Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is Electromagnetism a Fascist Theory?

Unfortunately I'm not joking.

Last week I attended the 2012 conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand in Sydney.  The final presentation was by a distinguished American curator, Dr Helen Molesworth, on the work of Josiah McElheny, an American artist who uses traditional glass-blowing techniques to make large, more or less abstract sculptures.   Dr Molesworth's presentation was well-crafted and very interesting and engaging.  McElheny has referenced science, in particular cosmology, in his more recent work, and towards the end of her presentation Dr Molesworth referred to the possibility of a "Theory of Everything", and said she didn't want a Theory of Everything: it would be fascist.

At the drinks and nibblies afterwards I asked Dr Molesworth if the theory of electromagnetism was fascist.  She said she didn't know: she didn't have enough information.  This startled me, and I said that the name "Theory of Everything" was a physicists' in-joke (referring as it does to a single theory that would bring together gravity and quantum mechanics), and that it certainly wouldn't produce a theory of the psyche or a theory of art.  I also tried to say that the value of a scientific theory was to be found through observation, deduction and explanatory power, not political attitudes, but I don't think I explained myself well; she disagreed with what she heard me as saying.

I chose electromagnetism as it is a successful example in physics of the unification of previously disparate phenomena, and it would be part of a Theory of Everything, but I didn't explain this during our brief conversation.

I don't want to make too much of this, as it was a noisy environment and not a good time for serious discussion.  I hope that we were talking at cross-purposes, but surely even to consider that the theory of electromagnetism might be fascist is to be grievously confused about the nature of theories in physics.

I was regrettably reminded of one of the silliest episodes in post-modernism, the (by now widely quoted) statement by the otherwise respected feminist scholar Luce Irigaray about Einstein's equation E = mc²:

Is E=Mc² a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged that which goes faster.

I have seen attempted defences of this sort of writing along the lines that although the people writing like this appear to be using scientific terms, they actually have different meanings in mind for the words.  I have not seen the source for the quotation from Irigaray above, but it is hard to give it any reasonable interpretation.

I did find a related article by Irigaray, "Is the Subject of Science Sexed?", Cultural Critique No.1 (Autumn 1985), pp. 73-88.  In this Irigaray comments on a range of sciences, from psychoanalysis through biology to mathematics and physics, and by the time she gets to mathematics it is clear that she is using terminology from the subject without understanding it.

There is of course room for a serious study of what scientists do, what biases they bring to their work, who funds it, what questions are studied and what are not, and so forth, and indeed many scientists themselves are very much concerned about these questions.  But statements like Irigaray's had the effect of bringing the whole area of so-called science studies into disrepute, and calling physical theories "fascist" does not help.