The Sokal Affair and Margaret Atwood

            In a recent class discussion concerning Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Professor Clayton quoted a passage detailing the pigoon project at OrganInc Farms.

 

The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host – organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year.  A rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time.  (22)

 

During the ensuing debate on the feasibility of such a project, I advocated that Atwood’s wording argues against the plausibility of achieving such a goal.  Although procedures that grow “human-tissue organs” in a “transgenic pig host” have been taking place for some time, the desire for such “organs” to “transplant smoothly,” “avoid rejection,” and “fend off attacks” seems too ambitious.  Moreover, “fend[ing] off [these] attacks” involves an organ that fights endlessly variable “strains” of “opportunistic microbes and viruses.”   Such an organ certainly will never exist – for if it did, what would drug companies do? 

            Besides this perspective, a counter opinion explaining why Atwood’s opinion seemed plausible focused on the overall presentation of the transgenic pig host.  The student explained that although they did not entirely understand what techniques were being performed on the pigoon, –  “a rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner” – the ideas sounded legit.  Basically, this student believed that the scientific jargon throughout this paragraph presented the pigoon affair in a “credible” tone.  This argument immediately reminded me of a previous topic known as the Sokal affair.

            The Sokal affair occurred in 1996 and involved the publishing of an article written by Alan Sokal in Social Text, a “postmodernist cultural studies journal.”1  In this article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Sokal uses scientific and literary jargon to purposefully talk about nothing.  Following the publication, when later questions arise as to what the article was about, Sokal admits his hoax.  Through this event, Sokal defrauds a journal that “publishe[s] articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded.”1 

            So what does all this mean?  Well, in light of this student’s opinion and the familiarity Atwood seems to have with contemporary scientific research and science in literature, perhaps Atwood pokes a little fun at scientific jargon.  While some may argue that “the rapid-maturity gene” is not that difficult a principle to grasp – this gene must somehow undergoes transcription and translation faster or more frequently so that the proteins it codes for are produced in greater quantity – many concepts presented by Sokal were similarly recognized as clear jokes on second glance.  Regardless of whether or not Atwood had any intention of alluding to how nonsense or in this case, too ambitious ideas, can be passively accepted by a reader due to the manner in which they are presented, I find this topic highly interesting and would enjoy hearing others’ opinions on the matter.

 

References:

1.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_Affair#_note-1&gt;

Link to article:

<http://www.jstor.org/view/01642472/ap020040/02a00170/0&gt; 

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~ by shennt on March 17, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Sokal Affair and Margaret Atwood”

  1. Nicole Shen

  2. For the most part, I agree with what you’re saying. I don’t want to say it’s “spin,” but it is defintely mincing words. While science is (ideally) a pragmatic activity, it is also entirely bound to the way humans behave. Even when we utilize formal logic to evaluate a premise to the result, if we want to communicate that notion, we have to rely on linguistic behaviors to convey what we want. When people are posed with the potential rewards of conveying a (potentially) correct notion about the world, be it an experiment or whatever, engaging in deceptive behaviors become less and less aversive. You know, the big fish story.

    Well when the livelihood of a person (like the scientists in O&C) is directly tied to the outcomes of battles fought on a hyper-competitive playing-field, what matters most–an ideal like speaking the truth, or what the market wants to hear? In O&C people must consume, and Atwood brilliantly covers many of the niche markets we have today (alt-lifestyles, eating habits, art preferences, etc). In this portrayal, the corporations literally duke it out, and the scientists are the weapon designers. Jimmy becomes the propagandist, whose role seems to function in a way that is inspired by the Sokal incident. What is strange is that he evidently doesn’t have much value in this role…it seems more like it gives the scientists distance from the real world and the world of their science in the compounds.

    Because he’s a “word person,” he can pose even the most devious scientific research as a must-have product. He knows rhetorical methods that probably sound a lot like the “pigoon” description, maybe that description is even how he would have written it himself if he were advertising it. I mean, we hear him describe all those different products (Soy-sardines, soy-chicken) with a similar kind of comical indifference. It’s as if he sees right through the veil, but can’t do anything about it in either the past or the present. In both conditions he has to consume what he can to survive. What he knows about the product doesn’t matter. And this is where I believe Atwood’s warning comes into play.

    But that’s in my post…so refer to that!
    -Matt

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