Wave. Particle. Duality. : The Entanglement of Matter and Meaning

For those who are interested, or those who missed it, or the overlap between those two groups, here is the Wave. Particle. Duality. Theory Performance from BABEL On The Beach.

Session 19. Wave. Particle. Duality. [THEORY-PERFORMANCE]

Organizer: Angela Bennett-Segler, New York University

Flâneur: Stacy Alaimo

3:30 – 4:30 pm

Humanities & Social Science Building: McCune Conference Room (6th Floor, Room 6020)


A critical performance detailing the results of a collaborative digital and (meta)physical experiment on the nature of matter and meaning across quantum physics and the humanities. This non-traditional panel will take up the central paradox of the physical universe, that of matter’s inherent duality as always simultaneously both particle and wave, and formulate a vocabulary from the group’s collective engagement with the New Materialism of Karen Barad (agential realism) that allows us to discuss the fundamental entanglement of the material and discursive in knowledge production.

  • Ada Smailbegovic (New York University): Wave *by video link
  • Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY): Particle
  • Brandon Jones (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): Duality
  • Sandra Danilovic (University of Toronto): Apparatus of Subjectivity *by video link
  • Ashby Kinch (University of Montana): Scale of the Subject

ANGIE: Quantum mechanics posits that all matter paradoxically exhibits properties of both waves and particles.  On the one hand, everything from light to compound molecules can be observed as particles—discrete bodies that are unique, finite, and (in most cases) material.  On the other, all of these microcosmic elements are similarly waves—or mere oscillations in an undelimited and dispersed medium that carry some kind of energy as they propagate through that medium.  A wave is an entity of pure form and activity, a shape that self perpetuates and moves through a medium but is not defined or entirely confined by it.  Particles, in contrast, ae units of matter confined by their location in both space and time and unacting without ēoutside influence.  The proposal that all matter is always simultaneously both is, according to quantum physics, the foundational paradox of universe.  This duality—wave and particle, form and content, universal and particular, moving and stationary—can be observed operating not only in the realm of quantum physics, but also in the macrocosmic sphere of everyday life.

In the summer of 2013, a small group of medievalists and associates embarked upon an experiment to virtually collaborate and delve into Karen Barad’s work Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.

The group itself was an experiment, bringing together medieval and non-medieval scholars alike, and putting us in conversation with Barad and other New Materialists to foster an exploration of materiality informed by the best of both the hard sciences and the humanities, and to find the fantastical universe in which those meet.  What started as a small group grew into a larger one, that continued to grow as we expanded our scope. What we bring to you now is a diffractive presentation of the results of our experiment.

KARL:  In Meeting the Universe Halfway and a stack of essays, Karen Barad gives a quantum physicist’s rigorous and practical perspective on the philosophical implications of physics, for ontology, epistemology, and ethics. As exciting as this work is, and as much as I recognize that quantum physics is physics, and the most accurate physics to date, I’m here to be a bit of a wet blanket. I’m not entirely convinced of the utility of quantum physics to literary studies. I’m not sure that we need or can use its accuracy.

If you’ve made it through her work, understanding as much as you can, you know how quantum physics – sorry, just physics – collapses the distinction between ontology and epistemology. Pace Heisenberg, it’s not that things are fundamentally uncertain. It’s not that we just can’t measure location and velocity at the same time. It’s that things are fundamentally indeterminate. Measurement doesn’t just jostle or arrest; it generates, in two key ways: measurement forces a probabilistic system to resolve itself in some particular way, and it marks the measuring apparatus. Here’s Barad: “knowledge making is not a mediated activity…[but a] direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic material configuring.”

BRANDON: To illustrate some of the questions quantum mechanics raises about the nature of measurement, I’d like to introduce the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment as an example, and return to it throughout. It goes something like this.  In a closed box, you put a cat along with a small amount of radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, and a container of cyanide. You set it up so that the radioactive substance is small enough so that within, say, an hour there is an equal probability that an atom will and will not undergo decay. If an atom undergoes decay, the Geiger counter registers it and triggers a hammer to break the container of cyanide, killing the cat. No decay, and the cat lives. As the standard interpretation goes, the cat cannot be said to be alive or dead, but rather exists in a linear combination of dead and alive. This indeterminacy is not resolved until a human observer intervenes and opens the box. Thus, if you look in and find a dead cat, it is technically you and your act of observation that has killed the cat.

