Monday, April 29, 2013

Karen Barad - Agential Realism

I recently stumbled upon Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007), a book that explicates her theory of agential realism within the wider field of "New Materialism."
Meeting the Universe Halfway is an ambitious book with far-reaching implications for numerous fields in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In this volume, Karen Barad, theoretical physicist and feminist theorist, elaborates her theory of agential realism. Offering an account of the world as a whole rather than as composed of separate natural and social realms, agential realism is at once a new epistemology, ontology, and ethics. The starting point for Barad’s analysis is the philosophical framework of quantum physicist Niels Bohr. Barad extends and partially revises Bohr’s philosophical views in light of current scholarship in physics, science studies, and the philosophy of science as well as feminist, poststructuralist, and other critical social theories. In the process, she significantly reworks understandings of space, time, matter, causality, agency, subjectivity, and objectivity.

In an agential realist account, the world is made of entanglements of “social” and “natural” agencies, where the distinction between the two emerges out of specific intra-actions. Intra-activity is an inexhaustible dynamism that configures and reconfigures relations of space-time-matter. In explaining intra-activity, Barad reveals questions about how nature and culture interact and change over time to be fundamentally misguided. And she reframes understanding of the nature of scientific and political practices and their “interrelationship.” Thus she pays particular attention to the responsible practice of science, and she emphasizes changes in the understanding of political practices, critically reworking Judith Butler’s influential theory of performativity. Finally, Barad uses agential realism to produce a new interpretation of quantum physics, demonstrating that agential realism is more than a means of reflecting on science; it can be used to actually do science.
I am new to her work and her theory, so of course I went to Wikipedia, where I found a brief explanation of her work, but not as much as I had hoped to find. She is primarily known as a feminist theorist, although her PhD was in theoretical physics (Stony Brook University). "Her dissertation presented computational methods for quantifying properties of fermions and quarks in the framework of lattice gauge theory." Currently, she is Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz.

Here is the definition of her theory of Agential Realism from Wikipedia:
Agential Realism

According to Barad's theory of agential realism, the world is made up of phenomena, which are "the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies". Intra-action, a neologism introduced by Barad, signals an important challenge to individualist metaphysics. For Barad, things or objects do not precede their interaction, rather, 'objects' emerge through particular intra-actions. Thus, apparatuses, which produce phenomena are not assemblages of humans and nonhumans (as in actor-network theory), rather they are the condition of possibility of 'humans' and 'non-humans', not merely as ideational concepts, but in their materiality. Apparatuses are 'material-discursive' in that they produce determinate meanings and material beings while simultaneously excluding the production of others. What it means to matter is therefore always material-discursive. Barad takes her inspiration from physicist Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics. Barad's agential realism is at once an epistemology (theory of knowing), an ontology (theory of being), and an ethics. Barad coins the term onto-epistemology. Because specific practices of mattering have ethical consequences, excluding other kinds of mattering, onto-epistemological practices are always in turn onto-ethico-epistemological.

Much of Barad's scholarly work has revolved around her concept of "agential realism," and her theories hold importance for many academic fields, including science studies, STS (Science, Technology, and Society), feminist technoscience, philosophy of science, feminist theory, and, of course, physics. In addition to Bohr, her work draws a great deal on the works of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, as demonstrated in her influential article in the feminist journal differences, "Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality." Barad's training is actually in theoretical physics, and her 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, includes a chapter that contains an original discovery in theoretical physics, which is largely unheard of in books that are usually categorized as 'gender studies' or 'cultural theory' books. In this book, Barad also argues that 'agential realism,' is useful to the analysis of literature, social inequalities, and many other things. This claim is based on the fact that Barad's agential realism is a way of understanding the politics, ethics, and agencies of any act of observation, and indeed any kind of knowledge practice. According to Barad, the deeply connected way that everything is entangled with everything else means that any act of observation makes a "cut" between what is included and excluded from what is being considered. Nothing is inherently separate from anything else, but separations are temporarily enacted so one can examine something long enough to gain knowledge about it. This view of knowledge provides a framework for thinking about how culture and habits of thought can make some things visible and other things easier to ignore or to never see. For this reason, according to Barad, agential realism is useful for any kind of feminist analysis, even if the connection to science is not apparent.

Barad's framework makes several other arguments, and some of them are part of larger trends in fields such as science studies and feminist technoscience (all can be found in her 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway):
  • She defines agency as a relationship and not as something that one "has."
  • The scientist is always part of the apparatus, and one needs to understand that in order to make scientific work more accurate and more rigorous. This differs from the view that political critiques of science seek to undermine the credibility of science; instead, Barad argues that this kind of critique actually makes for better, more credible science.
  • She argues that politics and ethical issues are always part of scientific work, and only are made to seem separate by specific historical circumstances that encourage people to fail to see those connections. She uses the example of the ethics of developing nuclear weapons to argue this point, by claiming that the ethics and politics are part of how such weapons were developed and understood, and therefore part of science, and not merely of the "philosophy of science" or the "ethics of science." This differs from the usual view that one can strive for a politics-free, bias-less science.
  • Nevertheless, she argues against moral relativism, which, according to Barad, uses science's "human" aspects as an excuse to treat all knowledge, and all ethical frameworks, as equally false. She uses Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen, as an example of the kind of moral relativism that she finds problematic.
  • She also rejects the idea that science is "only" a language game or set of fictions produced only by human constructions and concepts. Although the scientist is part of the "intra-action" of the experiment, humans (and their cultural constructs) do not have complete control over everything that happens. Barad expresses this point by saying, in Getting Real, that although scientists shape knowledge about the universe, you can't ignore the way the universe "kicks back."
These points on science, agency, ethics, and knowledge reveal that Barad's work is similar to the projects of other science studies scholars such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, and Evelyn Fox Keller.
One of the key points (in my brief readings): "Barad's agential realism is at once an epistemology (theory of knowing), an ontology (theory of being), and an ethics. Barad coins the term onto-epistemology. Because specific practices of mattering have ethical consequences, excluding other kinds of mattering, onto-epistemological practices are always in turn onto-ethico-epistemological."

Additional Online Resources:

Some of Barad's essays are available online, linked from her faculty page at UC Santa Cruz.

Cynthia Bateman's Obstinate Obscurity blog offered a two-part post on agential realism:
In New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies (freely available at the link), there is a lengthy interview with Karen Barad on her philosophy (pgs. 48-70).

Paul Leonardi's article comparing agential realism and critical realism is freely available from SSRN: Theoretical Foundations for the Study of Sociomateriality (2013).

Peter, at Xenogenesis, reviewed Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway back in 2011 - Becoming Brittlestar, Becoming Agential.
Finally, Marietta Radomska has an essay online called Towards a Posthuman Collective: Ontology, Epistemology and Ethics that discusses Barad's theory a bit.
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