MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh book coverIn Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian April R. Haynes “tells the story of how masturbation became a reviled sexual act charged with political meaning in the United States” during the antebellum period (4). While masturbation, or “onanism,” had long been understood as a problematic sexual practice, prior to the 1830s Americans were largely unresponsive to calls for widespread moral panic. Yet by the late nineteenth century, masturbation — “the solitary vice” — was commonly understood as a dangerous habit. Social reformers and the medical establishment alike held it responsible for a wide range of social and personal ills. At the dawn of the twentieth century it had become a cornerstone of white, progressive America’s policing of bodies considered deviant.

How and why did this single sexual practice come to dominate mainstream narratives of sexual deviancy? Haynes sets out to tell this story through the lens of female reformers, black and white, who played a key role in disrupting the status quo of sexual knowledge in the decades before the American Civil War. Asserting their right to physiological self-knowledge, women’s rights activists and abolitionists argued for sexual citizenship that crossed the boundaries of race and class, as well as gender. Female and male, black and white, these reformers argued, humans had the capacity for both sexual passion and sexual self-restraint. The rhetoric of sexual self-control both circumscribed (white) men’s entitlement to women’s bodies as well as establishing women’s capacity for pleasure and self-governance. A proto-heteronormative discourse, reform physiology put forward a radical gender and racial equality based on a shared (sexual) nature the fullest expression of which could be cultivated and contained within a companionate marriage of equals. As Haynes writes, “pitting solitary deviance against a naturalized and empowering view of female heterosexual pleasure, [reformers] tied women’s sexual autonomy to active heterosexuality and associated masturbation with children” (162).

In the process of making such bold, new claims to embodied citizenship rights, reform physiologists developed overlapping and eventually competing discourses of sexual virtue and sexual purity. The logic of sexual virtue required rigorous self-examination and self-improvement, insisting not on female innocence or passionlessness but rather on responsible sexual citizenship regardless of race or gender. This discourse appealed to many black women and white abolitionists because it both acknowledged the realities of a non-virtuous world and offered the possibility of redemption through responsible action.

Sexual purity, by contrast, turned on the emerging notion of particular female piety, found its fullest expression among whites during the later half of the nineteenth century, turning on (white) fears of sexual and racial contamination. It was the sexual purity discourse that eventually gained widespread acceptance within white, middle-class America, turning anti-masturbation rhetoric into a powerful tool for policing the sexuality of bodies white Americans feared: youths, immigrants, blacks, the poor, homosexuals.

Through five roughly chronological chapters, each centering around a specific moment in the development of nineteenth-century anti-masturbation discourse, Haynes follows black and white female reformers who constructed, elaborated, and contested the logic of sexual purity between 1830-1860. Haynes’ work is particularly refreshing in the way that it centers the work of black, female reformers, persuasively situating African American activists as both co-creators of, and eventual dissenters from, what would become a white supremacist social purity movement.

A primarily intellectual history, Haynes is concerned with how ideas about masturbation and sexual self-control more broadly were deployed through written texts and promoted at public lectures. Left in the shadows, perhaps beyond the scope of this particular study, is the way in which anti-masturbation discourse shaped the sexual experiences of individuals. To what extent did social fears around “the solitary vice” affect the sexual psyches of the women, black and white, who deployed anti-masturbation logics to political ends? We are given fleeting glimpses of individual activists, such as Sarah Mapps Douglass and Sarah Grimke — reported to be “celibate” for long periods during their adult lives — and cannot help but wonder how stringently they practiced what they preached. Of course, the historical record is often silent on such matters; the sexual practices of the (relatively) privileged remain shrouded from view by the privacy they are afforded while the sexual practices of deviant bodies come into focus through medical, judicial, and other policing lenses. Further work could be done, however, in teasing out the relationship between the sexual norms and sexual practices among the promoters of reform physiology.

