An Inter-View with selected Works by Karen Barad

“When shall we […] meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

By Elisabeth Schäfer and Tanja Traxler

[I. INTRO: RENDEZ-VOUS]


…Rrrrrrrring…RRRRRRrrrrring…RRRRRRRing…

CONNECTION-BUILD-UP… RRRRRRRRRRRrrringRRRRRrring…RrrrrrrringingRRrrrring…RRRRRRrrrrring…RRRRRRRring…

CONNECTION BUILD-UP…


…A mechanical voice says: “The person you have called is currently not available”… and it repeats: “The person you have called is currently not available”… and repeats: “The person you have called is currently not available”…


Have we called “a person”?!


CONNECTION BUILD-UP FAILED.
Really?!
Is there really NO connection?


REALLY?!


“Nothingness. The void. An absence of matter. The blank page. Utter silence. No thing, no thought, no awareness. […] Shall we utter some words about nothingness? What is there to say? How to begin? […] Perhaps we should let the emptiness speak for itself.” (Barad 2012, p. 4)

 

Is there ever any chance to experience NOTHINGNESS, EMPTINESS, THE VOID?! Do we have any instruments, organs, bodies-without-organs to sense real nothingness?! And what enables us to speculate about it?! Is that already the very instrument, organ or body-without-organ which reaches out to this experience?! How can we approach nothingness?! Do we have to zoom in or out?! Do we have to measure?! And what does measuring REALLY mean?! Does it mean that something becomes real?! If we are measuring something, do we simultaneously create what we are measuring?! “Measurements, including practices such as zooming in or examining something with a probe don’t just happen (in the abstract) […] Measurements are agential practices, which are not simply revelatory but performative: they help constitute and are a constitutive part of what is being measured. In other words, measurements are intra-actions (not interactions): the agencies of observation are inseparable from that which is observed.” (Barad 2012, p. 6)


So, let’s be careful! Wait a minute. All of a sudden, it becomes crucial HOW we explore something. HOW we zoom in or out. HOW we measure something. The way HOW we do it already has effects on what we observe! “Measurements are material-discursive practices of mattering.” (Barad 2012, p. 7) What an ephemeral nature of things! What will happen if we start to zoom in on some texts of Karen Barad?! What will happen if we start an exchange about reading/writing Karen Barad’s texts?! We are slowly moving ahead – meeting ephemeral particles (of texts) in an ephemeral way of measuring, reading, writing, et cetera. In the last weeks before the collapse of his (traditionally spoken) “rational” powers, Nietzsche wrote “I am a rendezvous of experiences” [1]; so here we go, here we run and the world, the text are running towards us: RENDEZ-VOUS.


[2. CONNECTION BUILD-UP WITH EMPTINESS]


A queer-physicist and a queer-philosopher writing each other, perhaps via phone, via computer, maybe writing with the hand, maybe in thoughts, maybe quoting:


“When shall we […] meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain? […] / When the hurly-burly’s done, / When the battle’s lost and won. / […] / That will be ere the set of sun. / Where the place? / Upon the heath.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1)


So, when & where do we actually meet – again, and again?! A physicist and a philosopher, when & where do they meet, if not sitting together, enjoying a glass of whiskey and exploring how to ride a wild horse like Kafka did, by becoming that horse, letting the reins go, becoming the grass, the landscape, the sky, … so when & where do they actually meet?!


Here it is winter, it’s cold, icy winds are blowing, sunlight mirrors on the frozen surface of the river; there it is summer, the waters are smoothly touching the shore. Black sand of volcanic explosions rushes into the sea. One is running, one is flying. When & where do they actually meet?!


We are writing. When & where?! When I write, I am often not yet writing … the queer-philosopher says … When writing comes to me, I am often running. A body in movement seems to be the best milieu for the arrival of words, sentences, rhythms. When I write, I am running fast. The body moves and coordinates breathing and pulse and all kinds of moves. It is the rhythm that invites the words. And they are bound to elsewhere. They are already addressing something other, something to come, or something past, something ahead, may it only be the blank page, waiting for the words to be settled there … For me, the queer-philosophers says, writing begins while I am running. And while I am running, I often dream of swimming. I would dearly swim. But I always run.

