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"There are no fish-killers without fish"

Anne Dalke's picture

I was one very happy woman during Karen Barad's visit to campus this week. As I said in my introduction, I've been talking w/ her (in my head) and thinking with her (in classes and publications) for 5 years now, so it was just a delight to have the time to share supper with her and other colleagues interested in science and justice, to welcome her afterwards to a class full of philosophy and gender studies students, with whom she explored what it might mean to "ma(r)k time," and then to have a "processing-it-all" drive back into the city together afterwards.

To prevent myself from lecturing you all @ length, I'm noting here what were for me the sweetest--because potentially most generative--moments in her talk:
* "we are part of that nature we seek to understand"
* "there are no fish-killers without fish"  (or: the intra-action of an organism
and its environment is a phenomenon that cannot be separated out)
* the "self" I am is the result of specific intra-actions
*  identity is undone @ the heart of matter itself (=the queerness of the quantum)
* setting ourselves to linear time causes great pain
* how is all this related to gender studies?

But of course there was SO MUCH else, much of which I attempt to archive here:
* matter is not mere stuff," not the absolute opposite of liveliness, not the background to what matters,
not a thing, but doing: interactive, intersecting; it has an "agential role"
* if we are attentive to the materiality of imagining, there are possibilities for different kinds of stories
* there is no such thing as "beginning": all is threaded through w/ "anticipation of where it will reach"
* the present is "not simply here now," not part of a linear unfolding
* disrupt the narrative: undercut stories of scientific progress
* invitation to an imaginative journey, akin to how electrons experience the world
* there is no coherent sense of self (as in time-travel narratives)
* scenes never rest, but are iteratively threaded through each other
* on the ontological/hauntological nature of quantum entanglements
* there is something queer about the quantum "from the beginning"
* the instability of atoms: this is "no small matter"
* our understanding of the nature of change is caught up in continuity
* quantum is a measure of the discreteness of nature; a quantum leap occurs in a discontinuous fashion
* this is a particularly queer kind of leap: it troubles our sense of the continuous
* q is for queer: an undoing of identity
* waves and particles are ontologically distinct--> but light is both:
so much for solid confidence, the bedrock certainty of science!
* Bohr's unique contribution: concepts (like waves, particles) result from specific material arrangements
* the two-split experiment is the "great identity experiment":
a "sure-fire method" of distinguishing waves from particles
* science and justice are inextricably fused and cannot be dissociated
* according to Newton's laws of physics, all events have already happened
* "the nature of nature depends on how you measure it" (vs. "nature changes with the measurement")
* the Quantum Eraser: a past that has never been present
* the line between physics and metaphysics is underminable
* cf. Heisenberg on epistemic uncertainty, w/ (unequivocal support for) Bohr on ontological indeterminacy
* a performative understanding of identity (of light, or atoms….),
which performs differently under different circumstances
* ontology is never fixed, but always open to further experiments
* if one assumes an ontology of presence, the notion of causality is inexplicable:
what is the source of instantaneous communication ("spooky action @ a distance")?
* there are no individual actors in space and time:
the world does not operate in accord with an ontology exorcised of ghosts
* the past is never simply there "to begin with"
* space and time are phenomenological, never simply there "to begin with,"
not determinate givens outside of matter, but "agential performances"
* the trace of all measurements remain, even when the information is erased
* there is no inherently deterministic relation between the past and the future
* the world is its memory, an enfolded materialization
* discontinuity queers our presumptions
* disruption, which is so stabilizing, makes for the stability of existence (?)
* the "becoming of the world" resists determinism
* "not to make too much of a little thing, but!…"
* existence doesn't just evolve: it is an iterative becoming, an undoing
* identity is undone @ the heart of matter itself

cf. science and justice w/ science and ethics:
thinking about "elsi" (=the ethical/legal/social implications of science,
= the implications of work after it leaves the lab) is too little too late
* Bohr: meaning and matter are mutually entailed
"we are part of that nature we seek to understand"
* apparatuses are material discursive practices,
which make certain things to the exclusion of others
("what doesn't get to matter?")
* this enlarges the scope of responsibility ("response-ability")
* space and time are agential performances
* agency is not a property that different things have, but an intra-actment
* questioning the alignment of subjectivity and agency (it doesn't belong only to humans):
consider the fish killers (which don't exist w/out fish!)
* Bohr: individuals never independently create, but act as part of ongoing practices
(image of the homeless: "Independence. I tried that. Please help" =
for independence to work, an enormous support system needs to be in place =
individuals are part of larger phenomenon)
where is my individual agency, if my self is so shaped by the environment?
let's move the vocabulary to "intra-action":
for example, I wouldn't know who my "self" was if all my cousins were in this room,
along w/ all you academics: how would I behave in such mixed company?
the "self" I am is the result of specific intra-actions;
that we are phenomenon doesn't get rid either of individuals, or of group identities, like women;
but "what" we are depends on the apparatus that "measures" us
this is not communism vs. rugged individualism; it's about the "violence of the cut"
for ex: California Raisins, "just grapes and sunshine"--what else is the apparatus?
(soil, pesticides, proposition 209, advertising bord, grape boycott...)
how are those cuts being made?
this is an iterative, more dynamic model of making meaning of the world
it goes further than "seeing different objects through different lenses"
("I'm not doing the thing w/ the seven blind men and the elephant"--
this assumes a "there there" w/ all its qualities);
I'm shifting from geometric optics to diffraction
this is about oscillation: new cycles that are not exact repetitions of the past
think about the "re": turn/patriation/introduction (of wolves in the wild; the zapping changes things!)
this is about delay and deferral; it's a return to the empirical (Derrida would be pleased!)
the specters of science are coming back to haunt deconstruction
it's about a past that has never been present; don't assume that the past was already there
Derrida: ontology --> "hauntology": we have to take specters seriously, for social justice
this is a questioning of any origin, contesting this particular inheritance w/ quantum discontinuity
Shroedinger's cat is us w/ a terminal disease
facing your finitude changes your sense of temporality
how is all this related to gender studies?
this is about the materiality of imaginance
setting ourselves to linear time causes great pain
time is the "last thing that comes on-line socially"
there is no determinate gender--but there are
really important consequences for the way that certain cuts get made
I invite you to think with me, to imagine different possibilities,
to disrupt the story of scientific progress (continuous time)
how can we use agential cuts to "advance" social justice?
how use them to create "justice to come"? how deal w/ messiness w/out a messiah?
don't presume to know in advance what the most just thing is
consider the quantum scissors: "cuttting together apart"
consider, as Donna Haraway is considering, the hagfish:
what happens if we cut that slime w/ a pair of scissors? they get entangled

