An Ethnography of Disaster

July 7, 2011 by

Review #4: Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (2002)

On April 26, 1986, Unit Four of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine, damaging immunities and the genetic structure of cells, contaminating soils and waterways. (1)

Chernobyl Zone workers or "bio-robots"

From the first sentence of the book the reader is presented with the text’s central theme: the disaster at Chernobyl scarred the people and the land so that citizenship and sickness fused together. The scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by Soviet attempts to downplay the dangers of contamination. Their delay in acknowledging the scale of danger exposed thousands of people living near the plant to high levels of radiation. This number grew substantially with subsequent cleanup operations and as radioactive clouds drifted about saturating the countryside. These operations included the crews of technicians and Soviet soldiers who managed to shut down the reactor and eventually build the giant lead-enforced sarcophagus to enclose that section of the plant. The crews referred to themselves as “bio-robots” because of the extremely high amounts of radiation that they were exposed to despite wearing extensive protective clothing and working short, rotating shifts. As Petryna argues, the figure of the bio-robot, with its connotations of machine-like heroics and sacrificing the few for the safety of the whole, quickly became emblematic of Ukraine’s nascent citizenry.

Petryna explains that the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the Ukrainian nation added to the specter of the Chernobyl disaster. To distinguish itself from the brutality of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Ukraine recognized much lower levels of radiation contamination. This action automatically transformed the health status of a large percentage of the population, as thousands of individuals went from being exposed to acceptable levels of radiation to being exposed to very dangerous levels:

The Soviets had established a high 35 rem spread over an individual’s lifetime (understood as a standard seventy-year span) as the threshold of allowable radiation dose intakes… Ukrainian law lowered the threshold dose to 7 rem, comparable to what an average American would be exposed to in his or her lifetime… With the lower dose standard, more and more people became active participants in the system of compensation and social protections. (23-24)

This shift in acceptable dosages also exposed the instability of scientific truth, or at the very least, the instability of the truth surrounding radiation poisoning. How could the Soviets and the Ukrainians have radically conflicting truths concerning something so lethal as radiation?

For the Ukrainian state, radiation exposure continues to function as an effective tool or apparatus that it uses to help govern its population. Faced with the uncertainty of the health and Ukraine’s struggling economy, individuals actively pursue the persona of a radiation victim or sufferer. This process involves citizens attempting to solidify their economic future by finding a doctor with the authority to declare them terminally ill and, as such, subject to state welfare. “The goal of this sick role,” explains Petryna, “is nonrecovery. Only through nonrecovery can the sick guarantee a stable influx of privileges” (106). Corrupt doctors and officials complicate the process, as individuals without sufficient funds to bribe the appropriate people find themselves in an extremely precarious situation, as they are often deemed too unhealthy to work but not unhealthy enough to claim compensation. “In this integration of unstable law and individual economic weakness,” Petryna continues, “clinical structures have become prime sites of social production and power” (106). For thousands of Ukrainians, proving that they are terminally ill and eligible for compensation has become an ongoing battle. The fact that their financial security depends on an incurable diagnosis marks life in Ukraine as inherently bleak. The additional fact that radiation contamination last thousands of years, suggests that this form of biological citizenship, this toxic self-fashioning, will continue into the unforeseeable future.

Petryna uses testimony gathered from various interlocutors to draw her readers into the mangle of negotiating the ins and outs of biological citizenship. Doing her fieldwork in hospitals and by staying in the homes of sufferers, Petryna wades through the bureaucracy, the corruption, and the drama surrounding individual lives. These personal details reinforce Foucault’s famous argument that state power is not a concentrated force exercised from the top down. Instead, it is a fragmented process that individuals participate in to fashion and make sense of their lives. Like any other country, Ukraine is an ongoing construction rather than static channel or vessel containing a passive citizenry. As Foucault asserts, modern statecraft, or what he calls governmentality, depends on the active role of individuals to discipline and shape themselves as citizens-subjects. This form of civic self-fashioning is much different from patriotism. Whereas patriotism is an outward expression of pride and belonging, governmentality is characteristically innocuous or incidental. While it may seem contradictory to speak of Chernobyl and radiation as innocuous forms of citizenship, this is exactly how people got on with their lives in Ukraine. In effect, they normalized the disaster and their illness by integrating it into the decisions and routines of everyday living.