SANDRA:  The apparatus in Marxist-based critical theory relates to the structural re/production of power through ideology, derived from Althusser’s (1971) theory of ‘ideological state apparatuses’. Barad appropriates the term ‘apparatus’ as a way to critically discuss apparatuses of scientific knowledge production – an example, the ‘measuring apparatus’ consists of the various agents and parts involved in scientific observation.

In advocating for apparatuses, which effectively stand for the “inseparability of the object and the measuring agencies” (p. 139), the Baradian model implies that there is no subject, no self, no subjectivity, per se, because there are no predetermined boundaries that delineate subject and object, observer and observed. Metzinger (2004) similarly argues that, in the phenomenological sense, subjectivity is a dynamic process whereby the experiential self disperses into timespace:  Barad defines “apparatuses as boundary-drawing practices” (p. 140). In other words, apparatuses generate boundaries through their material-discursive engagement with the environment; as such, boundaries are not predetermined prior to the emergence of the apparatus.

BRANDON: Barad also calls these boundary drawing practices  “agential cuts.” An agential cut is an act that contingently separates out distinct entities and meanings within the parameters of a particular experiment, context, situation, or phenomenon. But the agency required to conduct such an action is not something anyone or anything can be said to have or possess, as if it were an individual power of which only certain beings are worthy.  It is, rather, something that happens: the ontological status of an agential cut is fundamentally evental, not discrete and individual. As such, agential cuts are “intra-active” rather than interactive, because the entities whose boundaries agential cuts constitute emerge through their relation; they do not exist as such prior to the relation. As Barad puts it, “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.”

Moreover, for Barad, agential cuts concern both material and discursive distinctions. This means that both scientific acts of measurement and critical acts of literary interpretation equally classify as agential cuts: even though measurement seems more materially oriented and interpretation seems more linguistically oriented, both acts contain material and discursive components. To quote our organizer, Angie Bennett Segler, on this point, “Making an agential cut, however, isn’t strictly a scientific process. It’s an interpretive process, one that we are all participating in all the time. It is the approximations that we must make in order to make sense of our universe.”

KARL:  A sufficiently accurate physics makes the “innocent critical bystander” impossible. There’s no way just to represent the interpreted object – literary work, the work’s relation to author or historical surround, etc. – because the phenomenon within which interpretation occurs resolves the interpreted object in some particular way and because the interpreter itself occurs within this same phenomenon. This is not because the interpreter is already there but rather because the interpreter is marked in some way by what it interprets. Nor can the interpreter be assumed to act in a present at a remove from the interpreted object’s past, because – again, with a sufficiently accurate physics — there is no absolute distinction between past, present, or future, nor cause and effect, except as a description of the way that particular kinds of attention construct particular kinds of temporality or causality. To put this in more familiar terms: phenomenological and affective literary criticism goes far towards realizing the Baradian project, while altericist modes, which stress the careful division of present-day critic from past object, remain locked in the certainties of classical physics.

As much a fan as I have been for literary criticism that has engaged with Barad – not least of all Stacy Alaimo’s – I’m still dubious, as a literary critic. It’s not just that I suspect I’m likely to get the physics wrong: I can count one medievalist who’s good at both physics and medieval literary studies, and it’s not me. More importantly, the phenomena Barad describes are imperceptible on the scale at which a specifically literary scholarship operate and for the kinds of materials we investigate. Neils Bohr observed that if the discontinuity of reality caused by Planck’s constant had been larger, humans would never have thought they lived in a “classical” world. That said, Planck’s constant is what it is, and humanities scholars, for the most part, do not feel themselves to be moving instantaneously across the absolute minimum of gaps with quantum leaps. I presume. The same problem applies to relativity: at typical human speeds, we get along well enough with believing space and time to be constants. The humanities generally gets by just fine with a “good-enough” picture of reality. Whatever the claims of promoters of MOOCs or automatic essay grading software, the best humanities teaching works slowly and, in comparison to physics, sloppily;  and the apparatuses of literary investigation are not precise enough to discern or determine quantum effects. It is extremely difficult to observe quantum effects on a more or less unassisted human sensory scale, or even simply to observe multiple entangled particles, since every additional pair of entangled particles increases the complexity of the phenomena exponentially. Extremely difficult, but, in all fairness, increasingly not impossible: recently, physicists entangled half a million atoms, so that an effect on one would affect the other 499,999 atoms, at a distance.  Quantum physics predicted the possibility of “macroscopic spin singlets,” and now one’s been observed. But I find it hard to imagine this “spooky action at a distance” being observed in, say, a library, and even harder—though perhaps not impossible—to imagine the value of doing so.

