CS & BOW: Research Critique of Barad


Looking for a critique of Barad’s work I have come across this which confirms some of my concerns and questions, although rather more acerbically than I might have done. It begins with the following which made me laugh – humour in an academic paper, good! I do wonder if there is an element of peevishness in the article – will wait and see:

‘In Artful, her collection of critical essays, Smith (2013: 41) reminds us of a childhood game designed to break the boredom of long car journeys – ‘Ten points to the person who can see the Forth Road bridge’ – and points to its direct suitability to the situation of the academic conference: ‘Ten points to the first person who hears someone say the words Walter Benjamin.’ In recent years, it has been possible to play a version of this game substituting ‘Karen Barad’ for ‘Walter Benjamin’. If we add in bonus points for a cluster of terms taken from her book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007) – especially ‘entanglement’, ‘diffraction’, ‘intra-action’ and ‘agential realism’ – then a fine game of ‘Barad Bingo’ can be had far and wide across the humanities and social sciences: from conferences on ruins, animal ethics and informational infrastructures to journal articles on lifelong learning (Edwards, 2010), bullying in schools (S ̄ndergaarda, 2012) and feminist theories of fashion (Parkins, 2008).’ (Hollins, et al, 2017)


Hollin, G, Forysth, I, Giraud, G et al. (1 more author) (2017) (Dis)entangling Barad: Materialisms and ethics. Social Studies of Science, 47 (6). pp. 918-941. ISSN 0306-3127


Will report back with further notes – but good to see some counterpoints

  • What is it about Barad’s work that appeals to ‘now’ – which the authors admit is pressing today. “What is more, and as evidenced below (Figure 1), the influence of Barad’s work continues to grow, with the above outputs receiving significant year-on-year increases in citation counts. And this brings us to an important point: While Barad’s project spans twenty years, it is evidently of this moment.” (3)
  • ‘Questions are raised, however, about the applicability of concepts originating in the quantum realm and what is lost when they ‘jump scales’ and are used in order to grasp macro-sociological concerns.’ Barad herself actually warns against this kind of simplistic scaling up and claims to avoid analogy (5)Re second-mentioned concern is scaleability  – again dealt with by Barad – rather than scaling up, it seems to me she is suggesting implications at micro-level affect out thinking and even though the macro world is govenred by different rules, knowledge about more flexibity and possibility can nevertheless affect us, so not sure about this but I have only read first two chapters so will wait and see: “It does, however, mean that the issue of scale is particularly pertinent for those seeking to draw upon Barad’s work, and worth dwelling on.” (8)
  • Making matter matter, or, in search of lost realness‘ compare section heading to Foster Return fo the Real (6)
  • ‘We conclude the article by arguing that in much of the literature drawing upon Barad there is a focus upon diffraction and entanglement and that this has come at the expense of considerations of complementarity and necessary exclusion. We suggest, however, that it is the radical potential of an ethics of exclusion which is perhaps most vital to those continuing to use Barad’s work.’ (5)

