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.

Material Culture Studies Seminar: DH Gets Physical

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A retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is first up at the PAMM, including his installation According to What? shown at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

This week, I’ll be talking about Material Culture Studies in class for my seminar discussion. Here are the articles I’ve looked at. Rather than preparing a handout, I’ve decided to outline some of the key characteristics of these authors and articles here for you to keep in mind while reading. Latour, Bleeker, and Manoff all take very different approaches to Material Culture in their writing. My interpretations of their work are just that – mine – so while I’ve given an overview of these works here I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say in class about the relevance of Material Culture Studies to DH.

Bruno Latour’s work is characteristically easy to read – which is helpful given the complexity of some of his subject matter. In this essay, he gives an overview of “Actor-Network Theory,” or ANT, by discussing design, sociology, and technology. He posits that the objects around us, which we often ignore, impact our lives immensely. He illustrates, with the example of a door, how enmeshed humans and nonhumans are in the joint venture of saving (humans) work. Objects do labour that is set out for them by humans, but they can also be prescriptive, meaning that they can affect us because they are engineered to do so. Tangential to his main points, he discusses modernity and the false dichotomy it puts between humans and things, coding as a language that does action, and language itself and its tricky relationship to physical things.

Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane
Artifacts.” Technology and Society, Building Our Sociotechnical Future.
Cambridge, Mass
. Ed. Deborah J. Johnson and Jameson M Wetmore. MIT
Press. 151–180.
http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/50-MISSING-MASSES-GB.pdf

Julian Bleecker is a theorist who follows on the footsteps of writers like Latour. His essay expands upon a basic Material Culture Studies idea: what if objects not only mattered, but they actively told us why? His idea of blogjects is fascinating and very relevant to DH. It might even make us think differently about many of the DH projects that we regularly encounter. Blogjects are objects that blog, that do so in collectives, and with minimal human intervention. In doing so, they reform human perception and make an impact on human decisions. He gives rules for blogjects and some interesting, if now dated, examples.

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins,
eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.
Best online version: http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf

Marlene Manoff writes about material culture with regards to digital librarianship. If we are to consider materiality as important, which she convincingly argues for, then we have to consider how materiality affects library practices. Digital and physical materials are not interchangeable. The type and quality of metadata are extremely important. While digital degradation is often ignored because of illusions surrounding the physicality of digital materials, it is essential that we pay attention to it for the sake of long-term preservation. Manoff also discusses code, but briefly. She gives a nice brief overview of the treatment of Material Culture Studies in librarianship and historical (read:theorist) considerations of the topic.

Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical
Perspectives.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311–325.
http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/journals
/portal_libraries_and_the_academ   /v006/6.3manoff.pdf

Bonus!

The following resources are also work having a look at.

For those of you who learn best by visual means or by exploring a website, check out:

This infographic: The Internet of Things: A Primer

These Bruno Latour Mixed Media projects

For my brethren the ra-ra-feminist-theorists:

This essay: Donna Harraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

This is a really interesting essay, but I’m not sure we’ll have time to talk about it in class. Part of why it’s so difficult to read is because it’s meant to be irreverent; partially it’s also highly theoretical. Still, cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids, are quite relevant to DH. All of us become cyborgs when we sit down at our computers and engage with the internet. Drivers in their cars are cyborgs; women with IUDs are cyborgs. Harraway is a renowned theorist, and this essay is a classic in Material Culture Studies, albeit slightly off the beaten path. Harraway connects cyborgs with feminism and with what I think we could call “internet identity” in a way that could be constructively compared with the DH Manifesto from week 1.

Some of Harraway’s best lines:

“The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

“From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

“Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and [sic] art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”

 

Three gold stars for anyone who tweets a favourite line back at me from Harraway, or from any of these readings. See you in class this Thursday!

 

 

 

Image Credit: Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn Print. Ai Weiwei. Installation from According to What? installation at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Image from: http://althouse.blogspot.ca/2014/02/why-did-artist-break-1-million-ai.html.