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Notes Towards Week 2 (Sept. 6): Diffractive Methodologies


Paul Doherty, Water Waves Seen by Diffraction

... am looking forward to questioning the concept of
perspective and its potential shortcomings
(venn diagram)

"Reflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere ....
What we need  is ... to diffract ... so that we get more promising
interference patterns ... on the recording films of our lives and bodies ...
making a difference and not repeating the Same"
(Haraway, qted in Barad, p. 73).

I. Anne: Welcome back!
(who came back....?
please sign in w/ the username you'll be using for your Serendip posts--
flag if you're new!
also sign up to feed us during break, once this semester

continuing to get acquainted...
turn to the person next to you,
giving them your name and an adjective list

on p. 4, Riki Wilchins asks, "if you ever wondered if 
there's more to you than an adjective list"....
we'll pick up on this later! but first!

II. Coursekeeping

question re: timing?
reporting back re: posting? (get yourself an icon!)
book-getting? article-accessing? other course-managing stuff?

anytime between now and next Sunday @ 8 p.m.,
go to our web forum again and reflect on/diffract our conversation so far

next week, we begin "Act I" of the course:
Dis/Ability and Intra-Action

by next Tuesday evening, read
Eli Clare's book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation
and a webpage, Cripping Sex and Gender, which archives a discussion panel
Anne did @ last year's Disability Studies Conference,
along w/ 2 HC faculty members and 3 HC students

the focus of our discussion will be the "intra-action"
of gender studies and disability studies:

what happens to each field of study in this exchange?

the panel presentations are also intended to jump-start your thinking about what intra-action
you'd like to explore for your first paper, due @ the end of this "act," in 3 weeks

III. for today, we asked you to read/come ready to discuss three intersecting (?) texts
(with some curiosity about what intra-action this might set in motion...)

a chapter by Karen Barad on "diffractions,"
the remainder of Riki Wilchins' "instant primer" on Queer Theory, Gender Theory, and
Mimi Swartz's article about the "intractable connundrum" facing gay evangelicals.

the work of Wilchins and Barad is epistemological: both focus on how we know the world;
Swartz's article is a fascinating application/test case of the implications of such knowings.

so, first things first! (hm...problematic epistemological assumption...)


"To be entangled is ... to lack an independent, self-contained existence.
Existence is not an individual affair...individuals emerge through and
as part of their entangled intra-relating
" (Barad, ix).

V. Kaye: Karen Barad

There were many reasons why Anne and I chose to focus on Barad's work for this class--it was new for me and thought it would be for you as well, Karen is coming to Philadelphia as the visiting scholar for the Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies Consortium so we'll get the opportunity to ask her questions and dialogue with her, she is committed to social justice work, her ideas incorporating physics into gender studies are exciting and groundbreaking.

However, we also appreciate that this text may be particularly challenging, especially if the last time you studied physics was in a middle school physical science class that didn't even mention "quantum mechanics."


Are any of you majoring in physics?  How many of you have taken a physics course in college?  in high school?

Although Barad's text may be challenging, she does cross disciplinary boundaries in her book and is eager to communicate her ideas to those with little background in physics.  I plan to go over some of the key concepts she presents, show you two engaging and playful videos featuring Dr. Quantum, so that you can get a clearer sense of the potential value of her ideas.

But first, I want to begin with her preface and acknowledgements, which highlight why Anne and I are so excited by her approach to gender and sexuality.

so...a few quotes:

'we' have 'intra-actively' written each other ('intra-actively' rather than the usual 'interactively' since writing is not a unidirectional practice of creation that flows from author to page, but rather the practice of writing is an iterative and mutually consitutive working out, and reworking, of 'book' and 'author')

How many of you resonated with what she imagined her mother might say, that she had made things unnecessarily complicated again? 

" is precisely because of the passionate yearning for justice enfolded into the core of my being--a passion and a yearning inherited from and actively nurtured by my mother--that I cannot simply say what needs to be said (as if that were a given) and be done with it"

"I feel very fortunate indeed to have been raised with working-class values, which refuse to measure the value or worth of a person by their profession, accomplishments, education, wealth, or worldliness."

