Minor Theories of Everything: On Popular Science and Contemporary Fiction

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English Language and Literature

First Advisor

Hungerford, Amy


“Minor Theories of Everything” is an interdisciplinary inquiry into the proliferation and circulation of scientific universalisms about human sociality since the 20th century, and their uses by feminists and writers of color. By considering “minor universals” about human behavior, I articulate two related concepts: the imaginative and rhetorical strategies scientific disciplines use to stage claims to universality, and the way that minoritized writers have adapted potentially alienating and exclusionary universalisms to new political and aesthetic ends. Combining literary history, science studies, and race, gender, and sexuality studies, I offer new insights into the cultural work of popular science. Chapter One, “Inventing Rape Ecology: Feminist Science Fiction and the Sociobiology of Sexual Violence” considers the sociobiological argument that the propensity for sexual violence is an adaptive evolutionary trait shared by multiple animal species, including humans, ducks, dolphins, insects, and others. While feminist theorists like Anne Fausto-Sterling and Susan Brownmiller have overwhelmingly rejected this evolutionary naturalization of violence, a popular idea of animal “rape” has nonetheless proliferated since the 1970s, in parallel with the elaboration and consolidation of sexual consent grounded in volition, intention, and other human mental states. The work of science fiction writers Octavia E. Butler and James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), I argue, reveals a feminist countertradition that adopts and extends sociobiological concepts into an expanded theory of sexual harm I call “rape ecology.” While the first chapter focuses on feminist extensions of scientific theory in fictional worlds, the second chapter traces the 20th-century history of the idea that digital media has rendered sex – and other social interactions – transactional and game-like. By reading economic fictions by Mary Gaitskill and Lydia Davis alongside game theoretic texts ranging from academic articles and textbooks to self-help, song lyrics, and other popular media, Chapter Two, “The Game of Love and the Game Theory of Sex” argues that game theory’s curious preoccupation with sexual strategy offers a prehistory of contemporary “gamification,” and illuminates the possibility of a feminist economics grounded in sexual and romantic calculation. In Chapter Three, “Black Box Orientalism,” I examine the orientalist histories of the ubiquitous cybernetic concept of a “black box”: a system whose inputs and outputs are observable, but whose internal mechanisms remain unknown. The black box concept crystallizes and perpetuates the idea that late modernity entails living among ubiquitous, inaccessible things, a world of objects and structures that shape life in incomprehensible ways. I argue that in its formulation of hidden and cryptographic knowledge, the abstraction of the black box historically and culturally mediates ambivalence about technologies of racial formation. Reading fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro and Ted Chiang, I evaluate how the trope of Asian inscrutability and the figure of the Asiatic robot might help us rethink the popular consensus that the violence of structural racism in the digital age can be unveiled and undone through the opening of black box algorithms. Taken together, this work offers a cultural history of the proliferation of social “theories of everything” since the early 20th century, and traces contestations over the common knowledge they generate.

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