ASHBY: Barad aims to identify nothing less than the elemental scale at which subjects are co-constituted in their intra-action with the physical universe. Can we, from the particle-level analysis of quantum physics, reconstitute the subject on an ascending scale? Barad thinks we can, or at least thinks that her reading of the Bohr interpretation authorizes us to consider our entanglement with the quantum world as a co-constituting element of our subject-formation. She consciously links her project with the Foucauldian critique of the subject , extending the concept of subject-formation from “micro-politics” to the sub-atomic world of quantum physics.

ADA: [Throughout her work, Barad warns us not to use these quantum concepts as a metaphor. She] is sharply critical of analogy as a method, and sees metaphor and figuration more generally as inherently tied to the foibles of the “linguistic turn,” particularly if they are being used to negotiate the rifts between “the micro and the macro, the scientific and the social, [or] nature and culture,” which often map onto one another with the first term in each pair corresponding to the scientific purvey over matter, often at scales indiscernible to direct human experience, and the second to the domain of the humanities, with its hold on language and cultural phenomena at scales that correspond to the experiential capacities of the human sensorium (24). At the same time, one of the things that characterizes Barad’s work is her insistence on the inseparability of matter and meaning, as well as her posthumanist sense that an agentive liveliness permeates all matter. This means that Barad is invested in producing a posthumanist onto-epistemology which locates the capacity for agency and signification within the purvey of both inorganic and organic forms of materiality. One of the questions that I ask then, is what happens to the concept of metaphor in Barad’s onto-epistemology, where does it reside in these non-human, intra-active, discursive-material becomings?

ASHBY: Barad’s work resonates–and this morning’s talk by Morteza Gharib provides a key metaphoric extension of this verb we use in the humanities: an amplified, constructive interference within a closed dynamic wave system–with other approaches to the non-human impact on human subjects, as articulated in Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter” and Stacey Alaimo’s “transcorporeality,”  both of which constituted nodes in the networked cognition in which the Quantum Medievalists engaged in the last year. We encountered models for thinking about the de-subjectified matter that occupies and passes through the human being, in ways we found tantalizingly analogous to those images of Zodiac Man that imprint the stars directly on the naked human body, producing an image of a body traversed by matter.  We also observed matter accumulating agency in the human body in the process of accumulating mass, which at a certain threshold of scale passes from inert to agential, from benign to malignant. Is the human subject something like that? An accumulation of neural signaling that passes a threshold at which it ‘scales up’ from a disordered pattern, indecipherably complex, to an ordered pattern that “feeds back” into the way we process the world? Is what we call consciousness merely the passing across a threshold of scale in which the intensity, pattern, and circularity of the neuronal information crosses from one systemic model to another?

ADA:  In her lecture “Portraits and Repetition” the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein writes that if anything is alive, it is not repeating; instead, it is always different from any other version of itself, producing a series of variations rather than a continuity of a self-same discrete identity. In order to illustrate this statement, Stein evokes the example of a living organism: “It is very like a frog hopping,” she writes, “he cannot ever hop exactly the same distance or the same way of hopping at every hop” (100). But Stein here is not talking only about frogs or other living organisms, or even anything that is typically considered living in a biological sense, she is writing about the liveliness of stories: “No matter how often you tell the same story,” she suggests, just before bringing up the example of the hopping frog, “if there is anything alive in the telling the emphasis” of the story will be different from any other time that the story has been told (100). There is something similar about Stein’s conception of liveliness and the radical sense of aliveness that permeates the world according Barad, and which inheres in the agentive capacity of matter, propelling it along “changing patterns of difference” (Barad 137). This sense of “iterative production of different differences” transforms the conception of matter in Barad’s view from “a fixed essence or property of things” into a lively, generative, and differentiating performative “enactment” (137).

SANDRA:  [But Barad specifically prizes a differentiation that is distinctly not the representational, mimetic or reflective type of optics that we’re used to–in our somewhat classical mindset] [Aristotle and Descartes–both wrote on optics and developed our classical models of representation from different “classical” moments]

ANGIE:  In classical optics, and the representationalist metaphors we draw from it,  light comes into a surface and bounces off precisely and completely, producing a reflection that is assumed to have a 1:1 relationship to its referent.

