On (Collaboration and) Building III: We Must Build to Know

In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad defines an “apparatus” as any configuration “specific material reconfiguring[] of the world that do[es] not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure spacetimematter as a part of an ongoing dynamism of becoming.” (142)

In Barad’s account, which spins of of Neils Bohr’s philosophy-physics, the “measuring apparatus” for an experiment is the specific set-up that is used to take a particular measurement.  What Barad points out, by way of Bohr, is that the apparatus itself is a part of the material configuration that produces a measurement.  She doesn’t simply mean what the social constructivists mean–that a phenomenon is “made” by the naming of it.  Rather I understand her to be pointing to the fact that a “measurement” becomes a possible articulation of the universe only when a measuring apparatus is in place.  And more particularly, that the type of apparatus one uses determines the type of measurement one can get.

In terms of the sciences, this is a very practical consideration.  Take, for example, the work on parchment surfaces that I put up earlier in the summer. In order to take a “measurement” of the parchment’s surface, I had to build an apparatus.  Ok.  I had to have a physicist build an apparatus (my days of building apparatuses in labs seem to be largely over…sort of…at least of building apparatuses with lasers).  Our apparatus only allowed us to take a certain kind of measurement, that was accurate on a certain scale, and that may or may not have answered the question we set out to address.

But the success of that apparatus is not really the point.  The point here, is that an apparatus had to be built in order to ask the question I wanted to ask of parchment surfaces.

Continue reading On (Collaboration and) Building III: We Must Build to Know