This normalization of Chernobyl is being repeated in Fukushima, Japan. Despite nightly news reports assuring us that the meltdown at Fukushima would be squashed and the fallout would be nowhere near that of Chernobyl, the breached reactor continues to leak dangerous levels of radiation. But as a global issue, Fukushima has receded into the background. The images of the destroyed power plant and the thousands of evacuees have failed to generate serious international debate about the safety of nuclear power. Nor are there riots in Japan. What is the reasoning behind this general complacency? Is it the result of widespread apathy or cynicism; state bread corruption; or a blind faith in technology? Petryna’s text suggests that individuals become complacent and complicit with such disasters, even after suffering horrible consequences, because economic viability or will supersedes all other concerns. The text also suggests that life swallows or engulfs individuals whole, so there is not much room for reflection or radical change. For the sufferers that Petryna encounters, this general sensibility of getting on with the business of living one’s life regardless of the circumstances appears to be a reasonable reaction.

I applaud Petryna for taking on such a formidable subject: How does one make sense of Chernobyl? How does one account for a hole ripped into the biosphere and a sarcophagus that can be seen from space? How do you make sense of radiation exposure, an invisible and deadly force that is visited on you as a result of technological advancement and national pride? Rather than getting bogged down in trying to sort out a clear picture of how Chernobyl has affected Ukrainian life, Petryna deploys the ethnographic practice of including testimony from opposing positions. These conflicting voices and stories illustrate how there is no definitive truth or answers to the questions raised by Chernobyl. Instead, Chernobyl continues to serve as an active site (both literally and metaphorically) in which truths are forged, challenged, discarded, and renewed.


The Story of the Objective Eye

July 5, 2011 by
Review #3: Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007)

imperfect snowflake

To be objective is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower – knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgment, wishing or striving.

In their bulky study, Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison chart the history of objectivity by focusing on the thematic changes made to scientific atlases over the course of the last three centuries. Foremost the authors argue that objectivity has a history that is very much distinct from other philosophical and scientific expressions of truth and attempts to represent of the natural world. This claim contradicts the commonsense notion that sees objectivity as mode of thinking that has long dogged humanity, being closely related to rationality, logic and being fair-minded. In stark contrast, Daston and Galison present objectivity as a recent phenomenon, the bulk of its influence taking place during the latter half of the nineteenth century and coinciding with the emergence of photography. They also argue that objectivity shares a constitutive relationship with subjectivity. Both these modes of thinking and being in the world emerge as a consequence of each other. Thus, any history of objectivity is also a history of subjectivity.

Daston and Galison provide detailed accounts of how scientists and atlas makers diligently took up particular practices to assure their objectivity. In the process, these scientists and atlas makers also embodied what Daston and Galison refer to (echoing Foucault) as “a technology of the self.” This idea of scientific self-fashioning underscores an ironic twist to the history of objectivity: In their strident efforts to assure their objective judgment, scientists and atlas makers helped give shape to the modern scientific self. In other words, objectivity, the so-called “will to willessness” (39), was directly responsible for the formation of a version of modern subjectivity. It is this idea of self-fashioning that I want to respond to in my review of Daston and Galison’s book, as it raises questions about gender and normative forms of behaviour that are pertinent to the way ethical values are inscribed and retained: What is the historical relationship between objectivity and masculinity? Did the practices associated with objectivity coincide or conflict with nineteenth-century masculine norms? What place did objectivity accord to women? Were such questions of gender challenged by objective science’s quest for impartiality?

