Agential Realism

Karen Barad’s “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning” (2007) is a seminal work that explores the intersections of quantum physics, ontology, epistemology, and ethics. Barad, a physicist and feminist theorist, introduces the concept of “agential realism,” which posits that matter and meaning are inextricably linked, and that our understanding of the world is shaped by the entanglements of the material and the discursive.

Core Concepts #

Barad’s agential realism is a framework that challenges traditional metaphysical and epistemological boundaries. It is grounded in the notion that reality is not composed of separate entities that interact in a causal manner, but rather of phenomena that emerge through intra-actions. Barad defines intra-action as the mutual constitution of entangled agencies, emphasizing that entities do not precede their interactions but rather emerge through them.

Intra-action #

Barad’s term for the mutual constitution of entities through their interactions. Unlike “interaction,” which implies pre-existing entities that come together, intra-action suggests that entities emerge through their entanglements. As Barad notes, “individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (Barad, 2007, p. 33).

Phenomena #

According to Barad, phenomena are the primary units of reality. They are not mere interactions between independent entities, but rather the entangled states of being that emerge from intra-actions. Barad asserts that “phenomena are constitutive of reality” (Barad, 2007, p. 139), indicating that what we perceive as distinct objects or entities are actually the result of complex intra-actions.

Agential cuts #

These are the specific determinations of boundaries and properties of entities within phenomena. Agential cuts are not imposed from the outside but emerge from within the phenomena, marking the limits of what is considered as part of the system and what is not. Barad explains that “agential cuts enact a local resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological indeterminacy” (Barad, 2007, p. 148).

Diffractive methodology #

Barad’s methodology is deeply interdisciplinary, combining insights from quantum physics, feminist theory, and philosophy. She employs a diffractive methodology, which she contrasts with reflective methodologies. Reflection, in her view, relies on the mirroring of sameness and the recognition of pre-existing patterns, whereas diffraction is about patterns of difference that make a difference.

This approach focuses on the differences that matter and how they come to matter. It is inspired by the physical phenomenon of diffraction, where waves overlap and create patterns of interference. In Barad’s use, diffraction is a metaphor for the productive and constitutive effects of differences. She states, “diffraction is an apt metaphor for the kind of critical thought that doesn’t seek to judge the differences of the other from the standpoint of the self, but rather engages with the entanglements and relationalities” (Barad, 2007, p. 71).

Quantum Entanglements and Ethics #

Barad extensively discusses the ethical implications of quantum physics. She argues that the entanglement of matter and meaning has profound ethical consequences, challenging the separability of facts and values. Ethics, for Barad, is about accountability to the entangled others with whom we share our existence.

Ethico-onto-epistemology #

This term captures the inseparability of ethics, ontology, and epistemology in Barad’s framework. She argues that knowing, being, and doing are not separate activities but are deeply intertwined processes. Barad emphasizes that “ethics is about response-ability—the ability to respond to the call of the other and the ethical obligation to account for one’s part in the world’s differential becoming” (Barad, 2007, p. 185).

Posthumanist performativity #

Barad’s concept that emphasizes the active role of nonhuman entities in the constitution of reality. This idea extends the notion of performativity beyond language and discourse to include the material world. Barad writes, “matter is not a passive substance to be shaped by linguistic or cultural forces; it is an active agent in its ongoing materialization” (Barad, 2003, p. 808). In her paper “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (2003), Barad elaborates on the performative aspects of materiality, arguing that matter is not a passive substance but an active participant in the world’s becoming. This extends the discussion of intra-action by emphasizing the agency of nonhuman entities in the constitution of reality.

Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Barad’s Agential Realism #

Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), as proposed by Graham Harman and others, emphasizes the autonomy of objects and their interactions. While OOO focuses on the independence of objects from human perception, Barad’s agential realism highlights the entangled nature of all beings. Despite these differences, both frameworks challenge anthropocentrism and propose a more relational understanding of existence. Barad critiques OOO’s emphasis on object autonomy by arguing that “the very notion of an object presupposes a metaphysics of individualism that overlooks the entangled nature of existence” (Barad, 2007, p. 217).

References #

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801-831.

Harman, G. Agential and Speculative Realism: Remarks on Barad’s Ontology. Rizhomes, Issue 30.

Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Penguin Books.