Science Fiction Studies

#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008

Sherryl Vint

Entangled Posthumanism

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. xiii + 524 pp. $99.95 hc; $27.95 pbk.

Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway is an ambitious work of science studies whose aim is nothing less than “a crucial rethinking of much of Western epistemology and ontology” (83; emphasis in original here and throughout) based on her account of agential realism. Agential realism is a posthumanist performative ethics that uses the insights of quantum theory to reconceptualize our understandings of subjectivity, agency, causality, and—ultimately—the being of the universe itself. Barad’s work has much in common with the insights of figures familiar to sf scholars such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour. Like them, Barad is interested in understanding the complex interrelation between humans and non-humans, all of whom she believes have agency, and in refusing the series of binaries that have structured Western thought. Barad, however, has a PhD in theoretical particle physics and situates her analysis of the entanglement of matter and meaning within a rigorously developed and empirically testable model of the universe. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining this model, which is defined as:

an epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices, thereby moving such considerations beyond the well-worn debates that pit constructivism against realism, agency against structure, and idealism against materialism. (26).

Although to some degree we can understand Barad to be covering familiar territory, her methodology is distinct and she asserts that Meeting the Universe Halfway is not only a work of science studies but “also makes a constructive contribution to the field of science being studied” (36).                

The book takes its title from a poem by Alice Fulton and the correlation between the poem and Barad’s arguments is striking indeed. The poem reads in part:

Because truths we don’t suspect have a hard time
making themselves felt, as when thirteen species
of whiptail lizards, composed entirely of females
stay undiscovered due to bias
against such things existing,
we have to meet the universe halfway.
Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what
Looks to us like nothing: faith is a cascade. (qtd. Barad 397-98)

This quotation encapsulates two of the key themes of Barad’s work: first, the sense that nature can surprise us with the unexpected because we typically see in it only what we anticipate and hence look for in our conceptual models and physical apparatuses; and second, the argument that we therefore have an ethical responsibility to move toward the material world and make ourselves able to perceive and respond to its overtures. These ideas might again seem familiar to readers conversant with the work of Donna Haraway and other feminist scholars of science, but it is important to remember that for Barad these arguments have a basis not merely in our conceptual and social ways of configuring and interacting with the world, but with the very nature of being itself on the level of particle physics. The cascade experiment is not a matter of faith for Barad as it is in the poem, but instead is the material practice that is our reality. She argues that the cascade experiment

is much more than a metaphor, that the tiniest changes, rearrangements in the configurations of atoms, hold the literal potential to tunnel across different scales of space, economy, and imagination, that they may initiate a chain reaction in the not-too-distant future that will fan out and explode into a host of new technologies and reorganizations of power connecting the most minute to the most gargantuan. (362)

I must go through a bit of detail explaining the basic premises of physics upon which Barad rests her claims before I can demonstrate of how quantum theory reveals this entangled and continually interacting reality that is the nature of the universe. Barad is inspired by the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr (she explains that for him the two are inseparable) and so she understands the implications of quantum theory to be slightly different from those found in popularizations that take Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as their starting point. The uncertainty principle is rooted in epistemology: one cannot measure both the momentum and the position of a particle because the photon used to “see” it during a measurement disturbs the particle and thus changes its properties in the moment of measuring. The uncertainty relates to limits of our understanding, because “a determinate value of the electron’s momentum is assumed to exist independently of measurement, but we can’t know it; we remain uncertain about its value, owing to the unavoidable disturbance caused by the measurement interaction” (116). For Bohr, the issue is indeterminacy, not uncertainty. Things are indeterminate because for Bohr the basic unit of reality is the phenomenon, not the fixed thing. This theory resolves some of the paradoxes that have plagued quantum theory experiments, such as why it is possible to observe data indicating that, in some instances, matter behaves like a particle, while in other instances, it behaves like a wave. Bohr’s theory can account for this paradox because it has a more radical conception of the relationship between ontology and epistemology. We can observe both wave and particle behavior, and we can measure only momentum or position, not because of a limit to our knowledge but because “wave and particle behaviors are exhibited under complementary—that is, mutually exclusive—circumstances” (111); they reflect the fact that the basic nature of the universe is not something that is given and fixed in advance, but rather something that emerges from the intra-actions of the experimental situation and the entanglement of apparatus and phenomenon (and beyond) that constitute the measurement: “the nature of the observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus,” requiring us to reject “the epistemological assumption that experiments reveal the pre-existing determinate nature of the entity being measured” (106).                

