Imagining Braneworlds in String Theory Technical Discourse
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Imagining Braneworlds in String Theory Technical Discourse

A Membrane ingirting the whole cauity of the lower belly.

—Crooke, Body of Man (1615), 77

The boulke, called in latyn thorax, whiche conteyneth the brest, the sides, the stomake, and entrayles.

—Elyot, Castel of Helth (1541), 89


Recent work in string theory cosmology has seen the emergence of what is called the "braneworld scenario."1 String theory itself, generally speaking, attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity into one coherent formalism by positing the string as the fundamental constituent of the universe. Theorist John Schwarz defines the string as an ultramicroscopic vibrating "one dimensional extended object." The braneworld scenario is redicated on a modification of string theory in which a new fundamental [End Page 77] object is introduced, the "brane" (from membrane), which theorists define qualitatively as a two or more dimensional extended vibrating object with special properties. While strings are incredibly small, on the order of the Planck scale, or 10-33 centimeters, in a braneworld scenario, branes are vast, on the scale of the entire universe.2 A multitude of braneworlds, each with its own formally defined variation on fundamental physical laws, is envisioned to exist within an encompassing ten or eleven dimensional metaverse, what theorists call "the bulk."

This paper will examine the ways in which string theorists construct what I call a "scientific imaginary" as manifest in two technical articles concerned with branes and the braneworld scenario: Joseph Polchinski's "Dirichlet-Branes and Ramond-Ramond Charges" and "Brane World" by Zurab Kakushadze and S.-H. Henry Tye. Such an examination will address issues of corporeality, animality, visuality, tactility, permeability, and boundaries as they pertain to the core image of the brane within these articles. Rather than an exhaustive survey of brane imagery, I offer an analysis of the particular imaginaries that these string theorists employ within technical discourse. It is worth bearing in mind that such discourse is, by design, intended for a specific, exclusive audience and as such, assumes a certain specialized training in the discipline, as well as familiarity with current debates on the topic. To the uninitiated, such a highly specialized discourse can appear impenetrably opaque. I will make every effort to avoid overexposing readers to technical jargon that runs tangential to the thrust of my argument. Nevertheless, a certain amount of exposure would seem inevitable. While I will attempt to provide clear definitions of the pertinent technical terminology, what I am most concerned with is the overlap between these terms' ostensibly precise technical meanings and the inferential structure of the images from which the terms originate. I will argue that such images bear with them a set of more familiar and earth-bound associations that are both necessary and productive. The cumulative effect within each of these technical articles, then, is the evocation and employment of a scientific imaginary.

The Scientific Imaginary

Since some readers may be unfamiliar with the notion of a scientific imaginary, it merits a careful explanation. I am adapting the expression from Michèle Le Doeuff's The Philosophical Imaginary. In that work, Le Doeuff describes a fundamental dichotomy in [End Page 78] philosophical discourse, where the formalist "concept" is privileged at the expense of the rhetorical "image." She argues that philosophical discourse traditionally views the image as superfluous and attributes it to one of two sources, to "infantile or primitive thought" or to "adaptation" for "didactic" purposes:

Let us stress once more that imagery and knowledge form […] a common system. Between these two terms there is a play of feedbacks which maintains the particular regime of the discursive formation. Philosophical texts offer images through which subjectivity can be structured and given a marking which is that of the corporate body.


By philosophy's own accounting, images are didactic, primitive, or fanciful. They are associated with subjectivity, affect, and the "corporate body." The concept, on the other hand, possesses an epistemologically "pure" truth-value; it is objective, and thus free of affect. Philosophical discourse conscripts the image to ground—surreptitiously, Le Doeuff suggests—its claims of objectivity to the subjective body through structured affect. By situating image adjacent to concept, philosophical...