Overall, Riotous Flesh gives us a rich pre-history of what would become, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a movement violently preoccupied with maintenance of white, female purity in the face of black emancipation and successive waves of immigration. As documented in Sarah Moslener’s recent Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (Oxford University Press, 2015), from the end of the Civil War through the Cold War era — and arguably to the present — maintaining the sexual purity (however fictive) of white, middle-class American girls remained a staple of American nationalism. Haynes argues in her epilogue that since the Sixties we have reversed the logic of anti-masturbation reformers, now holding those who do not masturbate as prudish and repressed. While this may be true in certain circles, I would argue that the public at large continues to look askance on those who admit to “the solitary vice.”

We need look no further than contemporary Christian purity campaigns to see the continued policing of solitary sexual pleasure as a socially deviant and physically disordered activity. Often conflated with similarly-suspect engagement with pornography, independent sexual activities are still widely understood to endanger one’s ability to form and sustain a stable, heteronormative union. In turn, the heteronormative family unit — now tentatively expanded to include same-sex couples — remains a cornerstone of American national identity. Riotous Flesh offers an insightful, intersectional analysis of the moment in which many of our present-day understandings of human sexuality — and masturbation in particular — began to take shape.

Friday Fiction Feature: The Dead Assassin

fictionreboot2by Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Dead Assassin is a direct sequel to The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (2014). Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, having successfully survived their first paranormal investigation, are pulled into another, this time in relation to a series of bloody murders occurring across London. The killer leaves behind a mutilated corpse and seems to punch through solid walls to get to a target: who could want all these men dead and who could hire an assassin of such strength?

Revenant (reviewed on this blog by Susan Jacobsen) was an entertaining if uneven read; Assassin is an excellent sequel with a solid last half demonstrating that many of the narrative kinks from Revenant have since been worked out. Entwistle toys with the edges of a steampunk Victorian universe without quite committing to it, allowing him to stay firmly within the bounds of the historical personalities he has chosen as main characters. His use of steam and clockwork technology is closer to the Victorians’ fascination with mechanical engineering than to a steampunked twenty-first century vision of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, fans of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest will enjoy the nods to ‘what might have been.’

22545438Assassin starts with a bang: Conan Doyle and Jean Leckie, a recent acquaintance from a spiritualist society, are in the midst of a mostly innocent dinner when a blood-soaked policeman staggers in looking for Doyle. A murder has been committed and Doyle is needed. Oscar Wilde shows up as if on cue when Conan Doyle is searching for a cab to the crime scene and voila. A murderous Frankenstein’s monster is introduced within the first twenty pages and, really, it just gets better from there. Entwistle builds on Revenant’s vision for a London brushed by the paranormal, introducing the horrifically charismatic Rufus DeVayne as well as a cryptic Fog Committee and a TORCHWOOD-esque security organization run out of Buckingham Palace.

Assassin also enlarges — or, perhaps, tantalizingly hints at — on Conan Doyle and Wilde’s private lives with a slightly more delicate hand than Entwhistle used in Revenant. There are several passages of dialogue that brush the edges of Wilde’s life, particularly around his relationship with his wife, Constance, and with the ‘invert’ community of London, that it would have been wonderful to see expanded. Conan Doyle, too, with his struggle between faithfulness to his dying wife Louisa and his attraction to Jean Leckie, has introspective moments that could have been expanded upon most enjoyably.

Assassin, however, is first and foremost an adventure story and Entwistle never forgets that. A denouement that includes a chase on a steam motorcycle, lions, deadly cocktails, and megalomaniacs delivers beautifully on the build-up.

