CS: Notes on Posthuman Performativity by Karen Barad

Following the previous two posts where I attempted to pinpoint what I have been exploring in one way or another, I have identified what seems like a perfect paper by Karen Barad called,

Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter

However, Barad’s rejection of language and signification in relation to ‘matter’ are in opposition to my own interest in language. This paper reflects so much I am interested in but devalues language in the process and gives higher value to other elements, in particular matter – although perhaps she is simply trying to even things out. Incidentally, Lupton refers to more-than-human rather than posthuman and I think I may prefer this adjustment.

  • I love this quote KB has at the top of the paper: “We are far too impressed by our own cleverness and self-consciousness. . . . We need to stop telling ourselves the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories.”
    —Steve Shaviro 1997 (However, I think the stories make an otherwise terrifying existence bearable – just about. People are foolish, immature, vain and silly –  how would we cope without our bedtime stories – I sense very little forgiveness or tolerance in some.)
  • “Language has been granted too much power” – starts Barad. This seems to be a rallying cry against Judo-Christian and therefore Western (paternalistic) doctrine which has been the foundation of our civilisation for centuries, i.e. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Gospel of John. The word is apparently – forgive the Wiki quote and I am aware I would need to dig deeper if included in an essay but it’s a useful start for this non-believer. “The phrase “the Word” (a translation of the Greek word “Logos”) is widely interpreted as referring to Jesus, as indicated in other verses later in the same chapter” Wiki.  The relationship between mythology and science tells me this is really crucial; universal cognition, matter, liveliness and life cycle of particles, superposition  – all of this could be interpreted via the story contained in that one line. The opening line of John also carries so much paternalistic fixedness which Sarah Lucas’ work God is Dad explores. If the word Jesus represents supposedly God’s flesh – is it not a metaphor for the manifestation of the emergence of matter?
  • “Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter”, she says.

But, and I know Barad is about addressing an imbalance  – Language IS matter. Even if only focused on linguistics – and then only spoken, i.e. no text: breathe is expelled as part of the breathing process: we interrupt its journey out of the body with our epiglottis, and then our tongue, teeth, skull cavities, cheeks, etc help to form the breathe (material) into something shaped despite its apparent ephemerality. Add some vibrations with the help of your vocal nodes and you have sound. Plosives, implosives, glottal stops all contribute to making the breath and vibrations into a shaped sound that is then carried as/on a wave and interacts with the eardrum; and might also be understood in conjunction with sight and touch and smell  – all forming a material interaction with whoever is listening even if the only one hearing is the same person who made the sound in the first place. The shaped breath/sound vibrations’ impact in the world may not be so ephemeral. The impact may indeed be long-lasting and extremely powerful, causing a definitive reaction visible in the material world.

I do not know enough about her ideas yet, but if the term assemblage which Lupton used so frequently emerges from Barad’s theories or related ones, then surely language is one of many emergent elements. The rejection feels like an understandable response to logocentrism and also the theories of structuralism which were dominated (as so much was/is) by men and misogynistic, racist, colonialist attitudes and beliefs, but I wonder if it risks chucking the ‘baby out with the bathwater’.

I find myself agreeing with so much Barad says and her highly educated ability to link quantum science to the humanities would have been so helpful when I wrote the essay for DI&C. Ariella Azoulay’s analysis of history which I referenced seems very much influenced by the same thought processes.

