Becoming Brittlestar, Becoming Agential

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Review #1: Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglements of Matter and Meaning (2007)

Brittlestars don’t have eyes; they are eyes. It is not merely the case that the brittlestar’s visual system is embodied; its very being is a visualizing apparatus. The brittlestar is a living, breathing, metamorphosing optical system. (375)

Brittlestars are part of the menagerie of fantastic creatures invoked in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglements of Matter and Meaning. As Barad explains, the brittlestar has no brain and as such it is alien to our understanding of animal life. Instead of having a brain-driven or concentrated morphology, it exists as a diffused network of interconnected parts. Its body is constructed so that its exterior surface acts as multiple microscopic receptors of diffracted light. Changes in the light are relayed to a diffused nervous system so actions can be taken. For example, through its compound “eyes” or ocular structure the brittlestar might detect a predator and seek camouflage amongst similar-looking plants and coral. The idea that this brainless animal is able to act and make decisions is a direct challenge to our Cartesian notion of thinking and being. The brittlestar cannot be conceived as a non-thinking or less intelligent animal because its way of knowing and being in the world has little to do with our understanding of intelligence. We literally cannot think/understand the brittlestar. Our descriptions fall short and are riddled with endless quotation marks around “eyes,” “seeing,” “knowing,” “individual,” and “action.” Barad makes the point that this struggle to understand the brittlestar is the very same struggle we face with quantum physics: We literally cannot think/understand quantum physics because it also does not coincide with the Cartesian human subject or Newtonian physics.

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In a text that advocates a radical restructuring of how we live and understand life, perhaps we should not be surprised to encounter all-seeing brittlestars along with lesbian lizards, genetically-engineered spidergoats (goats that lactate a form of spider’s silk), and, of course, Schrodinger’s cat. We have encountered this darn and damned cat many times before. In countless primers to quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat is placed in a makeshift cabinet to disappear into a netherworld of quantum mechanics, where it is both alive and dead, both an unresolved paradox and a sadistic truth lesson. But it is these other creatures that catch my interest. In a book that tackles the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, I was not expecting to learn biology, as I assumed that I would be far too busy trying to hold the quirky and contradictory ideas of quantum mechanics in my head. The fact that the reader is presented with a thorough exegesis of Bohr’s philosophy-physics, as well as critiques of Foucaultian power, poststructuralist calls for performativity, and applications of ultrasound technology and genetic engineering, speaks to the extent of Barad’s project. Barad is a specialist but she is also pluralist. She is a physicist, a feminist, a teacher, a philosopher, and obviously an avid reader. Her interdisciplinary approach is part and parcel of her overarching argument: to comprehend the complexities of quantum physics, one must first acknowledge the entangled dynamics of life. But Barad’s call to meet the universe halfway is not simply a matter of adopting an interdisciplinary approach. She is clearly advocating a much more transformative project that can be expressed tautologically: To understand life in a thoroughly different fashion, we need to understand life in a thoroughly different fashion. To make a quantum leap, we need to make a quantum leap.

Barad’s response to this call to do things differently is agential realism, which she argues involves adopting a worldview of “intra-action,” a constant process of unfolding, becoming, “worlding.” She adopts the neologism “intra-action” rather than interaction as a way to emphasize “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (33, italics in the original). Agential realism can be understood as the productive encounter of matter and meaning, but we need to reconfigure our notion of matter and meaning so that neither precedes the other. This interdependency shares much it common with actor network theory. Barad too argues for a version agency that is seen as not something one has or processes, but as the result of a network or the exchange between parties. “Agency is not an attribute,” asserts Barad, “but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world. The universe is agential intra-activity in its becoming” (141). But where actor network theory focuses on the assemblages of meaning that emerges from the exchange between fixed entities, human and nonhuman, Barad insists on a much more fractured/compounded/diffractive notion of agency and life. Life does not begin or end with the human or the nonhuman, nor the material world and the social world. These things, categories, or ideations only ever have a contingent frame of reference. Meaning and material only ever have fixed properties in a fictional sense. Where, for example, do I stop and start being human? Where does the nonhuman world start and stop in the composition of my humanness? These are the sorts of fractious questions that agential realism demands.

