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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

The art of the hoax

The uses and misuses of intellectual pranks

Andy Lamey

Angry Penguins was a literary ­journal in Adelaide, Australia. In 1944, Max Harris, the editor, received two poems by an unknown writer named Ern Malley. They were accompanied by a letter from Malley’s sister, Ethel, which explained that Ern had recently died at age 25: “It would be a kindness if you would let me know whether you think there is anything in them. I am not a literary person myself.” Harris liked Malley’s work and asked to see more. He received a manuscript of sixteen poems, which so impressed him that he published them all several months later.

Fact, a Sydney tabloid, soon broke the story that the poems were a hoax. There was no Ethel or Ern. The poems had been written by two traditional poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who detested Angry Penguins for its modernism. McAuley and Stewart released a statement explaining that they had dashed off the poems in an afternoon. “We opened books at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes.” They noted that the first three lines of one of the poems came from a report on draining water from mosquito breeding grounds: “ ‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other/ Areas of stagnant water serve/ As breeding grounds…’ Now/ Have I found you, my Anopheles!”

Newspaper stories about the hoax appeared across Australia and as far away as Britain and the United States. Australia in the forties, like Canada, was not an especially literary place, and the public relished the humiliation of a poetic type such as Harris. Harris however refused his assigned role. He insisted that McAuley and Stewart’s intentions didn’t matter and the poems were great, a view he maintained until his death fifty years later.

Ern Malley is recalled by a more recent hoax. Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian are respectively a magazine editor with a background in literary studies, a math PhD, and a philosophy professor. They submitted more than twenty papers to journals that specialize in gender studies and, to a lesser degree, race and sexuality studies. According to the authors, the papers were “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways.” One argued that “dog parks are rape-condoning spaces and a place of rampant canine rape culture.” Another employed “very shoddy qualitative methodology” to make the case that men “frequent ‘breastaurants’ like Hooters because they are nostalgic for patriarchal dominance.” Those papers and five others were accepted. The authors say that their project exposes the disciplines they targeted as being less devoted to scholarship than “grievance studies.” The real significance of their prank however may be how it repeats elements of the Malley affair that blunt its intended effect.

Few people today share Harris’s glowing evaluation of Malley. But over time Harris’s view has been substantially vindicated. As literary scholar Frank Kermode has observed, “The hoaxers may have worked fast, but they were so talented and so habituated to poetry that they failed to produce the total garbage that they intended.” Like other critics, Kermode pointed to passages that were not bad, and sometimes even good, such as the final line of one poem that read, “But no one warned that the mind repeats/ In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still/ The black swan of trespass on alien waters.” American poet John Ashbery would give students a poem by Malley and one by a distinguished contemporary and ask them to identify the hoax, which students could do only fifty percent of the time. McAuley and Stewart’s serious verse never achieved the same prominence as their Malley poems. When literary scholars refer to them today it is usually to illustrate the intentional fallacy, the mistaken view that the meaning of a work of art is set by the intention of its creator.

One of the “grievance studies” papers seems to commit something like the intentional fallacy. “When the Joke is on You: A Feminist Perspective of How Positionality Influences Satire,” argues that academic hoaxes and other satirical critiques are “a tool of subversion that fosters social-justice aims” when used by marginalized groups, but not when they are used against the marginalized by the powerful. The paper has struck more than one reader as dull and unoriginal but hardly scandalous. As philosopher Justin Weinberg put it, “Most of the twenty-page paper is a reasonable synthesis of others’ ideas about oppression and humour. It may not be groundbreaking (as one of the reviewers points out), but it is not ridiculous.” Weinberg’s view is basically Max Harris without the hyperbole.

The most eager consumers of the grievance studies hoax seem to be the media and the general public. In this way the hoax recalls one of the major functions of the Malley affair, which was to encourage the public’s philistinism. The people who will ascribe to the grievance studies prank the most significance will likely be those who already despise the disciplines involved. The hoaxers say they conducted their sting to expose how some disciplines “promote…prejudices.” It is a strange way of combatting prejudice however that flatters the uninformed view that all research on gender and race is garbage.

The publicity the Malley poems received caused the police to take an interest in Angry Penguins. This resulted in Harris being put on trial for obscenity for having published them, which ended with him paying a fine in lieu of jail time, despite the testimony of literary critics who spoke in his defence. The grievance studies pranksters call upon “all major universities to begin a thorough review of these areas of study…in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.” In urging university administrators to take action against academics they dislike the pranksters exhibit their own form of intellectual authoritarianism.

Some critics of the modern hoaxers have suggested that because one of them is a professor and they deceived journal editors and referees, it was unethical to not get approval from a university institutional review board (IRB), which review research involving human subjects. Hoaxes, pranks, and exposés are legitimate tools of intellectual life, and to say that they are ethically wrong because the pranksters didn’t fill out the right paperwork is to use ethical language to cloak a power move, one that would make hoaxes by and about academics much more difficult to execute. In fact, the misuse of moral language is one of the traits the hoaxers associate with the fields they target.

Instead of responding to hoaxes with bureaucratic criticisms we should subject them to the intellectual equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis. Does the point they make justify the deception involved? Two decades ago the physicist Alan Sokal famously published a paper filled with scientific gibberish, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” in the cultural studies journal Social Text. Sokal went on to write or co-write two books revisiting the hoax, making it out to be more significant than it was, but the original prank itself was—to reveal my own prejudices—a funny way of deflating a pretentious strand of cultural studies and deserved points for originality.

Sokal has since inspired many imitators. Wikipedia has an entry on “scholarly publishing stings,” listing similar pranks involving mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, medicine, psychology, interdisciplinary studies, cultural studies, and theology. More than one journal involved was pay-to-publish, making the hoax in question an expensive reminder that sham journals have no standards.

The grievance-studies hoax has a second name, Sokal Squared, that acknowledges that it is basically a rerun of Sokal, the only difference being one of volume. If a problem that many pranksters want to expose is that some journals publish derivative work, they might pause to ask if the best way of making the point is to take an originally fun idea and run it into the ground through overuse. The next prankster to come along would do well to read Malley for creative inspiration. “I have split the infinitive,” he wrote. “Beyond is anything.”

Andy Lamey teaches philosophy at the University of California at San Diego and is author of Duty and The Beast: Should We Eat Meat in the Name of Animal Rights?