  • ‘Re my own comments on peevishness: ‘Does the process by which ‘matter comes to matter’ in Barad’s thesis matter? When we call upon Barad to help secure an argument, how can we be sure that we are not suffering from a new case of physics envy – of the quantum variety?” (6)
  • ‘There are two entirely concordant consequences to this continuity between physics and social theory. First, Barad’s realism promises to firm up the ‘beneath’, to put it in Foucauldian terms, of knowledge (Lather, 2010) by offering ‘the weight of realism’ as ‘ballast’ against too much postmodernism (Barad, 2007: 43).”Objects, entities and phenomena are demonstrably instantiated in and by material practices, produced performatively in concrete situations and thus – crucially – can anchor political actions. This approach carries distinct ethical implications, on which we focus shortly.’ (8)
  • ‘Despite the obvious utility of diffraction, the section concludes with some thoughts on the possible merits of rescuing reflection.’ (11) see rest of section
  • I like this criticism:
    ‘In a recent article, Paxson and Helmreich (2013: 169) argued that:
    ‘[New materialism] is productive because it can shake thinking away from the certainties of social determinism, as exampled, canonically, in the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge – and because it can show that phenomena emerge in practice. But it is also risky, because new materialist tactics often veer towards universalizing metaphysical claims about the nature of ‘matter’ as such and also, at times, take scientific truth claims about the world at face value – a move that we consider a step backwards for STS.’ (13)
  • ‘The key terms within this passage – intra-action, agential separability, exteriority-within – all indicate that for Barad the separations between words, things, and knowers are real enough but these separations are effects of particular engagements with the world (p. 138). This is the crux of Barad’s agential realism.’ (16) Key for me too  – and can be applied to cameras and visual recording systems (some of which do not rely on sight or emulation of sight)
  • Barad’s understanding of the apparatus, then, is more expansive than in a ‘typical’ methods section, more-than-human in its composition, and emergent through practice. There are clear affinities here with actor-network theory (e.g. Latour, 1987: 162) Something for me to investigate further (17)
  • ‘Perhaps, we might speculate, for theorists whose bread and butter it is to consider the nonhuman and their relations with humans and other nonhumans, Barad’s considerations are neither seismic nor entirely novel.’ (17)
  • re tools – and thinking about cameras/visualising tools: ‘The stick cannot usefully serve as an instrument of observation if one is intent on observing it. The line between subject and object is not fixed, but once a cut is made (i.e., a particular practice is being enacted), the identification is not arbitrary but in fact materially specified and determined (Barad, 2007: 154-155). (18)
  • NBNBNB: Not only is cutting a boundary-making practice (p. 148), it is a process over which there is a degree of control. Thus, for Barad, boundaries are not only real but there is a degree of responsibility for their creation, the worlds that are made, and those that are excluded (p. 243). (18)
  • This emphasis on separability, exteriority and constitutive exclusion is a significant part of what makes Barad’s work distinct and important. It is also the part of Barad’s scholarship that is most frequently lost in the re-telling. (18)
  • ‘The concept of complementarity makes clear that, for Barad, when one apparatus instantiates a particular world another is necessarily excluded.’ (18) (At the risk of sounding slightly belittling and not meaning to, in popular culture, this is explored by Phillip Pullman  – pulverized and aneathetised by the BBC)
  • ‘We argue that the ways with which Barad’s approach has been engaged have resulted in an over-emphasis on questions of entanglement. In contrast, we suggest that the ‘radical potential’ of agential realism is in drawing attention to what is excluded from particular entanglements.’ (19)
  • A useful list of more-than-human writers: ‘Barad’s intra-active conception of the world offers a specific understanding of relationality that goes beyond earlier conceptualizations of hybridity (Haraway, 1992; Latour, 1993), a term which suggests relations shape pre-existing entities (Lorimer, 2015: 24). Yet, aside from offering a neat neologism that makes its difference from interaction explicit, on a superficial level, intra-active conceptions of the world do not appear to be wholly novel. Approaches that have considered the ‘mangle of practice’ (Pickering, 2010) such as posthumanism (Castree and Nash, 2004; Hayles, 1999; Wolfe, 2010), actor-network theory (Latour, 2005; Mol, 2003), non- representational theory (Anderson and Harrison, 2010), vital-materialist approaches (Bennett, 2009), engagements with cosmopolitics (Stengers, 1997, 2010, 2011; also Hinchcliffe et al., 2003), or object-oriented ontology (Bogost, 2011; Harman, 2012), all stress the agency of more-than- human entities and make clear that the human is shaped through encounters with other agencies.’ And add Deborah Lupton to this re Data Selves (2019)
  • The clearest description of performative for me yet – ‘Barad’s understanding of reality as enacted rather than pre-given similarly troubles pre-defined ethical hierarchies such as human/animal, subject/object, and nature/culture, as a way of thinking about the world.’ (19)
  • ‘Barad could thus be situated as part of a longer lineage of work that has collapsed the ontological and epistemological and turned attention to the performative composition of reality (e.g. Mol, 2002; Star, 1992).’ (I thinkI still need to figure out why this is not constructivist  – see the sentence about performative being not entirely or much at all re volition-) (20)
  • ‘We question the ease with which Barad’s work has ‘jumped’ between diverse scales and urged that attention be paid to frictions between scales, and what may be lost precisely because it is not scalable’ (23) Hayles (1999) seems to answer this when she describes the way we instantiate our movements and actions while we use computers – the technology for these computers often emerge from a range of inte-related sciences and technologies where quantum mechanics plays a significant part – See loc 698 and then Chapter 3 on how information became so important to theorists and scientists via the Macy conferences – how this conversation which informed military and computer sciences and ‘infected’ reality
  • Hard not to disagree with the following or any other form of information which becomes a holy grail and therefore dogma spouted by dogmatic, excluding followers. ‘Despite seeing a number of potentials in agential realism, however, it is important to caution against uncritically extolling the value of this approach. As Willey (2016: 993) powerfully argues, it is dangerous to position new materialism as a radical break from feminist, postcolonial STS (see also Sundberg, 2014), and uncritically valorizing agential realism can lend strength to this trap.’


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