Finishing the Universe Halfway: On Reading Barad
by KARL STEEL
Last Winter, Michael O’Rourke asked me to contribute to a Rhizomes special issue on Karen Barad (list of contributors here). I hesitated for weeks, worried about whether I’d actually be able to do it well. Since my math peaked at pre-Calculus, anything I write about quantum physics is bound to be embarrassing, and the field attracts so many cranks. Given my training, how could I possibly not end up among them? Well, I did it, anyway, and beat the deadline by 24 hours by submitting the essay yesterday. I can only hope I don’t merit a spot on the crank bench next to the Time Cube.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Quantum Medievalists and Sundry Associates, a group organized by Angie Bennett Segler, an NYU grad student doing really extraordinary Digital Humanities work on Piers Plowman. With regular members Shyama Rajendran, Ada Smailbegovic, Ashby Kinch, and especially Brandon Jones and Sandra Danilovic, we made our way, week-by-week, through the 500-odd pages of Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, meeting via a Google Hangout every Wednesday to work out and in our confusion, hesitation, and enthusiasm. There were charts; there was math; there were internet outages; but we endured and we read the whole thing. We finished today, with 3 participants in various locations in New York, 1 in Illinois (?), and another in sunny Macedonia, on a street full of ironic (?) neo-Classical architecture.
Here’s today’s result (and a complete set here, on Angie’s own page):
Though Barad remains undercited by the object-oriented ontologists, quantum mechanics is already being successfully colonized (?) engaged with (?) by the new materialists, especially by Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures, Vicki Kirby’s Quantum Anthropologies, and most recently, by Timothy Morton. Žižek’s Less Than Nothing gets it on the action, too, with its own chapter devoted to Bohr and Barad.
It’s no wonder: any thoroughgoing disanthropocentric materialist has to rethink terms like nature, identity, cause, effect, representation, and agency, and the weird temporality of quantum mechanics offers ample rewards to narrative theorists, as we discuss in the video above.
At the same time, I titled my Rhizomes essay “Is a Quantum Mechanics Literary Studies Possible or Desirable?” I’m just not entirely convinced. It’s not that I doubt the truth of Barad or the Bohrian quantum mechanics she champions, but rather that I remain very cautious about its use to people like me. Let’s just say that postmedieval gave me some useful hesitation.
Here follows a preview of my essay’s conclusion:
The quantum phenomena Barad describes are virtually imperceptible on the scale at which a specifically literary scholarship operate and for the kinds of materials we investigate. Bohr observed that if the discontinuity of reality caused by Planck’s constant had been larger, humans would never have thought they lived in a “classical” world (MUH 457 n42). Planck’s constant is what it is though, and humanities scholars, for the most part, do not feel themselves to be moving instantaneously across the absolute minimum of gaps with quantum leaps. The same problem applies to relativity: at typical human speeds, we get along fine with believing space and time to be constants. The humanities can (at least) generally operate with a “good-enough” picture of reality, because modern physics’ precision far exceeds our needs. The best humanities teaching occurs at a relatively slow and imprecise level, pace the
claims of promoters of MOOCs, and the apparatuses of literary investigation do not isolate the materials of our investigation with sufficient precision to discern or determine quantum effects. As Barad herself writes:
quantum behavior is difficult to observe because of the difficulty of shielding an object, especially a relatively large object, from interactions with its “environment,” which continually fluctuates in an erratic fashion in such a way that a superposition is “randomized” into a mixture “for all practical purposes
(but not in principle)….one has to know how to identify an entanglement (e.g., where to look for correlations and how to measure them), and generally speaking, this is far from evident. (MUH 279)
It is extremely difficult, but increasingly not impossible, to observe quantum effects on a macroscopic scale (MUH 279; but see this), which is to say, on a more or less unassisted human sensory scale, or even just to observe multiple entangled particles, since every additional pair of entangled particles increases the complexity of the phenomena exponentially (for example, see here). It is hard to imagine these difficulties being overcome in a library, and even harder—though perhaps not impossible—to imagine the value of doing so.
In short, although I would prefer to be wrong about this, both the fundamental indeterminacy of reality and the generativity of knowledge will probably matter for literary criticism only either analogically, or to keep us from reductionist or relativistic errors, or will matter only by helping us develop more complex and correct accounts of agency, as Barad does in her analysis of the Calcuttan jute mill (MUH 24, 74, 44, and 94). Barad herself wrote an article whose noncontinuous structure, entangling Hamlet’s Denmark with the Denmark of Bohr and Heisenberg and with Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, aimed “to provide the reader with an opportunity to engage in an imaginative journey that is akin to how electrons experience the world” (244). Barad’s fascinating formal experiment sought to overturn the “overarching sense[s] of temporality, of continuity, in place” that would let us believe in our clear difference from what we study and our sense of historical progression that puts our objects of study only in the past and us in the present. The article’s structure is, however, a model or analog, inspired by quantum physics, but not an actual experience of entanglement or indeterminacy. To be still more specific: even if we were to isolate indeterminate complementary variables within the phenomena constituting book and scholar, our epistemological interaction with the literal material of a book will not do much to it that would affect our experience of the whole complex constituting it as book. And even if we did join ourselves with an apparatus capable of being marked by the literal material of some particular book in a way we could account for objectively, it would likely not matter much for our interpretation of its text.
That said, we could and should always extend our notion of the proper object of textual studies, and that said, when we make ontological claims, or claims about agency, or the character of time, as any scholar in the poshumanities must and as most humanities scholars do implicitly, we should have Barad in mind, at minimum to keep us from mistakes about the fundamental operations of reality. This is obviously no small matter. Having read the new materialists, we can no longer be sure about the fixity of the distinction between subject and object, with all the relations of dominion that implies, nor can we be sure that ethics requires self-awareness, whatever that is. We must abandon the world picture of classical physics, with its comforting assurances of our subjective separability from the world and our persistence in it (or even out of it!). We have arrived at this stage through Ian Bogost, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, and a thickening crowd of other thinkers, many included in this issue of Rhizomes. Barad needs to be read with the other new materialists, because her particular training gives ontologists “empirical support” for their systems, as Morton observes about quantum mechanics and object-oriented ontology,1 and, more importantly, because Barad gives us the best currently available description of reality.
The question is whether we can make any use of it. Literature scholars, and perhaps not only us,2 may be able to continue to get by without anything near the precision of quantum mechanics and still do our work as well as it could possibly be done. And, at the risk of reopening the rift between the sciences and the humanities, the kinds of accuracy required to describe the ongoing entanglement of matter in all its permutations may not have much to do with the kinds of accuracy we seek in the arts.
1. Timothy Morton, “OOO and Quantum Theory,” Ecology Without Nature, July 27, 2013. Also see Nature’s Queer Performativity,” 144, on “giv[ing] deconstruction empirical traction,” and Quantum Entanglements,” 260, on “empirical evidence for hauntology.”↩
2. Biologists, for example, though not able to take advantage of quantum mechanics in any obvious way, have started to use it to understand photosynthesis and avian navigation, among other biological processes: Philip Ball, Physics of Life: The Dawn of Quantum Biology,” Nature 474 (2011): 272–274.↩