William Gilbert’s revolutionary treatise on magnetism, De magnete (On the Magnet, 1600), represents a paradigm shift in understanding natural philosophy, yet historians of science have overlooked its significance to the history of sexuality, which they also tend to isolate from the history of science. Gilbert defined magnetism as a form of desire within nature, a mode of “incorporeal materialism” and dispersed sexual agency that asserts a masculine “vigor” and form of nature upon the feminine “womb” of the Earth. This essay argues that such a theory of a disembodied yet masculine magnetic virtue marginalizes knowledge practices associated with the secrets of women and reproduces a set of binary oppositions between male science and female nature that becomes codified even more forcefully during the Scientific Revolution. At the same time, like the “field of desire” that Karen Barad identifies in lightning and quantum physics, magnetism in Gilbert provokes questions about the “agential capacities” that link animate and inanimate material in affective and embodied networks.


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pp. 181-209
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