The Line Between Actor and Action: Response to Karen Barad

Independent Study

In the course of reading about material culture, I have been entirely swept off my feet and convinced by Bruno Latour’s concept of ANT. This theory posits that all action takes place between humans and nonhumans within a network, with each having the potential to be “actants” and affect one another. This means that nonhumans, objects, have agency. This idea is laughable to some – objects! agency? – but it’s also extraordinarily clear that objects do affect us. Books change us. Cars move us. Buildings protect us. We would be very lonely without our nonhuman companions, and very ineffective as humans if we didn’t use tools and cultural items on a regular basis.

I can accept that there are countless relationships between humans and nonhumans, and that this network of relationships creates a certain equality between the two as mutual actants. But could the division between that which acts and the action be divided, which would allow us to remove nonhumans, once again, from the acting process?

Karen Barad has one of the most sensible objections to the idea of agency in objects that I have encountered. She argues that no one really possesses agency, but that it exists through relationships of affect. She states: “Agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements” (Interview 4). This is because “separately determinate entities do not preexist their intra-action” (Universe 175). Rather, they come together through action, a phenomenon that Barad explains in Meeting the Universe Halfway through a combination of quantum physics and constructivism.

Agency based on relationships is not radically different from ANT, save that ANT insists on the embodiment of agency within an actant. For both, relationships are how action is able to happen. Yet, Barad’s idea matches the common sense notion that writers like Latour have been trying to dispel: that objects can’t act. As it turns, neither can we.

While sitting and reading a book, I had never considered myself a separately determinate entity encountering another separately determinate entity, the both of us composed in the moment of our intra-action, but I suppose this is the case. I will have to read Barad more thoroughly in order to better understand the science behind her theory; she may be technically correct, which is, as they say, the best type of correct. Barad’s complex reformulation of interaction does remind me of a quotation from Paul Eggert: “mute objects in material form, texts only live by our grace as we read them” (30). The problem is, while I am comfortable with books only coming to life through interaction, I’m not sure if I accept that the reader is in the same position.

The reason that Latour’s formulation is difficult for some to accept is that he allocates agency to where we typically (and mistakenly) believe there is none. How much more unconventional Barad’s reformulation is by comparison! If it is correct, it is still difficult to swallow from a solipsistic-human point of view. It flies in the face of the English language, where subjects impact objects. This is to say nothing of Western philosophy, for which the subject-object dialectic, the Cartesian viewpoint, and the absolute I-know-it-all attitude still hold massive sway. Barad’s viewpoint is semantically impossible to approach. Can I refer to you and I, or to a book, when these objects in space are not yet configured? Attempting day-to-day life while being politically correct with regards to the configurations of one anothers’ atomic matter must surely be difficult.

The centrality of relationships to Barad’s work makes me want to delve in deeper, which I intend to do shortly. At the outset of approaching her work my response is that in comparing her to Latour, Latour’s formula for describing relationships works much more smoothly and with common sense on its side. Yet, constructivist and intricate quantum physics do still have their appeal, the complexity and impossibility of which may be all the better to disturb what needs to be disturbed and question our assumptions. After all, there are those who critique object agency: what else might they be missing in the formulation of reality?

 

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. London: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Introduction and Chapter 3, “Interview with Karen Barad.” Michigan: Open Humanties Press. 2012. 48-70.

Eggert, Paul. “Brought to Book: Bibliography, Book History and the Study of Literature.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 13.1 (2012): 3-32. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Advertisements

Mystical Things

Independent Study

Deciding what to call non-humans says quite a good deal about our conceptions of them and how far we perceive them to fall from our control. The distinction, in a number of cases, comes down to the difference between objects and things for a number of writers. Objects tend to be characterized as knowable, marked by human action, and understood by science; things are foreign, their effects are unknown, and they are as yet not apprehended.

In “The Thing” by Martin Heidegger, things are mystifying. They have a “uniform distancelessness” (113). They stand alone and apart, while, objects stand before us. How we view objects is through the representations of them we hold in our minds (114). From a scientific viewpoint, we can only ever see objects, not things, for “science always encounters only what its kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science” (116). We view objects as phenomenological occurrences. By contrast, we have never seen things (116). Their essential nature “has never yet been able to appear” (116). Yes, within the object that Heidegger analyzes in this essay, a jug, he sees both object and thing: the object is the clay, and the thing the void and none of the matter than makes the jug up (115). “Thinging” for Heidgeer is an action word, meaning shadows forth the void. While Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things is relatively clear – it’s the difference between the phenomenological the unknownable and not yet named – his reverence for things veers towards the mystic. He imagines the thing bringing together four forces (Earth, Sky, Immortals, and Mortals) into a cathartic unity. This concept is nonsensical to all but the most devout of Heidegger scholars and, unfortunately, he ends his essay with this unknowable metaphor.

In “Thing Theory” by Bill Brown, Brown also describes things as remote. They are a comfort from the world of thought, “something concrete that relives us from abstraction” (139). Like Heidegger, Brown’s things are somewhat mystical. Unlike Heidegger’s void in the vase, Brown’s things can be anything as long as they are vague and indefinite: “that green thing in the hall” (140). We long for things as an alternative to the dry, dusty austerity of theory. Things seem belated (and thus unreachable) (147). And, things are impossible to get to because of phenomenology (we see what we would like) and because of physics (and the unreachable space between atoms) (141). Brown clearly differentiates things from objects. Things appear out of the ether. They carry a thingness about them that “seems to name the object just as it is even as it names something else” (141). Objects, on the other hand, are more clearly human: “We look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture-above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (140). A functional window is an object that we barely see while we gaze out at the outside world, it’s so human it’s invisible; a dirty window is not useful, it’s a thing in and of itself and for its own purposes, useful only to those who gaze at its thingness. He quotes Derrida to explain how one is irreducible to the other: “the thing is not an object [and] cannot become one” (140). For Brown, things and objects have a fundamentally different quality; they’re still alike enough, however, that he needs to address both with regards to thing theory.

For a great number of theorists, however, things can and do become objects – they are just radically changed in doing so. Julian Bleecker, in “Why Things Matter” writes about blogjects, or, objects that blog. When nonhumans exercise agency and start to matter to humans: “they slowly [creep] out of the primordial soup of passive, low-impact thing-ness.” (169). Things inspire one with awe of the unknowable; apart from that they don’t do much. In contrast, objects they do things, they matter. Bleecker’s blogjects are just like human bloggers: they “participate in a network of exchange, disseminating thoughts, opinions, ideas – making culture – through this particular instrument called the Internet” (166).

Bleecker nicely captures that the fluidity between object and thing has to do with whether non-humans are active or not. To relate this back to libraries, it’s the practical use of materials and our thoughts about them that determine objecthood. Libraries that contain millions of unread books – which are unknowable, ineffable things wrapped up in the package of a known object. However, it is the ethical obligation of libraries to foster objecthood. To give a voice to those as yet untouched resources and turn them into useful resources that matter and make an impact. To connect patrons with objects, imbue culture in nonhumans, and in culture, imbue nonhumans.

 

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds.             New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New York:            Routledge, 2009. 139-152. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New            York: Routledge, 2009. 113-123. Print.