Public Access, Outreach, and Health

DailyDose_PosterMedicine is not practiced in a vacuum; cultural and geographical context matter, and the community shapes both innovation and practice. Cleveland’s history reveals the remarkable collaboration of medical institutions and the public—it does not rest only in the hands of physicians or with distant hospital systems. Now, as then, health is everyone’s concern. But how do we engage the public? And how can we make it plain that the public has rights–and power–to shape medicine? Historically, individuals had a greater share in shaping their care out of necessity. The Dittrick Museum’s collection of herbals and medical remedies is a testament to just how much people took health into their own hands. Dr. Culpepper’s Last Legacy (1655) contains prescriptions for do-it-yourself potions [from our instagram]: Untitled-1Obviously, we are not mixing witches’ brew these days, and certainly no doctor or pharmaceutical company is going to publish recipes for homemade medicine. Then again, a resurgence in homeopathy and plenty of websites that promote home-remedies suggest that there is an audience…And a quick scan reveals plenty of misinformation, too. How can an interested public find good information about their health and health choices? Whose responsibility is it to make access to care, and even information about care, easier and more intuitive? The patient often does not feel like an empowered part of the medical process. A few years ago, The Atlantic published a piece called “Power to the Patients” that took issue with the traditional doctor knows best mantra: “it is only by empowering patients – entrusting them with greater responsibility and putting opportunities for self-directed care into their hands – that health care can be made significantly more efficient and effective.” [1] But, the article goes on to admit, sorting out how you can be empowered in the midst of a health crisis is probably too late. Let’s take it a step further: do healthy people feel empowered about their health? Do they understand that they are stake-holders? Possibly not. The New York Academy of Medicine is taking a community approach to this problem. They have a renewed dedication to “urban health,” and seek to address the broader determinants of health, and “the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to care.” Their new logo sports the phrase: Healthy Cities. Better Lives. It’s not a new idea. It’s a return to an old idea–one that thrived in cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cleveland, Ohio, is one brilliant example. Polio hit urban centers hard,  leaving debilitated children in its wake. The iron lung could keep people alive, but the world needed a vaccine, and then a systematic way of implementing vaccination protocols. A combined effort of doctors, philanthropists, the media, and everyday people led to record-breaking changes. Salk’s vaccine dropped cases by 90% by 1962 in Cleveland, and led to the eradication of the disease in the rest of the US. Public awareness and empowerment did what laboratory medicine could never hope to achieve on  its own. Community engagement, public empowerment, and (key in the polio crisis) access to care and information wins the day. And that returns us to the first question. How do we engage and educate the public? Whose job is it?

The short answer: it’s everyone’s job. But I want to take a moment and focus on the power of history.  Museums and libraries–and institutions generally–have an important role to play. To address misunderstandings about medicine, and crucially about who controls or drives innovation, the Dittrick has developed an interactive, digital exhibit and attendant programming called How Medicine Became Modern. The exhibit will be a free-standing digital touch-screen wall, 10ft x 4ft, in the main gallery, providing the story of our shared medical past and cultivating means of seeing the relationships among culture, society, and health. But we have also begun two types of public outreach as well–“conversations” that begin with the history, then allow panels and round tables to discuss medicine today. The story of polio and others like it remind us: we are part of this story. History records more than the names of famous doctors. It demonstrates the innovation, the boldness, the concern, and the action of every day citizens. Medical humanities, or health and humanities, is all about the human story at the core. Let’s work together to bring that story out, and to be part of it. [1] Clayton M. Christensen and Jason Hwang. “Power to the Patients” The Atlantic 2009

Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak


On this Friday before Halloween we thought it appropriate to highlight a work of Gothic romance: the recently-released Crimson Peak by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Once again we bring you a review conversation between book review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and reviewer Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook.

Anna: Okay, so let’s start with some non-spoilery observations. When you’ve been talking to friends interested in this movie, what are some of the “If you liked…then you should absolutely see this film” you’ve compared Crimson Peak to? I told one colleague it was “something like The Turn of the Screw meets Angels & Insects with a touch of Lovecraft.

Hanna:Uh — other — good movies? If you like del Toro, you should see this, no question. *Don’t* see it if you’re not  into Gothic or at least willing to unhitch your brain a little from Hollywoodized expectation because otherwise you may end up saying stupid things about how it ‘doesn’t make sense’ (not true!) and looking a moron.