Although Daston and Galison do not substantially deal with gender, a direct relationship between objectivity and male subjectivity is explicit in their argument. While the argument could be made that science in general has been traditionally associated with manliness, the history of objectivity provides concrete examples of how certain aspects of male subjectivity and scientific practice merged as one. “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century,” Daston and Galison explain, “men of science began to fret openly about a new kind of obstacle to knowledge: themselves. Their fear was that the subjective self was prone to prettify, idealize, and, in the worst case, regularize observations to fit theoretical expectations: to see what they hoped to see” (34). To combat these fears, scientists took up a series of practices to cultivate a disciplined persona. These practices included “training the senses in scientific observation, keeping lab note books, drawing specimens, habitually monitoring one’s own belief and hypotheses, quieting the will, and channeling the attention” (199). This period also saw mass publications of inspiration texts and moral guides that similarly portrayed masculinity as an ongoing exercise in restraint and reflection. In this way, the “epistemic virtues” and practices of the aspiring scientist were very much consistent with the general behavior and aspirations of the modern male subject.

According to Daston and Galison, these mid-nineteenth-century scientists were reacting to the overarching goal that predominated much of eighteenth-century Western science: to uncover the truth of nature. As the authors explain, it was during this period that natural history was established as a dominant mode of scientific practice:

Among scientific atlas makers, truth-to-nature emerges as a prominent epistemic virtue in the early eighteenth century – Linnaeus is one of its earliest and most influential proponents… To see like a naturalist required more than just sharp senses: a capacious memory, the ability to analyze and synthesize impressions, as well as the patience and talent to extract the typical from the storehouse of natural particulars, were all key qualifications… Only the keenest and most experienced observer – who had, like Linnaeus, inspected thousands of different specimens – was qualified to distinguish genuine species from mere varieties, to identify the true specific characters imprinted in the plant, and to separate accidental from essential features. (58-59)

This impetus to seek the truth of nature beyond its “particulars” was often expressed as a gender allegory in which the ardent male naturalist would expose the naked truth of female nature or nature would unveil herself before science.

In hindsight we can see how being attentive to the laws of nature would have laid much of the groundwork for objectivity, but for many scientists of mid-nineteenth century the natural history of the Enlightenment was seen as being too general, too artistic, too human. Accordingly, the machine and the factory processes of the industrial revolution took on special significance for this generation of scientists and atlas makers:

For the scientific atlas makers of the late nineteenth century, the machine was both a literal and a guiding ideal. Machines assisted where the will failed, where the will threatened to take over, or where the will pulled in contradictory directions. Machine-regulated image making was a powerful and polyvalent symbol, fundamental to the new scientific goal of objectivity… The machine was patient, indefatigable, ever alert, probing beyond the limits of the human senses… Just as manufacturers admonished their workers with the example of the more productive, more careful, more skilled machine, scientists admonished themselves with the more attentive, more hard-working, more honest instrument. (138-139)

It is during this period that many women assumed a place in urban public life as factory workers. Daston and Galison do make the point that women were also hired in large numbers to work as laboratory and research assistants. Women were generally considered to be less likely to jump to conclusions than their male counterparts because they were seen as serving as “a tacit guarantee that data [they] gathered [would not be] the figment of a scientist’s imagination or preexisting philosophical commitment” (341). Being firmly excluded from the realms of science and philosophy, women were valued for their inherent “machine-like simplicity.”

With time the aspirations of modern scientists shifted once again and the epistemic virtues of mechanical objectivity were also met with criticism. The turn of the twentieth century saw the formation of a new set of scientific practices and concerns that Daston and Galison refer to as “trained judgment”:

Slowly at first and then more frequently, twentieth-century scientists stressed the necessity of seeing scientifically through an interpretive eye; they were after an interpreted image that became at the very least, a necessary addition to the perceived inadequacies of the mechanical one… (311)

The urgency to supplement photographs and other forms of mechanical reproduction brought about a return of the artistic-interpretive function. But unlike the truth-to-nature ethos of natural history, trained judgment was not interested in determining a general type or smoothing out flaws and inconsistencies. Instead, its initial focus was to highlight information that was missed or obscured by mechanical reproduction. Eventually this impetus gave rise to an assortment of manipulated and non-mimetic images that had nothing to do with representing the natural world objectively. Computer simulations and the images generated by such instruments as the atomic force microscope operate in this context. Rather than hidden truths that the scientist manages to reveal, these sorts of images are seen as possible explanations or scenarios that the scientist creates. As Daston and Galison assert, much of the driving force behind science has moved from a mode of representation to that of presentation in which images serve a sensorial or haptic function rather than a truth function. Referencing nanotechnology, they state:

Frequently, the nanographers want images to engineer things… these are images-as-tools, entirely enmeshed in the making, much more than images-as-evidence to be marshaled for a later demonstration. (385).