So my running is dedicated to my never-realized swimming. And perhaps it is not even swimming, maybe it’s rather my dream of diving. So, my writing is never identical to itself. Writing is so deeply entangled with something other than itself that you cannot grasp its pure essence, because its essence isn’t pure. When I write, I run and I dream – of swimming, which I might confuse with diving. But that’s not all. Still running, I now reach my desk. I sit down. Now, writing empties into another act. But, where do I write?! On my way towards or at my desk? Writing empties onto the page and it flows, it flows to someone other than me, to some thought, I haven’t yet thought. It’s running through my hands, leaving these hands, its essence is nothing else than address, affinities and entanglement, its movement is fluctuation, its place is the INBETWEEN:


“It would be presumptuous to claim that a man is essentially one thing or another, that he is social, political, or rational, that he is a tool-maker, or that he is user of symbols, etc. He is clearly not any one of these, since surely he is all of them. […] What remains unclear is the particular sense in which he is ambiguous.” [2] (Hugh J. Silverman 1973)


So we are not only passing subjects, trespassing within the very nature or essence of our ambiguity. We are – more than that – the passage itself; the self is the passage, the very passage of everything which passes – in time, space, in the whole universe. And the passage forms what it passing and what makes it pass.


“The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities.” (Deleuze/Guattari 1987, p. 249)


So we are writing. Now & No-Where. When I write, I am snorkelling… the physicist might say. The goggles help me see what matters slightly below the surface of the sea. “Matter and meaning are not separate elements.” (Barad 2007, p. 3) It is all about breathing through a small stick of plastic. It is all about becoming a creature moved by fins. The body moves and coordinates breathing and pulse and all kinds of moves. This is to say, writing is located in the entanglement of matter and meaning. “When the battle’s lost and won.”


[3. ENTANGLEMENTS]


A queer-physicist and a queer-philosopher writing each other will eventually lead into the milieu where the physicist is tempted to come up with some random physical insights.


Did you know that electricity and magnetism can be understood as two sides of the same coin?


– (The philosopher sits speechless, breathlessly waiting for what this news will actually mean.)


Did you know that in quantum field theory, vacuum fluctuations describe a state which is neither nothing nor materially realized? Emptiness itself is a fluctuation of virtual particles – a promise of existence that can never be undone. Matter without manifestation.


– (“That's what I wanted to say in the beginning”, one whispers.)


Did you know that heavy mass equals kinetic mass? And why are you attracted to the earth if it is not the blue oceans, the icy mountain shapes, a whiter shade of clouds and, ultimately, gravity?


– (“Yes. Yes.”)


Let’s call it entanglement what is at stake here – in our writing, our talking, our thinking, our meeting, you name it. If this was just to say that all is one and we are inseparable, the physical insight would be trivial. Yes, we are part of that nature that we seek to understand (Barad 2007, p. 26). And yes, matter and meaning are inseparable, but this is not what is crucial here. In physical terms, being entangled means that two or more entities can only be described with one common wave function. As soon as individual wave functions are being assigned to one of the partners, this destroys their entanglement.


Relational movements generate a curve. “The elasticity is felt more than seen.” (Manning 2012, p. 35)


This reminds us of what Erwin Schrödinger claims in his autobiography and philosophical testament “My View of the World”: “Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.” (Schrödinger 1983, p. 28) But what about the crucial point you are emphasising: two or more entities can only be described with one common wave function! And Schrödinger says that the whole is not constituted in a way that it can be surveyed in one single glance! Are we facing a contradiction here?! Or is my queer head all-to-queer to get things clear?!


Maybe, in his philosophical testament, Schrödinger has been taken away by his studies of Indian mysticism rather by than his physical investigations. (Yes, that might have happened, people – and not only people – tend to be carried away to some extent. That’s the tendency of extension in thinking.) What Schrödinger might have meant in physical terms is that not everything and everyone is entangled in this world. Or maybe everything and everyone is, but if there was an entanglement of the whole, it would not be something that we can actually read or survey or to which we could assign a quantum wave function. Still, the entanglement of everything is something we can speculate about, and speculate very wildly indeed. Of course, Schrödinger was very much in favour of speculation as a source of ideas, at times even knowledge. Let us assume, for a moment, to put a cat into a box, etc.


We. Assume. The cat. Is. In the box. We assume the cat. We assume the cat is. In the box. We assume the cat is in. The box. – – – Where is the box?!


So, where do we meet?! Where do we actually, virtually, really, whatsoever, where do we meet?! The box. Each other. The text. Our hands. The eye. The other. Where do we meet AGAIN. And: WHEN?!


Let’s stay. Let’s stay with that question. Let’s stay with Shakespeare. “When shall we […] meet again?” Let’s stay with the power of fiction. Which creates realities. Entities. Like measurement. So, this is where we meet: upon the heath. This might mean something. This might mean that we are sharing a field … So, here we are, inter-viewing texts by an author, who is closely connected to a field called “New Materialism”. Basically this field deals with the question how matter comes to matter. And maybe (but only maybe!) we did it all wrong, in a way, in beginning this encounter with questioning time and space or: place in space of writing.