Anna: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot in the past ten days about ‘what was up’ with all the reviews that thought the story didn’t make sense. (?) It was an incredibly tight Gothic script — heir to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (only with more sense), Northanger Abbey, Dracula … and I’d also make a strong argument that like Jane Eyre the core narrative is Edith’s self-realization as an adult person — coming into her own adulthood and finding her voice (er, and other strengths).

Hanna: Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho, too. About the only thing it didn’t directly reference was The Monk. Everything else was there pretty much. And then you can just go on listing all the horror movie references which are kind of endless because that’s how del Toro rolls.

Anna: It definitely gestured back toward del Toro’s canon, although it skittered away from the more fatalistic endings, I thought. It’s unfair probably to say, “This wasn’t Pan’s Labyrinth” because nothing can be but it wasn’t that … hard? cruel? I say this even though I’d argue Pan’s is also ultimately hopeful in the sense of human beings choosing to be courageous in the face of overwhelming cruelty. This wasn’t quite that. Although Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is required to draw on her inner resources, to find the strength of character we know as viewers she’s had all along.

Without giving too much away, we can also talk a little about the three main characters and the (rather spare!) supporting cast … what did we think about the troupe of players?

Hanna: Nothing is as cruel as Labyrinth. This wasn’t meant to be — Gothic isn’t harsh like that; only realism is. I can’t help thinking it would’ve been stronger if they’d recast Jessica Chastain. I’ve never been a fan of hers. This is about as good as I’ve seen her be but if she could’ve stepped up her game a tad, it would have been incredible instead of merely quite amazing. I’m not sure who I’d replace her with, though, so there’s that. Possibly Carey Mulligan. But I’d replace almost everyone with her so I’m not sure it counts. Mia Wasikowska was incredibly strong, much better than I expected. And Tom Hiddleston effaced himself quite nicely without making a huge show of it.

Anna: I can’t recall seeing Chastain in anything before this, so I went in with no real expectation either way for her character. I appreciated that she didn’t overdramatize the part, which could have easily been a problem. You felt something was off, obviously, but she built to a crescendo at a pace that worked well in the overall story arc (I thought the pacing of the narrative, overall, was pretty strong).

People have compared Wasikowska’s role in this to her turn as Jane Eyre, which makes sense given the genre, but I actually found myself thinking more strongly of her portrayal of Alice? Something about the look in her eye (spoiler!) when she realized she’d battled her way through to survival. Hiddleston, I feel, figured out that his task — harder than it looks! — was to play Thomas in such a way as to make him present (and desired by Edith) yet rarely an agent of action. He’s almost entirely a conduit of the narrative from beginning to end.

[Mild spoilers after the jump] (more…)

MedHum Mondays (Re)Presents: Reflections on the Biomedical Body

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and our Medical Humanities segment, MedHum Mondays! In an interesting turn of events that suggests I plan things by clockwork cycles, I’ll be delivering BODIES WANTED (anatomy and dissection) on Nov 4th…nearly a year to the day we posted our “reflections” on the biomedical body. If only I were really so together. But then again, perhaps the nether-end of October naturally calls us to consider our mortality… and what happens after. The Nov 4th talk is full, but we are planning to film and post it–and of course, there are the other upcoming “Conversations” talks. But in the meanwhile, here is a reprise on that guest post by Julia Knopes: Bodies and their meanings…


–Julia Balacko Knopes
As of late, I’ve been composing three projects that consider the meaning of the human cadaver in American medical education. Although this research has led me down many paths, all three works pose the same question: before we ask about anatomy, what is the biomedical conception and image of human bodies?

In answering this question, I’ve found many critiques from social scientists, journalists, and bioethicists that deride biomedicine for treating bodies—especially cadavers—as mere material objects. They argue: why does biomedicine too often forget the deep subjective value of the bodies whose lives, whose stories, fall silent in laboratory and clinical environments?