"Some of the greatest debts we have are to those who live in different times and spaces (at least according to the wholly inadequate conception that there are such external measures of absolute difference); 

Take a couple of minutes to think about whom (living or dead or not yet born, fictional, never met) you appreciate and would like to acknowledge....share these names in our space

Moving on to chapter 2, which we asked you to read:  "Diffractions:  Differences, contingencies, and entanglements that matter"--I'd like to spend some time exploring what is meant by "diffraction" in terms of physics and in terms of an analytical approach.

Start with some basic physics:  p76 (under the picture of the razor blade shadows)  "Classically speaking, particles are...Waves, on the other hand...same point in space." 

One of the key topics studied by physicists is light.  and it has been conceptualized in different ways: using geometical optics and physical optics.  Let's begin with the former, which is most familiar and easier to understand:

geometrical optics (light as a ray, as particles bouncing off a surface and being focused by lenses, used to understand reflection, mirrors, magnifying glasses and telescopes)

how many of you have had assignments asking you to reflect on a text, an experience, etc? 

physical optics (light as a wave, used to understand diffraction and investigate the nature of light)

This requires different apparatuses (not lenses or mirrors):  "In contrast to reflecting apparatuses, like mirrors, which produce images--more or less faithful..diffraction gratings are instruments that produce patterns that mark differences..." p81 "Crucially, diffraction patterns mark an important difference between waves and particles:  according to classical physics...(at the same time)"

p73 "diffraction apparatuses measure the effects of difference, even more profoundly they highlight, exhibit, and make evident the entangled structure of the changing and contingent ontology of the world, including the ontology of knowing." ..."The analysis at hand then will require thinking through the details of diffraction as a physical produce a new way of thinking about the nature of difference." 

video on diffraction and double-slit experiments:  Dr Quantum--diffraction (double slit)

We each have diffraction gratings that allow waves of light/energy through at different point and let us make new patterns--what are the slits in your diffraction gratings?

Diffraction is not just about comparing and contrasting, but creating new patterns--p72 "a diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear,  but rather where the effects of differences appear."

explore another term from Barad's text:  entanglement

this is where quantum physics gets really weird.  Highlight this with another video:  Dr Quantum--entanglement

take us back to her preface:  "this book is about entanglements.  To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entitites, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence.  Existence is not an individual affair.  Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating."

p90 "as Haraway suggests, a diffractive methodology is a critical practice for making a difference in the world.  It is a commitment to understanding which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom.  It is a critical practice of engagement, not a distance-learning practice of reflecting from afar."---

leads into a preview of agential realism (Barad's name for her analytical approach). p91 "...the point is not merely that knowledge practices have material consequences but that practices of knowing are specific material engagements that participate in (re)configuring the world.  Which practices we enact matter--in both senses of the word."  ... p93 " method is to engage aspects of each (disciplinary practice) in dynamic relationality to the other, being attentive to the iterative production of boundaries, the material-discursive nature of boundary-drawing practices, the constitutive exclusions that are enacted, and questions of accountability and responsibility for the reconfigurings of which we are a part." 

Whew--so much more to entangle and disentangle over the semester

VI. Anne: Riki Wilchins

though she really gives no space to science,
her ideas echo nicely Barad's discussion of "sameness and difference,"
of "boundary-making practices," of the construction of social "categories,"
of "representation" and "performance"; both are also interested
in using epistemology to make a difference in the world

Following what Barad says -- "the universe is not broken up into two separate domains
(i.e. he microscopic and the macrosopic)" (p. 85); "a diffractive methodology ... is a
critical practice of engagement, not a distance-learning practice of reflecting from afar.
The agential realist approach ... advances a performative understanding of ...
knowledge-making practices
... diffraction makes manifest the extraordinary
liveliness of the world" (p. 90) --

Reading this helped me understand why I so like co-teaching (as per Jane Tompkins,
in A Life in School, ""I love to teach with someone else. It augments the process
of diffusion, the spreading out not just of authority and power but of focus that makes
the classroom a more equitable and more permeable space"); it enables not
diffusion but diffraction!

