Summary

  • Barad’s book is an elaboration of the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr. Using Bohr’s notions of complementarity and his insights into quantum physics, Barad argues for a new model of understanding relation, causality, ontology, and epistemology—and ultimately ethics—that she terms “agential realism.” In this model, objects do not pre-exist their interactions; rather, relations and phenomena are the basis of physical (and thus social) reality. Hence “agency” or “intention” cannot precede mutual entanglement, because the notion of the “individual” does not make sense within this system.
  • Weirdly, the Wikipedia page has a pretty good rehearsal of these key ideas.

Keywords

  • agential realism
  • apparatus
  • representationalism

Notes

0. Introduction.

  • “Matter and meaning are not separate elements. They are inextricably fused together, and no event, no matter how energetic, can tear them asunder” (3).
  • Note how Barad begins with an extensive scene of literary criticism. The point: while Frayn’s Copenhagen delivers a quantum-physics-inspired postmodern relativism, Barad will argue throughout this book that we can go away from the false dichotomy of “absolutism and relativism” (18).
  • The contrast b/t Heisenberg and Bohr’s positions: whereas Heisenberg’s principle states that we simply cannot simultaneously have knowledge about a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously, Bohr goes one step further to argue that the particles do not even have fixed position and momentum simultaneously in the first place (19). Through the notion of complementarity, this has ramifications for the nature of intentionality (21–22).
  • As Wark notes, Barad is leery of analogy as a mode of producing knowledges: hence the work of starting with quantum physics (23–24).
  • “Crucially, as I explain in chapter 4 the notion of intra-action constitutes a radical reworking of the traditional notion of causality. I can’t emphasize this point enough. A lively new ontology emerges: the world’s radical aliveness comes to light in an entirely nontraditional way that reworks the nature of both relationality and aliveness (vitality, dynamism, agency). This shift in ontology also entails a reconceptualization of other core philosophical concepts such as space, time, matter, dynamics, agency, structure, subjectivity, objectivity, knowing, intentionality, discursivity, performativity, entanglement, and ethical engagement” (33). Barad’s plan of the book in the introduction is characteristically thorough and a useful place to return when needing to brush up on her work. I’ll avoid quoting it in its entirety here and rather include quotations from the chapters themselves.

[I lost a large chunk of this reading to dealing with shit re: the apartment, so I’m just going straight to the meat.]

1. Meeting the Universe Halfway (Problematic)

  • The most interesting thing for my purposes is the critique of representationalism, which to my mind also serves as a critique for how we analyze representations in the humanities: “Or to put the point the other way around, representationalism is the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing” (46).
  • Barad’s answer to representationalism is performativity: “A performative understanding of scientific practices, for example, takes account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world” (49)
  • One of the major consequences of this approach, when combined with her work on the apparatus, is that experimentation becomes a direct producer of theory itself. This is of vital importance to digital studies: it is the direct entanglement of the tools and techniques that produce the world with the production of the world itself.

2. Diffraction (Method)

[Skimming through chapter 3 on Niels Bohr.]

4. Agential Realism (Core)

[I’m going to skip over 5 and 6, which are standalone case studies]

7. Quantum Entanglements

8. The Ontology of Knowing (Conclusion)

Archive and Impact

  • Barad is a colleague of Haraway’s at the UC Santa Cruz program in the History of Consciousness (the same program that trained Edwards and is a major subject of Wark’s Molecular Red, just to trace the connections out). Like Haraway, she works interdisciplinarily across the sciences and the humanities; in this case, quantum physics and feminist new materialism.
  • Remember a point Matt made about Barad: that the provocation of the book, as theory, is that quantum physics represents the most complete theory of the world today, and as such we can usefully use its insights horizontally across disciplines in order to make sense of the world. One might then think that this means scientific observation comes prior to humanistic thought, but Barad wouldn’t truck with that distinction. Science and the humanities are intwined in the same material processes of meaning-making. “What is needed is a reassessment of physical and metaphysical notions that explicitly or implicitly rely on old ideas about the physical world-that is, we need a reassessment of these notions in terms of the best physical theories we currently have” (24).
  • Central philosopher/thinker/scientists to this book include: Niels Bohr, Foucault, Butler, and Haraway.
  • A question that is worth bringing up throughout this entire section: how does this book bear on digital studies?
    1. Its arguments about apparatuses and entangled natural-cultural-technical modes of becoming in the world are powerful lines of thought for articulating the work that digital technologies do in the production of the world-system and our place within it.
    2. Barad’s agential realism is a profoundly influential strain of new materialist thought and as such is intertwined in the same nonhuman lineage of thought that informs much of digital studies today.
    3. Though she doesn’t spend much time on it as such, her onto-epistomological framework challenges much of the thinking around mediation between bodies, technologies, and environments. In a way, her emphasis on the realist operations of the apparatus are useful for bounding the operation of mediation.
    4. “Verbs rather than nouns” is a crude way of putting it, but still I think there are interesting grounds to cover about how agential realism operates as a system of technical processing, of operational becoming—and such an avenue may also serve to critique Barad further.