These issues are raised by the public as well as within academic circles. Medical anthropologists and scholars of scientific culture are quick to problematize biomedical visions of the human body, and our conception of scientific truth profits from their assessments. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender unmasks the cultural and historical pressures latent in biological conclusions about male strength and female fragility. Sing Lee’s research on eating disorders in China defies widely-held notions in Western psychiatric nosologies that assert fat phobia as an essential component of the illness, meaning that the body is implicated in the condition in ways that biomedicine in the cultural West does not account for.

Such analyses, among many others, have demonstrated the limitations of the biomedical model as it is employed throughout the world to describe the human condition. We should continually ask and demand to know how humans as subjects of the scientific gaze are configured and acted upon. We cannot forget that the objects of medicine—our bodies—are themselves reservoirs of symbolic, ritualistic, and personal meaning that cannot be quantified. Yet while these revelations challenge and even upset us, we sometimes admonish biomedicine without pausing to realize what an impressive—and beautiful—picture of the human body it paints when it considers the corporal body as a mechanical operation.

Growing up, my father had a plastic model of a human heart on his desk. As a child, I was transfixed by the inner cavities when I opened the model to peer within. The heart, mounted on a metal post, floated feather-like above the wooden base. My parents—a nurse and a cardiologist—described the motion of blood through the organ, deeming it a human engine. I imagined that it was a pump, outfitted with tubes and pipes, tucked under skin just as the plumbing that brought water through the faucet concealed itself behind the walls of my childhood home. I wondered, if my own skin became invisible, if I could watch my muscles tense and my lungs rise and fall and my heart thump: the fairytale that my parents told me, of this secret, kinetic, lively anatomical kingdom, made real before my eyes. I would pluck my mother’s aged copy of Gray’s Anatomy off the shelf in the living room and trace the nerves, the veins in the illustrations with my fingers, unsure how else to internalize that this body in the pictures was my body, too.

With my initial training in literature and history, perhaps it is the humanist in me who embraces this mechanical model of the human body as an incredibly touching one. I cannot help but gaze in wonder at Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, where plastinated cadavers pose as basketball players and ballerinas hail the resilience of a body that serves as a mechanism for resplendent dance routines and exhilarating sport. The anonymity of the cadavers, while it removes one human dimension, focuses viewers’ attention on something of equal reverence: our imperfect, organic, nonetheless extraordinary structural machinery. The body as an object is no less poetic, no less arresting, than the body as a vessel for subjective human experience.

When I read medical student narratives of their first dissections, or flip through the volumes of Frank Netter’s anatomical illustrations that populate my bookshelves, the biomedical vision of bodies stirs my mind and my spirit. I carry this picture of the human body, the corporal vision held by my mother, by my father, and all of those who have shared their stories in the dissection lab, with me always.


Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her research focuses on the historical and cultural development of anatomy and human dissection, with an emphasis on contemporary American medical education. She holds her BA in English Literature from Washington & Jefferson College and her MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago, where she completed her thesis on dissection in the early modern English theatre.

MedHum Monday Book Review: Not Gay

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Mondays! Today we review of a new book investigating and exploring the complexities of human sexuality.

NOT GAY: Sex Between Straight White Men
Jane Ward, New York University Press, 2015
Review Editor: Anna J Clutterbuck-Cook

Jane Ward’s new book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (New York University Press, 2015), begins with two observations. First, that same-sex sexual intimacy between straight, white men is commonplace; second, that this sexual intimacy is consistently dismissed as meaningful by everyone from its participants to politicians to social science experts. Whether it’s military hazing, fraternity notgay_coverpartying, roommates jerking off side-by-side to porn, “situational” homosexuality in prison, or straight men seeking one another for sex on craigslist, we seem united in understanding these activities in one of two ways: either as proof of the individual’s true identity as a gay man, or as something other than sexual behavior. Ward suggests a third possibility: that these sexual activities are, in fact, integral to the creation of a straight, white heterosexual identity. She argues that same-sex intimacies between straight-identified white men, rather than being an aberration to be explained away, are foundational to heternormative maleness. By performing acts that would render lesser men queer, yet remaining straight themselves, the white men Ward describes solidify their privileged place in the social order.

