The Physicist and the Porn Star

04/18/2012 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

While many will laud Lorelei Lee's migration from porn star to English graduate student, it is worth noting she has simply traded one form of public masturbation for another. Actually, this is entirely unfair to pornography, which at least serves a valuable social function to chaste legions of World of Warcraftsman [read: virgins]. Unfortunately for Lee, professor-cum-grad student at New York University, the same redeeming social value cannot be ascribed to the state of literary studies today. In honor of the 25th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, it is worth reexamining the sad state of intellectual affairs in humanities departments throughout this country's universities. And it is worth showing why Lee's move towards academia is another in a line of marginal blows to the vitality of American culture and intellectual life.

The trouble with creative writing classes in the modern university is they do not teach writing. As anyone who has suffered through one of these classes knows, they are nebulous attempts at inculcating students with the values of today's postmodernists -- most importantly, pretension. Pop-cultural analysis, pop-psychology, and pop-philosophy are discussed, while how to write a compelling sentence is not. Rules of capitalization and punctuation are ignored probably because they are vestiges of neocolonial homophobic sexism.

Lest one think this invective directed against literary studies is unwarranted, it is worth revisiting a shining moment here at NYU where the humanities were put to the test.

Alan Sokal is a professor of physics who received his doctorate in quantum field theory from Princeton University. He is most famous, however, for an article he wrote that appeared in Social Text, an academic journal published by Duke University Press. In the article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Sokal proposes that recent conceptual advances in quantum theory have serious implications for postmodern and liberation movements. But the article is a parody, filled with steaming mounds of nonsense, irrelevant math jokes, and obsequious footnotes to the giants of postmodernism. To get a sense of his writing:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality," no less than social "reality," is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge," far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities."

Social Text's editors published the article in 1996 and soon after Sokal revealed it was a hoax, proving that certain branches of academia today are unable to distinguish nonsense from fashionable nonsense. This stems from the fact that relativism forms the intellectual bedrock of the humanities today. Because attempts at discovering truths are derided as antediluvian, substance and argumentation are relegated, while servility to the gatekeepers takes on supreme value. This is why we get such fashionable nonsense, and, unfortunately, this is exactly what Lorelei Lee will both teach and be taught.

We start to get problems when people stop teaching writing and start teaching us how to think. The whole endeavor is too personal and without any serious mechanism for separating sense from nonsense, the mouthpieces of these departments read like self-indulgent echo chambers -- Playboy for Postmodernists. If you are interested in writing, you're better off reading Strunk and White or George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." If you're interested in philosophy, NYU has the best in the country -- philosophers like Thomas Nagel who are rigorous and unrelenting in their pursuit of knowledge -- wholly unlike the editors of Social Text. And if you are into psychology, which many are, then go to therapy, not creative writing class. That kind of writing is just prescriptions from patients.