Apr 06 2011

Queer Science Syllabus

by at 11:26 pm under Uncategorized

Right now I’m working on a hypothetical syllabus that I’ll hopefully get the chance to teach in a year or two. It’s based on some of the recent things I’ve become intersted in. I’m thinking of calling the course “Queer Science” and I’d like to look at the way the chemical and atmospheric sciences have been “queered” in 19th-century literature. But I’m aware that a lot of science is heternormative, especially when it comes to the medical discourse on homosexuality and such (yes, Foucault shout out). In order to give students a representation of the different ways scientific discourse might be used in the literary imagination, I’ll have to include some more heternormative examples. I haven’t read Goethe’s Elective Affinities but from my understanding it’s a heternormative romantic plot that revolves around electricity and notions of “chemistry.” Here we see the discoursive connections between notions of love and science. Attraction becomes chemical, but it’s a chemical attraction that is distinctively hetero. Male bodies will be attracted to their opposites–magnetic metaphor comes in here too.

But scientific discourse and its imaginitve possibilties have been used in literature in queer ways too. I’d like students to get an idea about how this could be deployed in male and female writers of the 19th century. I’ve also got a 21st-century spiritualist novel (Affinity) that I’d like to put on there. One concern I have is that I know a lot more about women writers and their use of the electrical metaphors. Would it be okay for my only contemporary example to be an example of lesbian fiction? Is that fair to the students? Or should I just make the course less expansive. Should I *just* included female writers and their queer writing?

Also, a useful quote I have from Spectral America that could be useful in thinking about complicating our notion of the scientific laboratory and where experiments might take place:

Spiritualist practice had much in common with scientific investigations, but spiritualism looked to dining-room tables instead of operating tables, planchettes instead of microscopes, and the spirit-medium instead of the medical doctor as the force that can cause spectacular reactions and changes in human bodies and the environs, ‘much as a catalyst allows a chemical reaction to take place between two substances without actually entering into the reaction itself’ (Weinstein 126).

Another interesting quote from this essay, taken from an 1864 article entitled “Disembodied Spirits May Surround Us:”

I have often wondered that the advocated of Spiritualism [sic] have neve pointed out to those more positive skeptics who maintain that spirits cannot exist because they are not seen, the very obvious destruction of that fallacy by the merest glance at the wonders revealed by the microscope […]. I think it quite possible that in some future time, optical instruments may be invented sufficiently powerdul to enable men as clearly to see the present ‘viewless tenants’ of the atmosphere as they can now see myriads of microscopic organisms in a glass of water […] to see disembodied spirits peopling what we now consider the ’empty air’ (9).

This quote just makes me so happy–its preocupation with the invisible is what’s so striking to me. This may somehow relate to the work I’ve been doing on electric nations and adding yet another layer. Just as electrical particulars occupy the air, so do disembodied spirits. The interesting thing of course is how these spirits might be imagined. Are they gendered? Or are they simply electrical charges? This would relate to how a queer science of spirits and emobodiments could be imagined.

Well, I think I should definitely include Shari Weinstein’s “Technologies of Vision: Spiritualism and Science in Nineteenth-Century America.” On the syllabus. It could be useful for students to think about the ways in which spiritualism might “queer” science. As the quote above showed, spiritualist believers could claim that discrediting the existence of spirits because they are invisible is not scientifically sound because atoms and moleculues, of course exist. Spiritualist discourse then could draw links between its preoccupation with the invisible and scientific discourse’s own investment in that which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

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