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    Gottschall's Problem

    By  Apurva Narechania

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    1: The Problem

    Across the street from Jonathan Gottschall’s office in the English Department at Washington and Jefferson University is Mark Shrader’s mixed martial arts center. The place is all in your face, advertising the many ways they can train you to break someone’s nose: karate, boxing, cage fighting. Gottschall is an adjunct English professor, and a brief tour of Washington and Jefferson’s campus had ended here, in a small office he shares with four other adjuncts, with windows that look out on the suburban dojo.

    “You see that place for MMA?” I looked at him blankly. We had just been debating the finer points of the downfall of literary theory. He saw that I was confused. “Ultimate fighter? Mixed martial arts? Sometimes I feel if I took up MMA while teaching these Intro to Comp classes, it would really get their attention. I mean, imagine them watching one of their own adjuncts through these windows just going at it.” He laughed. It was a conceit. Not that he couldn’t do it: Gottschall is a big guy, sturdy through the middle, with earnest eyes. But he, like many PhDs in English literature, has been slumming his talents in classrooms filled with students who would rather be somewhere else. The adjuncts go unnoticed. They’re cheap labor in a liberal arts teaching machine. The study of English literature is dying on university campuses across the country, and those who made it through its higher echelons on the last gasp of theory’s domination no longer have an audience to justify the steep cost of their erudition. In other words, Gottschall is underemployed. But so are a thousand other Marxists and Freudians and postmodern people. For theorists, mixed martial arts would be a metaphor, a figurative expression of some socially constructed modality for physicality with the ultimate end further perpetuating that modality, or perhaps a critique of the Western perversion of martial arts into patriarchal violence from an ancient Eastern philosophy of inner peace and measured defense.

    I made that up. I have no idea what mixed martial arts means to the culture at large. But baseless proclamations have found a home in humanities journals. In the Summer 1996 issue of Social Text, the physicist Alan Sokal published a now famous article titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” He wrote it as a joke and submitted it to the editors who, believing it to be a serious submission, published it as cutting-edge theoretical work. In the article, Sokal suggests that quantum field theory now supports Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations (finally!), that mathematical set theory is linked to feminist politics, and that postmodern science has done away with objective reality. The physicist goes on: to be “liberatory,” science must bow to political strategies and reinvent the “canon of mathematics.” In its accommodation of politics and social constructs, this new mathematics would be called an “emancipatory mathematics.” Sokal explained himself in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca: “To test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies . . . publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes."

    At the time, Sokal’s parody created a firestorm in the academy. The editors of Social Text claimed a betrayal of trust and unethical behavior. They published the article without reviewing any of its pseudoscientific claims because they believed that Sokal was seeking their “affirmation.” They thought it was “a little hokey” but went with it anyway. In response to this inverted power play, Sokal wrote that his goal wasn’t “to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you) but to defend the left from a trendy segment of itself.” He attacked sloppy thinking and the postmodern sense of utter detachment, asserting, “There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter.”

    In recent years, perhaps partly because of Sokal’s gambit, bashing theory has become its own form of entertainment. Frederick Crews, an emeritus professor of English at Berkeley, deflated theoretical pretensions with flair in Postmodern Pooh (2001). Crews’s imaginary scholars grapple with timeless themes in the Winnie the Pooh books: Marxist and Freud-inspired criticism, feminist and queer theory all have their say. Gottschall, whose respect for Crews is immense, is another among the hoard deploring theory. Even so, Gottschall is a self-proclaimed Darwinist. It’s the one bit of theory he still allows himself. Literary Darwinists read with an eye to human universals—the innate qualities we all share with each other for procurement of resources, the need to mate and reproduce, the central place for competition in our interactions—all guided by the soft but ever-present incline of natural selection. Gottschall lived Darwin for years. He reread books with an eye to universals and evolution. He is at work on a novel that reimagines Odysseus as a naked ape, strutting, preening, and fighting to perverse extremes. Darwinian ideas have so suffused him that things such as the martial arts conversation just bubble up. Marx and Derrida and Foucault are a thick book-length away. But the dojo is right outside his door. To Gottschall, the competition engendered there is the animus, the juice in literature.