I saw from the web forum that not all of you thoroughly embraced Wilchins' work:
Shlomo: slanted, cynical, hammering, not very balanced…
Joss: I loved Wilchins'.... steadfastness to her ideas...However, she did seem to backpedal a bit...
I felt like Wilchins slightly un-queered for her ideas to be palatable...

what I admire most about Wilchins is her "diffractive methodology";
first, I like her quick, sharp  walk through some very difficult, postmodern theory:

Derrida's critique of our naive belief in the transparency of language to describe the "real" world;

Foucault's analysis of the self (especially the sexual self)
as a political construction, a "cultural artifact"; and
of society as "disciplining" our "docile bodies" to police our own behavior;

Laqueur's history of the evolution of idea of "opposite" sexes and the "two-sexed body";

her account of the "heterosexualizing" of intersex infants (defining
them as either-or) as an example of the problematics of identity politics;

an account of the work race critical theorists have done in deconstructing race; and of

Butler's parallel deconstruction of the political category "woman,"
which solidifies the gender binary, by showing how it is "performatively produced."

But then (and this is what makes Wilchins really interesting to me)
she also shows how problematic postmodern thinking has been as a goad for acting:

distrusting all norms, and seeing any form of community as tyranny, makes organizing difficult!

Let's break into pairs to work through this material, from theoretical to actual:

On p. 4, Riki Wilchins says, "if you ever wondered if
there's more to you than an adjective list"....
Review with the person next to your list of adjectives.

On p. 116, Wilchins asks, "Is all ... identity a kind of learning, anchored ...
in the process of imitation and ... performance?... Is all identity a kind of passing ...
an approximation of an ideal that is always just outside one's Self ... an impossibility
that can never be perfect or perfectly coherent...?"
Tell the person next to you a story of a time you were
"passing" (or trying to) in one of the adjectives you just listed.

On p. 107, Wilchins quotes Foucault: "Maybe the target nowadays is not to
discover what we are, but to refuse what we are." Keep on talking w/ your partner:
what might this mean? what are the implications of this suggestion?
How stable is this target of "what we are"? How stable is your own target?
(Or: how do you understand your own construction of self??)

Share with each other your reactions to her suggestion, on p. 131, that
"maybe we should rethink the politics of gendered identification....
Gendered identification is not an integral, independent feature of experience,
but two accepted sets of meanings through which we are called to understand
ourselves and to be understood by others...."

Return to the large group to consider together Wilchin's punch line, p. 132:
Why do any gender at all?
What is the cultural demand that we answer to any gendered norm?"

VII. Break here for snacks, etc.?

VIII. Kaye: Count off into (7-8?) groups of 3.

In each group, hold a conversation diffracting the theoretical ideas of Barad
and Wilchins, the perspectives of the therapist and the experiences of
the gay evangelicals Swartz describes.
How might theory untangle their "intractable dilemma"?

IX. Report back to the large group? And/or post your further diffractions on-line...

Anne's Reading Notes/Favorite Passages

p. 33: "The philosophical tradition... has always favored the concept of the same ... to reveal the essential characteristics that two things hold in common."

p. 35:  language favors the Same, and what is unique, unrepeateable, and private tends to go unnamed.

p. 37: We expend a tremendous amount of cultural energy keeping...meanings intact....

p. 38: This fascism of meaning is a kind of crime....

p. 43: we discount difference as a noice in the system....The True is what can be repeated.

p. 44: postmodernism is the philosophy of the dispossessed....

p. 57: it is not enough simply to recognize one's self as gay ... ask what it means to understand one's Self through this form of knowledge ...ask how such identities are created, what effects they have on us, and whose ends they serve...this subjective sense of Self has a history

p. 59: Discourse is a set of rules for producing knowledge that determines what kinds of intelligible statements can be circulated within a given economy of thought.

pp. 63-5: An attack on discourse involves an attack on the categories themselves.... an end to the relentless production of a sex-binary society... "each individual execising surveillance over, and against, himself"

p. 123: "identity categories presumed to be foundational...simultaneously work to limit...cultural possibilities..."Laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable to feminism."

p. 134: "I would offer heterosexuality as both a compulsory position and an intrinsic comedy, a constant parody of itself."