  • When I explained what underlies all my work to the first CS tutor, I said, I am driven by the desire to figure out why people say things which bare no relation to what they actually mean or intend even when they have no idea that may be the case. i.e. “John is a feminist and he tells everyone who will listen that he is one. Even so, John demands to know why his wife has not packed his cufflinks, or why she failed to wash his jeans because, in John’s mind, he’s the one earning the money and therefore it is not unfair to expect his wife to fulfill these domestic duties. John believes in feminism but says things like “No wife of mine will …. (insert things wives ‘shouldn’t’ be seen doing) ” John moans about his wife to his male friends when they are doing the same. When questioned about it, John insists it’s just banter. John cheats on his wife and lies to her and believes that’s just how men are. It doesn’t prevent him from being a feminist. John’s wife tells him he’s verbally abusive. John thinks this is ridiculous – because, he tells his wife, “You’re lucky to be with me.  I’m a feminist and always have been. I would never hurt you. You’ve got no idea what other men do to their wives. Because John is a feminist, he cannot see why any of the above is anti-feminist.” Is John lying on purpose, does he really believe he is a feminist? Or does he know that’s the ‘right’ thing to be in his world but the role of Husband is so entrenched and deeply embedded that he simply can’t see outside the reality that he has constructed or that has been constructed as the landscape in which he exists? Perhaps this is an extreme example but it is one which represents how language is tied up with constant performance, and to dismiss it or devalue it feels strange. Even though, I can see we also need to value other elements of reality.
  • Architecture – the most obvious ‘matter’ – is a language – in semiotics, it might be referred to as a text just as a film or photograph or a book can be.
  • “The belief that grammatical categories reflect the underlying structure of the world is a continuing seductive habit of mind worth questioning. Indeed, the representationalist belief in the power of words to mirror preexisting phenomena is the metaphysical substrate that supports social constructivist, as well as traditional realist, beliefs.” I’ve highlighted the phrase I think is critical – if words aren’t mirroring pre-existing phenomena but rather emergent creating and being the phenomena as they do then does this problem over overvaluing the word in favour of all else go away? I can’t help thinking about Hoffman’s book where he suggests we exist in an interface and that we recognise ‘things’ but these work along the same line as desktop icons. In Hoffman’s theory representation is really important even though its an illusion. (Hoffman’s book does have some extraordinary and surprising misogynistic thinking in it which I am still trying to figure out).
  • Barad makes no apologies about using language herself, which can at times separate her ideas from people without PhDs in physics or gender or critical studies trying to understand what she is saying. At a very basic level, she is saying the very nature of reality cannot be isolated from the knowing about it and being it; that both being and knowing are undergoing seismic reconfigurations upending everything we have thought for thousands of years. (This reconfiguration is taking place throughout our world as the technology we use is founded on the principles and science that began the transformation – and is involved in a feedback loop – we are instantiating (Hayles, 1999)) the technology, no longer expecting things to be present or absent but instead to be patterned, assembled, having come into being as intra-active relational phenomena. (Icons on our desktop, web pages, animated objects that appear to react and interact). Carlo Rovelli who writes specifically for non-physics-, critical theory- etc. PhDs, says, “Kant was perhaps right when he affirmed that the subject of knowledge and its object are inseparable” (169)

Having read the whole paper, I am yet to fully get my head around what Barad means by performative  –given that is what the paper aims to explain, I feel a bit daft but its such a dense paper, for the central point becomes lost (having looked again -see next post – I’m pretty sure she means quantum events and processes). I am also slightly in the dark about the use of the word discursive/nondiscursive and need to understand that. Diffraction I get – perhaps it is similar.

Below are some useful quotations which I may refer back to in any future writing:

there are assumed to be two distinct and independent kinds of entities—representations and entities to be represented.

The fact that representationalism has come under suspicion in the domain of science studies is less well known but of no less significance

where they differ is on the question of referent, whether scientific knowledge represents things in the world as they really are (i.e., “Nature”) or “objects” that are the product of social activities (i.e., “Culture”), but both groups subscribe to representationalism.

Having read Hoffman’s book, I came to a different conclusion – representation matters because it’s all we have. It’s the illusion with which we exist, and therefore how it functions and manifests is critical. Even if it cannot represent a place before representation as no such place exists – representation represents our parochial and myopic situation. 

anthropological philosophy, representations were unproblematic prior to Democritus: “the word ‘real’ first meant just unqualified likeness” (142).

The presumption that we can know what we mean, or what our verbal performances say, more readily than we can know the objects those sayings are about is a Cartesian legacy, a linguistic variation on Descartes’ insistence that we have a direct and privileged access to the contents of our thoughts that we lack towards the “external” world. (1996, 209) I do not think we know what we mean – I think people have no idea what they mean. The stories we tell ourselves are the only comfort we have in an otherwise terrifying universe where there is no meaning. 