For Barad, then, the basic unit of reality on the level of empirically-verifiable properties of matter is the phenomenon, not the “thing.” This understanding of reality has profound consequences for ontology, epistemology, subjectivity, agency, and ethics, all of which are worked out in detail in her theory of agential realism. Instead of pre-existing the experiment or, more accurately, the measurement, “determinate entities emerge from their intra-action”; Barad uses “the term ‘intra-action’ in recognition of their ontological inseparability, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction,’ which relies on a metaphysics of individualism (in particular, the prior existence of separately determinate entities)” (128). The result of measurement is “permanent marks on bodies” (178), the data recorded by lab instruments or experimenters, such as wave interference patterns or impact marks of photons on photographic plates. Crucially for Barad, these measurements are not things that happen only in the laboratory but rather are a consequence of any intra-actions: “What we usually call a ‘measurement’ is a correlation or entanglement between component parts of a phenomenon, between the ‘measured object’ and the ‘measuring device’” (337). Thus measurement can exist outside the laboratory and does not require a human agent to take note; following this, there is no difference between purified laboratory conditions and the “real world” in Barad’s conception. In her posthumanist performative account, apparatuses, too, are recognized as phenomena that “have no intrinsic boundaries but are open-ended practices”; they are not “located in the world but are material configurations or reconfigurings of the world” (146).                

In Meeting the Universe Halfway, Barad takes us carefully through the science, the science studies, and the critical theory that inform her arguments. One of the most impressive things about this book is her facility in each of these disciplinary modes of inquiry. She provides an excellent overview of science studies and particularly its investigation of constructivism versus realism, very helpful for anyone not familiar with this area of research. She also meticulously takes the reader through a number of physics experiments, demonstrating that Bohr’s model of complementarity is thus far the most accurate description we have of the nature of the universe. Barad writes these sections in a way that is accessible to the lay reader, but that nonetheless provides rigorous descriptions and illustrations of the actual experiments and their results instead of resorting to metaphors and other popularizing ways of conveying quantum theory to non-physicists. She uses Foucault to help us understand how bodies and practices have been bound together to create power and knowledge, but she applies these insights to more concrete examples, such as her discussion of the visualization of the fetus through a piezoelectric transducer that “does not allow us to peer innocently at the fetus, nor does it simply offer constraints on what we can see; rather, it helps produce and is part of the body it images” (202). She draws extensively on Judith Butler’s work in Bodies that Matter (1993) to understand the mutually constitutive relationship between materiality and discursivity, but argues that Butler’s work is flawed by restricting discursive practices to “human social practices (thereby reinscribing the very nature-culture dichotomy she wishes to contest). Agential realism provides an understanding of materialization that goes beyond the anthropocentric limitations” (151) by recognizing matter’s dynamism. For Barad, apparatuses should also be understood as “discursive practices” that enable and constrain what can be said; “it is only through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of ‘components’ of phenomena become determinate and that particular articulations become meaningful” (148). Thus both the matter of the world and the matter of human bodies come into being through their intra-actions and both are “real” but also performative, achieving the appearance of stability only through continual reiterations. One weakness of the book for humanities scholars is that it relies on a rather static word-equals-thing concept of semiotics which she refers to as representationalism and to which she contrasts her own posthumanist performative account. At times she appears to be reacting against a constructivist view in which “language has been granted too much power” (132); this view seems to be more a creation of scientists in the post-Sokal affair days, however, than a reality of how semiotics is understood within the humanities.                

