Ontologies of Knowing: Mediations and Intra-actions
August 9, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ve just completed my contribution to the Rhizomes issue dedicated to Karen Barad that I’ve been working on throughout the summer. My original intention for the piece was to do a comparison between Barad’s agential realism and Tim Morton’s recent work in object-oriented ontology. I had hoped that either Realist Magic, Hyperobjects, or both would have become available in between the time that I wrote my initial abstract for Rhizomes, and the deadline for submitting drafts. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so I had to switch gears and bring in someone else for the dialogue. The paper now centers a discussion between Barad and Bruno Latour, though it’s really a conversation between Barad, Latour, and Neils Bohr and Alfred North Whitehead—the key philosophical predecessors for both philosophers, respectively. I still have every intention of writing about Morton’s new books, but that will have to wait for another day. Below I am posting the introduction to my essay, which I believe should be published sometime this winter.
Ontologies of Knowing: Mediations and Intra-actions
Knowledge making is not a mediated activity, despite the common refrain to the contrary. Knowing is a direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic material configuring, its ongoing articulation.
The immense abyss separating things and words can be found everywhere … The philosophy of language makes it seem as if there exist two disjointed spheres separated by a unique and radical gap that must be reduced through the search for correspondence, for reference, between words and the world.
To say that Karen Barad draws from an eclectic group of scholars in Meeting the Universe Halfway would be an understatement. In her text we find Barad, a physicist turned feminist philosopher of science, writing from sources that span whole ecologies of contemporary thought. For example, on the way to describing her philosophy of “agential realism”—a concept she first published in 1996—we find Barad commenting on key contributors to fields that include continental philosophy, feminist theory, feminist approaches to science, Actor Network Theory, the history of science, and quantum theory.
In this essay I outline many of Barad’s central concepts including her accounts of “phenomena,” “intra-action,” “diffraction,” “philosophy-physics,” and “posthuman performativity,” as well as her important criticism of representationalism. This outline serves two functions: First, to introduce Barad’s work to a new audience in a systematic but economical way. Second, to begin a dialogue between Barad’s agential realism and what I am calling Bruno Latour’s “historical realism.” Latour makes an able conversation partner in this context because his work in Actor Network Theory and science studies is already kin to Barad’s agential realism, but also fodder for her criticism. Additionally, there is an interesting symmetry between Barad’s use of Neils Bohr’s philosophical reading of quantum theory, and Latour’s expansion of Whitehead’s process metaphysics that makes for a lively conversation. In a sense, all four thinkers are present for this encounter.
I approach Barad and Latour’s philosophies as productive of differing kinds of “cosmograms” (Tresch 2007). A cosmogram is similar to a worldview but differs in two crucial aspects: First, a cosmogram describes a particular set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological commitments (much like a worldview), but also sees these commitments as a set of material practices instantiated within material artifacts, architecture, and ecological conditions in addition to human psyches. Second, the cosmogram is itself a kind of material thing which circulates within the wider networks of a society. As a particular kind of thing, cosmograms are constitutive features of what I call knowledge ecologies. Knowledge ecologies suggest that knowledges are themselves evolving and active agents—“phenomena” in Barad’s language or “actors” in Latour’s—within larger social assemblages.
The paper, then, comprises these two sections: An introduction to Barad’s agential realism and a comparison with Latour’s historical realism. Since a full analysis of both systems would exceed the length of a single article, I am limiting the discussion to their divergent views of representationalism. While both Barad and Latour seek to overcome representational philosophies, the manner in which they do so has very different outcomes. For Barad representationalism is overcome by appealing to the direct exchange between relational, intra-acting phenomena. For Latour representationalism is overcome by generalizing mediation as a feature of relations between irreducible actors. In this paper I argue that while Barad provides important alternatives to representationalism, she fails to consider the role mediation plays as an intervening function even at the level of material intra-actions between phenomena.
 As Dolphijn and van der Tuin note “agential realism,” has been in print as a concept since 1996, while Barad’s Bohrian approach to epistemology dates back to the 1980s (2012 48).
 I take the term “historical realism” from Latour’s (1996) description of his own predecessor Alfred North Whitehead (77). By using this term I am explicitly suggesting a genealogy between Latour’s work and Whitehead’s.
 Examples include Barad’s (2007) support for Latour’s analysis of modernism’s bifurcation of reality into science (“nature”) and politics (“society”) (58), his performative understanding of the nature of scientific practices (410n18), his reworking of human and nonhuman things as participants in nonhuman collectives (412n33), and Barad’s (2012) appreciation for Latour’s shift away from philosophies of critique (49). But also note Barad’s (2007) criticism of actor network theorists for neglecting issues of power related to race, gender, and sexuality (169).
 “Knowledge Ecology” is an interactive and dialogical concept being developed online and in print. See Knowledge-Ecology.com for further details.