Foucault, science fiction and the “Bogdanov Affair”

This is the most obscure Foucault quote I know. In the late 1970s he was asked by a couple of sf researchers, Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff for his opinion on science fiction for a book they were doing (l’effet science-fiction, Éditions Robert Laffont, 1979).

Foucault responded by letter on March 6, 1977:

Tenir un discours sur la science-fiction ne me séduit pas. D’elle je ne connais rien. Absolument rien. Il ne me vient–et ne me viendra jamais, je le pense–aucun discours.

Pretty clear you would have thought, but just to make sure the brothers called him up on November 20, 1977 and he repeated:

Vous savez, la science-fiction, je n’y connais rien. Absolument rien…Elle me laisse sans discours.

So what is this book that they were able to interview not just Foucault but many of the leading personalities of the day (Baudrillard, Hergé, Ionesco, Lacan, Alvin Toffler, Salador Dali and even Yves Saint Laurent)? Here is their intro as translated by Marc Angenot:

We will start with the following hypothesis: everybody has got something to say about SF, everybody is ready to formulate some implicit or explicit definition of the genre. This would even be a distinctive feature of SF as a cultural phenomenon. You cannot interview people in the street about serial music, Islamic mysticism, classical prosody vs. free verse, or Lacanian psychoanalysis: you are likely to get 2% of more or less relevant answers and 98% of serene indifference. I. and G. Bogdanoff were convinced that, with SF, although people do not necessarily read any, it would be different, that everyone — rich and destitute, widow and orphan, cleric and layman, fortunate and unlucky, the youth and the veteran, the worthy and the unworthy, the prophet and the deceiver, the cultured and the illiterate, the soldier and the civilian, the heathen and the believer, the jester and the philosopher, the justice and the outlaw, the philanthropist and the misanthrope, Romeo and Juliet, David and Jonathan, the sound and the furious — everyone in this society is ready to make some statement, even if it be totally irrelevant, about SF. To prove their point, the Bogdanoffs endeavored to interview whoever has got a name in contemporary Europe: the Pope, the King of Belgians, Lévi-Strauss, Georges Marchais, etc. The first two did not fail to answer but cautiously eluded the Bogdanoffs’ curiosity; the last two remained extremely vague. But for dozens of other celebrities the question “what do you think of SF” provoked an unhesitating response — adorned with all commonplaces, confusions and absurdities that one might expect. That is what the Bogdanoffs, social psychologists despite themselves, call “The Sci-Fi Effect.” They conclude that SF (the word if not the “thing”) is a “social revealer.” It discloses present hopes, fears, anguishes, contradictions. The Bogdanoffs’ book is at the same time a pleasant picaresque novel about two amateur interviewers and their victims, a dictionary of idées reçues in Flaubert’s style, and a serious and valuable attempt at elucidating the sociocultural position and image of SF.

More recently these guys (tv celebs in France) were the eponymous characters in the “Bogdanov Affair” which is a kind of reverse “Sokal Affair.” They published papers in scientific journals with a new theory explaining the Big Bang that some physicists say were a hoax and comprised of pseudoscientific jargon (see wikipedia entry for more on the “affair, including details of how the French wikipedia entry on them had possibly been edited by they themselves). (The brothers deny their papers were a hoax.)

After reading the abstracts of both theses, German physicist Max Niedermaier concluded that the papers were pseudoscientific, consisting of dense technical jargon written to sound scientific without having real content. In Niedermaier’s view, the Bogdanovs had tried to prove the existence of weaknesses within the peer-review system, much in the same fashion that physicist Alan Sokal had published a deliberately fraudulent paper in the humanities journal Social Text. On 22 October 2002, Niedermaier wrote an email to this effect which was then widely distributed. An eventual recipient, the American mathematical physicist John Baez, created a discussion thread on the Usenet newsgroup sci.physics.research titled “Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?”[12] which quickly grew to hundreds of posts in length. This verbal wrangle soon attracted worldwide attention, both in the physics community and in the international popular press. Following Niedermaier, the majority of the participants in the Usenet discussion thread created by Baez also voiced the assumption that the work was a deliberate hoax, which the Bogdanov brothers have continued to deny.

It’s a long involved story which admittedly isn’t relevant to Foucault but I find the connection amusing. The whole Affair is certainly good for raising questions about the peer review process, something which as an editor I can’t ignore.

2 Responses

  1. I read that book many years ago and thought Foucault’s comments were amusing. However, Foucault did write an article on Jules Verne at one point…

    I think they even wrote and asked the Pope what he thought of science fiction and got a polite reply from the Vatican.

    These brothers used to host science fiction events on TV as well.

  2. […] problema que surgió alrededor de ellos puede verse en The Bogdanoff Affair, aquí, en esta weby en Foucault, science fiction and the “Bogdanov Affair” “Problema” iniciado por Ted Newman, “célebre científico americano de la […]

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