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Letters to the Editor, September 1998


This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for September 1998.

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From: Chip Hitchcock (hitch@ptc.com)
Date: 09/18/98
Subj:
Rocky Mountain Oysters

"those who cut, dine" -- as in Wendell Ing's explanation that the best pineapples never even make it out of the fields? ("Gee, look at this absolutely perfect -- Oops! I guess we'll just have to eat it ourselves....")

Even so. It occurs to me that in the modern piggeries the mountain oyster crop would be an added extra. The piggery people extract everything from the pig.
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From: Troy (orkboyz@hotmail.com)
Date: 09/17/98
Subj: Young Adult Fantasy

I noticed while browsing your website that on the YA fantasy books page the is not a reference to David Eddings. I beleive this to be a mistake.

People have different opinions about what YA fantasy means and some indeed would classify Eddings Belgariad/Mallorean as YA fantasy. It doesn't, however, seem that way to me. The Belgariad is, in part, a coming of age story but it is genre fantasy. YA fantasy is, IMO, distinct from a coming of age story and the story has elements that are not simply genre fantasy, i.e., the group on a quest to dispatch the macguffin.
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From: Dazed and Confused (pritch10@bellsouth.net)
Date: 09/13/98
Subj: Comments

I personaly love you guys. You people rule. Please continue to print "The Darwin Awards" on the Internet! You guys are great! KICK ASS!
SINCERLY,
Dazed and Confused

The Darwin Awards pages do seem to be popular. It's always comforting to know that somebody else can seriously screw up.
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From: DAISHA (DAISHA@aol.com)
Date: 09/13/98
Subj: Radio Antenna Story

Was telling a friend the story of the fella detailing a medical report to his insurance carrier as to related injuries of an accident while fixing or erecting an antenna in his yard. Never kept a copy. Is it possible to recieve one?

I'm not familiar with the story. Maybe one of my readers has heard of it.
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From: Nancy E. Wood (nancyewood@sprintmail.com)
Date: 09/10/98
Subj: Ohboyohboyohboy

My name is Nancy E. Wood, and I live in Oklahoma City (THAT'S another story entirely), and I found you in my early-morning stolen-moments on the Internet. You bet I'm gonna bookmark you -- let me put it simply -- I love your mind! I mean, when I've only been on your site for a few moments and I've already experienced several out-louders (that is, chuckles, giggles and/or guffaws), I know I've found a favorite spot! (Besides, I'm a prairie junkie, and I'm drawn by your S. Dakota roots...) AND your wonderful diversity and attitude. You go, guy, and thanks a lot... I'll be checking in periodically.

You are obviously a woman of rare taste, high intelligence, and exquisite judgement. As you can tell I'm having a good deal of fun with the web site. In theory it is a personal journal in electronic form and it is; however it has turned out to be a humor e-zine also. That's fair enough because I have a funny kind of mind.

So do check in now and then; like an old compost heap, it just gets riper and richer.

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From: Mona (mona@netbridge.net)
Date: 09/08/98
Subj: Mona's Oasis

Do you know where I can purchase Rocky Mountain Oysters?
Thanks Mona

I don't know if it is still true (times change) but you used to be able to get bull's testicles at most butchers. They aren't carried in stock but they can be ordered. Calf's and lamb's parts are smaller and are considered tastier; however they aren't generally available - those who cut, dine. Bull's parts should be cut up into bite size pieces.

In short, check with your local butcher.

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From: Alan Sokal (sokal@nyu.edu)
Date: 09/03/98
Subj: Intellectual Impostures

Dear Mr. Harter,

I saw your comment on Dawkins' review of our book Intellectual Impostures. Let me make a few remarks:

You note, quite correctly, that

If an author misuses terminology does this represent simple slop, an innocent misappropriation of currently fashionable vocabulary, a cancer in his or her thought, or even legitimate usage - it quite often being the case that a word has one meaning in one field and a quite different one in another field.

I'm not sure whether you've yet had a chance to read our book, or are responding only to Dawkins' review, but let me assure you that we discuss this point explicitly in the book. For example, at the beginning of the Deleuze-Guattari chapter we say

The main characteristic of the texts quoted in this chapter is their lack of clarity. Of course, defenders of Deleuze and Guattari could retort that these texts are profound and that we have failed to understand them properly. However, on closer examination, one sees that there is a great concentration of scientific terms, employed out of context and without any apparent logic, at least if one attributes to these terms their usual scientific meanings. To be sure, Deleuze and Guattari are free to use these terms in other senses: science has no monopoly on the use of words like "chaos", "limit" or "energy". But, as we shall show, their writings are crammed also with highly technical terms that are not used outside of specialized scientific discourses, and for which they provide no alternative definition.

