Meeting the Universe Halfway: Chapter 4 – Agential Realism

Posted: September 23, 2019 at 3:37 pm

I finally got to reading Karen Barad’s book (titled above) and thought I would post my notes here while I reflect on them. After reading I also realized that I had gotten Bohm and Bohr confused in my notes from the Karen Barad Seminar; this has now been corrected. In parallel with the collage production one idea is to reconsider my current Artist Statement and rewrite it to be consistent with Agential Realism. Next, I think I’m going to read Chapter 7 to focus on what is meant by “entanglements”. My notes on chapter 4 are as follows:

Taking Matter Seriously

  • The belief that grammatical categories reflect the underlying structure of the world is a continuing seductive habit of mind worth questioning” (p.133, top para)
  • Unlike representationalism, which positions us above or outside of the world we allegedly merely reflect upon, a performative account insists on understanding thinking, observing and theorizing as practises of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.” (p.133, third para)
  • “…performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real” (p.133, last para)
    • Is it language that determines what is real, or is it cognition?
    • Does it make sense to think of reality as something that is inconceivable and beyond cognition?
    • Points to ontology as possible without cognition?

Humanist Orbits

  • “posthumanist performative approach
  • “[peformativity] …shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality … to matters of practises, doings and actions” (p. 135, second para)
    • doing over representing?
  • diffraction rather than reflection
  • “The indefinite nature of boundaries” (p.135)
  • boundaries as enactments (p.135)
  • boundary-making (subjectivity?)
  • posthumanism as a deconstruction of the boundaries of human (p.136)
    • Not framed in relation to transhumanism or the death of humankind.
    • instead a criticism of human exceptionalism.
  • “Posthumanism doesn’t presume the separateness of any-‘thing,’ let alone the alleged spatial, ontological, and epistemological distinction that sets humans apart.” (p.136, end of middle para)
  • “[Agential Realism does not] denigrate separateness as mere illusion, an artifact of human consciousness led astray. Difference cannot be taken for granted; it matters – indeed, it is what matters.” (p.136, bottom para)
    • While Machine Subjectivity argues against boundaries, it does not assume sameness. In fact, it assumes infinite difference and uniqueness. It’s actually sameness that is the artifact of consciousness.
  • Matter as both process and result.
  • Matter generates differences?
  • Patterns are neither pure cause nor effect, but both.
  • Patterns enact causality?
  • Cause and effect are differentiated by matter. (?)

An Agential Realist Ontology

  • Is representation inherently dualist?
    • Must representations be disconnected from reality?
    • Is distancing (mediation) the same as a separateness?
    • Is Barad making a binary assertion?
  • Like reflections bouncing back and forth the representations cannot get to any solidity because of this distance. But can’t they get close? Why is knowing outside of language more important than knowing enough to increasingly predict reality / the world?
  • An alternative ontological starting place is to reject that the wold is made of individual components that have inherent properties.
  • Bohr (See chapter 3 for details)
    • questions the separation of subject and object.
    • rejects the transparency of both language and measurement.
    • Language and measurement do not perform mediating functions
  • Boundaries, properties and meanings are deferentially enacted.
  • Agential Intra-action: causal relationship between “bodily productions” and phenomena
  • “…Theoretical concepts (e.g. position or momentum) are not ideational in character but rather ‘specific physical arrangements‘” (p.139, para 2)
  • …[P]osition has meaning only when an apparatus with an appropriate fixed set of pats is used.”
    • attributes cannot be attributed to an object, but to the phenomenon that is the inseparability of object and measuring.
    • Position requires a device with moving parts, momentum requires a device with moving parts. We can’t measure both at the same time because they require two different devices; two different systems that allow for position and momentum.
  • We understand the world through phenomena, not objects with properties.
    • “…phenomena are the ontological inseparability / entanglement of infra-acting agencies.” (p.139)
  • phenomena are relations without pre-existing relata
    • relata result from the relations?
  • boundaries and properties become determinate through intra-action.
  • When they become determinate they are concepts with meaning.
    • Barsalou concepts as simulation?
  • Agential cut: appearance of separation between subject and object
    • The cut resolves inherent ontological and semantic indeterminacy
    • The object exists as a resolution of possibilities of what an object is.
    • The cut enacts a causal structure of cause and effect
      • how?
  • Objectivity possible through “agential separability”
  • “Aparatuses are not mere observing instruments but boundary-drawing practises – specific material (re)configurings of the world – which come to matter.”
  • What is the apparatus that separates human from nonhuman?
  • Reality is composed of things-in-phenomena.
    • The atoms of reality are the objects cut from the indeterminacy using apparatuses?
  • Time and space are also the result of agential cuts.
  • Machine Subjectvity to Machine Agency? Agency as the dynamics of reconfiguring boundaries?