Indeed, it is possible to develop coherent philosophical positions that deny that there are representations on the one hand and ontologically separate entities awaiting representation on the other.

In this article, I propose a specifically posthumanist notion of performativity—one that incorporates important material and discursive, social and scientific, human and nonhuman, and natural and cultural factors. A posthumanist account calls into question the givenness of the differential categories of “human” and “nonhuman,” examining the practices through which these differential 9

boundaries are stabilized and destabilized. Donna Haraway’s scholarly
opus—from primates to cyborgs to companion species—epitomizes this point.

Foucault – – – “show how the deployments of power are directly connected to the body—to bodies, functions, physiological processes, sensations, and pleasures; far from the body having to be effaced, what is needed is to make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and the historical are not consecutive to one another . . . but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of the modern technologies of power that take life as their objective. Hence, I do not envision a “history of mentalities” that would take account of bodies only through the manner in which they have been perceived and given meaning and value; but a “his- tory of bodies” and the manner in which what is most material and most vital in them has been invested. (1980a, 151–52)

a diffraction grating for reading important insights from feminist and queer studies and science studies through one another while simultaneously proposing a materialist and posthumanist reworking of the notion of performativity. This entails a reworking of the familiar notions of discursive practices, materialization, agency, and causality, among others.

On an agential realist account, it is once again possible to acknowledge nature, the body, and materiality in the fullness of their becoming without resorting to the optics of transparency or opacity, the geometries of absolute exteriority or interiority, and the theoretization of the human as either pure cause or pure effect while at the same time remaining resolutely accountable for the role “we” play in the intertwined practices of knowing and becoming.

Physicist Niels Bohr won the Nobel Prize for his quantum model of the atom, which marks the beginning of his seminal contributions to the development of the quantum theory.

were inseparable for him) poses a radical challenge not only to Newtonian physics but also to Cartesian epistemology and its representationalist triadic structure of words, knowers, and things

This account refuses the representationalist fixation on “words” and “things” and the problematic of their relationality, advocating instead a causal relationship between specific exclusionary practices embodied as specific material configurations of the world (i.e., discursive practices/(con)figurations rather than “words”) and specific material phenomena (i.e., relations rather than “things”). This causal relationship between the apparatuses of bodily production and the phenomena produced is one of “agential intra-action.”

Therefore, according to Bohr, the primary epistemological unit is not
independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather

relata do not preexist relations; rather, relata- within-phenomena emerge through specific intra-actions.

The notion of agential separability is of fundamental importance, for in the absence of a classical ontological condition of exteriority between observer and observed it provides the condition for the possibility of objectivity.

In my further elaboration of Bohr’s insights, apparatuses are not mere static arrangements in the world, but rather apparatuses are dynamic (re)configurings of the world, specific agential practices/intra-actions/performances through which specific exclusionary boundaries are enacted. Apparatuses have no inherent “outside” boundary. This indeterminacy of the “outside” boundary represents the impossibility of closure—the ongoing intra-activity in the iterative reconfiguring of the apparatus of bodily production

This ongoing flow of agency through which “part” of the world makes itself differentially intelligible to another “part” of the world and through which local causal structures, boundaries, and properties are stabilized and destabilized does not take place in space and time but in the making of spacetime itself.

Temporality and spatiality emerge in this processual

they enact a local cut that produces “objects” of particular knowledge practices within the particular phenomena produced.

, or meanings apart from their mutual intra-actions, Bohr offers a new epistemological framework that calls into question the dualisms of object/subject, knower/known, nature/culture, and word/world.

Meaning is not a property of individual words or groups of words but an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility. I

What constitutes the “human” (and the “nonhuman”) is not a fixed or pregiven notion, but nor is it a free-floating ideality

Nature is neither a passive surface awaiting the mark of culture nor the end product of cultural performances.

matter is not a fixed essence; rather, matter is substance in its intra-active becoming—not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency

” are not outside observers of the world. Nor are we simply located at particular places in the world; rather, we are part of the world in its ongoing intra-activity.





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