[002 - Barad's 'fine details' and/as hyperrealism]
May 08, 2017 by alex christie
Rereading Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway is a refreshing reminder of everything I find useful in new materialism and posthumanism. Concerned primarily with how quantum physics might reshape the way we think about matter, agency, and ethics, Barad's work if helpful for articulating where ethical commitments beyond the human, or the human-to-human, might reside. Her reworking of agency is particularly important for her interweaving of the philosophy of physics and poststructural, as she repeats throughout. For Barad, agency is not something humans have, or even particular bodies possess, but rather a distributed enactment across an intra-active assemblage (my word) or apparatus. She argues, 'Agency is "doing" or "being" in its intra-activity. It is the enactment of iterative changes of particular practices---iterative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations---through the dynamics of intra-activity. Agency is about changing possibilities of change entailed in reconfiguring material-discursive apparatuses of bodily production' (178). This emphasis on intra-activity reminds us that we (and let's leave this as a slippery signifier) are involved in agency with other matters we tend to not consider imbricated in ourselves. Matter comes to matter through 'iterative reconfigurings;' states that both continually change but also remain the same---cells perpetually dying and being replaced in bodies human and otherwise, for example. Agency is less a deployment of force here than the tipping over of a system into something else or towards a different state---a storm tipping over from rain and thunder into a tornado and back again. In a more anthropocentric mode, it's also about admitting that who and what we are is heavily influenced and perhaps even dependent on the matter that surrounds us, both discursive but also (new) material. It's here that I see Barad linking up rather explicitly with poststructuralism, as if to intensify the performative and disciplinary sutures provided by Butler and Foucault.
If Butler and Foucault teach us that power circulates by and through bodies both docile and disciplined, that iterative performances produce the conditions for socially (un)meaningful practices, Barad shows us reality itself, not merely human discourse, might be performative all the way down. While 'reality' or 'realism' tends to be cringe inducing in poststructuralist circles where it's often treated as a retrenchment in structuralism and the liberal humanist subject who mediates reality, Barad's 'agential realism' repositions humans not as transcendent mediator but as interwoven into the iterative reproduction of reality. Barad seeks to reformulate realism 'in terms of the goal of providing accurate descriptions of that reality of which we are a part and with which we intra-act, rather than some imagined and idealized human-independent reality' (207). The problem of objectivity and mediation lies at the heart of Barad's goal: how do we disentangle the human from reality if it's the only subjectivity we inhabit? But Barad suggests, 'Objectivity means being accountable for marks on bodies, that is, specific materializations in their differential mattering. We are responsible for the cuts that we help enact not because we do the choosing (neither do we escape responsibility because "we" are "chosen" by them), but because we are an agential part of the material becoming of the universe' (178). This language resonates with Haraway's work on cyborgs and companion species, but it's also clearly reminiscent of Butler and Levinas, specifically the idea of having to account for the self. Levinas reminds us, 'The responsibility for the other can not have begun in my commitment, in my decision. The unlimited responsibility in which I find myself comes from the hither side of my freedom, from a "prior to every memory," an "ulterior to every accomplishment," from the non-present par excellence, the non-original, the anarchical, prior to or beyond essence' (Otherwise Than Being 10). We do not choose responsibility nor what we respond to; rather, response is figured as the passive ground for subjectivity. Although I cannot account for myself because what constitutes my subjectivity (my environment, language, and others) precedes me, all relationships bear a 'trace' of our responsibility to the other (OtB 12). Levinas's trace is excessively human and his ethical encounters primarily circulate around the face-to-face encounter of two human subjects. But Barad opens the possibility of a different kind of accountability and the necessity of the passive grounds of our own materiality, and by extension, responsibility.
Levinas argues that subjectivity is bound up in the trace of those who have come before us, and that we are bound up in those that come after us. We necessarily respond to the presence of their absence by virtue of being embodied in a specific cultural-historical-social milieu neither chosen nor consented to. For Butler, this becomes the cite of giving an account of the self. Because I arrive late, exposed to a world I have not chosen and cannot account for, 'The "I" cannot give a final or adequate account of itself because it cannot return to the scene of address by which it is inaugurated and it cannot narrate all of the rhetorical dimensions of the structure of address in which the account itself takes place' (Giving an Account of One's Self 67). I see Barad participating in a similar argument, though perhaps with further reaching consequences because her work is less indebted to or even interested in the human. While reality in Butler is primarily social and discursive reality, Barad seeks reality beyond the human-to-human encounters described above.
In Barad, and this holds true in poststructuralism and critical theory more generally, reality is never what it seems---it's constantly more complicated than we give it credit for largely because the apparatuses, discourses, and methodologies by which we understand and (re)articulate reality shape the way we understand it. This is entirely Barad's point and intervention by way of Bohr, and it's surely something poststructuralism taught us in the 1970's, but Barad's work foregrounds the complexity and labor involved in articulating a thick description of reality. In the chapter on diffractive reading---a reading practice attuned to the subjects intra-active participation in the act of reading that emphasizes difference, as opposed to a reflective reading that would subject/object divide and the sameness in the act of reading (the subject and object as static) ---the phrase 'fine detail' comes up twice in quick succession as a stand-in for what's often left aside or bracketed in our descriptions of reality. I think Barad's realism ends up being what we might productive call a 'hyperrealism;' not in the Baudrillardian sense, but in the representational sense that hyperreality painting is interested in. Hyperrealism is wary of the human eye's ability to perceive reality and is attentive to what human vision leaves out, brackets, or isn't sharp enough to pick up on. By emphasizing the complexity of reality, the intra-active (re) and (co)production of reality, Barad tunes us into the intricacies of everyday life. This isn't just zooming in and out or seeing from a different point of view, but recognizing the way that reality is mediated in and through the (non)discursive apparatuses we find ourselves imbricated in. This is extremely useful for me since I see posthumanism less as a wholesale reconfiguration of the human, than an intensified attention to how the human intra-acts with(in) the networks it (co)inhabits.
I would tentatively conclude by suggesting that posthumanism as a hyperrealism forces us out of an anthropocentric mode and multiplies our attention the intra-active forces that (co)produce reality. Our multitudinous experiences are surely laborious, but they also matter a great deal. As Barad notes, 'The being of the world is a deeply ethical matter' (185).
1. To be fair, while I find Barad's description of diffractive reading helpful and interesting, I do think that much theory that identifies as 'reflexive' is already doing some of this kind of thinking. That is, reflective accounts of performativity emphasize the feedback loop between subject and object inter-relations.