(to be continued….)


Kaye's picture

is there such a thing as quantum integrity?

I too was struck by Barad's idea that it takes an enormous elaborate apparatus for anyone to be an individual and how that makes it difficult to "know who myself is."  I had a strong non/sense of that back in grad school when I organized a weekend ski trip at Steamboat Springs that included some old high school friends, my sister, and some new grad school colleagues.  This proved to be a very disorienting weekend for me as I struggled with my overlapping, and often contradictory, identities.  While I believe that identity is fluid, I also seek to live a life of integrity.  But, is that possible in a world marked by dis/continuities and interruptions?  How does it relate to the queerness of quantum states in which an electron is in one energy level, then in another, but never in between?  So, I'm left with the question:  Is there a larger frame (one that has wholeness and honesty and coherence) in which my identities and my alliances can grow and develop, evolve and entangle, be cut and re-cut?  How can we continually and non-violently renegotiate lives with integrity?  Is the quest for integrity a sign of utopia or dystopia?

Gavi's picture

The Good in Having No Integrity

Kaye, I think your question regarding the existence of quantum integrity is fascinating. Semantically, “integrity” has a couple of definitions (or shades of definition, maybe). There’s the word’s denotation of internal holism and consistency, which I think is what you were referring to in your post. Generally, though, I use the word integrity not in its scientific/ethical definition, but in what has become its more common usage on the street: strength of moral character/ goodness. So when I first read your post, I thought of your question in a more subjective framework, as asking if you can consider yourself a good person if you have an unstable and impossible grasp on what your “person” truly is.


In the word “integrity,” consistency is irrevocably twined with goodness. It is therefore good to know my self, good to have a firm grasp on both the conception and presentation of my identity. I’m often told things to this effect by relatives and well-meaning adult acquaintances—that as I grow older, I’ll develop “integrity”, solidify my often-contradictory selves and move on with my life as a better and less internally conflicted person.  But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become a more fragmented person, as I’ve created new selves to respond to (Barad would probably say “with”) new situations and encounters. I don’t think that my many selves are reflective (“diffractive”?) of my being a less “good” person, though. In different situations and different times, I may hold differing values, but this is a necessary condition of questioning and re-questioning my self and the world. I often come back to at least one, somewhat more finite space: my body “as home” (which obliquely touches on your other question, about whether or not the body can be considered home when gendering is more a process than a place).


I keep reading the ideas of integrity through one of Anne’s notes on Barad’s lecture: “that we are phenomenon doesn't get rid either of individuals, or of group identities, like women; but ‘what’ we are depends on the apparatus that ‘measures’ us.” I think about societal views of the importance of integrity as both consistency and goodness—the social apparatus is one that measures individuals both by their wholeness/their “honesty” in self-presentation and by their moral character, and conflates the two in creating the “ideal” person. Barad might have given us a way of shattering that paradigm, though. Maybe, the idea that we do not have an overarching framework of integrity (as consistency) can free us to constantly question the lives and narratives we have constructed and reconstructed and, in doing so, let us attempt to find a maximized goodness for our selves and for other people (social justice work).


venn diagram's picture

Changing "self"

Thank you for posting your notes/reflections from Barad's talk. I particularly liked her comment in the Q&A section about differing selves and I am grateful for your note about her comment:

for example, I wouldn't know who my "self" was if all my cousins were in this room,
along w/ all you academics: how would I behave in such mixed company?
the "self" I am is the result of specific intra-actions;

because together with the version in my own notes (if my cousins were in the room too I wouldn't know what my "self" I was -->intra-action) I was  better able to remember her wording and the point she was making.

This point particularly resonated with me on a personal and intellectual level. As a senior I have been thinking a lot about how my context shapes my "self." Is it scary to think about graduating because I am comfortable in my role (within my family, within society, etc) as a college student or because I am in some ways a different "self" in this environment? Are those concepts mutually exclusive?