The Truth about Stonehenge and Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has attacked an art theorist over an article he compares to the one published as a hoax by Alan Sokal in 1996. New York physicist, Alan Sokal publishing the hoax article on science and critical theory he says in order to expose the reality distorting bias in postmodernist cultural theory. The essay ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ was submitted (and published by) the journal Social Text. If nothing else the exercise provided opportunities for the revealing of orientations in regard to cultural theory. As an example, Heather MacDonald of the Wall Street Journal reviewed a compendium containing the writings of Sokal as: “This book may have little effect on its actual subjects, who long ago parted ways with rational debate. But it should be read by every college president and trustee, to better understand how deeply the postmodernist rot has affected their institutions, undermining the very purpose of a university: the search for truth”. I believe the concept of revelatory truth died on the cross. However, there are important implications from the Sokal Affair that continue to be revealed today.

Richard Dawkins, the deranged champion of all things hardcore and humanist recently took issue with an essay; CARBON FIBRE MASCULINITY: disability and surfaces of homosociality by Anna Hickey-Moody. The essay contains such truth claims as “Carbon fibre surfaces are material extensions of subjectivity, and carbon fibre surfaces are vectors of the cultural economies of masculine competition” (1). In my own response, simply put, ‘carbon fibres’ are not anything other than a chemical element. But it can be assigned values as a manufactured object or tool. For example a carbon fibre prosthesis can be understood as something other than a medically prescribed appendage. But this is the response from Dawkins;

Dawkins critique of critical theory has been going on for decades, with him first citing and re-explaining Sokal the same year “Transgressing the Boundaries” was published. Today, like trying to repaint the Sistine Chapel with a tomato, Dawkins holds the same stance, which is that a flawed editorial team and review process has dammed the entire genre to ignorance, hypocrisy and lying. It is as if there was a “school of thought” that united writers and thinkers as diverse as Jaques Derrida and Katherine Hayles. Opposing this ‘school, is “Science”. Although Dawkins would have it that science is a monolith of truth (presumably including the atomic and hydrogen bombs, phrenology and eugenics to name but a few of the darker byways), it is in fact an enormous configuration of methods, histories, discoveries and achievements as well as failures and disgraces.

Whilst occupying a legitimate and valuable place amongst the many voices of dialogue, “science” has throughout its history claimed priority over all other voices. An example of this claiming meaning across the spectrum of knowledge, historical, social, cultural and literary is the case of Stonehenge, with one spokesman for the dominance of scientific discourse recently stating; “The mélange is irreconcilable with objective studies and most archaeologists have been reluctant to stray into the lush and lunatic pastures at the edge of their own well-tilled fields. Until recently stone circles were the centres of an unchallenged escapist world.” (Burl 2000 8). In dismissing all other voices which present the stone circle as a semiotic sign, a dynamic meaning is being rejected in favour of prescriptive meaning, which in turn results in a dictated reality. This also challenges aspects of the cultural study of science in regard to the subjective content of scientific texts. In considering the so-called Social Text Affair, the debate regarding the relationship between science and culture is continuing. In the sense of time, science as represented in archaeology, astronomy, and chemistry (e.g. radio carbon dating of artefacts) asserts logical positivist paradigms and regards linear time as paramount.

(This text is an abridgement to an essay I wrote in 2004 on Stonehenge as a dialogic sign, assigned meanings over its long history depending upon the contexts that defined it — even the precision of scientific method and techniques).