Here the scientist is clearly more akin to an artist, animator, and engineer rather than an impartial observer of the natural world.

Despite the fact that gender does not play a central role in Daston and Galison’s history of objectivity (issues of race and class are also left incomplete), I still see their text as an effective model for teasing out performances of masculinity and femininity. I am mostly impressed with their methodology, their use of images to delineate the changes inherent to the scientific self. They speak about their method as keeping “two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce this kind of image? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate the scientific self such that this sight is possible? This history of scientific sight always demands this double motion, toward the unfolding of an epistemology of images, on the one side, and toward the cultivated ethics of the scientific self, on the other” (382). Here is the project of epistemology in a nutshell: accounting for the historical connections between artifacts, practices, and modes of living. By way of a conclusion, I want to propose using Daston and Galison’s method to pursue queer performances of the scientific self. This would also involve placing two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce queer performances of science? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate a queer scientific self such that these performances are possible? I am sure science has a rich history of queer performance, if one can determine where and how to look.

Thinking objects and thinking uncertainty: Reading Rheinberger

June 30, 2011 by

Review #2: Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life (2010)

Phenomena and instrument, object and experience, concept and method, are all engaged in an ongoing process of mutual instruction… the object itself becomes an agent of the process of knowledge (31)@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }@font-face { font-family: “Times-Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; font-size: 11pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Early on in An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life, Hans-Jorg Rheinberger invokes the rich phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard to make an argument for the importance of the epistemic object. Rheinberger’s epistemic object extends from scientific equipment to model organisms and to fundamental concept-objects like the gene and the genome. Along with Bachelard, this emphasis on the object also echoes Karen Barad’s call for agential realism. Like Barad, Rheinberger is interested in foregrounding the constitutive nature of matter and meaning. Both authors present matter and meaning as a constantly unfolding and fragmented dialogue. In this way, Rheinberger’s history of science is distinguished from standard narratives of progress that feature the heroic scientist-creator, labouring in isolation to advance scientific knowledge in a series of inspired moments of unprecedented insight. His emphasis on objects rather than thought also distinguishes his project from the convention in epistemology to stress discourse as the driving principle of scientific and technological advancement; the episteme being seen as the collective discursive field that determines the limits of meaning for a given period, the thoughts that could be possibly thought. By insisting on the concrete, Rheinberger, like Barad, insists that matter matters.

At first glance Rheinberger’s book is deceptively chunky, as it is made up of an assortment of previously published essays that he divides into four thematic sections that all deal with the composition of scientific knowledge. In the first section Rheinberger provides a sketch of four men who played a definitive role in outlining the epistemology of science: Bachelard, Fleck, Husserl, and Canguilhem. The second section introduces us to four model organisms that similarly played a definitive role in shaping biology: Pisum sativum (pea plants), Eudorina elegans (unicellar green algae colonies), Ephestia kuhniella (flour moths), and the tobacco mosaic virus. The third and forth sections are made up of brief accounts of genetics experiments, scientific instruments, microscopic preparations, and laboratory note taking. Together the chapters of the book constitute an assemblage – an archive of biological epistemologica – that illustrates Rheinberger’s contention that certain objects consolidated disparate lines of research to shape our notion of twentieth-century biology. In this way, Rheinberger activates or performs his argument, rather than laying it out in a didactic fashion.