Not Gay is a brief two hundred pages yet manages to cover a great deal of historical, social, and theoretical ground in clear, economical prose. Beginning her exploration of sexual intimacy between straight, white men in the late nineteenth century, Ward relies on the excellent work done by historians of sexuality to document the invention of sexual orientation — principally homosexuality and heterosexuality — as first diagnostic and later social categories. She then examines the popular science of sexual fluidity, a notion of human sexual behavior principally attributed to women while experts and lay individuals of all stripes continue to imbue male sexuality with a rigid simplicity that demands two narrow, supposedly self-explanatory categories (straight or gay). With this contemporary backdrop outlined, Ward then details the variety of sexual intimacies between straight white men in our era, and the strategies used to render these intimacies non-threatening to or, indeed, illustrative of heteronormative masculinity.

Not Gay challenges us to reconfigure our understanding of identities and sexualities on multiple levels. On one level, Not Gay encourages us to examine the most invisible, supposedly self-evident category of sexual identity: white heterosexual masculinity. Throughout the long twentieth century, straight, white men have been held out as the normative gold standard of human sexuality. As is so often the case with such unmarked identities, male heterosexuality has been rendered self-evident, resistant to scrutiny or critique. While book-length explorations of “what women want” are commonplace, the supposed pathology of men of color regularly put under the sociological microscope, and queer men of all colors and gender identities are the focus of much cultural scrutiny, the sexual selves of straight, white men remain obscured. We believe we already know what straight men desire, assume the landscape of their erotic imaginations is made obvious through mainstream porn, and understand the relationship between their desires, physical responses, and actions to be highly concordant.

Not Gay demands that we see all that this narrative does not capture about straight men’s erotic lives. More damning still, Ward points out how deeply our cultural narratives of straight (white) male sexuality are intertwined with feelings of revulsion and violence — not just toward women, but also toward other men and toward individual actors’ own erotic desires and vulnerabilities. The “nexus of sexual desire, disdain, and repulsion [experienced, for example, in the context of hazing rituals] is arguably a mainstay of heterosexuality itself,” Ward observes (166). The erotics of heteronormative masculinity, she suggests, have been built upon and within the context of a white supremacist, patriarchal social order, and therefore often reinforce these inequalities through acts of sexual intimacy.

It bears highlighting at this point that normative identities are not synonymous with individuals. White men whose sexual desires are expressed predominantly or exclusively toward women are not, somehow, innately violent human beings whose sexual lives trend toward the erotics of disgust. Part of Ward’s point is, in fact, the ways in which the straightjacket of white heteronormative masculinity fails to account for the wide variety of sexual desire and expression found among men who desire and partner with women.

This brings me to the second level of cultural critique Not Gay brings to bear on our contemporary understanding of human sexuality and sexual identities. Coming from a queer theoretical perspective, and speaking as a woman who identifies as queer, Ward argues forcefully against the contemporary reliance on biology-based understandings of sexual motivation. As recently as the 1970s, gay liberation activists and lesbian feminists spoke of sexual desire, identity, and behavior as a matter of sexual freedom and choice. However, over the last fifty years researchers and activists alike have relied upon notions of innate sexual orientation that are, themselves, dependent upon theories of gender difference for which there is little scientific evidence.

One of the reasons that sexual intimacy between straight men has been occluded or explained away is our collective investment in an innate sexual orientation which is both biologically knowable and fixed: that regardless of what we do sexually, our true identities are inscribed somewhere deep within ourselves, authentic and free of social influence or change over time. This is particularly true of our stories about male sexuality, straight or otherwise, as evidenced in the way — to give but one example — we believe that genital arousal to be a more authentic indicator of a man’s “true” desires than their self-reported feelings.

