Sunday, March 29, 2015

Transvestite Metaphysics in the Big Bang Theory (Pt 1)

"Good night, real Penny.
Good night, transvestite Penny"

The Big Bang Theory

The following is a transcript of a paper,
"Transvestite Metaphysics: Quantum Entanglement and Natural Philosophy in 13th century Literature," delivered at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts 
in Orlando, Florida. March 18-22, 2015.

Science vs Scientism

“Prepare to be terrified,” says Amy Ferrah Fowler when her quantum physicist boyfriend Sheldon Cooper resists attending a fund-raising dinner and glad-handing philanthropists (The Benefactor Factor, S04E15). “If you are unconvincing, this year’s donations might go to, say, the geology department.” “Oh no,” replies Cooper, “Not the dirt people!” “Or, worse still,” teases Fowler, pressing on the scientist’s fears, “it could go to the liberal arts” “No!” he exclaims. “Millions of dollars,” finishes Fowler, driving the phobia home, “being showered on poets, literary theorists and students of gender studies!” “Oh, the humanities,” Cooper shouts jumping up to defend the sciences' financial supremacy over those working on things like transgender in medieval literature.

This exchange from the CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, humorously represents a real position, consciously or unconsciously held, by many in and about the sciences, which is that because of theoretical quantum physicists like Sheldon Cooper, working on so-called "Theories of Everything," Science is becoming able to not merely trump but replace liberal arts areas of studies including literature, philosophy, and theology. “I believe in Science,” is a thing many people un-ironically state when asked questions about meaning, creation, and existence in the universe. This is to say, science has shifted from being considered one mode of attaining knowledge among many, concerned with its own kinds of questions and methodology based on empirical observation, repeatable experiments, and collaborated theories into the chief authority on everything from gravity to gender. This fetishization of Science as a universal hermeneutic constitutes what CS Lewis calls "Scientism." Science comes to mean more than just a set of experiments but a supreme governing school of thought, authority and politics.

The distinction between Science and Scientism is critical because the latter too often holds itself up as the former. When he defined his own critics of Scientism, Lewis was careful to stress distinctions between scientists doing Science and any person transferring uncritical fetishism often associated with religion to Science. "It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real," writes Lewis in the Abolition of Man, "Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost" (Abolition of Man Ch.3). The movement from physics to metaphysics, done without care to understand the implications of statements about what is real, shifts scientific thinkers into the realm of questions and consequences they may not have the disciplinary training to understand. Approaching discovery and doubt with the sharpness to particularities that the scientific method demands, leaves open the library of knowledge to new ways of being in the universe. It is emphatically collaborative, looking to other studies, experts, and ways of knowing to add to its archive. It is the those who practice Scientism who are too quick to state what departments in a university and what genders are real enough to warrant inclusion in donor grants or theories of everything.


Theories of Everything But...

While Cooper’s tyrannical Scientism is an extreme case not representative of diverse thinkers in the sciences, it rings true a truth that often goes unnoticed or uncommented on among those in the sciences: that scientific fact functions based on and replicates non-scientific political ideologies based on assumptions about race, disability, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, while science itself is too massive to be regarded as essentially sexist, certain scientific communities and ways of thinking, as represented on the Big Bang Theory, affirm many patriarchal assumptions about the body. Even after the introduction of more women into his group of friends, Cooper and company continually make condescending remarks about women, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. With science being used to justify nearly every one of Cooper’s opinions and actions, one cannot assume that his views on gender exist without affecting his views in quantum physics as to what constitutes embodiment and reality.

A key example of how quantum physics becomes political is in Cooper & Company’s treatment of Transvestites - a form of gender the scientists use as a stand in for all gender queerness or diversity. The term is used by Bernadette, a microbiologist, to describe a portrait of the female lead, Penny, where she appears particularly butch. Mocking the Penny in the painting, Bernadette wishes it and her friend goodbye, “Good night, real Penny. Good night, transvestite Penny” (The Rothman Disintegration S05E17). It’s significant that the term transvestite has not been in regularly use since the 1980s due to its largely derisive connotations as since then feminism began to speak against such prejudice, pioneering of terms such as transgender. This shows the shared disregard for these progressive arguments in the humanities by the larger scientific community that reflects Cooper’s distastes for gender studies as a whole. The trans-ness of transvestism becomes opposed to realness. 