Rheinberger also makes the point that the generative relationships between objects and ideas are never fixed and thus they can fall out of favour and be rendered obsolete. “Epistemic objects,” he asserts, “are by nature made to be surpassed” (222). For an epistemic object to have the potential to incite and channel scientific research it must embody a degree of uncertainty. In other words, it is the sense of the unknown associated with a given epistemic object that underwrites its usefulness in how we acquire knowledge. To this end, Rheinberger states:

The specific experimental practices observable in modern research fields give rise to concepts that are bound up closely with the objects of that research. As such, they constitute attractors that despite their imprecision – even one suspects because of it – acquire to one degree or another the power to guide people’s thinking and advance the world of research. Occasionally entire disciplines are built up around one or a few of these imprecisely defined epistemic objects… The atom was long such an object in physics as was the molecule in chemistry and the species in evolutionary biology. In classical genetics the gene took on this on this function. (154)

Rheinberger further contends that science should adapt itself to the generative effects of uncertainty by adopting a fuzzy or uncertain logic and methodology. To make this argument Rheinberger cites Lofti Zadeh’s current research in AI. Zadeh contends “there is an incompatibility between precision and complexity. As the complexity of a system increases, our ability to make precise and yet non-trivial assertions about its behavior diminishes” (as quoted in Rheinberger, 169). Picking up this theme of useful uncertainty later on in the text, Rheinberger reminds us that the domain of the experiment is supposedly meant to be a place in which we depart from tradition and test new ways of thinking and conceiving the world. “An experiment,” he states, “is not only a test or an examination, as it may be at times. More frequently, it is an exploratory movement, a game in which one plays with possible positions, an open arrangement”  (247).

Our Friend the Atom (1957)

While reading Rheinberger’s accounts of genetics experiments done at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute during WWII and Lyle Packard’s invention and successful marketing of the Liquid Scintillation Counter, a famous episode of The Wonderful World of Disney kept playing in my head: Our Friend the Atom (1957). The episode is comprised of both live-action and animated segments. The live-action segments feature Dr. Heinz Haber, who we are told is a “noted German science in the field of nuclear energy.” Haber guides the viewer through the physical and moral issues that comprise/entangle nuclear fission. To illustrate the potential dangers involved we are shown a cartoon allegory in which nuclear fission is represented as an all-powerful genie. We are told that this literal genie in the bottle will provide us with an endless supply of energy, which, in turn, will revolutionize commerce, our ability to grow crops, and vastly improve the health of people the world over. Predictably, we are also warned that these miraculous powers come with grave responsibility and, if the genie is not treated with the utmost respect, he/we will release a destructive wrath with unimaginable consequences. What is striking about this cartoon is the hubris and celebration of power it advocates despite its graphic warning of global annihilation. Scenes unfold in which giant nuclear plants feed electricity along extensive networks of power lines linking the cities of the US and the globe so that commerce, agriculture, and medicine are thoroughly integrated and harmonized. Trains carrying nonrenewable and dirty sources of energy like oil and coal are halted and then sent in reverse, miraculously returning their cargo to the land. Radioactive cocktails (bubbling with radioisotopes) are given to the sick to flesh out hidden cancers, which are then treated and cured with radiation therapy. Similarly, radioactive material is introduced to crops and livestock to trace and bolster their intake of nutrients. In this new wonderful world, radiation poisoning is not an issue. It seems to be completely excised, which would suggest that when the project is to revolutionize the world with nuclear power the question of risk is rendered silent. There is clearly nothing fuzzy or uncertain about such aspirations and goals. They would not allow for Rheinberger’s purposefully unassuming and playful epistemology. To conclude, I want to stress that Rheinberger is not calling for a sloppy or less serious science, but is instead championing a creative and thoughtful mode of research that avoids reductive and normative ways of thinking. The incentive behind acknowledging the complexity or entanglements of life should not lead us to dangerous simplifications and disentanglement but to multiplicity and unpredictable discoveries.

Becoming Brittlestar, Becoming Agential

June 30, 2011 by

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.

@font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }@font-face { font-family: “Times-Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 10pt; font-size: 11pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

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.