In contrast, Ward suggests that a person’s sexual identity or sexual orientation may be less about our specific sexual desires or even our sexual partners — but instead about where the individual feels most comfortable in relation to sexual norms. Within this schema, a self-identified “straight dude” who jerks off with his fraternity brothers while watching porn, eats food out of a colleague’s ass, or kisses another man at a bar, remains straight not because these acts are non-sexual but because he is invested in performing and maintaining normative heterosexual identity. Early on in the book, Ward argues that

I conceptualize heterosexual [identity] not by lack of homosexual sex or desire, but by an enduring investment in heteronormativity, or in the forces that construct heterosexuality as natural, normal, and right and that disavow association with abnormal, or queer, sexual expressions. This investment in heteronormativity is itself a bodily desire; in fact, I believe it is the embodied heterosexual desire, more powerful than, say, a woman’s yearning for male torsos or penises or a man’s longing for vaginas or breasts. It is the desire to be sexually unmarked and normatively gendered (35).

This, then, is the deeper challenge of Not Gay — a challenge to back away from our investment in human sexuality as something innately dependent upon a forced gender binary that allows the hetero- and homo- sexualities to make sense, and instead to consider our sexual orientations as socially-contingent upon our “desire to be sexually unmarked and normatively gendered” by the rubric of our particular time and place.

Not Gay is a well-researched, wide-ranging examination of sexual intimacy between straight white men that has much deeper implications for the ways we think and speak about sexual identities and behaviors. As a queer, white woman my own experience is in many ways far removed from the experience of the men who appear in Not Gay. And yet Ward’s account of sexual identity resonated with my own journey from an ill-fitting heteronormative culture to a more comfortable home within the realm of queer sociality. This book is a timely reminder that even as some (primarily heteronormative-looking) queer identities are increasingly accepted by mainstream, our culture continues to be deeply uncomfortable with the rich complexity of our sexual lives.

A Reprise on Physics: Quantum Mechanics and the God of Probability

DailyDose_PosterI spent yesterday reading a book published by John’s Hopkins University Press: Einstein’s Jewish Science. In one of those lovely and rare moments, something I am working on for my non-fiction/Dittrick-related projects overlapped with a concept I’m working through in fiction. That is: what are the intersections between religion and science, between belief in God and belief in the universe? For Einstein (and forgive the oversimplification), the universe was God. Rather than a supreme rule-giver, he saw the many mysterious filaments of space and time as the outreaching principle of “god”ness. This idea comes, in many ways, from Spinoza–accused of heresy by Jews and Christians alike, Spinoza’s concept of ultimate logic binds the idea of God into creation, creation and God are one and the same. I spent time with Spinoza in my dissertation, so again, this is a generalization of what’s really far more complex. But that is the point really; it’s all far more complicated than we have words to capture. And for Einstein, it was the mystery of that which spurred humanity. We are always on the edge of knowing, the edge of seeing, the edge of something bigger than our minds can fathom. It put me in mind of a blog post written a few years ago, when I got my first dose of quantum entanglement. 


[REPOST] Last night, I spent an hour watching NOVA’s Fabric of the Cosmos. I then spent several additional hours researching quantum mechanics and “spooky action.” Why? Well, for starters, this is what passes for big fun on a Monday night in the Schillace household. But it is also true that I’ve maintained a fascination for physics since my youth. I was even lucky enough to teach with Dr. Philip Taylor of Case Western Reserve University–and though I was “co-teaching” I think I learned as much as or more than the students. That class concerned energy resources, but I am particularly interested in quantum mechanics, probability, and the extremely improbable (and yet testable) actions of very small things: Quantum Entanglement.

Hang in there, though! I promise this foray is very much for the uninitiated novice–since I am one myself. Physics need not be unapproachable; for me, it is a useful lamp enlightening my understanding of self, of reality, and of God: the Big God of very small things.