SANDRA:  Barad implies that representationalist systems of knowledge production are dualist. She argues that in her phenomenological framework of the entanglement of meaning and matter, “the physical and conceptual apparatuses form a nondualistic whole” (p. 120) [This means that] according to Barad, representationalist models are founded on the assumption that objects have predetermined qualities that exist prior to their involvement in phenomena and that “matter is passive and immutable”. Barad’s theory collapses the polar distance between internal and external representations, which, as representationalist schemas, create the illusion of objectivity and mirror-reflection, which Barad invalidates. She instead endorses a diffractive methodology for generating “patterns of difference”.

ANGIE:  If reflection is part of our understanding of the behavior of light and the visual sense based on particles–photons–diffraction describes the effects of light as a wave.  When a wave travels through a slit, as in this image, the wave is bent by the obstacle in its path and what comes out the other side is a pattern of concentric waves spreading out from the slit that the original wave traveled through. This is also try when light–or any wave–travels around an object.  The edges of the object bend the light a little, creating two wave points that then “interfere.”  Interference is what creates “diffraction patterns,” like this pattern to the right of the ball. We can understand the results of this interference by thinking about ripples in water. When two sets of ripples are set off, the place where they meet has a set of overlapping waves–this is their interference.  When the peaks of waves overlapthe size of the wave double. When a peak of a wave meets with a trough of another, they cancel each other out and we see only a flat surface instead.  Diffractive reading, then, takes account of various phenomena and movements as each setting off their own ripples and investigating the patterns at places of interference.

ASHBY: Scientific studies of consciousness reveal that the problem of the constitution of the subject depends on identifying threshold changes where one scale yields to another. Though widely criticized, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s theory of “orchestrated objective reduction” has drawn the most sustained attention to the possibility of quantum effects in the brain, which, they argue, will be localized in fine scale quantum vibrations inside the microtubules of neurons. Though skeptical of quantum consciousness, Stanislaus Dehaene has for two decades been studying threshold states—in and out of anesthesia, in and out of comas—offering fine-grained analysis of the subtle differences between non-responsive patients that turn out to indicate monumental differences in neural activity.  His work defines consciousness by shifting scales of neural register, demonstrating unique neural signatures that accompany “consciousness.” The results indicate that an oscillating brain-wave pattern rooted in a recursive, and very widely-distributed network with a specific electrical signal marks the state of self-awareness we call consciousness. At a specific threshold, so-called “primary” brain states like sensory stimuli feed into these larger-wave patterns that allow us to be conscious of a perception.

SANDRA: I want to speculate on a provisional idea informed by classical drama, fictional narrative, dramatic arcs and character development as points of departure.  I claim that it is through the dramatization of differences in oppositional category construction that embodied and subjective meaning-making takes shape. Dramatization is a way of amplifying difference for the participant in the context of complexity. The way I am reading Barad – she implies that representationalist systems of knowledge production are dualist. And this dualism she references reminds me of contrast and conflict, which are substrates of classical drama. But there are also non-fictional narratives such as the knowledge-producing narratives we as researchers engage with. For example, a study in the social sciences posits ‘problems’ to be solved and ‘research questions’ to be answered. This act of answering a research question is dramatic – the unknown behind the ‘question mark’ propels researchers, much like the motivations of dramatic characters propel a fictional narrative forward, to meaningfully engage with the act of discovery and exploration on both a material and discursive level. There is an underlying assumption of difference in the act of getting to know the unknown that generates meaningful engagement for the researcher (i.e. ‘observer’) that ‘moves’ the researcher into action and embodied participation. In other words, the dramatization of differences may not only amplify meaning, but also amplify the material and subjective engagement with meaning. I would like to suggest that this dramatization of differences creates affective engagement with the complex, nuanced details of a studied phenomenon. This means acknowledging the possibility that embodied meaning-making processes are related to how we as humans express diversity and complexity through reduction – drama, conflict, contrast and difference  -in order to excite interest and move us to action and reaction.

