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Agents of Reality

Liz McCormack's picture

For Monday we are reading two articles by Karen Barad, "A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics" and "Scientific Literacy--> Agential Literacy= (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly." By calling attention to the responsibilities of scientists, we are wrapping up this part of the course by asking: what should the modern expectations of the enterprise of science be and how might we get there? In the first article Barad proposes to extend the idea of agential reality to interrogate dualisms that occur in social dynamics (pg 68), beyond science. To what and how might this idea apply? Write about your take on these and/or other questions that arose from these readings.

eli's picture

I agree with Flora. Barad's

I agree with Flora. Barad's course offering would have made a lot more sense if she had provided more concrete examples as to how it differentiates between "Physics for Poets" and transcends into this utopia of parallel universes between physics and humanities. It is easy to sympathize frustration derived from a system that seems to be focused on simply continuing a cycle of myth telling and 'ignorance'. But I am also compelled to disagree.

Is there an assumed dualism between science and culture? If so, I never encountered it. I can concede that there is an assumed dualism, an "us versus them", mentality between humanities and science, or even, as she often notes, between philosophy and science. Yet I also percieve this dualism as primarily being used to define not the disciplines themselves but the people who practice them; I am scientists, or a science major, not a philosophy major. But the use of the word 'culture' to me means something different. Science has a culture. Barad talks about the culture of science.

Overall I found this reading to be quite... perplexing.

Flora's picture

Thoughts on Barad

Well, there certainly is a lot in the Barad articles, as always. While reading the first piece, I felt (ha!) a constant sense of betrayal. When people ask me why I left physics, my canned answer is usually something along the lines of: "I was dealing with personal and family issues at the time and my coursework wasn't speaking to that." It was precisely attitudes like the one Barad quoted Feynman as saying about Von Neumann at the beginning of the piece " don't have to be responsible for the world that you're in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility... It's made me a very happy man ever since" that I was reacting against. Her summary of students being slaves to calculations has come up a lot in the course and it rang true. Especially the sentences "Eventually, even the most tenacious student will give in to the mysticism, or leave." (46) "rather than submit to some form of brainwashing" (59) I felt betrayed because I felt this way for nothing. Bohr, someone I had studied, was concerned with meaning all along and I didn't know! As Pais writes "Bohr's considerations are extremely relavant, however, to the scientist who occasionally likes to reflect on the meaning of what he or she is doing." (64)

I was also interested in her idea of the social construction of ignorance. And while I found her theories on science pedagogy interesting, I think I would have understood how her course differed from a "coating course" more if she had included a syllabus instead of abstractly discussing it.


sky stegall's picture

meditations on a quantum view of the world

rose, you're amazing and hilarious.  keep it up!  i love bohr; he tried so hard.  what was really interesting for me reading karen today was all the memories triggered from my own quantum mechanics class last year, and from the feynman books i have read and/or owned, and from reading "properties of light" last week (hey, i had to find something to do while lying on the beach!).  i may very well get out my old qm text and see if it talks about complimentarity (i'm pretty sure it does, because i certainly know what it means).  i'd like to speak to the issue karen (i feel so close to her these days) raises about responsibility in science as a kind of focus on meaning and interpretation, as a foundation for calculation and use.  i remember very, very distinctly being told, a number of times in my physics career but especially in quantum, that i should focus on doing the problems, and not on trying to "understand" the material.  upon reflection, i realized that this had puzzled and frustrated me so much in chemistry (in high school; i had to take it twice) that i nearly failed the class.  the equations never MEANT anything to me, no matter how much time i spent in lab.  fortunately, i've been blessed with (mostly) phenomenal (both senses!) professors of physics, and i can say frankly now that q.m. is the branch of physics i feel i understand best, despite the fact that i was taught to "do" it rather than "understand" it.  because sometimes understanding can only come with the doing.  like playing sports - you can read about rowing all your life but until you're on the water with an oar in your hands, none of it means anything real to you.  on the other hand, all practice and no concept is exactly what all of my self-identified "non-science" friends (note: i think this distinction is ridiculous and is part of the root problem here) complain about in their mandatory lab and quantitative classes.  so how did i learn quantum mechanics?  the same way one learns to row, or play hockey (to use my professor's metaphor): i did it and did it and did it until it frustrated the hell out of me, and kept doing it until i could get answers, and then i asked questions about what they meant and hounded my professor/coach until i got it.  i took a trans/disciplinary approach - i read my text, and feynman books, and the play "copenhagen," and now karen barad, and i've asked all kinds of people all kinds of questions.  and that's what i call real learning.  the problem is, i couldn't get all that from my class.  i can't really fault my professor for his focus on problem-solving - it's what graduate schools would expect me to master and frankly, it was my foundation.  but i completely understand why karen points out such things as the occasional addition of bits and pieces of history and philosophy as tokenism and advocates for a more rich approach, because without all that extra work and interest i would never have understood anything - not even the problems i was being trained to solve.  so my question is now, how do we design a course that will cover all that stuff?  karen promptly presents an answer for me, in that second article, and as much as i appreciate that... i couldn't help but notice she needed a mellon grant to get it done.  come on, guys - her whole point is that sicence literacy SHOULDN'T be the sole providence of scientists, not if we want to promote a revolution in the way the world does physics (responsibly, that is).  to be trans/disciplinary we need to the help and support of ALL disciplines of knowledge...  all you "non-sciencey" people out there.  society is NOT discontinuous, even if quantum-level measurements are, and we can't pretend to do it on our own.  i don't know, really.  these are just my thoughts and reactions.  i look forward to hearing y'all tomorrow. 
rmalfi's picture

