What I Read in the Summer: Karen Barad

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. I’ll be writing up a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The new materialist theorist Karen Barad has a remarkable fandom among the gender studies majors in my circle of friends. It’s easy to remark why: coming from the background of hard science, she portrays both the unknown and the familiar types of learnedness to my queer buddies in the humanities. One described her as lucid, important, and among their principal influences in queer studies; another said they would not even try to understand everything and preferred to just dig it. Make of my friends’ statements what you will. Barad calls her philosophy ‘agential realism’; I read her monograph, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), in an effort to understand it, at least in part.

Barad’s philosophy is an ambitious one. She takes theorists and philosophers like Bohr, Foucault, Butler and Haraway, and basically alters their work only enough that she can stick an universal quantor in front of everything she deems worthwhile. This is because her theory is an attempt at capturing the universal, at finding a metaphysics that would explain both quantum mechanics and feminist struggle, among other phenomena.

Barad takes issue with what she terms individualist metaphysics: the idea that there are entities that are separate from each other, and conceivable in terms of subjects and objects. She stresses that we are so deeply entangled with our surroundings, any concept of “the other” is misleading. Instead of entities, we are to take phenomena as the metaphysical primary. Phenomena come into being with the action of perceiving them; the agency of the perceiver, as well as the apparatus involved, draw their boundaries.

When it comes to my area of interest – ethics – Meeting the Universe Halway is painfully obscure. Now, it may well be that I have not been able to grasp Barad’s point there – she does use a lot of both self-invented and highly technical vocabulary. That being said, my understanding is that Barad sees ethics as being founded onto the metaphysics of entanglement. There is no “other”; instead, there are the boundaries we draw, and we must draw these responsibly.

Now, I take her point in that there is no clear pre-existent boudary between the individual and the rest of the world, so to speak. I would not be me without the many entanglements I’ve had with the world in the past, and even at present, one could argue I extend over, well, at least the iPad I am writing this on, probably also my bookshelf, as these are parts of the apparatus of my thought processes, which I hold to be a core part of myself. It’s hard to say, then, where I end: do I also encompass the charger attached to my iPad? The socket it is plugged into? The electricity company?

However, I fail to see how this would be of any particular relevance to ethical reasoning, and I hold Barad fails to elucidate that in Meeting the Universe Halfway. Barad takes on the example of sonograms: this technology helped us see the fetus as a distinct individual with rights of its own, while the person carrying the fetus would be of lesser concern – leading to problematic ethical situations. Being aware of the deep entanglement of the fetus and the pregnant person, instead of drawing sharp lines between the two or conceiving of the fetus as a distinct individual, would help see pregnancy in a way conductive to better answering the needs of the pregnant parent. I get this. Where you draw the line counts. I nevertheless fail to see why agential realism would answer ethical dilemmas better than another ethical theory.

Barad would likely reply that the agential realist ethical theory is solid because it draws on a metaphysics she has proven as solid. However, an ethical theory does not need to be based on any specific metaphysics (although I suppose any theory will carry some implications or restrictions as to what kinds of metaphysics it is compatible with); and I wonder if, given that Barad rests her ethics on her metaphysics, Hume would be eager to set up a date with her – and his guillotine.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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