ASHBY: Recursive processes allow us to attend to and re-direct our impulses, and this level of awareness allows us to intervene in the mechanistic processes at the lower scales; our brains are not well-described by a continuous feed-forward scaling up of sensation, which dominated artificial intelligence for years.  Feedback cycles of great sophistication and complexity alter this system at every level, crossing scale thresholds that dramatically alter the input. These oscillations also create a different time-scale, slower, and much-more broadly distributed than the high-speed processing we do at the sensory level. Benjamin Libet’s famous 1985 study of the lag between our brain’s readiness for action and our conscious intent to act points to a temporal gap whose significance was immediately felt by philosophers prepared to deny the very notion of free will. In a reductive formulation, we might say that the scale of the subject is 200 milliseconds, the average measure of that gap after which consciousness, supposedly, comes limping lamely along.

But of course that’s absurd: whatever mystery still holds in our understanding of will, it is not constructed by the responsive constraints of our motor-sensory system, and further studies have shown that we can exercise both our “free will” and our “free won’t” in response to stimuli at very fast speeds, between 200 and 500 milliseconds. Of course, that’s really slow in relative terms, compared to the smallest scale of time at which we have observed the physical world, 12 attoseconds, or the chemical world of our brain, 200 femtoseconds. On this scale of time, where a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to 31.7 million years, 200 milliseconds starts to look like a place to get a lot of brain-work done.

While our neurons fire at imperceptible speeds, our subjectivity is a slower thing, made up of convoluted twists and turns, gaps and leaps of scale. The scale of the subject, indeed, is, in Barad’s words, “iteratively reconstituted as spacetimematter is reconfigured” (362). That reconstituting of scale is a decisive feature of human thought, one of the ways we attempt to describe, manage, and control the unimaginably large and unthinkably small scales of space, time, and matter that the world presents us. We in the humanities might stereotypically be abject failures at time management, but we are experts at time reversal, at slowing time down, at re-scaling the moment, at practicing the philology that Nietzsche demands of us: “to go become slow…to read slowly, deeply, looking  cautiously before and aft.”

SANDRA: To return to fictional narrative and classical drama as conveyors of difference, should we assume that dramatic contrast and conflict are not present in patterns of difference because Barad argues that diffraction is a more subtle way to perceive difference? By actively discounting contrast and conflict in difference (i.e. oppositional category construction), are we reducing the subject’s meaningful engagement with content and are we eliminating individuation – the subject’s false sense of its own embodied boundaries – a necessary fiction, perhaps?

There is an uneasy paradox here – dualism implied in Barad’s view on representationalism and its oppositional attributes which create contrast for purposes of increasing distance between categories, perhaps for the goal to isolate an object and study it in a controlled environment. And fictional narrative and classical drama, creating contrast for the purposes of increasing the distance between categories, in order to ‘bind’ human subjectivity to the world through affect, excitement, action, and reaction.

ANGIE: All of this is to discuss the impact of Barad on the human scale, the way human perception enters into quantum subjectivity, but as Alaimo has already told us and Sandra will remind us, even human subjectivity is not without its non-human actors.

SANDRA: I would like to briefly address Botvinick and Cohen’s (1998) Rubber-Hand Illusion (RHI) experiment in this context. The RHI experiment is an event of experiencing a rubber hand, much like a phantom limb, as part of one’s own body when stroked synchronously with one’s own hidden hand. According to Botvinick and Cohen, subjects report ‘‘feeling like it’s my hand”. Through the embodied sensemaking process of proprioception, vision and touch, human consciousness establishes its sense of self as incorporating objects that are not part of its physical body. Neuroscience labels this process an illusion. In other words, the fact that a human consciously feels the rubber hand or [a digital] avatar, as part of his/her body, is a process that enables human subjectivity to diffuse into the environment. The RHI echoes Barad’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s the blind man and the stick. The stick is not only an extension of the blind man’s body, a “bodily auxilary” in Merleau-Pontian terms, but also, is actively incorporated into his body through its habitual use. As Barad argues, “ it is the breakdown not simply of an instrument employed by the body but of (the) very self” (p. 157).

The rhetorical strategy of calling the rubber hand an illusion in the RHI experiment is to denote that there is an opposite – a ‘real’ whereby the subject perceives him/herself as intact and compact. We could point to an assumption in the RHI of perceiving reality when no such category exists. If we draw on Barad’s theory, we could argue that the rubber hand illusion is not an illusion, but part and parcel of an apparatus of subjectivity interpellated through diffractive sensemaking processes (i.e. proprioception, vision, touch). In her critical departure from the representational metaphor of mirror-reflection, Barad (2007) quotes Haraway (1992) that “[reflexivity or reflection] invites the illusion of essential, fixed position, while [diffraction] trains us to more subtle vision” (p. 29). Despite the fact that Barad uses the term ‘illusion’ to qualify representationalist paradigms, the subtle vision facilitated by diffraction undermines the dramatic qualities of contrast and conflict that characterize difference. As a scientific methodological tool, diffraction blurs difference and rhetorically speaking, may be disembodying human perception from its affective engagement with the world.

