1. The value of Barad’s agential realism
Karen Barad makes broad claims for the explanatory power of her agential realist approach, arguing that it draws on, “the insights of some of our best scientific and social theories, including quantum physics, science studies, the philosophy of physics, feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, (post-) Marxist theory, and poststructuralist theory.” (Barad, 2007: 25)
However, the primary value of Karen Barad’s agential realism may be as a contribution to the interpretation of quantum physics. The nature of that contribution, as she herself expresses it, is to present, “a way of interpreting quantum physics that builds on Bohr’s interpretation while removing its humanist elements” (Barad, 2007: 248).
The goal of agential realism is to provide insights that address some of the unresolved foundational problems in quantum mechanics. The historical and conjunctural context for developing this understanding is the partial undoing since the late 1990s of the ‘pragmatic turn’ in the study and practice of physics that occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, when its centre shifted westwards from Europe to the United States.
This partial undoing of the ‘pragmatic turn’ permits questions concerning interpretational issues at the foundation of quantum mechanics, as discussed by Bohr and Einstein but relegated to the “merely philosophical” in the ‘pragmatic turn’, to be restored to attention (Barad, 2007: 252-253).
2. The value of Bohr
For Barad, the importance of Bohr is that he is committed to understanding scientific practices as intra-actions, as Barad puts it, among component parts of the world (‘nature’), one part of the world acting on another part under certain conditions for specific ends, so to speak. Bohr is also committed to the view that,
“our ability to understand the world hinges on our taking account of the fact that our knowledge-making practices are material enactments that contribute to, and are part of, the phenomenon we describe” (Barad, 2007: 247)
or, in other words,
“our ability to understand the physical world hinges on our recognising that our knowledge-making practices, including the use and testing of scientific concepts, are material enactments that contribute to, and are a part of, the phenomenon we describe.” (Barad, 2007: 32)
For Bohr, science studies and science practice are indissociable and, for that reason, epistemological, ontological and ethical considerations are therefore part and parcel of the practice of science. One of the central questions for Bohrian science, then, is how to understand the specific ways in which we are part of the phenomena that we seek to understand.
3. Barad’s critique of Bohr
The problem with Bohr, Barad contends, is that,
“ultimately he allows humanist assumptions to take root to the point where a human observer winds up being foundational to the nature of nature” (Barad, 2007: 248).
Thus, Barad (2007: 248) argues, “Bohr’s reliance on human concepts, human observers, and human knowledge practices undermines his ability to offer a cogent interpretation” of quantum mechanics.
The questions here are who, whether Bohr or Barad, is being most consistent with the logic of Bohr’s argument and who, Bohr or Barad, is being most consistent with the logic of the agential cut, which ‘cuts together and apart’, meaning that humanist conceptions cannot simply be “cut loose”, as discussed in Section 7 below.
4. Disentanglements; Reentanglements
One difficulty that arises for this reader lies in the passage in which she cites “Bohr’s reliance on human concepts, human observers, and human knowledge practices”. Does Barad mean to say “Bohr’s reliance on humanist concepts” in this passage, such as human exceptionalism, humans as being outside of the world/nature (humans as the exception)? If so, does she then mean that Bohr, in incorporating humanist concepts, relies on a notion of the observer understood in humanist terms, as a methodological individual standing outside the world, when she talks of “human observers”? Finally, does she mean to say that, therefore, Bohr relies on knowledge practices that incorporate humanist concepts and rely on a humanist conception of the exceptional, external observer when she talks of “human knowledge practices”?
In short, does Barad in this passage conflate ‘the human’, in its social and material ontological diversity, whatever the term ‘human’ might mean, with ‘a humanist conception of what it means to be human’, i.e. a specific epistemological understanding of what it means to be human. This is not so much an ontoepistemological entanglement, as Barad might have it, as a simple confusion and reduction of an ontological category, ‘the human’ to an epistemological category, ‘the human’ in humanist understandings of what it means to be ‘human’.
Given this passage as it stands, it would be difficult to demonstrate that humanist concepts have come to dominate scientific and cultural thinking since the 17th century and that such conceptions are not necessary, and indeed are unhelpful or obstructive for understanding ‘the human’. How could Bohr, in being human, not rely on “human concepts, human observers, and human knowledge practices”. It is entirely conceivable, however, that Bohr might not need to rely on humanist concepts, humanist conceptions of the observer and humanist-dominated knowledge practices.
