File spoon-archives/phillitcrit.archive/phillitcrit_1998/phillitcrit.9806, message 21

Date: Thu, 11 Jun 1998 18:54:55 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: PLC: Odd Queer theory 

Today's Chronicle has another interesting hoax.  Like l'affaire Sokal,
this one seems to arise from empiricist disgruntlement with the jargon of


Fake Submission to Mailing List Sets Off a Debate
                      About Queer Theory

                      By LISA GUERNSEY

Another fictional postmodernist has sneaked into academic
discourse, this time striking on an e-mail
discussion list aboutqueer theory. 

 Daniel Harris, a New York author, pulled off the
hoax months ago
 by posting "translations" from a make-believe French
theorist on
QSTUDY-L. Members of the list found out only this
week that
they had been reading -- and some of them had been
to -- the works of a fake.

                      Mr. Harris reveals his prank in the forthcoming
issue of The
Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, and a copy of his
article has
already been posted to the list. Mr. Harris, who is
gay, said in an
interview Wednesday that he wanted to bring
attention to what he
sees as the jargon-laden and misguided field of
queer theory. 

His deception raises memories of an earlier one
staged by Alan D.
Sokal, a physicist at New York University who
controversy throughout academe when he posed as a
postmodern scientist in the spring 1996 issue of the
peer-reviewed journal
Social Text. None of the editors caught the spoof,
and it was
published alongside legitimate pieces in a special
issue on the
"science wars." 

QSTUDY-L has become an electronic salon for more
than 1,200
people interested in queer studies. It often
includes postings from
researchers questioning conventional definitions of
Sometimes it has explored what hidden meanings might
be signified by various body parts.

So last December, when Mr. Harris -- then an
subscriber -- posted a synopsis of the ideas of the
mythical Marie
Franoise de Ricci, nothing seemed amiss. De Ricci,
according to
Mr. Harris, wrote about men who "like to pretend
that they are
orifice-free" and who, therefore, "present a
patriarchal homogeneity of signification that
prevents interpretation." 

De Ricci's ideas didn't make a huge splash, but they
did stir some
discussion. Four subscribers posted responses,
providing their
own interpretations of her ideas. A half-dozen
others sent private
e-mail messages to the anonymous sender, some of
them asking
where they could find the French writer's works.
Only one
subscriber -- a professor at the University of
Nancy, in France --
called Mr. Harris's bluff. She did so in a private
e-mail message in
December, and she kept quiet about it. 

"I was using that hoax to make a simple point," Mr.
Harris said in
the interview. "What I want people to take note of
are the
ideological objections I have to queer theory."

His objections echo some of the ideas raised by Mr.
Sokal, who sought to show that when postmodernism was applied
to science, the result was nonsensical and full of jargon. 

 In the article, Mr. Harris says he wanted to do more
than take a another jab at postmodernism. He says that he first
wanted to call attention to what he sees as the insulated, elitist
environment of QSTUDY-L -- a group whose members, he says, are so
keen on the ideas of critical theorists that they can't see
past a fake one. 

                      Further, he argues that queer theory "has some
potentially destructive effects on gay studies itself." Queer
theorists often disparage labels like "gay" and "straight," arguing
that such categories narrow the scope of a person's potential
sexual preferences. But Mr. Harris contends that
dismantling the categories would weaken the political power of gay
people in their attempts to lobby for fair treatment. 

                      Gay activism is one theme of Mr. Harris's most
recent book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion, 1997), in
which he argues that if gay people become too mainstream,
they will lose their sense of what it means to be gay. 

                      Just after the news of Mr. Harris's spoof hit
QSTUDY-L, subscribers began to post their reactions -- and
some jumped into the debate about how to achieve gay political power.
"I don't think a political fight need depend on 'labels,'" wrote a
list member from Buenos Aires identified only as "J.L.S." 

                      But many others were just plain peeved that Mr.
Harris had staked out their Internet enclave as a place to make
his point. 

                      "Not only do I find Harris's position tiring, but
also somewhat two-faced," wrote a subscriber named Robert. "He was
(is?) on this listserv about a year or a year and a half ago
trying to sell his book, over and over, until people asked him to

                      A graduate student at Yale University named Tavia
Nyongo Turkish tried to set the hoax in context: "Are we
surprised that Harris was able to 'impersonate' a theorist on line?
Alan Sokal has already proved that he could get a fake article past
peer-review. Harris set himself a significantly easier challenge,
especially given the malleability of identity on the Internet. Is
this supposed to be a

                      Maybe not. But Mr. Harris is enjoying it. He said
Wednesday that
 he was most tickled by some of the posts that have
appeared since the veil came off. A few of them continue to
refer to De Ricci's ideas, apparently accepting them as worthy
of discussion, regardless of whether De Ricci is real or fake. 

 Terry Goldie, a professor of English at York
University, wrote: "Interestingly, this faux theorist is saying things
somewhat similar  the most interesting observations of Leo Bersani" --
a professor of
French at the University of California at Berkeley. 

                      "But then," he added with tongue in cheek, "Harris
probably also
                      created Bersani."

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