Karen Barad, whose texts we are inter-viewing here, once said: “Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretative turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every ‘thing’—even materiality—is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation.” (Barad 2003, p. 801). So, it is matter which is called to matter within “New Materialism”. The term “New Materialism” was coined by Rosi Braidotti and Manuel DeLanda in the second half of the 1990’s. New Materialism shows on the one hand how the mind is always already material (the mind is an idea of the body), and on the other hand how matter is necessarily something of the mind (the mind has the body as its object). Nature and culture are always already “naturecultures”, as Donna Haraway puts it.


“New Materialism” shifts dualist structures like mind/body, nature/culture etc. by allowing for the conceptualization of the travelling of the fluxes of nature and culture, matter and mind. Barad says: “Theorizing must be understood as an embodied practice, rather than a spectator sport of matching linguistic representations to preexisting things.” (Barad 2007, p. 54) Erin Manning would have said: “Concepts are events in the making” (Manning 2012, p. 5).

Thus dualistic concepts are in the making, they are transgressing dualisms in the thinking of Karen Barad. And they are opening up for a thinking of a material-discursive which – as “agential realism” – is, according to Barad, “a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has.” (Barad 1998, p. 112) To put it differently: “According to agential realism, knowing, thinking, measuring, theorizing, and observing are material practices of intra-acting within and as part of the world.” (Barad 2007, p. 90) This immanent enfolding of matter and meaning which Karen Barad refers to as “agential realism”, and which in the lines above we named a “new materialism,” is – in contrast to similar theories, like Judith Butler’s performativity or Foucault’s dispositif – explicitly not limited to the human realm, and so potentially includes nonhumans, animals, nonorganic material, cyborgs et cetera.


Additionally, Barad emphasizes that matter is not just passive material that is shaped by agents; it undergoes a process as it “stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface” (Barad 1998, p. 90), as she says following Judith Butlers conception of materiality at this point. Although we all as agents shape knowledge about the universe, we can’t ignore the way the universe, the world “kicks back” (Barad 1998, p. 112). Karen Barad points at immanence in saying: “We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside of the world; we know because ‘we’ are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming. The separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse.” (Barad 2003, p. 829)

 

[4. WHAT FINALLY MATTERS]


Coming to an end, let us come back to the beginning. The question was, and it still is: So where & when do we actually meet?! Intra-acting in such a diffractive methodology, as Donna Haraway suggests [3] and on which Barad builds, is not just about exchanging the optical metaphor of reflexivity which has been prevalent in Western thinking by another one, namely diffraction. It is a question of existence, of becoming in the world. A diffractive methodology is “a critical practice for making a difference in the world. It is a commitment to understand which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom: It is a critical practice of engagement, not a distance-learning practice of reflecting from afar.” (Barad 2007, p. 90)


We are writing. When & where?! Where do they actually meet, the queer-physicist and the queer-philosopher?!


“In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”


When we are ENGAGED with the elements. When we know that we are not only in the world, but of the world. Which means that we are within the movement of particles and that we are the movement of particles. “Phenomena––entanglements of matter/ing across spacetimes––are not in the world, but of the world.” (Barad 2012, p. 8)


When we are writing, we are often not yet writing, yet, everything matters, in multiple ways. A queer-physicist and a queer-philosopher writing each other, perhaps via phone, via computer, maybe writing with the hand, maybe in thoughts, maybe quoting: “[…] physics without philosophy can only be a meaningless exercise in the manipulation of symbols and things, much the same as philosophy without any understanding of the physical world can only be an exercise in making meaning about symbols and things that have no basis in the world.” (Barad 2007, p. 68)
 
Bibliography:
Adnan, Etel (2012): The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.
Barad, Karen (2012): What is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity. Virtuality, Justice. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.
Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway – Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen (2003): Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. In: Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 28, no. 3, p. 801–831.
Barad, Karen (1998), "Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality". In: Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 87–128.
Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Felix (1987): A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia; translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis/London: University of Minneapolis Press.
Haraway, Donna (1997): Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.
Landes, Donald A. (Ed.) (2016): Between Philosophy and Non-Philosophy. The Thought and Legacy of Hugh J. Silverman. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Manning, Erin (2012): Relationscapes. Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge Massachusetts/London England: The MIT Press.
Schrödinger, Erwin (1983): My View of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shakespeare, William (1977): Macbeth. (Engl./Dt.) Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag.
Silverman, Hugh J. (1973): Existential Ambiguity: A Phenomenology of Human Nature. PhD Stanford.

Endnotes:

  1. ^ Cited in: Adnan, Etel (2012): The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing to Pay. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, p. 4.
  2. ^ Cited in: Landes, Donald A. (Ed.) (2016): Between Philosophy and Non-Philosophy. The Thought and Legacy of Hugh J. Silverman. Albany: State University of New York Press, p. 1.
  3. ^ See: Haraway, Donna (1997): Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan_Meets_ Onco–Mouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

 

(7.2.2017)

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