Barad’s project of agential realism can perhaps be best described as her augmenting the ontological dimensions of Bohr’s physics. Despite Bohr’s own ontological shortcomings and biases, Barad champions his interpretation of the complementary nature of matter and meaning as a “proto-performative” and “proto-posthumanist” accounting of the world. Barad begins with Bohr’s resolve that we cannot separate experimental observations from the observational apparatus, and the two only have meaning as an intertwined phenomenon. As Barad explains:

Bohr argues that the indetermnacy of the measurement interaction is of profound consequence: Since observations involve an indeterminable discontinuous interaction, as a matter of principle, there is no unambiguous way to differentiate between the “object” and the “agencies of observation.” No inherent/Cartesian subject-object distinction exists. (114)

This ontological principle will eventually lead Barad to the brittlestar as an embodied example of agential realism and this related or compounded idea that we cannot separate ourselves from the measurements or agential cuts that we deploy to make sense of the world. Like the brittlestar, we wear these agential cuts as part of our being in the world. And it is here that I want to end my review: with Barad’s call to think through this unusual animal as a way of meeting the universe halfway. The brittlestar, like the famous double-slit experiment, can be thought of as diffraction device. Not only does it diffract light but it is also a liminal creature/phenomenon that diffracts humanist notions of subjectivity, agency, unity, and spatiality. Part of the brittlestar’s liminality is it’s sexuality: “some species use broadcast spawning, others exhibit sexual dimorphism, some are hermaphroditic and self-fertilize, and some reproduce asexually by regenerating or cloning themselves out of the fragmented body parts” (377). This sexual diversity reinforces the point that to account for the brittlestar or quantum physics in all their complexities, we are required to think in a radically different fashion. In this dual process of rethinking and unthinking – thinking agentially – humans will eventually lose some of their familiar shape. In other words, in our attempts to account for the unfolding complexities of the universe, we cannot help but to become somewhat posthuman, quantum, and brittlestar.

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One Response to “Becoming Brittlestar, Becoming Agential”

  1. kelly Says:

    Your analysis of Barad is really helpful, clear and succinct. I think the brittlestar is an great place to start from in or perhaps in keeping with the title of the blog as a place of xenogenesis. While perhaps belying my own current research interests, I want to focus on the “ethics of mattering” that Barad introduces in the brittlestar chapter. You write that humans are becoming otherwise, that the boundaries that the human as knower that has been the center of the humanist episteme is being reconfigured through a rethinking of agency that is not a causal chain of intentionalities but a performed entanglement of matter and materiality. Not to reiterate your analysis of Barad, I wanted to highlight this point because I believe that there is an ethical imperative to this project that I am attracted to. As the words resistance and politics have come to mean many things for many people and also, come to mean nothing as they are sometimes tacked on as a politically correct coda. Barad also concludes her book with a section on ethics; however, it seems that Barad is not delineating a prescriptive ethic program but is drawing out the ethics inherent in her post-human performative project. Like her agential realism, Barad’s ethics of mattering do not imply a humanist subject, a problem with many ‘ethical’ projects. Using Levinasian ethics as a theoretical backdrop, Barad reformulates a Levinasian ethos of responsibility to the Other to one that includes the “other than human” (392).

    Barad writes: “A humanist ethics won’t suffice when the “face” of the other that is “looking” back at me is all eyes, or has no eyes, or is otherwise unrecognizable in human terms. What is needed is a posthumanist ethics, an ethics of worlding” (392). What Barad is suggesting is, in some sense, a brittlestar ethics. There is no ‘I’ for the brittlestar, as parts of itself fall off and become extensions of itself and its own other. A brittlestar ethic is not dependent on cohesive bodily boundaries. The brittlestar is not a cohesive agent that sets ripples of consequences into motion. Like the Latourian concept of ‘becoming nose’, the brittlestar is becoming eyes in an ongoing process of bodily reconfigurations. The agential cut between its self and the other (376) is not fixed. Mainly, what I want to signal is that Barad distinguishes the embodied nature of the brittlestar from not only disembodied epistemologies but also “traditional” (376) notions of embodiment. More than being situated in the world, the brittlestar is necessarily part of the world; the world is constantly defining and redefining its bodily boundaries: “when is a broken-off limb only a piece of the environment, and when is it an offspring?” (377). We need to stop thinking about our objects of study, ourselves and others as permanently bounded and separate entities nor as in an a permanent assemblage, but as bodies that are always in the world and whose boundaries are constituted through contingent cuts. The ethical project here is understanding agency not only in terms of one body affecting another but in terms of how bodies are made and unmade as an “ongoing open-ended articulation” (379).

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