I am not claiming that humans cannot embody or interpret subtle differences through diffractive, reflective or any other means. Rather, I am arguing that the dramatization of differences may amplify material (embodied) engagement with content. This argument is purely a speculation on the power of fictional narrative, classical drama and its derivative metaphors to ‘move’ humans into action, a potentially implicit and tacit strategy of material (embodied) engagement in fiction, storytelling and scientific knowledge production.

ANGIE: So on the one hand, fiction itself may be an apparatus for making an agential cut to constitute the human subject, or the neural lag inside the brain may itself make an agential cut, but humans are not the only ones who can make agential cuts, and thus demonstrate some kind of agency–or quasi-agency as Bennett calls it.

BRANDON: Ursula Le Guin dramatizes this point in her 1974 short story entitled “Schrodinger’s Cat,” in which she wonders, what if we consider the cat as a material animal presence, rather than an abstract figuration? If we recognize that the cat—not to mention the Geiger counter, the radioactive substance, and the cyanide—too, qualifies as an actor, the experiment’s implications change completely. As Le Guin puts it in the introduction to her story: “The real presence of an animal in a laboratory—that is, an animal perceived by the experimenting scientist…as…a sentient existence of the same order as the scientist’s existence—…would profoundly change the nature, and probably the results, of the experiments.”

So how does the presence of Schrodinger’s cat change the nature and results of the experiment? It makes the experimenter’s observation redundant. That is, the intra-action of the Geiger counter, the cyanide container, the radioactive substance, and the cat must qualify as a measurement. Thus, when the experimenter takes a peek inside the box an hour later, she is late to the measurement party. The reason humanists and physicists alike have such trouble grasping this point is that we cannot imagine measurement occurring without human involvement. The agential exceptionality of an act of measurement is directly tied to the epistemological and ontological exceptionality of the human. This constitutes a human-nonhuman duality that kills the experimental agency of the cat before it even enters the box.

ADA: In the concluding chapter of Meeting the Universe Halfway Barad introduces the concept of biomimesis as a way of exploring how mimetic procedures may involve non-human actors, as well as how they may eschew the logics of reflection to performatively produce difference rather than sameness. Barad uses the example of brittlestars as such biomimetic agents, whose “entire skeleton forms a big eye,” consisting of “ten thousand spherically domed calcite crystals [that] function as microlenses,” thus allowing these echinoderms to see their surroundings “(369). In a posthumanist sense, biomimesis refers both to the human desire to borrow design solutions from other biological organisms (in this case the brittlestar’s remarkable crystal lenses could lead to better microlenses for optical networks), and to the brittlestar’s own biodynamic capabilities to transform its coloration or to reconfigure its bodily boundaries by breaking off parts of its body and regrowing them to protect itself from predators. Continuing to develop her posthumanist onto-epistemology, Barad uses the example of the brittlestar visual system to once again undo “the geometrical optics model that positions language or representation as the lens that mediates” between the object and the subject (Barad 374). Instead, the lively biodynamics that the brittlestar engages in are simultaneously both discursive and material practices, with which it refigures its bodily boundaries and makes meaning in an intrta-active relation with its environment: “That is, its differential materialization is discursive – entailing causal practices reconfiguring boundaries and properties that matter to its very existence” (Barad 376). In other words, the brittlestar’s onto-epistemological practices of being and knowing open both its material and its discursive figurations simultaneously to the liveliness of indeterminacy and change.

SANDRA: Simply put, meaning is not generated independently, but always in dynamic process with matter. According to Barad, representationalist models are founded on the assumption that objects have predetermined qualities that exist prior to their involvement in phenomena and that “matter is passive and immutable”.

