Notes on Agential Realism Part I: Basic Definitions

This is the first of a series of posts I intend to compose regarding my reading of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.  This is also the first post I’ve written in which I’m using my blog space as a means of “keeping track” of various readings/theories and my (re)working of those readings/theories as they apply to my own research- sort of like a public notebook.

In Meeting the Universe Halfway, Barad argues for her theory of agential realism. Based on the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, agential realism is a theory that asks us to rethink everything we think we “know” about, well, everything- reality, epistemology, ontology, ethics. In order to understand what Barad means by agential reality, one must first understand the language in which she describes and defines her theory. Words such as apparatus, phenomena, and agency take on entirely new meanings under an agential realist understanding. The focus of this post is to highlight those new meanings while working towards an understanding of agential realism and its potential for rhetorical studies.

Posthumanism- “Posthumanism, as I intend it here, is not calibrated to the human; on the contrary, it is about taking issue with human exceptionalism while being accountable for the role we play in the differential constitution and differential positioning of the human among other creatures (both living and nonliving)…Posthumanism eschews both humanist and structuralist accounts of the subject that position the human as either pure cause or pure effect, and the body as the natural and fixed dividing line between interiority and exteriority. Posthumanism doesn’t presume the separateness of any- ‘thing,’ let alone the alleged spatial, ontological, and epistemological distinction that sets humans apart” (136) Barad’s definition of posthumanism supports her idea that “relata do not preexist relations” (140). Without preexisting independent subjects, neither humans nor any species can occupy a position of exceptionalism.

Phenomena- “In my agential realist elaboration, phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of observer and observed, or the results of measurements; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies.’ That is, phenomena are ontologically primitive relations- relations without preexisting relata” (139) It is important to note Barad’s use of the term intra-acting” as opposed to “interacting.” To interact implies that two preexisting subjects engage in or encounter one another. To intra-act, on the other hand, implies an ongoing becoming, an “agential separability- the condition of exteriority-within-phenomena”  (140). Through phenomena, relata emerge through specific intra-actions. Barad names these specific intra-actions agential cuts. It is these agential cuts that provide for an alterative ontological condition for objectivity. Barad writes, “Reality is composed not of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena but of things-in-phenomena. The world is a dynamic process of intra-activity…” (140). Phenomena, for Barad, are primary ontological units. “Things” do not preexist.

Apparatus- “Apparatuses are specific material reconfigurings of the world that do not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure spacetimematter as part of the ongoing dynamism of becoming” (142). Barad’s summary of her agential realist account of apparatus is as follows:

  1. Apparatuses are specific material-discursive practices.
  2. Apparatuses produce differences that matter- they are boundary-making practices that are formative of matter and meaning, productive of, and part of, the phenomena produced.
  3. Apparatuses are material configurations/dynamic reconfigurings of the world.
  4. Apparatuses are themselves phenomena.
  5. Apparatuses have no intrinsic boundaries but are open-ended practices.
  6. Apparatuses are not located in the world but are material configurations or reconfigurings of the world that re(con)figure spatiality and temporality as well as (the traditional notion of) dynamics (i.e., they do not exist as static structures, nor do they merely unfold or evolve in space and time). (146)

Basically, apparatuses are boundary-making practices.

Agency- Agency is not an attribute of a subject or an object (remember, under agential realism no subjects or objects preexist). Agency is an enactment. “Agency is ‘doing’ or ‘being’ in its intra-activity. It is the enactment of iterative changes to particular practices- interative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations- through the dynamics of intra-activity.” (178). Agency is an act, an entanglement. Under this definition, agency is in no way limited to humans. It can’t be, no entity known as a “human being” preexists.

Ethics- “Since different agential cuts materialize different phenomena- different marks on bodies- our intra-actions do not merely effect what we know and therefore demand an ethics of knowing; rather, our intra-actions contribute to the differential mattering of the world. 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. Cuts are agentially enacted not by willful individuals but by the larger material arrangement of which ‘we’ are a ‘part’” (178). There is no outside “other.” Under agential realism, subjects and objects are co-constitutive and always already entangled.

Coming up in Part II: Material-Discursive Practices and the Limitations of Language

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