Revisiting Our Summer of Hoaxes

August 16th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Was it just last summer that literary hoaxes were all the rage? Has time flown so quickly? The Boston Globe reminds us that it’s true — summer is nearly gone — be revisiting the literary hoax. After asking the all-important question —

And finally what separates an artful hoax from an authentic piece of literature?

— the article goes on to define three separate types of literary hoaxes. Yes, indeed, there are three. For those of you who don’t revel in the hoax, you should be aware that the art is far more subtle than you believe.

But not all hoaxes are created equal, and [Brian] McHale cautions against seeing them all through the same moral lens. He identifies three types, each with their own ethical consequences: ”genuine hoaxes,” ”entrapment hoaxes,” and ”mock-hoaxes.”

Setting aside our delight in the final label, we instead focus on the aspect of the hoax that makes it all worthwhile: inherent human gullibility. A basic truth in life is that anyone with believe anything if you add an appropriate layer of gravitas to your words. In some circles, this is known as lying. We prefer to think of it as experimenting with the masses — or fiction, if you will.

Entrapment hoaxes, on the other hand, rely upon exposure to prove their point. McHale describes these as ”didactic and punitive” acts that culminate in some epiphanic gotcha! Perhaps the most famous recent example is the 1996 hoax by New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who suppressed his contempt for postmodern philosophy long enough to construct a bogus article about the political possibilities of quantum mechanics. He submitted it to the theory-happy humanities journal Social Text, where it was printed without alteration, despite the fact that it made no sense whatsoever and contained some elementary scientific errors. Sokal exposed the hoax–as well as his intention to save the academic left from its worst instincts–in the magazine Lingua Franca.

File Under: Square Pegs