Thursday, August 08, 2013

Kathleen Coyne Kelly on Karen Barad


Hi, Karl here. Kathleen Coyne Kelly emailed me a long comment on my Barad blog post that I think merits frontpaging. Here it is:

I am finishing up Barad’s MUH , and am happy to see Karl’s thoughtful analysis. I also was struggling with the problem of scale—what is “measured,” or intra-acted with on the level of the photon, and how that translates to the macro level, where we reside. As I read Barad’s analysis of ultrasound technology, I wondered if we needed such a big hammer as quantum theory to hit that nail. Throughout, I wondered if we “needed” the confirmation of science for our own posthuman, new materialist projects.
But I was reading Barad with a particular goal in mind: how to account for the agency of things in a text. Imaginary things in a fictional world. So: Barad philosophizes that the “primary ontological units” are not things, but phenomena, which she defines as “dynamic topological refigurings/entanglements/relationalities/(re)articulations of the world.” And “the primary semantic units” are not words, but “material-discursive practices through which (ontic and semantic) boundaries are constituted” (141).  In other words, phenomena are not isolated, discrete, and static bits and pieces of the world (objects) to be apprehended (by subjects). Rather, phenomena are lively intra-actions of matter and discourse. Following Foucault, Barad defines discourse as “not what is said [but] . . . that which constrains and enables what can be said. Discursive practices defines what counts as meaningful statements” (146).  Since Descartes, Barad argues, we have binarized matter and discourse when in actuality they are entangled; their lively entanglement worlds the world. Phenomena and material-discursive practices make up what Barad, after Donna Haraway, calls natureculture. Our material-discursive practices work to constitute boundaries between and among phenomena—phenomena are “cut” into bits and pieces that we then call things. We create boundaries where there are none—such boundaries are, in effect, the “meaningful statements” that constitute our experiences in/of the world.
Barad and other new materialists offer literary scholars a way to think beyond representationalism: that is, they offer a way to contemplate things on their own terms rather than as signifiers. Better than rather than: alongside of, in addition to. A literary text is but a representation (and a representation is a mirror for some, a mediator for others, and all that we can know for still others), and, within that textual phenomenon are other phenomena—the notation or citation or description of what we call things. If we attempt to attend to those things in themselves (instead of turning them into signifiers—second “nature” to most of us), we might just get a sense of their lively, entangled matterliness. By saying so, I am not rejecting representationalism (though some new materialists do); rather, I would argue that representations matter: they are phenomena with effects. And quite enmeshed in causality. The literary scholar identifies, close-reads, critiques, and/or explores representations; let us do the same with respect to representationalism by taking up the challenge of thinking outside of signifying. Rather than approaching representationality and materiality as mutually exclusive or opposed, I would rather explore how we have historically disentangled the two, determining, for example, that imaginary things in fictional texts are only representations, when clearly human history suggests otherwise: imaginary things have reach and extension (a crucial attribute of an object) into time and space.
Realist philosopher Alexius Meinong (1853-1920), who speculated about intending non-existent objects (and was roundly denounced by Bertrand Russell et al.), would say that Excalibur does not  exist , but this does not mean that there “is” no Excalibur—it belongs to the (tautological) class of non-existent objects (Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes Excalibur—a recognition that it “is”!) More evidence for is-ness: scholars write about Excalibur, directors make films about Excalibur, a factory in China churns out plastic “replicas” of Excalibur, and I own an ashtray pinched from the (epiphenomenal) Excalibar in Tintagel. And Excalibur “is” now safely in the hands of Arthur Uther Pendragon (aka John Timothy Rothwell), neo-druid and eco-activist. That’s a lot of agential extension.
But here’s the problem: don’t we already know what I just said? We know the history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (fiction, with a big signifying thing in it that also “is”); we understand how the U.S. constitution and its amendments “extend” into our world (manifesto, with quite material results); we all have had the experience of watching a film and desiring, say, a pair of Nazg├╗l silver boots, or a Quidditch broom (oh, ok, I have)—desired the materialization of an imaginary thing. And sometimes we get them!
Would love to hear your thoughts. I’m revising an article on Arthurian things/souvenirs right now. My epigraph: “It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.” (Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair.)


Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Forgive me if this seems facile and/or I've missed something hugely important, but isn't this idea that "representations matter: they are phenomena with effects," and that the new materialists offer us "a way to contemplate things on their own terms rather than as/alongside of/in addition to signifiers," all very close to Augustine's notion of the sacramental as a signifier that also signifies? That is, besides the new materialists' rejection of a divine agency, how far removed is a vibrant materialism from a medieval notion of sacramental efficacy?

(Recall that Graham Harman situates Meillassoux as less a realist than more in the line of the German idealists.)

kathleen k said...

Barad, in her anti-representationalist stand, doesn't seem to see representations as agentive at all--and why should they be excluded in new materialist accounts of natureculture, accounts that sure want to include "everything"? I want my new materialism to "enfold" representations, not reject them. Maybe this is medieval.

Anonymous said...

"We create boundaries where there are none." I like this idea and where it leads. Literature without walls or something. But what if it doesn't suit our purposes and we want to put the walls back up, meditate on containers or urns or shadows on the cave walls? Does Bosch contain the triptych in his Garden of Earthly Delights with the outer panel Creation when the outer panels are closed? Is everything always unbound? Great post!

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks so much for thinking of us and sharing it with us ALL, Karl. And Kathleen: Yes! I really needed this right now.