ADA: Matter and meaning, Barad suggests, “are inextricably fused together, and no event, no matter how energetic, can tear them asunder. […] Mattering is simultaneously a matter of substance and significance” (3). From Barad’s agential realist perspective the discursive and the material arise simultaneously through an entangled becoming. The significance of this simultaneity is that the material constitution of the world does not somehow lie on a separate plane, with language resting on top of it, forming a more ephemeral, flimsier layer of representation and pointing occasionally downwards in reference to the stiff chunks of matter beneath. In fact, in Barad’s account there are no “stiff chunks of matter,” no discrete entities that pre-exist an encounter; rather, the world is continuously being made and remade through intra-actions: “In an agential realist account, matter does not refer to a fixed substance; rather, matter is substance in its intra-active becoming-not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency. Matter is a stabilizing and destabilizing process of iterative intra-activity” (151).  In emphasizing “the world’s radical aliveness” Barad is developing a new ontology in an attempt to rework “the nature of both relationality and aliveness (vitality, dynamism, agency)” (Barad 33).

ANGIE: Barad’s insistence here on the co-constitution of matter and meaning need not be seen as a repudiation of language’s capacity for meaning making.  Rather, Barad takes her cue from Foucault and his notion of discourse.

ADA:  For Foucault, discourse is not equivalent to “speech acts or linguistic statements,” rather discursive practices set the material conditions for the production of meaning (Barad 63).[1] In claiming discourse, rather than language, as her main site of intervention, Barad is signaling a divergence between her methodology[2] and the category of the material-semiotic,[3] that was proposed by Donna Haraway. One of the strengths of Barad’s approach comes from her desire to theorize meaning and matter as simultaneous occurrences both of which carry within them the lively capacity for change, indeterminacy and historicity. However, unlike Haraway’s approach, which leaves room for metaphoricity of figuration, Barad is weary of metaphor with its proclivity to produce analogies across scales or ontological domains of nature and culture.

ANGIE: But how can we think the linguistic and the material together, particularly when Barad insists that her approach, and the lessons of the quantum imaginary not be metaphorized.

ADA:  Let’s return to Stein’s frog for a moment. One way to read the relationship that Stein posits between language and a living organism is to think of it as a simile. A story is simply “like” a frog jumping in that they share similar dynamics of change, and Stein is using the image of a jumping frog as a metaphor to illustrate her understanding of how variation and repetition occur in language. In other words, there are no “real toads”[1] in this imaginary garden. […] But, what if we read the example of Stein’s frog not as an analogy between two discrete ontological layers, in which language acts only as a reflective surface for the liveliness of biological organisms, [or even as a metaphor, which in the Aristotelian sense] implies a discretness of entities and a separability between  language and matter, in which words have the motility to carry qualities from one site to another while matter remains discrete and fixed in its properties. […What if, instead…] we read this example (through Barad’s diffractive methodology) as a lively entanglement, which refuses to be clearly parsed into language on one hand and matter on the other. One of the main premises of Barad’s diffractive methodology is a rejection of representationalism with its accompanying metaphorics of optical reflection. Stein herself is critical of the representational logic of description, preferring instead to think of her portraits as compositions which create the liveliness of existence: “If this existence is this thing is actually existing there can be no repetition. There is only repetition when there are descriptions being given of these things not when the things themselves are actually existing and this is therefore how my portrait writing began” (Stein 102).

ANGIE: Thus it is iterability that allows us to break out of the reflective optics of traditional metaphor.

ADA: [I]f we follow the sense that language and matter cannot be dissociated and that they are not linked through the optics of reflection, then metaphor itself has to operate as both a material and a discursive procedure. Or, as Canadian poet Lisa Robertson explains: “metaphorical space can’t be inhabitable without welcoming meaning’s propensity to move across materials.” This sense of a link between metaphor and materiality is already there, in the recent developments in cognitive linguistics[…which emphasizes] the way that embodied experience shapes abstract concepts. A posthumanist poetics of matter, in which humans and nonhumans “emerge as partaking in the world’s active engagement in practices of knowing” and meaning making requires a broader conception of semiotic-materiality, along which the metaphoric transactions of meaning and matter can ripple and move.

BRANDON: Ada’s discussion about the vitality of metaphors might lead us to wonder, what if our interpretative gestures turn out to be as redundant as the scientist’s observation in the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment? What if meaning is already dead (or alive) before we open our books? But I want to say that our interpretations are not as redundant as I have been suggesting. Rather, I want to take this question as an opportunity to think more carefully about how we are making our agential cuts, and about the particular situations in which they matter—whether and how our interpretive gestures make a difference.

