Barad on epistemology, ontology, knowing and ontoepistemology


Karen Barad states that,

“Knowing is a distributed practice that includes the larger material arrangement. To the extent that humans participate in scientific or other practices of knowing, they do so as part of the larger material configuration of the world and its ongoing open-ended articulation.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

Barad continues,

“Knowing is a specific engagement of the world where part of the world becomes differentially intelligible to another part of the world in its differential accountability to and for that of which it is a part.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

In Barad’s agential realist account,

“intelligibility is an ontological performance of the world in its ongoing articulation”.

Thus, intelligibility,

“is not a human-dependent characteristic but a feature of the world in its differential becoming.” (Barad, 2007: 379-380)


“knowing does not require intellection in the humanist sense, either; knowing is a matter of differential responsiveness (as performatively articulated and accountable) to what matters.” (Barad, 2007: 380)


“knowing is not a matter of mere differential responsiveness in the sense of simply having different responses to different stimuli. Knowing requires differential accountability to what matters and is excluded from mattering. That is, what is required is differential responsiveness that is accountable to marks on bodies s part of a topologically dynamic complex of performances.” (Barad, 2007: 380)

For Barad, brittlestars, an organism closely related to the starfish,

“literally enact my agential realist ontoepistemological point about the entangled practices of knowing and being.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

On the basis of the  example of the brittlestar, Barad asserts that,

“Knowledge making is not a mediated activity, despite the common refrain to the contrary.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

For Barad,

“Knowing is a direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic material configuring, its ongoing articulation. The entangled practices of knowing and being are material practices.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

Given this approach to knowing, what does it mean to say that,

“Brittlestars know better than to get caught up in a geometrical optics of knowing.” (Barad, 2007: 378)?

More precisely, given this approach, what can it mean ‘to know better than’? Surely, to ‘know better than’ implies processes of trial and error and reflective comparison, followed by a reflexive adjustment, i.e. behaving or acting differently on the basis of differential knowings? For example, Barad may be asserting that she ‘knows better’ than Bohr when she argues that,

“My agential realist elaboration follows through on Bohr’s insights in a way that is more consistent with the logic of his argument that his own formulation.” (Barad, 2007: 334)

Does this mean that brittlestars tried and rejected ‘a geometrical optics of knowing’ in favour of simply responding directly to stimuli, in a way that Barad suggests does not constitute a relationship of ‘knowing’?

Does this phrase not imply the capability of ‘knowing other than’, upon which might be articulated a ‘knowing better than’? In short, do not ‘ knowing other than’ and particularly ‘knowing better than’ imply processes of intellection?

Barad clarifies her position on brittlestars in the following terms. In seeking to counteract the belief that the world is “merely an idea that exists in the human mind”, she suggests that,

““mind” is a specific material configuration of the world, not necessarily coincident with a brain” (Barad, 2007: 379),

a point which itself is not without ambiguity.

One possible sense of this statement is that “mind”, being an organic concept, and organisms being interdependent with particular proximate and distant, and variously mediated, environments, is realised not just corporeally but inter-corporeally in an environmental field, as habitus-in-habitat, but which, nevertheless, humans, foolishly or otherwise, experience through, or as, a sense of self, a self itself visualised and intellectualised.

However, Barad’s elaboration of her point about “mind” is that,

“Brain cells are not the only ones that hold memories, respond to stimuli, or think thoughts. Brittlestars intra-act with their ocean environment and respond to differential stimuli made intelligible through these intra-actions, adjusting their positions and reworking their bodies in order to avoid predators or find food or shelter, all without brains or eyes.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

In so doing, Barad suggests that brittlestars,

“challenge our Cartesian habits of mind, breaking down the usual visual metaphors for knowing along with its optics of mediated sight.” (Barad, 2007: 379)

In articulating the argument in such a form, Barad seems to suggest that brittlestars are engaged in some kind of Socratic dialogue in which they discursively “challenge” humans to a debate on what it means to know. In such an argument, brittlestars would be asserting that knowing does not necessarily require intellection, a point which a human respondent or correspondent might well accept.

Such a human, “intra-actively (re)constituted as part of the world’s becoming” (Barad, 2007: 206), might go on to add that visual metaphors and the use of geometric optics in intellection have proved quite valuable in developing the very science which permits Barad to suggest such things as “Matter is a stabilizing and destabilising process of iterative intra-activity.” (Barad, 2007: 210) and whose deployment in engineering, industry and economics may alter the brittlestar’s ocean environment such that the brittlestar may find it difficult to continue to intra-act with it intelligibly with the (inter-)corporeal resources at its disposal.

Barad’s point would seem to be that there is more to knowing than vision and intellection, or eye and brain, to recall the title of a book by Richard L. Gregory, which are to the fore in current human thinking about what it means to know, a point which those engaged in elaborating the concepts necessary to understand embodied cognition would not be surprised to hear.

So while the ‘diffractive’ knowing of the brittlestar may be sufficient for its negotiation of its oceanic environment, it might provide a poor place to start to critique the reflective and reflexive practices of knowing that people have been using, in addition to their own distinctive ‘diffractive’ knowing, to negotiate their relations to their different material environments since the 17th century.  Specifically, it would be a poor place to start to understand the dynamic relationships among diffractive, refractive, reflective and reflexive modes of knowing, given that they are not opposed, but are modes of ‘knowing other than’ although possibly not ‘knowing better than’.

Who or what would presume to ‘know better than’ (what it is) ‘to know’?


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.


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