In the chapter on chaos theory, we criticize confusions concerning the words "linear" and "nonlinear" (citing quite a few egregious example), and go on to say:

Let us emphasize that we are _not_ criticizing these authors for employing the word "linear" in their own sense: mathematics has no monopoly on the word. What we are criticizing is some postmodernists' tendency to _confuse_ their sense of the word with the mathematical one, and to draw connections with chaos theory that are not supported by any valid argument.

That is what is going on in the Baudrillard passage you allude to. Dawkins quoted only the final sentence

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity, deflects history definitely from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

and you are right to note that

The physicists do not own words such as acceleration, turbulence, and chaos; they have meanings beyond the narrow definitions of physics.

But here is the whole Baudrillard passage as quoted in our book:

The whole problem of speaking about the end (particularly the end of history) is that you have to speak of what lies beyond the end and also, at the same time, of the impossibility of ending. This paradox is produced by the fact that in a non-linear, non-Euclidean space of history the end cannot be located. The end is, in fact, only conceivable in a logical order of causality and continuity. Now, it is events themselves which, by their artificial production, their programmed occurrence or the anticipation of their effects --- not to mention their transfiguration in the media --- are suppressing the cause-effect relation and hence all historical continuity.

This distortion of causes and effects, this mysterious autonomy of effects, this cause--effect reversibility, engendering a disorder or chaotic order (precisely our current situation: a reversibility of reality information, which gives rise to disorder in the realm of events and an extravagance of media effects), puts one in mind, to some extent, of Chaos Theory and the disproportion between the beating of a butterfly's wings and the hurricane this unleashes on the other side of the world. It also calls to mind Jacques Benveniste's paradoxical hypothesis of the memory of water. ...

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

This use of the phrase "chaotic formation" just after a reference to the scientific field of Chaos Theory and its "butterfly effect" makes clear that Baudrillard is intending to exploit the connection with chaos theory. That is, either (a) he intends the word "chaotic formation" in its technical sense, in which case he is wrong; or (b) he intends it only in some non-scientific sense, but then he has no right to exploit the connection with chaos theory unless he is prepared to supply an argument connecting the two senses.

Note also that the essay from which this is extracted is entitled "Exponential instability, exponential stability", and that the text after the quoted sentence continues as follows:

We shall not reach the destination, even if that destination is the Last Judgment, since we are henceforth separated from it by a variable refraction hyperspace. The retroversion of history could very well be interpreted as a turbulence of this kind, due to the hastening of events which reverses and swallows up their course. This is one of the versions of Chaos Theory --- that of exponential instability and its uncontrollable effects. It accounts very well for the `end' of history, interrupted in its linear or dialectical movement by that catastrophic singularity ...

But the exponential instability version is not the only one. The other is that of _exponential stability_. This latter defines a state in which, no matter where you start out, you always end up at the same point. The initial conditions, the original singularities do not matter: everything tends towards the Zero point --- itself also a strange attractor ...

Though incompatible, the two hypotheses --- exponential instability and stability --- are in fact simultaneously valid. Moreover, our system, in its _normal_ --- normally catastrophic --- course combines them very well. It combines in effect an inflation, a galloping acceleration, a dizzying whirl of mobility, an eccentricity of events and an excess of meaning and information with an exponential tendency towards total entropy. Our systems are thus doubly chaotic: they operate both by exponential stability and instability.

It would seem then that there will be no end because we are already in an excess of ends: the transfinite. ... Our complex, metastatic, viral systems, condemned to the exponential dimension alone (be it that of exponential stability or instability), to eccentricity and indefinite fractal scissiparity, can no longer come to an end. Condemned to an intense metabolism, to an intense internal metastasis, they become exhausted within themselves and no longer have any destination, any end, any otherness, any fatality. They are condemned, precisely, to the epidemic, to the endless excrescences of the fractal and not to the reversibility and perfect resolution of the fateful We know only the signs of catastrophe now; we no longer know the signs of destiny. (And besides, has any concern been shown in Chaos Theory for the equally extraordinary, contrary phenomenon of _hyposensitivity_ to initial conditions, of the inverse exponentiality of effects in relation to causes --- the potential hurricanes which end in the beating of a butterfly's wings?)

It seems clear that Baudrillard is mixing non-scientific and scientific terminology, without giving any argument (much less any valid argument) for the connection.

Perhaps this context might lead you to revise your judgment that

Now this passage is quite damning, not of Baurdillard, but of Sokal and Bricmont and, at second remove, of Dawkins himself. The comment that it meaningless from a scientific point of view is bizarre. ... Judging from this example though, Sokal and Bricmont are deficient in their ability to sort out sense from nonsense, which makes their entire enterprise suspect.

