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.