My only significant criticism of Meeting the Universe Halfway is that the book is not well structured. It anticipates many of its key arguments in the early chapters that explain Bohr and quantum physics, but it does not work these arguments out in detail until Chapter 4 on agential realism. In the chapters that follow, key points that should already have been understood by the reader tend to be repeated again, not only in Chapter 5 (specifically acknowledged as a previously published article whose structure has been left intact for ease of classroom use) but also elsewhere. The book is longer than it need be and at times the repetition can become daunting. On the other hand, the material covered is extremely challenging, not only because it asks non-physicists to grapple with insights from theoretical physics, but also because the nature of these insights requires us to rethink radically everything we have been taught in Western metaphysics, if we are to take them seriously. Barad’s final point is a very serious one indeed, a reconceptualization of ethics that echoes many of the ideas about a new relation between self and world found in posthumanist and animal studies scholarship. Yet for Barad this new ethics is not a matter of reconceptualizing the place of humans in the universe, but rather a matter of recognizing the actual situation of our “real” relation to the universe on the level of the basic units of reality: “We are not merely differently situated in the world; ‘each of us’ is part of the intra-active ongoing articulation of the world in its differential mattering” (381). Thus, consistent with theorists such as Donna Haraway, Barad asks us to take ethical responsibility for the worlds that we make, but on the level of the ontological making of the world. She argues that “Making knowledge is not simply about making facts but about making worlds, or rather, it is about making specific worldly configurations—not in the sense of making them up ex nihilo, or out of language, beliefs, or ideas, but in the sense of materially engaging as part of the world in giving it specific material form” (91). Our choices and “[i]ntra-actions effect what’s real and what’s possible, as some things come to matter and others are excluded, as possibilities are opened up and others are foreclosed” (393).                

Meeting the Universe Halfway is not a work of sf criticism, but it opens up many fascinating possibilities for studying the thought experiments of science fiction, experiments that often ask us to reconsider our notion of reality in ways as radical as Barad demands. Her call for a new philosophy is uncannily similar to what many sf authors have imagined when she suggests that

what we need is something like an ethico-onto-epistem-ology—an appreciation for the intertwining of ethics, knowing and being—since each intra-action matters, since the possibilities for what the world may become call out in the pause that precedes each breath before a moment comes into being and the world is remade again, because the becoming of the world is a deeply ethical matter. (185)

One of the more interesting implications of Barad’s work for sf scholars is the blurring of boundaries it implies for what has been a divide between “hard” and “soft” sf. Consider, for example, a text such as Delany’s novella “Empire Star” (1966) and its themes about the varied nature of simplex, complex, and multiplex perception. In Delany’s novella, as in Barad’s physics, we do not perceive and order experience uniformly, and from the reader’s point of view the consequences of events sometimes seem to precede the events themselves. Delany’s narrator, the crystallized Tritovian, Jewel, embodies this idea of multiple and partial perspective in its many-faceted form. Barad’s radical “ethico-onto-epistem-ology” suggests that we might read in Delany more than a metaphor for how humans impose order and structure on the world through language:

Space, time, and matter are mutually constituted through the dynamics of iterative intra-activity. The spacetime manifold is iteratively (re)configured in terms of how material-discursive practices come to matter.... The past matters and so does the future, but the past is never left behind, never finished once and for all, and the future is not what will come to be in an unfolding of the present moment; rather the past and the future are enfolded participants in matter’s iterative becomings. (181)

In this way, Barad stresses our responsibility in making the future through our choices and actions in the moment, each intra-action shaping the future that might be. This ethical imperative is similar to Delany’s themes in “Empire Star,” where the protagonist Jo is sent on a quest by his future self to deliver a message about freeing the Lll, and it turns out that his message is to prepare their emancipator, San Severina, for her work in freeing them, even though from the simplex perspective (or linear plot) San Severina has already passed through Jo’s life, serving as his language tutor. The novella concludes by stressing its existence as text, telling us that “the multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating” (198). Thinking about the novella in terms of Barad’s theories requires us to realize that the universe, as well as the narrative, is more complex, cyclic, and self-illuminating than we often acknowledge. This perspective adds weight to Jewel’s invocation to the reader in the novella’s closing lines: “It’s a beginning. It’s an end. I leave to you the problem of ordering your perceptions and making the journey from one to the other” (199).                