Best wishes,
Alan Sokal

Alan Sokal
Department of Physics
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003 USA

Thank you for your interesting letter of commentary. You have correctly surmised that I haven't yet had a chance to read your book - I am waiting for the English version (rumor sayeth that it will appear in November) as my French is quite nomimal.

I am at a disadvantage also in that I have not read anything by Deleuze and have no interest in doing so for reasons that you might appreciate. I do thank you for the fuller quote of the Baudrillard passage; it supports your case far better than the brief paragraph that Dawkins quoted. It is well that you included the material both before and after the brief paragraph; there really is quite a difference in character between the first three paragraphs and the continuation, so much so that it is hard to credit that they are by the same author. Here are some comments of my own.

After the three paragraph passage which you quoted in your book you remark here:

This use of the phrase "chaotic formation" just after a reference to the scientific field of Chaos Theory and its "butterfly effect" makes clear that Baudrillard is intending to exploit the connection with chaos theory. That is, either (a) he intends the word "chaotic formation" in its technical sense, in which case he is wrong; or (b) he intends it only in some non-scientific sense, but then he has no right to exploit the connection with chaos theory unless he is prepared to supply an argument connecting the two senses.
Now this simply won't do. The reference to chaos theory and the butterfly effect in the second paragraph you quote is preceded by "puts one in mind, to some extent,". It is clear that he is making a loose analogy, pointing to a general similarity. I can't agree at all with your "no right".

Tangentially, that expression, "chaotic formation" is a problem. If the text is a translation (which I suppose it to be) the original expression may carry different connotations.

If you want to argue with this text (and you should) there are other things that you can point at. In considering these three paragraphs in isolation there is a problem because we do not know what he means by the end of history. One meaning that occurs to me is that history loses its importance either because (a) change occurs so slowly, e.g. human pre-history, that it operates on a scale vastly larger than human lifetimes, or (b) it happens so rapidly and chaotically that the past is a useless guide to the future. Another meaning is the common conception that the era of vast historical movements (in so far as there are such and the traditional labels are not simply artifacts of histriography) is coming to an end.

Be that as it may the sentence "This paradox ... cannot be located" is wrong. "non-linear" and "non-Educlidean" are metaphors; there is no problem, per se, with using them as such. However they are being misused here - it is not true either in the technical sense or in the metaphor that "it is a fact ... the end cannot be located".

There is another, more important confusion which becomes evident when one considers the title and the subsequent text. In the first two paragraphs Baudrillard is talking about the effect of foresight; later on he is talking about the exponential instability. "Exponential instability" occurs when there a feature grows proportionately to its size; such growth always hits limits. The possible consequences are well known and well studied. Foresight, i.e., the fact that people act on potential and predicted results, is not the same thing and it has different consequences. In short, he is again misusing the metaphor.

Still, the paragraph that Dawkins cited makes sense standing alone and the paragraphs preceding it are scarcely atrocious. The subsequent paragraphs, however, more than justify your critique, e.g., the paragraph on "exponential stability" has the zero point as a strange attractor.

The final paragraph that you quote is so florid in its verbal excesses (though I do like the imagery of "intense internal metastsis") that it is difficult to say what is right and wrong with it, other than the inanity of final parenthesized remark. Here, I think, it is legitimate to say that he drawing heavily on chaos theory in its technical sense and is misusing it badly.

You remark at the end that:

It seems clear that Baudrillard is mixing non-scientific and scientific terminology, without giving any argument (much less any valid argument) for the connection.

I grant that this is true insofar as it goes but it is not quite to the point in my opinion. It is legitimate to use scientific concepts (and even terminology) as figures of speech, as metaphors, as analogies, and in illustration. One does not need to give arguments for the connection. However one needs to use them well and this is just what Baudrillard does not do.

The general sense of what he is arguing is clear; it would have been much clearer (and much more concise) if he had been less enthusiastic in his use of "scientific" terms.

Again, thank you for writing.

Regards,
Richard Harter

... continued on next rock ...

Actually, our book does exist already in English, but it's the UK edition ("Intellectual Impostures", Profile Books, London, July 1998) and the contract specifies that it can only be sold in the UK and the British Commonwealth. The US edition will appear, as rumor had it, in November ("Fashionable Nonsense", Picador USA, New York). But if you don't feel like waiting until November, no one will stop you from ordering the UK edition from Internet Bookshop: http://www.bookshop.co.uk/ser/serdsp.asp?shop=1&isbn=1861970749&DB=220 In fact, it'll probably be a bit cheaper ($15 against somewhere around $25).

You're right that Baudrillard (and the other authors) have the right to make metaphors and loose analogies. We discuss this, in fact, in the Introduction to the book. The question we raise is: What is the purpose of such scientific metaphors? Do they really add to the readers' understanding, or do they serve simply to (a) impress the reader with the author's erudition or (b) distract the reader's attention from the inadequacy of the author's sociological theories?

