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


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.

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:

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.
/portal_libraries_and_the_academ   /v006/6.3manoff.pdf


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:

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.