Barad’s reconfiguration of ontology, epistemology, and ethics has implications for less postmodern and self-reflexive sf narratives as well. She calls upon us to take responsibility for “the possibilities for what the world may become” that she reminds us are continually open to us simply through our way of intra-acting, of bringing forth the world in each moment. Such a perspective is particularly promising for those scholars working in animal studies who want to bring forth a new intra-action between human and non-human life and thus are open to the possibility of non-hierarchical relations among species. Sheri Tepper’s recent novels, such as The Visitor (2002), The Companions (2003), and The Margarets (2007), offer visions of human/non-human exchange that allow for the sentience of the animals and their co-partnership with humans in creating the world. Tepper uses the trope of sentient aliens to stand in for the animals, asking why we do not consider the possibility of trying to communicate with another sentient species right here on earth. Barad’s conception of subjectivity produced through intra-action similarly suggests that animal sentience might remain undiscovered until we learn to meet the universe halfway and begin to see some of Alice Fulton’s “truths we don’t suspect.” Barad’s theory corresponds to the argument made by Vicki Hearne, that the capacities of animals are at least in part the products of our communications with them, of social exchanges rather than a priori qualities. She points out that:

To the extent that the behaviorist manages to deny any belief in a dog’s potential for believing, intending, or meaning, there will be no flow of intention, meaning, believing, hoping going on. The dog may try to respond to the behaviorist but the behaviorist will not respond to the dog’s response.... The behaviorist’s dog will not only seem stupid. She will be stupid.... [C]onceptualization is pretty much a function of relationships and acknowledgement, a public affair. It takes two to conceive. (58)

Barad’s posthumanist performative ethics is among the most promising of posthuman philosophies for animal studies, one that promises to make the “post” not just beyond humanism or the human-as-currently-conceived, but rather a “post” to an anthropocentric world. Hers is a theory “interested in a posthumanist understanding that does not presume the human to be a special system separate from the natural processes that he or she observes, but rather one that seeks to understand the emergence of the ‘human’ along with all other physical systems” (339).                

Perhaps most promisingly, Barad offers a conceptual framework through which to think about the intra-actions of what we call science, what we call society, and what we call sf. It has long seemed to me that sf can serve as something like a supplement (in the Derridean sense) to the practice of science. As Derrida teaches us, the supplement is ambiguous, both adding to and enriching the ‘original’ but also suggesting an absence or lack in it, as that which requires the supplement. Sf can add a sense of material and ethical implications to the discoveries and inventions of science, a careful working through of the consequences of changes in science and technology for human lives and social structures. Barad offers us a radical way to think about the discursive structures that make science and those that make sf as part of the same intra-acting and dynamic system. She insists that “there isn’t one set of material practices that makes science, and another disjunct set that makes social relations; one kind of matter on the inside, and another on the outside. The social and the scientific are co-constituted. They are made together—but neither is just made up” (168). Taking seriously Barad’s conceptions about the making of worlds, then, requires sf authors and scholars to extend their world-building from the merely textual and to consider ways in which we can make different “worldly entanglements” and practice the ethics of “accounting for our part of the entangled webs we weave” (384).                

Barad’s certainty that Bohr is correct and that his model of indeterminacy is the best way to conceive of the physical universe relates in part to recent changes in experimental physics. Previously, including during Bohr’s lifetime, most quantum physics experiments were conducted via conceptual experimental metaphysics, used to investigate through philosophical debate questions that could not be tested in empirical reality. Such experiments, called gedanken experiments in physics, are impractical to carry out but nonetheless useful for the insights they generate when reasoned through. Many of Bohr’s gedanken experiments included the design for apparatuses to test his theories, but physically constructing such apparatuses was not within reach until quite recently, when Bohr’s theories were borne out by empirical testing. Given the affinities between sf and Barad’s “ethico-onto-epistem-ology” that I have argued for in this review, it should come as no surprise to sf readers that, in English, gedanken experiments are thought experiments.

Delany, Samuel R. “Empire Star.” 1966. The Space Opera Renaissance. Ed. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. New York: Tor, 2006. 154-99.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Hearne, Vicki. Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name. New York: Heinemann, 1987.
Tepper, Sheri. The Companions. New York: Eos, 2003.
─────. The Margarets. New York: Eos, 2007.
─────. The Visitor. New York: Eos, 2002.

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