File:Niels Bohr Albert Einstein3 by Ehrenfest.jpg
Bohr & Einstein, Public Domain

Quantum Problems
The bizarre nature of Quantum Entanglement spurred a famous debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Bohr’s theory–which I am not remotely qualified to explain, though I will try–suggested that: 1) two particles could become interrelated or entangled and 2) after which, they could interact even at astronomical distances, without any visible connection. This alone is not so wild a notion. But there is more. The location and action of very small particles, electrons, let’s say, can only be predicted in terms of probability waves. We can’t fix an electron until we have measured it. We can’t even tell if it is spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise until we have measured it…and here is the mind-blowing part–the act of measuring it determines both its spin and its location.

Two dice in space
Wellcome Image, Creative Commons

Let me try to break that down a bit better. If I measure Electron A, I have just “forced” it to have a specific location and spin. And, somewhere out there, Electron B (which is entangled with A), has also been “fixed” because of my measuring. What? That makes no sense. That’s what Einstein said, too, and he compared it to playing dice with the Universe: “I’d like to think the moon is still there, even when I’m not looking at it.” Wise words. And yet, again and again, physics has proven that this entanglement–what Einstein attacked as “spooky action”–exists. It’s weird. It’s as though by the mere act of looking, we make reality–we make things exist. To Einstein, that flew in the face of certainty and–in a sense–of a God-ordered universe. But does it? This question leads me to my own fascination with Quantum Mechanics: for me, the flex of all particles, the nature of probability and the fact that we can influence that probability by “fixing” reality enlarges (rather than threatens) my picture of God and my understanding of the world.

The Power of Words
Should it be so strange to us that “looking” makes reality? Isn’t that true of so many of our experiences? What is “gender” or “race” but a word that we have used to define things which are, in fact, in-determinant, always changing, individually distinct and never truly fixed? I was nearly five years old before discovering that I was “female” and so different from my “male” playmates, with different expectations (and some unfair limitations). The day previous, I was a child, free to do as I liked. The day after, a fixed entity that would either conform or resist–but in either case, conform to or resist against a “thing” that had been suddenly created in my world. As an electron, I had been pinned. This has been part of a sad history in our culture, one of naming so as to exclude–but mightn’t it also be a force for good? For change? Mary Wollstonecraft, Francis Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, Martin Luther King Jr. and more would say yes.

We use words to make reality, and words–like the mathematics described by Bohr–are really systems of measurement. We speak things into being. We talk ourselves into the labels and roles and even feelings that make up who we are at some fixed point. We do not “be”–we “become.” To Einstein, at the quantum level, this looked too much like a universe ruled by chance. However, if we step back–back to the Word, the Logos, the speaking of worlds into being–then it seems much more like a universe wherein we are all, constantly, effecting change through seeing, through entangling, through speaking. Multiple worlds may exist at any one moment, determined on waves of probability and fixed only when we name them. Word is powerful. Word has been creative and destructive. And it is a power left in our finite hands. This does challenge my view of the cosmos and so also of God–but only because my picture of God was too small, too limited. How wonderfully freeing to think there is a realm, somewhere on the other side of the Big Bang, where Life, the Universe and Everything (to quote Douglas Adams) is just on the verge of being born, on the crest of a probability wave of becoming.

I do not know if Dr. Bohr would necessarily follow my reasoning here; there are many physicists who probably don’t equate this quantum view with an expansive notion of a creative God. Some of them might even argue that what I am weighing in my mind are two entirely different things, even mutually exclusive things. But to demand that we settle on one or the other–or to imagine that somehow a change on the one side could not affect change on the other–would negate, in a sense, the principles of Quantum Mechanics itself.  “God does not play dice with the Universe,” Einstein claimed… But to this, Bohr supposedly replied: “don’t tell God what to do.”

All things are possible; we are only limited by the parameters of our own system of measurement. Why should we limit ourselves to a godless universe, when infinity itself beckons?