorance of the field they wish to parody but their simplistic underlying epstemology as well.


One fundamentalist cannot stand another fundamentalist of a different persuasion. A scientistic epistemologist cannot stand a social constructionist Continental philosopher. Both are fundamentalists in my eyes. Thinkers like Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, and Alain Badiou have employed much intelligence and conceptual sophistication to criticise Continental fundamentalism, and to propose richer, more complex and more satisfying alternatives, that build on the insights that the previous generations of Continental thinkers achieved, and that were dumbed down into parodic vulgates by their pseudo-followers.


Boghossian and Lindsay show no sign of having read these (and other) intelligent and informed critiques. Their parody is effective because it is simple, and striking, and it shows up a real problem. However, half of its efficacy stems from an appeal to the stupidity of the projected reader. They propose no alternative, only a return to common sense, as they see it.


The second idea presented in the hoax article is a link between the conceptual penis (the phallus) and anthropogenic climate change (the Anthropocence). This is a very general, almost vacuous idea, but it is not at all far-fetched, nor can it be regarded as inherently absurd or nonsensical. This is not a very original idea either, but the authors may have come up with it themselves by applying the « man is the root of all evil » template to a trendy theme.


It is an error treat gender studies as a single block, that falls, infimed, with a single hoax. This is naive falsificationism. The significance of a potential refuting instance depends on the research programme that integrates and interprets it. An uninterpreted hoax is epistemologically neutral. Interpreted in terms of scientism it is of only tautological (i.e. self-confirming) interest to those who subscribe to some form of the scientistic project or worldview.


It is as such a self hoax, given the philosophical ineptness of scientism. Boghossian and Lindsay have achieved a real exploit and demonstrated a real point, even if the hoax is far less significant than advertised. In their debriefing they should have condemned those who blindly espoused and touted the hoax merely because it confirmed their own prejudices.


They could have given a real lesson in critical thinking to the propagandists of the scientistic doxa. They could have turned around and said that the reveal of the hoax contained a second hoax, against those who are only sceptical of others’ uncritical ideas, never of their own.


Their hoax is a failure. It has not increased the quantity and quality of critical thinking in the world but led to an orgy of uncritical anti-intellectualism and self-congratulation that self-brands itself « skeptical » and « critical ». It is not derived from, nor has it led to, more reading, more literacy, more thinking on the subject of gender, but to a return to normal. We don’t have to think differently about our most familiar categories, just let science and society take their course.


The « conceptual penis » hoax has, contrary to its critical aim, increased the amount of uncritical display, not diminished it. So its tiny (but real) internet success has led to a bigger (but still microcosmic) failure.

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