5. Methodology: Posthumanism
The difficulty, which Barad’s “diffractive methodology” only partly addresses, because it undervalues the potential of (non-humanist conceptions of) reflection in relation to diffraction and refraction and (complex systems conceptions of) reflexivity, the last of which is not so much optical as spatio-temporal (simultaneously here-and-there, simultaneously now-and-then), is how to understand the world through human knowledge practices while recognising that such practices are themselves not only part of the ‘object of study’ but are the only means to try to understand their own multiple, dynamic contextualisations, their own dynamic ‘grounding’. This is a question of using the seeming ‘interiority’ of human experience to situate and understand its radical, dynamic, relational openness (lack of fixed boundaries and changing contextualisations) to processes of organising and environing (social, spatio-temporal, relational practices). The human, while being central to experience and to understanding, is not necessarily central to the processes of organising and environing (contextualising).
The danger is that in seeking to remove humanist thinking, an epistemological project about ways of knowing and about knowledge-forms, Barad might instead remove ‘the human’ in its entirety. That this is not her aim is suggested by passages in which she discusses ‘the human’. For example, she argues that ‘humans’, are “intra-actively (re)constituted as part of the world’s becoming” (Barad, 2007: 206). Humans are of the world, not simply in the world. In particular, they are not outside of the world looking into it, as certain kinds of anthropocentric, humanist, exceptionalist thinking might suggest. Humans, while not the mere effect of the world’s becoming, are not the sole cause of the world’s becoming. The question, Barad states, is what role human practices play in the world’s becoming (Barad, 2007: 206).
A further indication that it is not her aim to eliminate ‘the human’ but to understand ‘the human’ in other than anthropocentric humanist terms comes through her statements that her agential realist framework provides “a posthumanist performative account of technoscientific and other naturalcultural practices” (Barad, 2007: 32). As she explains,
“By “posthumanist” I mean to signal the crucial recognition that nonhumans play an important role in naturalcultural practices, including everyday social practices, scientific practices, and practices that do not include humans. But also, beyond this, my use of “post humanism” marks a refusal to take the distinction between “human” and “nonhuman” for granted, and to found analyses on this presumably fixed and inherent set of categories. Any such hardwiring precludes a genealogical investigation into the practices through which “humans” and “nonhumans” are delineated and differentially constituted. A posthumanist performative account worth its salt must also avoid cementing the nature-culture dichotomy into its foundations, thereby enabling a genealogical analysis of how these crucial distinctions are materially and discursively produced.” (Barad, 2007: 32)
Barad’s position might best be characterised as ‘post-anthropocentric’ in the sense articulated by Herbrechter (2013: 3):
“the idea of ‘postanthropocentrism’ a key focus of posthumanist thinking – as rethinking the human ‘with’ its nonhuman others (animals, machines, objects, systems, environments, etc.).”
6. Methodology: Relationality and Agency
In short, the danger is that Barad, in re-thinking ‘the human’ in relational terms, i.e. in relation to those parts of itself previously consigned to an unexamined ‘exteriority’, eliminates the human by substituting an ‘agential realism’, the agency of matter, for ‘human agency’, by equating ‘human agency’ with humanist anthropocentrism conceptions of the human. A greater depth of engagement with critiques of humanist thought in the contexts of, for example, post-structuralism, (post-)Marxism, feminism and environmentalism would be needed, along the lines of that enacted by Rosi Braidotti, who, according to Herbrechter (2013: 2)
“steers a complex and sophisticated course between the antihumanism that has been the daily bread of the post-1968, poststructuralist generation, and the techno-utopian transhumanism prevalent in certain circles of science, economy and politics.”
