The Contradictions of Contemporary Culture: A Tribute to Norman Jay Levitt (1943–2009)

Paul R. Gross

Last night, and not for the first time, I juggled alternative openings for a short but fitting memorial statement for Academic Questions on Norman Levitt, admirable product of Bronx Science, Harvard, and Princeton. He was my good friend, collaborator, and co-author. And once again nothing good enough for that memory came to mind.

So I went to the small screen to watch our Red Sox (this is Boston, late August) play the Orioles. Still in their late-season debility, the Sox worked themselves up to yet another wipeout by sometimes cellar-resident Baltimore. As I switched off the post-game justifications (excuses), there arose, quite unexpectedly, recollections of Steve Fuller (Warwick, UK), productive sociologist of science and “social epistemologist.” They were about Prof. Fuller’s 2007 apologia, Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.1 The book was at least in part his attempt to justify having joined up—as expert witness—with the creationists in their 2005 anti-“Darwinism” (anti-evolution) adventure and, as it turned out, having shared in its decisive legal defeat.2

Norman Levitt reviewed Fuller’s book for Skeptic, providing an erudite analysis of its arguments, including those on science and mathematics (important in the litigation), of which Fuller’s knowledge is superficial. This review was a characteristic Levitt product: lucid, adamantine in logical, scientific, and mathematical substance, learned—and withal, high-spirited prose. One of its summary statements will convey the tone:

The wider lesson, if there be any, is that animosity to science as such and to its cognitive authority still pervades academic life outside the dominion of the science faculty. The compost that nurtured Steve Fuller and many of his associates in their development of “social constructivist” theory consisted principally of these doubts, resentments and antagonisms. This soil put forth a host of noxious weeds, quite varied, and sometimes taxonomically linked only by the common bitterness they exuded. Each in its own way—literary theory, cultural studies, cultural anthropology, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and a long-standing Marxisant approach to sociology—joined the tacit alliance of antiscientific intellectuals whose imprecations grew all the louder even as their influence over the practice of science and public science policy shrank to imperceptibility.3

There is a slight puzzle in this blunt description of the meteoric rise and slow decline of those named forms of science studies, during the fifteen or so years beginning in the mid-1980s. What must be taken as a disparagement is that “Marxisant approach to sociology.” This is a puzzle only because Norman Levitt called himself a socialist and identified his general idea of the good society with “democratic socialism”—for which Marx remains, if no longer a source, then at least one inspiration.

Why, then, would Norm Levitt disparage Marxist influence? The answer, because he knew and cared about the meanings of words, lies in the genuine meaning of “marxisant”:

The French have a great adjective: marxisant. If you look it up in Larousse you are told that it means “that which tends toward Marxism,” but so bald a definition doesn’t capture the connotative flavor of the word. To be marxisant is to be vaguely but ostentatiously leftist, as a form of class display.4 (Final emphasis added)

It was that empty class display, along with frequent ignorance of science and reflex hostility to it, that annoyed Levitt—and me. Shared annoyance was the occasion of our first encounter and an eventually long and productive collaboration. Academic Questions figures in the story.

In the early 1990s I was at the University of Virginia, finishing up as provost and preparing to be director of the Center for Advanced Studies. I felt obliged to be even more closely aware than before of research interests throughout the university. Norman Levitt was a long way from there—up in New Jersey at Rutgers: a topologist, professor of mathematics, and broadly educated, perennial student of culture and politics.

My now purposeful attendance at lectures and seminars in the humanities and social sciences produced, after a few months, incredulity and battle fatigue. The most fashionable activity among politically correct and ambitious faculty (except for those in the natural sciences) seemed to have become science-criticism, sage comment on its supposedly undeserved reputation for epistemological virtue, on its brute mono-culturalism and cultural imperialism. There was in this movement a new epidemic of scare quotes: many of its front-runners announced themselves to be rethinking “truth” and “objectivity.”5 There were, in our seminar rooms, paroxysms of social-constructivist pedagogy and relativist revelations of “sci-fraud.”6

One prevalent local form was “feminist epistemology,” whose foundational idea was that existing science is radically incomplete or simply wrong because it was done (largely) by men, thus with all the liabilities of patriarchy. Eventually I could abide no longer the deluge of such nonsense, and complained about it in writing for Academic Questions.7 As the published article became known, the number, if not the quality, of my faculty friends declined.