The Pint Glass: A Short Play by R. Malfi

Barad: "According to agential realism, "gender," "race," "class," and "sexuality" refer to specific social dynamics, not to properties attributable to a particular person. These terms are historically, geographically, and politically situated." (Teaching the Majority, Barad, p.68)

It took me a long time to read this an understand it. I'm not even sure if I really understand it right this very second, but here is me trying...

Me: So, Barad, what you're saying is that our concepts of what it means to be a man or a woman, of a particular sexual orientation, of a class are all socially constructed demarcations, much like we demarcate ideas in science? So, classifying or qualifying terms that fall within each of these respective social categories are to realism, as Cartesian cuts or technology or terminology is to realism as you (and Bohr) define it?

Barad: Sure, something like that.

Me: Cool. But let me see if I really understand. Let me use an example that I think is relevant. My boyfriend, a philosophy/writer type like yourself, always asks me "What is a species?". He doesn't get it. Why is this very similar thing a different species from that very similar thing. Why are they separate? At first I would try to explain it as it had been taught to me. I would say, "Well, if populations are isolated by reproduction, meaning that there is no successful hybridization between two groups, then they are distinct from each other and considered separate speces" or "Morphologically, this mandible length and that tarsal segment are modified making them different, blah blah blah." That wasn't enough for him. That wasn't what he was looking for. And eventually, I uttered the answer he finally wanted to hear from me. I said, "Well, I guess there really aren't species. A warbler doesn't care that we call it a warbler. This is an idea that we imposed on nature, that we use to make sense of the world around us." (I may not have been quite that articulate). Surely enough, he smiled, nodded his head, and was satisfied. And it is for the very reason that you speak of in your writings. The idea of "species" is constructed. Our interpretation of the world is one with the world itself. We could come up with completely different ideas about what a species is, and people have. It's just they way people have done things for so long that makes it "common" practice.

Barad: I think you're getting it.

Me: Thanks, I'm trying. So, getting back to social dynamics and dualisms... We use other social definitions and classiciations in discourse about the world and how it works. Just as we must be careful about and helf accountable for the demarcations we make in science (in understanding that we create them and that they have context - that they are not preexistant in nature), we must be concious of how we use social terminology in discourse, and how our ideas about race, sexuality, gender, etc. will have an impact on the world around us. So, for instance, defining things as masculine or feminine... those are social constructs... We associate certain characteristics with men or women, based on historical, social precendent. Huh. I think that makes a lot of sense. You're really, very insightful.

Barad: Well, I have my Ph.D.

Me: Yeah, I need one of those. Or not, since that could be a whole socially constructed thing, too. Ha, you know what I mean?

Barad: I worked very hard to get where I am.

Me: No, that was just... a joke. You obviously deserve... *ahem*... But, getting back to the point, I guess the next question is how to apply your ideas to actual practice.

Barad: That's always the hard part.

Me: True that, Karen. True that. I guess one way of doing this in the field of physics is through educational practices, like you discuss in your paper on Agential Literacy.

Barad: Yes, my course on 20th Century Physics was "designed to enable students to learn science while thinking about science, and to learn that thinkng about science is part of doing science... In a sense, the course itself was a meditation on scientific literacy, disciplinarity, and the consequences of particular boundary practices." (Scientific Literacy, Barad).

Me: So our scientific practices are not separate from how we behave as a society.

Barad: Exactly. "The making of science is not separate from the making of society... not because they impact one another but because the constitutive intra-actions do not honor the arbitraty boundaries we construct between one and the other." (Scientific Literacy, Barad).

Me: Yeah, totally. That's... yeah... well I pretty much can't expand on that. But I think a good way to apply your ideas about this is through education and getting rid of courses that over-contextualize physics, or may just contextualize science in the wrong way... Like the "Physics for Poets". There is no physics for poets... Everyone should think about what physics means... everyone can be a responsible scientist. You don't need a Ph.D. That's what... I meant... earlier...


Me: Say, wanna grab a beer? It's on me. We can cheers to the fine apparatus called the pint glass.



* Disclaimer: This is a fictional conversation. Karen Barad did not actually talk to me, and I don't know if she likes or consumes barley beverages.