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    Berlynn, 27-06-11 20:02:
    Good point. I hadn't touhhgt about it quite that way. :)
    Issy, 28-06-11 02:20:
    I'm impressed! You've managed the almost ipmossilbe.
    Clarinda, 27-10-11 18:48:
    Mighty useful. Make no mistake, I aprepcaite it.
    Jahlin, 28-10-11 01:06:
    What a joy to find such clear thinking. Thanks for posintg!
    Greyce, 08-04-12 17:37:
    I'm a woman. Almost every time I fell in love (all but once, actually), it was with a guy that I had known for some time, got to know as a nirefd (or as a colleague), and once day realized that hey. I want me some of that.In fact, my current love interest was someone I had known and worked with for over a year (!!!), without once thinking of hm romantically, until one day .yeah.I can say the same for every one of my female nirefds.I'm sure not EVERY woman is like that, but all the women I know are.And btw I've had one night stands, I've had meaningless sex, Ive had sex-only relationships. But thus far, when I fall in love it's usually with someone that I know, and like.And Quercus? "that's not how girls think" is a meaningless sentence. "Girls" don't think anything. Specific girls feel different things at different times. Sometimes even COMPLETELY OPPOSITE THINGS on different occasions.We're human like that.
    Barber, 09-04-12 00:57:
    I heard you and other speaker on the Diane Rehm show retseyday. One of the speakers was cut off by the n of the program. He mentioned something about Plavix and cumodin. I have an urgent interest in these medications. I was on both once for 2 weeks and subsequently for 4 weeks. The sequence was separated by a surgery and reinitiated by another surgery After the second surgery I refused to resume the Plavix..My question: I developed significant bruising- they appeared overnight.Two in my elbow area. Each was the size of a goose egg surround ed by bruising the circumference of an orange. In the middle of the egg was a knot the size a pigeons egg. I also had one on my rib cage and the back of my knee.I am two weeks out of the surgery and not on plavix, only cumidin.The neurosurgeon, internist and ER doctor did not know what to attribute this pattern of bruising . I called the FDA and the line goes dead after two rings.I am happy to say no new one has arisen since I discontinued the plavix.
    Johnalldrin, 14-04-12 10:47:
    Here's a couple of gtnihs I noticed as I was doing my degree in engineering:1) Some people don't understand that the workload is designed so that you can't keep up on your own. Those people tended to crash and burn at some point. Working in a group is a good thing, and you need to learn how before it's too late. Get help for the gtnihs you don't understand, help others with the gtnihs you do, and together you all (pass/do well/ace) the course.2) Resist the groupthink as much as you can. There's a mentality (or at least, there was at my school) that Engineering is better in all ways than any of the other schools. This was especially pronounced when it came to those in the humanities, which should be a common theme. Try to reinforce that while engineering is *practical* (and hence superior in some ways), there are valid, interesting, and challenging aspects to the other programs at your school as well. Too many of my classmates graduated still thinking that everyone who had done humanities was somehow a lesser human being, and that can't have been good for them out in the Real World (TM). 3) Don't count on the coursework to give you practical, hands-on engineering skills. Join some kind of competition team to learn those. Depending on the school, there should be access to a Baja team, a solar car team, an aeronautical design team, a marine design team, or even a concrete canoe/toboggan team. Do gtnihs with your hands, build gtnihs as much as possible, and reinforce your in-class lessons with amazing experience that will be even more valuable when it comes to looking for jobs.I had several friends who were decidedly not academic in orientation, but who were mad for design. They got jobs before anyone else in our class, based solely on their portfolio of design. When you can walk in and hand over a book of blueprints that you designed yourself, it makes employers happy and more likely to give you a shot. Besides, it's fun!Good luck with your course.
    Hernito, 26-05-12 23:09:
    Marty, Berube only suggests his own poonsitis on the philosophy of science through his discussion of Sokal's, but I can imagine from what he does say that he accepts some points upon which I am not yet convinced re: realism and the philosophy of science. As I suggested, his substantive point is actually about something else which, while related, doesn't require one to take a position on the philosophy of science. Shaun's link to the side stoush' may provide more on his position, though I don't have time just now to click through and follow that up.I don't take a strong anti-realist position, but some of the issues in that area of inquiry don't seem to be resolved. However, I'm not an expert. There are others who comment and post on this blog who know more about the philosophy of science, science studies and, obviously, science itself (or sciences themselves). They may have something to say on this.The Berube work I can recommend wholeheartedly has more to do with my own area of expertise: his interventions on literary and cultural studies are very interesting. Public Access' and The Employment of English', as well as the edited collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies' which includes his introduction and a number of challenging papers by other authors.
    Auth, 12-09-12 12:21:
    After this class and seeing some eplexams under recent posts and blogroll I was surprised to see how many people blog still. I really thought it had all turned to facebook as a type of expressing thoughts but i realized that facebook is really just a more modern type of blogging where unlimited people can comment and like you comment/ blog So after this I realized I do blog just not in the way I originally thought when I thought of blogging
    Karolina, 12-09-12 14:49:
    saelykiyblar on August 24, 2011 I just pre-ordered Little Big Planet 2 and Batman Arkham 2 from Amazon. And I got them for FREE! Just went to and ceklicd on the free ps3 banner, Sign up and fill out a couple of surveys. I thought it was a scam, But I got 2 ps3 games now for free to show for it.