At the same time there arrived, however, a long, articulate letter (people wrote them in those days), accompanied by an account of comparable, more general, even more vexatious phenomena at Rutgers and in the New York area. It was from Norman Levitt. He and I were responding alike to the rise of PC anti-science, and our combined range of experiences was of course far broader than that of either one. We agreed to stay in touch. The findings accumulated, and it became clear that the subject was already too big, too serious, to be dealt with in more papers for academic journals. We decided that a book, solidly documented, closely argued—sufficiently polemical—was needed.

It was written over succeeding months, almost entirely via exchanges of e-mail and floppy disks. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994) was in every sense a co-authorship, and on all but trivial, easily settled points of organization and style, ours was a tranquil and efficient partnership. The book served its purpose—to awaken defenders of science and reason worldwide to the spreading postmodern (and marxisant) imperium in the academy. Our publisher, the Johns Hopkins University Press, did the book proud and earned ample compensation for it via sales and translations.

That book caused theoretical physicist Alan Sokal, who had found it hard to believe the universality of the foolishness we documented, to undertake an experiment—what was soon known (again, worldwide) as “The Sokal Hoax.”8 It confirmed the pervasive ignorance of science and mathematics among leading lights, here and in Europe, of the new and leftish, Marxist, or marxisant science-criticism.

Politics were never a problem in our collaboration. Levitt thought of himself as a socialist. While he was still a Harvard undergraduate demonstrating against the Vietnam War and the “complicity” in it of the university, I was a recently-minted full professor at MIT. I too disliked that war, but even more so the behavior of the faculty, some of whom actively encouraged student marches and mass protests, advised takeovers of buildings and offices—along with the forcible ejection of innocents therefrom, cancellation of classes, “revolutionary” teach-ins, and the belief (as stated in The Nation) that more of value could be learned in a three-day demonstration than in a year of classes. My old heart-connections with progressivism were severed by the chatter of “complicity” and the sophomoric politics of some distinguished colleagues.

But Norman Levitt was—above, before, and after politics—an honest inquirer. His socio-cultural views evolved continuously. The best, shortest, and most recent summary I know was in his meditation on science in culture, Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture. There he noted that “Like [Daniel] Bell, I am a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.”9 He went on to approve a “congruity of cultural conservatism, political liberalism, and economic egalitarianism.”10

I understood his vision of social democracy. But “economic egalitarianism” needs to be defined. Most socialists I know well enough to argue with today—three years after Norman’s untimely death at age sixty-six—use, but do not define such terms. They just favor (radical) wealth redistribution, of whose modern history some at least are unaware.

Norman, truth-seeker and liberal, was (like Alan Sokal) impatient with and a devastating critic of the political correctness and—even worse—the philosophic triviality that seemed to have overcome the academic Left and indeed much of the academy post-Vietnam. Both sought to save their old-leftism from descent into sophistry. The subtitle of Higher Superstition refers to the “academic Left.” Nothing so exasperated Norman as the charge from ignorant detractors that the book was a reactionary tract, or that its authors were (mere) rightists. Fortunately his sense of humor was as strong and in as steady operation as his other fine qualities: love and knowledge of music (especially of Mozart), of Civil War history, of elegant mathematics, of better explanations of quantum strangeness, of reading and knowing the best of contemporary writing, including poetry and fiction.

It takes a powerful mind to maintain so many qualities so demanding of cerebral metabolism. It takes rude physical health to keep all that biochemistry going, far beyond the quotidian requirements of moving the body around and doing routine work. That rude health requirement, only, failed him. Because of a troubled heart, he left us (wife, children, colleagues, friends, readers) at the height of his powers. To the last he was rethinking, revising, inquiring, and exploring what he called—as subtitle to his Prometheus—“the contradictions of contemporary culture.”

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