In many respects this comes not from a lack of physical knowledge about matter, but a lack of metaphysical understanding about the meaning of that matter. In Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Karen Barad argues for theories of everything that remain open to everything that may exist outside out the disciplinary borders of physics. "Matter and meaning are not separate elements," argues Barad. "Matter is simultaneously a matter of substance and significance, most evident perhaps when it is the question of matter that is in question, when the smallest parts of matter are found to be capable of exploding deeply entrenched ideas and large cities" (Barad 3). Only grasping the explosive power of cutting an atom will leave you with only half of the Atomic Bomb's power. You must, as Barad writes, grasp "fact and value" together. To ignore the social implications of nuclear science is not to be a good scientist but to justify a narrow-minded Scientism by claiming that science itself compels ignorance of politics. Indeed, when Pope Francis may his infamous comparison of transgender as being like an atomic bomb, he understood not only the matter that was being rearranged by trans science, practice, and medicine but the substantial effects on transforming the meaning of gender. To quickly determine what is real and not-real is not good science, but an anti-intellectualism propelled by a Scientism that does not want to meet the universe half way. This Scientism not only fears what it may discover in the universe full of transvestites and literary critics, but may be uncomfortable with the dangerous, violent, explosive effects of its own work beyond the scope of whiteboard.


The Real and the Transvestite

In the scientist’s theories of everything, assumptions about what metaphysically exists, including gender, transgender women are simply not as real as other bodies, real women. This is an attitude reinforced throughout the show, especially through references to Cooper’s former neighbor, Louie/Louise, “the 200 pound transvestite with a skin condition” (Pilot S01E01). Note: when we encounter Louie/Louise, in episode 22 of season 3, the only “skin condition” we discern in him/her is that he/she is black (The Staircase Implementation S03E22). In any case, this emphasis of the pathological nature of Louie/Louise’s body reaffirms the unrealness or less reality of her trans embodiment. Without pausing to affirm, nuance or debate Louie/Louise’s gender, all the members of the group unanimously refer to their former neighbor as he. “He” kept his apartment “immaculate” we later find out, repeating and conflating yet another punch-line stereotype, this time about gay men (The Big Bran Hypothesis S01E02). Cooper knows this because he helped her install a webcam in her bedroom, contrasting the contained and disciplined sexuality of Cooper with the out of control sexuality and gender of Louie/Louise. The joke here depends on a public association with webcams in the bedroom with online sex work, where trans woman sell access to video of them revealing their bodies or sexual behavior to online viewers. Now of course she is a webcam sex worker (beside being a police officer)! Aren’t all trans people disease ridden prostitutes?

What does this lead us to believe about the Scientism of Cooper and company’s theory of everything is that just as the university funding can do without literary and gender studies, so too transvestite bodies do not exist (at least on the same metaphysical plane of realness) as properly governed female and male bodies. Indeed, transvestism is repeatedly compared against Penny's preferable cis-reality. In the pilot episode, when Leonard first sees Penny, the first thing he does is compare her to Louie/Louise. "Significant improvement to our old neighbor," says Leonard. "Yes, she is" affirms Sheldon (Pilot S01E01). From the start, there is a contrast between "real Penny" as defined by her cis-female body and "transvestite Penny," whether she comes in the form of a painting, Louie/Louise, or undesirably tomboy behavior. The prior is signified as real fact and the latter the work of cultural artifice. This demonstrates a queer uncanniness between the real and the transvestite Penny. Trans culture is used to police Penny's cis body. The power also works in the other direction. According to the logic of the show, the work of culture and clothing, the focus of Louie/Louise’s gender transitioning as a trans-vestite, does not change the ontological status of the body which wears it. In this quantum theory of everything, realness is on the side of Nature and the body, keeping the work of the humanities, clothing, and Nurture as an unnecessary, even pathological fantasy. Louie’s body is male and real, Louise’s clothes are trans and unreal.

The divide between Nature and Nurture, Matter and Meaning, is held up by Scientism against the Humanities and trans bodies as emblematic of the work of such extra-scientific social engines. It posits the scientist in the subject looking out the objects of study as he draws circles around the universe and determines what bodies and lives fit into his theory of everything. The Big Bang Theory acknowledges this own problem in its Pilot episode as a personal and professional exclusivity when Leonard tries to convince Sheldon to invite their new neighbor to dinner. "I think we should be good neighbors. Invite her over. Make her feel welcome" (Pilot S01E01). "We never invited Louie/Louise over" points out Sheldon. "And that was wrong of us," confesses Leonard, "We need to widen our circle." In this framework, Cooper and his scientist friends are in the center of the universe of what is determined to be real and transvestites exist on the margins or outside the circle of realness.  The problem then is twofold. First, how do we bridge this unscientific divide to reflect the quantum entanglement of matter and meaning, so as to "meet the universe halfway?" Second, how to we reconstruct a more just system of politics based on these world views where trans bodies are no longer on the outside of theories of everything but integral to understanding them? How do we bring a transvestite metaphysics into our scientific imagination? How does science become good neighbors with other bodies and disciplines? I propose that alternative models exist in the places that Cooper is so quick to defund: poetry, literary criticism, and gender studies.

Part 2: Transvestite Metaphysics
in Roman de Silence

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