KARL: [A]lthough I would prefer to be wrong about this, both the fundamental indeterminacy of reality and the generativity of knowledge will probably matter for literary criticism only either analogically or to allow us to develop more complex and correct accounts of agency. Barad herself wrote an article whose noncontinuous structure, entangling Hamlet, Heisenberg, and Bohr’s Denmark with Derrida’s Spectres of Marx “provides the reader with an opportunity to engage in an imaginative journey that is akin to how electrons experience the world.” Barad’s formal experiment is, however, only an analog rather than an actual experience of entanglement or indeterminacy. Or, it’s no more entangled than anything else. To be clear: even if we did join ourselves with an apparatus capable of being marked by the literal material of some particular book in a way we could account for objectively, it would likely not matter much for our interpretation of its text.

ADA:  I am less interested in the applicability of Barad’s theories for literary studies, as a move in which we simply transpose quantum physics onto literary interpretation. Instead, I believe that what is at stake in Barad’s work requires a more fundamental reconfiguration of philosophical assumptions that underlie specific disciplinary formations, which cannot be achieved by a simple transfer of methodology from one field to another. Instead, I would like to propose that Barad’s work with it’s insistence on the impossibility of dissociating matter and meaning opens up the possibility for articulating a poetics of matter.

KARL:  That said, we could and should always extend our notion of the proper object of textual studies, and, that said, when we make ontological claims, or claims about agency, or the character of time, as any scholar in the poshumanities must and as most humanities scholars do implicitly, we should have Barad in mind, at minimum to keep us from mistakes about the fundamental operations of reality. This is no small matter. Having read the new materialists, we can no longer be sure about fixed distinctions between subject and object, agency and mechanical causality and their attendant hierarchies, nor can we be sure that ethics or ethical significance requires self-awareness, whatever that is. We must abandon the world picture of classical physics, with its comforting assurances of our subjective separability from the world and our persistence in it (or even out of it!). The new materialists need Barad, because her particular training gives ontologists and ethicists “empirical support” for their systems, although I suspect that some critics will only find that Barad confirms their preferred world-system. Žižek [pause for laughter] discovers in Barad a fundamental “self-relating ‘pure’ difference…preced[ing] the terms it differentiates” at the heart of things. Of course. I’m sure I’m guilty of my own interpretation, which is in fact one of Barad’s points.

BRANDON: For my take on what Barad’s work can teach us about why and how our interpretive cuts matter, let’s revisit Schrodinger and his cat one last time. Although we said the experimenter’s observation is redundant, we have to ask: redundant relative to which phenomenon? The opening of the box is certainly redundant with regard to the phenomenon of the cat dying or not—that cut has already been made. But the observation can make a difference in the domain of scientific knowledge, and as such can constitute a new phenomenon in scientific discourse. Likewise, although many cuts have been made prior to our opening a work of literature, this does not foreclose the possibility of making new cuts to intervene in literary discourse. It just constrains the kind of phenomenon in which we can intervene. Although our interpretation of literary texts may not be able to change that text’s history, it can change that text’s present. We must understand our interpretations as mattering within the context of a contemporary literary phenomenon. And literary critics are not the only actors involved in constituting this phenomenon. A responsible interpretive cut, one that accounts for all the agents involved in constituting a phenomenon, must move beyond the encounter between text and critic, to incorporate not only the historical conditions of the text’s production, but also the contemporary theoretical, political, and ideological conditions of the critic’s production. This heralds the death of the critic as a corollary to the death of the author. Instead of holding fast to the human-nonhuman duality that kills the cat, let us take up Barad’s non-exceptional account of interpretive agency to kill, or, at least, to humble, the critic.

ASHBY: Humility, as we all know when we are absorbed in vast spaces and absorbed by vast times, is also a matter of scale. If the scales opened up by science make us feel smaller, they also make us more intimate with the past, in more proximate relation to our ancestors, whether they wrote in chalk and ocher on cave walls, or on animal skin. While we contemplate the analogical validity of quantum entanglement for our contemporary ethics, we might also contemplate its validity for our understanding of our relationship to the past. As Quantum Medievalists, our poly-logues opened up spaces and times large enough to put ourselves in closer proximity to one another, and to the past, to become entangled in it, to sense the historical meaning of Einstein’s barb about entanglement: “spooky action at a distance,” which we might recast as a certain spooky intimacy of subjects re-scaled into contact with one another, traversing bodies and times through the brains we extend into the world, even as the world passes through them.

 

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