dOCUMENTA, Karen Barad, Object Oriented Ontology, Performativity, Quantum theory, Quentin Meillassoux, Speculative Realism

099: Karen Barad (dOCUMENTA)

While visting dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany this weekend I came across this beautifully published essay by Karen Barad – author of Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. The essay is entitled ‘What is the measure of nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice’ and consists of an attempt to emphasize and conceptualize the importance of (the Copenhagen interpretation of) quantum theory – related to notions such as measurements as ‘intra-actions’, indeterminacy, vacuum fluctuations, Bohr’s principle of complementarity – for a speculative philosophy that, interestingly, positions itself somewhere between OOO and SR. Being concerned with ‘the very nature of nature’ (p. 6) Barad defines objects or phenomena as ‘contingent configurations of mattering’ (p. 7) – which indicates that she is concerned with developing an ontology of becoming, or one that makes the insight that ‘there are no pre-existing individual objects with determinate boundaries that precede some interaction’ (p. 6) into its primordial commitment.

This use of quantum theory is not uncommon. Elie Ayache (see here), Meillassoux and – most notably – Arkady Plotnitsky (e.g. in his terrific The Knowable and the Unknowable) have written about the possibility of articulating, of ‘measuring’ a realm before actual space-time existence extensively. In their writings quantum theory is explored in order to come to grasp with the ontological significance of contingency as something that is irreducible to ‘classical’ modality which assumes a map of (a given amount of) possibilities in the world. For instance Ayache claims that physics instead of metaphysics can help to think contingency independently of this map, precisely because it acts ‘at the level where the range of possible states is not yet decided’ (see first page of the link above).

Now, Barad’s contribution consists of nuancing this somewhat unfortunate way of expressing the particular importance of quantum theory for a speculative philosophy of mattering. In a passage vaguely reminiscent of a Spinozian method of definition she states that ‘(in)determinacy is only ever partially resolved in the materialization of specific phenomena: determinacy, as materially enacted in the very constitution of a phenomenon, always entails constitutive exclusion’ (p. 7); this materialization by means of excluding-enactment is related to measurements which are ‘agential practices, which are not simply revelatory but performative: they help constitute part of what is being measured [..]  [they] are world-making’.

The attempt to use contemporary science for philosophical means is, obviously, not new. It is, nevertheless, interesting to see that the way in which this is and can be done (consider, for instance, the difference between using quantum theory (indeterminacy, contingency etc.) and biology (emergence, novelty, autopoietic systems etc.)) is also played out at the level of the similarities and differences between OOO and SR. Barad’s essay (and work in general) could contribute to further developing these positions.


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