The Nature of an Apparatus (p.141)

  • “…apparatuses are specific material reconfigurings of the world that do not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure space-timematter as part of the ongoing dynamism of becoming.” (p.142, para two)
    • constructs boundaries?
  • The Boundary of an Apparatus
    • Bohr: Apparatus as material arrangement through which concepts are given definition. This definition both includes some and excludes other definitions. The apparatus also allows for the production of phenomena with particular physical properties.
      • Concept as the formation of boundary?
      • Phenomena as the construction of boundary that defines physical properties?
    • How do we define the boundaries of the apparatus?
    • “…only concepts defined by their specific embodiment as part of the material arrangement … are meaningful.” (p.143, second para)
    • The apparatus acts as a cut and resolves the indeterminacy from which subject and object emerge.
      • Apparatus defines it’s own boundaries though material interaction?
    • Bohr: As concepts are embodied in material, there can be objective knowledge because concepts are reproducible and communicable.
      • What about concepts that are incorrect and yet embedded in the physical material apparatus of the brain? A material practise allows for concepts like racist stereotypes to exist, how does this work if concepts in material are objective?
      • Barad: This is a centring of the human.
    • For Bohr, the apparatus is fixed and bounded,it requires no reconfigurings or developments. It is somehow perfect. The apparatus is merely the experimental setup.

Toward a Agential Realist Understanding of the Apparatus (p.145)

  • Using Bohr’s conception of the material manifestation of concept to interfere with Bulter and Foucault’s anthropocentric components.
  • Apparatuses
    • 1. are specific material-discursive practises.
    • 2. produce differences that matter (boundary-making)
      • Why do apparatuses produce differences rather than producing samenesses?
    • 3. material configurations / dynamic reconfigurations
    • 4. themselves phenomena
    • 5. have no intrinsic boundaries
    • 6. are not located in the world, but are “material reconfigurations of the world that produce space and time.
      • space and time, and therefore also causality

Mattering: A Posthumanist Performative Account of Material-Discursive Practises. (p.146)

  • Discourse is not about language: Discourse is … that which constrains and enables what can be said.”
    • Discourse as interaction of concepts?
    • Discourse as machine subjectivity?
  • Discursive practises define what counts as meaningful statements.
  • Statements emerge from a field of potentiality (“Dynamic and contingent multiplicity“)
  • For Foucualt, discursive practises produce knowledge, they don’t just describe it, and knowledge is relative and social.
  • “…apparatuses are discursive practises … specific material reconfigurings through which ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ are produced.”
  • “…apparatuses are the material conditions of possibility and impossibility of mattering; they extract what matters and what is excluded from mattering”
  • Barad’s conception of “meaningful” or ‘intelligible” compatible with your thinking on “conceivable”?
  • “Knowing entails specific practises through which the world is deferentially articulated and accounted for.” (p. 149)
  • “There are no … things with determinate boundaries and properties whirling aimlessly in the void…” (p.150)
  • “Things don’t preexist”
  • Out side an agential intra-actions, words and things are indeterminate.
  • Butler: Matter as boundary, fixity and surface.
  • “Matter is…not a thing but a doing…” (p.151, para 3)
  • Matter is not a linguistic construction but a discursive production in the posthuamnist sense that discursive practises are themselves material (re)configurings of the world through which the determination of boundaries, properties, and meanings is differentially enacted.” (p.151, para 4)
  • Discursive practises as boundary-making practises
  • Material practise and discursive phenomena are not independent; neither
    • is ontologically or epistemologically prior
    • can be explained in terms of the other
    • is reducible to the other
    • determines the other
    • is privileged over the other
    • is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other
    • matter and meaning are mutually articulated.” (p.152, para 1)
      • Subjectivity as giving meaning to matter and matter creating meaning?
    • are mutually co-constructive?
  • There is a “…limited validity of analyses that attempt to determine individual effects of material or discursive factors.” (p.152, para 2)
    • Both must be considered.
  • “The ubiquitous pronouncements that experience or the material world is ‘mediated’ have offered previous little guidance about how to proceed.” (p.152, para 3)
    • stalemate between solipsism and materialism?
  • “The differential constitution of the human (nonhuman) is always accompanied by particular exclusions and always open to contestation.

Bodily Boundaries (p.153)

  • Bohr’s intersubjective notion of objectivity
  • “Objects are not already there; they emerge though specific practices.” (p. 157, para 1)
  • …’able-bodiedness’ is not a natural state of being but a specific from of embodiment that is co-constituted through the boundary-making practises that distinguish ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled.’
  • “…being ‘able-bodied’ means being in a prosthetic relationship with the ‘disabled.’
    • “…the ‘able-bodied’ depend on the ‘disabled’ for their very existence…”
  • Does tracing the entanglements mean making explicit the boundary-making and the cutting together/apart? (inclusion and exclusion)

The Boundaries of an Apparatus or “Ceci N’est Pas Une Cigar” (p. 161)

