Agential Realism


“Moving away from the representationalist trap of geometrical optics, I shift the focus to physical optics, to questions of diffraction rather than reflection.”

“What often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all. Like the diffraction patterns illuminating the indefinite nature of boundaries—displaying shadows in “light” regions and bright spots in  “dark” regions—the relation of the social and the scientific is a relation of  “exteriority within.” This is not a static relationality but a doing—the  enactment of boundaries—that always entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite questions of accountability.”

Barad here is very close to the way in which reality appears to me.  That metaphysical, subjective, substantialist, representational realism gains its ‘obviousness’ from being humans’ relating to ‘bodies’, entities ‘out there now’, and within the sciences particularly from  researcher’s relation toward entities in the laboratory where they are isolated and de-relationalized a priori.  Entities, as ‘reals’, have an intrinsic exteriority which gets transposed to ‘things’ which are not bodies, but, as Lonergan puts it, ‘constellations of cognitive conjugates that express a unity’, and are therefore valid only within a given mode of experience.  Further, this exteriority gets transposed onto ‘reality’, which is not merely the sum of reals, but more primarily the sum of relations posited between them in any given area of experience.  Thus science, common sense, and dramatic experience all deal with the same ‘bodies’, or ‘reals’, but with different ‘things’ and different ‘realities’, which cannot be transposed from one area or mode of experience to another.  Real, external bodies are not thought-acts, but ‘reality’ is a performative construction applied onto them in different ways depending on the practical interest of the Self in question.  A simple way of understanding the shift in perspective is that “there is no such thing as a human being (or a  table, or a galaxy), there is only being human (or being a table, or being a galaxy)”.  We do not experience ‘things’ primarily, we make the assumption of things underlying our basic experience of thinging. The enactment of boundaries, as performative, has to be simultaneously fundamental to all entities, and retroactive temporally.

The rest of this post deals with the basic definitions of agential realism, and where I see a limitation or divergence with Barad’s notions.  For convenience I have taken the basic definitions from a concise and accessible blog post dealing precisely with them:

Notes on Agential Realism

1. Barad rightly dismisses the subject, however we are self-aware precisely as the agent and result of performative acts, one of which is the positing of the subject itself. The subject cannot posit itself, since it is a purely negative posit and thus has no positive capability, which means the Self as agent is foundational in terms of the performative act of materializing, i.e. mattering. In this sense the Self is not restricted to the human Self, but to whatever has systemically determined phenomena in such a way as to posit itself (in the most basic sense of posit, which is not in this case a properly cognitive act). Thus constructivism itself is not in a relation with realism but is part of the intrinsic and exterior reality of the real itself.  Indirect causality (or more precisely, the impossibility of direct causality) implies that a proto-constructivism and the proto-capabilities necessary are intrinsic to any real as such, albeit in such as simple sense as to make it difficult for us to correlate with our complex constructive ability.  More complex be-ings have greater degrees of freedom, but the most basic freedoms required in order to be at all are the freedom to relate or not relate to another be-ing, and the freedom to appear.  It is in these performative acts that Being arises at its most basic level of extantness.

2. Language is the defining feature of being human, and has been determined as such since the time of the Greeks. Being human (including being socially human) is essentially entangled with language, and is so in a performative manner, i.e. it is entangled with language as narrative. Insofar as being human materializes (accomplishes its mattering) in a human way, it does so both materially in the usual sense and linguistically, and as such brings into play another system. Two equiprimordial aspects of being human, Being-a-Self and Being-In-The-World are intrinsically linguistic materializations that are only distinguishable by the manner in which they are narrated. The proper definition of material-discursive practice’ is a set of performative acts that as such are meaningful linguistically in a particular world, which itself is experienced simultaneously as material facticity and linguistic context. Barad is correct in determining that language has been used to over-determine or mis-determine what it in fact does not determine, since there are entire realities that are not linguistic, and language is not the only determinant in terms of what relations can be formed even in a human and thus linguistically interpreted world – i.e. there is a factical mattering that is preeminent – we cannot ‘say away’ a real, but the factical can only be experienced as the real that it is insofar as it can simultaneously matter in the linguistic context (it is this preeminence of facticity that leads to attempts to find a correspondence or correlation between two fundamentally different ways of mattering). The overestimation of the power of language is in some ways a natural tendency. World for us matters in a sensory manner, a pre-linguistic (semiotic) manner and a linguistic manner, but insofar as we are aware of its mattering in a fully contextual sense, it must become part of either the narrative of Self or the narrative of World. Although factical mattering has an absolute preeminence in determining the real in terms of exterior bodies, determining facticity (and thus reality in any given mode of experience) is always a matter of strife between sensory mattering, semiotic mattering and contextual registration. While factical mattering, as absolute, is also contingent, its registration is no less so. Necessity can only be posited retroactively of factical mattering that has been registered in the linguistic context, and insofar as the latter can change the ‘past perfect’, not just of what has been retained, but of what is possible as such in a given context, it can only do so if the linguistic context is reconfigured.

3. The definition of apparatus intrinsically means ‘formation of a determining system’ and as such apparatuses must determine the system (and therefore the boundary) retroactively, however the use of the technical term ‘apparatus’ continues the reliance on the theological notion of reality as completely determined, rather than predominantly self-determining. We refer to such determining systems, in a generic sense, as ‘worlds’. In any world the determining system predictively matters to its constituent systems, while its constituent systems matter to it in an unpredictable manner. Simultaneously only insofar as a system on a lower generic scale ‘matters’, i.e. registers itself with the determining system by forming a relation, is it constrained by that system, and thus a ‘body’. The apparatus used in quantum mechanics itself forms a determining system, it is the determining nature of that system, whether self-aware or not, that is the basis of its being an observer and in its determining we have the ground of the ‘observer effect’. Forming a relation with the determining system (or a subsystem that is already related) simultaneously determines what the lower scale system ‘is’ for the determining system. The determining system is also Zizek’s “big Other”, but for human worlds it is neither beyond human nor other than human, but different ways in which mattering is experienced both individually and socially.

4. Agency is entangled not merely with other agency, but with Event as such. Event is not simply that which occurs, but that which enables an apparatus, if such reconfiguring is named as such, to act. Agents may only act in a situation factically determined by Event. Agency itself is simply the forming of relations within the given situation, which in turn reconfigures precisely by determining what relations can be formed. In itself such relation-forming may become systemic or not. Only those relations which become systemic, though, can be considered ‘real’. Relations, even those that generate the transient effect of a systemic cause, remain ‘virtual’. Virtual agents can however have real effects.

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