You're absolutely right that the main problem with the first three paragraphs of the Baudrillard quote is the sloppy (indeed, irritatingly sloppy) use of NON-scientific language, such as "the end of history". But we considered it beyond the scope of our book to address this, even though it is the most important issue.

By the way, "chaotic formation" in French was "formation chaotique", i.e. it's a literal translation. To my knowledge it doesn't have any special connotation in French.

After you've had a chance to read our book, I look forward to your further comments.

I shall probably wait for the US edition. I am in no rush. When I get it I expect that I will probably review it; I will let you know if I do. Have you seen Science Wars, the book? If not, you may amused to know that your name appears exactly once and is not indexed. Singularly tacky on Ross's part, I thought. The contents are quite varied in caliber and degree of fatheadedness. I mean to do a long article on it; if I do and you are interested I will send you a notice.

The formulation given above of the question you raise has faults; I presume the discussion is handled more clearly in your book. The alternatives presented have very much the character of a "Have you stopped beating your wife" question. Thus, for example, the purpose served (here one should be careful about the difference between intent and effect) might be to muddy and confuse an otherwise sound discussion. This, I suggest, is the case with the excerpt from Baudrillard; he is getting at something important (the "End of History" is not in its own right a sloppy term) and he is right to call attention to the concepts of exponential growth and even of chaos but the manner in which he does it is incompetent (in my opinion of course.)

A real difficulty here is that these concepts are popular. I must have at least half a dozen popular expositions of chaos theory and complexity theory on my shelves. They are good books; they are well written; and they are dangerous. The problem is that they are expositions for the layman; they give an impression of understanding which is adequate for an overview but not for application. The result is that there are authors and readers who have absorbed the jargon of these theories; they communicate at the level of that jargon.

This is quite different from some of the other examples that I have seen. Some, e.g. Irigaray, have serious faults of understanding. Others (I suspect Lacan falls into this category) are being playful - I do not credit that the derivation of the phallus as the square root of minus one was written with a straight face.

None of this really addresses the question of when and in what way loose analogies and metaphors drawn from science are appropriate. I shall be becomingly modest and leave the answer to wiser heads.

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From: Annette
Date: 09/04/98
Subj: Your web site

I enjoyed looking at your website during a few stolen moments at work today. (At home I have only lynx)

Thanks for the kind words. If you get the chance to visit it again do so - it is, er, extensive.
Thanks for your input on the potato sack/whore thread.
Thanks for mentioning it - it is not part of the path of wisdom to tell all fools that they are fools but it does the heart good to prod a few fools now and then.
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From: Dale Hanks
Date: 09/02/98
Subj:
Darwin Awards

Very nice. I had seen the darwin awards around quite a bit, but I did not who was responsible for them. I am giving you full credit when I send them to other people.

Thank you. Somewhere, a number of years ago, some unknown genius came up with the original idea for the Darwin awards. There is no *official* version although some people pretend that they are official. Credit for my listings go to people who circulate humor lists, people who send in contributions, and various web sites that keep track of the intelligence challenged.
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From: Russell Allen
Date: 08/26/98
Subj: Web Site Reviewal Submissions

Hey there, I stopped by to take a look. Quite impressive! A veritable truck load of 'intellectual rubbish'!

There were a mass of links, and I feel these should have been more clearly put into categories. Not having too much time, I could only look at one or two of them. You see, this was my only problem. There is indeed vast amounts of information here, but that alone does not make a good site! The information must be well presented and structured, and I feel both these could be worked on.

There is nothing wrong with the way you have laid out your site, but it is far from perfect. A contents page which looks to be one big table with something like 30 links is a daunting thing, likely to scare people off! You need to split up your links into about three or four categories, and clearly devide the contents page up into these categories.

So in summary, the content appears to be varied and comprehensive. It's just getting at it in an efficient way that proves a problem.

Thanks for the comments. I don't recall having sent in my site for review but I must have in a fit of tottyheadedness. Why, I don't know, because it gets quite enough hits as it is. To be honest I don't think your suggestions are quite to the point for this site. It is supposed to be like a used book store, full of all sorts of odds and ends, a place you can browse in and come back to time and again. I opine that a conventional tree structure as you suggest is less efficient and makes the content less accessible although I concede that a content tree would be less daunting. A paragraph of explanation on the home page would be a good idea, though. Anyway, thanks for your comments.

... continued on next rock ...

I don't mean moving information onto different pages; I agree with you on that one. I mean just devide your existing load of links into about three or four tables, for example, each with a header. You're right that to impose a tree structure would make things more difficult, of course.

Russell's suggestions were good ones and I followed. Regular readers may have noticed the change.
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