  • Stern-Gerlach Experiment
    • Why are the orbital planes of electronics limited to fixed (quantized) values? (space quantization)
    • Magnets would cause silver atoms to split into two paths, depending on the electron ‘handle’.
    • The experiment did not prove space quantization, but did discover electron spin, although this was not understood by the experimenters.
    • Cigar is needed to make visible the traces of two beam paths (due to silver interacting with sulphur in cigars)
  • The connection between the social and gender (Stern’s cigar) indicates that culture permeates the apparatus and there is no (determinate?) boundary between culture and nature.
  • The social and the science are co-constituted.” (entangled) (p.168, para 1)

The Nature of an Apparatus and a Posthumanist Role for the “Human” (p.168)

  • Physics and poststructualists still buy into a boundary between subject and the non-subject,
  • Apparatuses are boundary-making.
  • Apparatuses are phenomena.
  • “Boundaries do not sit still” (p.171, para 1)
  • …determinately bounded and propertied human subjects do not exist prior to their ‘involvement’ in naturalcultural practises.” (p. 171, para 2)
    • Interesting connection with self and consciousness as models arising from social realities.
  • …the phenomena produced are not the consequences of human will or intentionality or the effects of the operations of Culture, Language or Power.
    • Total systems view; is there any role to intentionality? (See Chapter 8 on ethics)
  • Agency is
    • not to a degree
    • not exclusively human, non-human (or even living)
    • not binary
  • “…responsibility is not the exclusive right, obligation or dominion of humans…”

Objectivity and Agential Separability (p.172)

  • The deeper argument under the EPR paper is the idea that objectivity is linked to spatial separability.
    • The ability to draw boundaries over which there are no interactions?
  • For Einstein, objectivity depends on spacial separability; for Bohr objectivity does not, it depends only on the “…unambiguous communication of the results of reproducible experiments.
    • Objectivity = Reproduciblity?
    • What is unambiguous communication?
    • Reproducibility means the ability to create the same phenomena by constructing the same agential cuts. These cuts make determinate the apparatus and change its relation to other systems, but only for that particular arrangement.
    • Does thinking create agential cuts, or is though the result of agential cuts already made?
  • The apparatus resolves both the indeterminacy of cuts in the system AND the semantic indeterminacy of the meaning of the marks made by the apparatus; the apparatus defines both the phenomena and the concepts used to describe it’s behaviour. (They are really the same thing)
  • Objectivity in the agential realist account is “…agential separability—an agentially enacted ontological seperability within the phenomenon” (p.175, para 1), rather than spacial separability.
    • The cut defines a separation between subject and object where the object (semantic and physical) becomes both determinate and stable(?).
    • The cut also defines a “local” causal relation in the phenomena (the cut of an object entails a causal presence of that object?)

The Nature of Production and Production of Nature: Agency and Causality. (p. 175)

  • Causality is usually considered an relation between two distinct entitles (objects)
  • Agential cuts separate observation and observed, allowing for a causal relation in the context of that material configuration: The agential cut “…identifies the agencies of observation as agentially separable from it’s ’cause’ (the ‘object’) within the phenomena.
  • Measurement: “…causal Intra-action
  • “Intra-actions always entail particular exclusions, and exclusions foreclose the possibility of determinism, providing the condition for an open future.” (p. 177, para 2)
    • Machine Subjectivity:
      • What are the dots on the plot if not measurements? Indeterminate properties made determinate by boundary-making.
      • Features are different cuts that create different properties.
      • The underlying world (this language is problematic) is not continuous, but indeterminate in terms of its continuity/discontinuity.
  • …intra-actions are constraining, not determining” (p.177, para 2)
  • Inanimate is potentially animate, and animate potentially inanimate.
  • “Particular possibilities for (intra-)acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail an ethical obligation to intra-act responsibly in the world’s becoming, to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering.” (p. 178, para 2)
  • “Objectivity means being accountable for marks on bodies, that is, specific materializations in their differential mattering.” (p.178, para 3)

Re(con)figuring Space, Time, and Matter (p. 179)

  • Intra-actions produce space, time and matter through the discursive process of remaking boundaries. (overly simplified?)
  • “Temporality is produced through the iterative enfolding of phenomena marking the sedimenting historiality of differential patterns of mattering.
    • Time is the trace of iterations of reworkings of boundaries?
    • Not a fixed trace, a trace (a state?) that can be reworked.
  • Space is produced through boundary making that determines interiority and exteriority, which entails exclusion (distance?).
  • The manifold (what is that?) is not continuous and “…discontinuity plays an important role.
  • Is continuity / discontinuity itself a boundary resulting from angetial cuts? Yes.
  • “…agency is the space of possibilities opened up by the indeterminacies entailed in exclusions.”
    • Agency as engagement with indeterminacy constrained by cuts?
  • This engagement with indeterminacies centres ethics and responsibility because of the freedom (and constraint) of indeterminacy. (?)

Conclusions

  • Nature / Culture divide: Vicki Kirby
  • Integration of Ontology and Epistemology: Onto-Epistem-ology: “the practises of knowing in being”