In so doing, Braidotti,
“affirms both the critique of humanism and the human potential in ‘becoming-other’ in a Deleuzian sense. The decline of human(ist) exceptionalism, the crisis of ‘anthropos’, and thus the current challenges to traditional anthropocentric world views exacerbated by global issues like climate change or the return of the ‘question of the animal’, require, according to Braidotti, a renewed effort by the transformed and interdisciplinary humanities to show that they ‘are worthy of their time’.” (Herbrechter, 2013: 2-3)
7. Agential cut and Cartesian cut
Barad’s account of agency and its relation to humanism and ‘liberal humanism’ may require supplementation, in a Derridean sense: additions that displace and thereby substitute, without losing a sense of historicity of prior-ness and priority. Thus Barad argues that,
“In an agential realist account, agency is cut loose from its traditional humanist orbit. Agency is not aligned with human intentionality or subjectivity. Nor does it merely entail resignification or other specific kinds of moves within a social geometry of antihumanism. The space of agency is not only substantially larger than that allowed for in Butler’s performative account, for example, but also, perhaps rather surprisingly, larger than what liberal humanism proposes.” (Barad, 2007: 177-178)
The expression “cut loose” seems to suggest the kind of separation that the notion of an ‘agential cut’ is meant to avoid, as does the sentence, “a way of interpreting quantum physics that builds on Bohr’s interpretation while removing its humanist elements” (Barad, 2007: 248). It seems to suggest an ahistorical approach that ignores prior conditions, existing apparatuses, so to speak, by ‘cutting loose’ from them and ‘removing’ them.
In an agential realist account, agency may indeed be ‘cut from’ its “traditional humanist orbit”, but this does not mean that one can thereby simply bypass human intentionality and subjectivity, in the way that seems to be suggested by the statement, “Agency is not aligned with human intentionality or subjectivity”. On what grounds is one to construct and argument about accountability and responsibility, i.e. an ethical and indeed political approach to ‘agency’, without human intentionality and subjectivity, even if only in the form of existing apparatuses or prior conditions?
How does one align a discourse of accountability and responsibility, i.e. of ethics and politics, with such statements as,
“Cuts are enacted not by willful individuals but by the larger material arrangements of which “we” are a “part”” (Barad, 2007: 178)
“Cuts cut “things” together and apart. Cuts are not enacted from the outside, nor are they ever enacted once and for all.” (Barad, 2007: 179)
Following this ‘logic’, in an agential realist account, agency, on the basis of existing and prior conditions, would be cut ‘together and apart’ with, i.e. not “cut loose from”, “its traditional humanist orbit”, thereby critically aligning it with ‘human intentionality and subjectivity’. ‘Cutting loose from’ is a different operation, one of extraction and separation, “the Cartesian cut”, not of intra-action, “an agential cut”. (Barad, 2007: 333)
The agential realist account, in seeking a critical relation to humanist conceptions of intentionality, subjectivity, accountability and responsibility, and liberal humanist ethics and politics, as well as humanist histories, would need to enact a critical engagement with the materialist thinking that goes under the headings of dialectical materialism, historical materialism and aleatory materialism; or simply a more sophisticated account of prior conditions in the forms of existing social practices and their spatio-temporal arrangements (“apparatuses”).
In other words, it may not be sufficient to assert that,
“…the historiality of phenomena is written into their materialisation, their bodily materiality holds the memories of the traces of its enfoldings; space and time (like matter) are phenomenal, that is, they are intra-actively produced in the making of phenomena; neither space nor time exist as determinate givens outside of phenomena. As a result of the iterative nature of intra-active practices that constitute phenomena, the “past” and the “future” are iteratively reconfigured and enfolded through one another; phenomena cannot be located in space and time; rather, phenomena are material entanglements that “extend” across different spaces and times.” (Barad, 2007: 383)
The point being that such statements are themselves part of a material-discursive conjuncture, in which the utterer is entangled, and from which it is not possible to stand outside or above and ‘look into’ or ‘look upon’. Furthermore, in being part of a material-discursive conjuncture, such statements are themselves performative, urging ‘us’ to re-think our ‘location’, our ‘position’, our ‘identity’, our ‘subjectivity’, our here-and-now-and-there-and-then, and yet not simply to accept “phenomena in their ongoing materialisation” (Barad, 2007: 151), which may or may not be a responsible response, as we cannot know the status of our (in)(en)action in advance.
What would be ‘our’ ‘next step’; even if that ‘next step’ involves not moving, not responding to, or not re-cognising the violence and the complication (and co-implication) of the cut:
“Disarm you with a smile
And cut you like you want me to
Cut that little child
Inside of me and such a part of you”
Lyric: “Disarm”, Smashing Pumpkins. Full lyric and version of song: http://prolepsis-ap.blogspot.com/2014/01/i-used-to-be-little-boy.html