A newer (ish) theory of knowledge, as articulated by Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism”, and in Donna Harroway’s “Situated knowledge”. Barad criticises “representationalist” theories, for their maintenance of a gap between thoughts and the world, and the project of knowledge as the pursuit of accuracy between the two. Against this she proposes an “agential realism”, via a performative, active, material-discursive practice, as a mode of producing objective, situated knowledges.

[radically in and of the world (i think) – L.C].

  • how’s this relate to “realism”? Can we maintain realism without maintaining that thoughts and reality are separate? Perhaps by folding thought into reality?
    See correlationism, speculative realism, Sellarsian scientific realism, etc.
    (The problem is whether Barad is correlationist, in insisting on the necessity of entanglement between thought and the world?)
  • how’s it relate to pragmatism? Pragmatism also, supposedly, saught to overcome representationalism. It was another naturalist philosophy, where truths, or knowledge, seem situated, and substantiated in practice.

The following is based on:

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs, 28, 3, Gender and Science: New Issues, p. 801–831.

And a bit on:

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14, 3, p. 575-599.

themes: performative metaphysics, scientific practice, internal relations, materialist science, feminism, situated knowledge
contra: social constructionism, scientific realism, representationalism
precursors: Niels Bohr, Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Harroway, Rouse
contra: Democritus, Descartes, Newton

In Barad’s more recent article, she formulates a “materialist, naturalist, and post-humanist” elaboration of  “performativity” as a discursive, scientific practice of world and knowledge making. As Barad testifies, much of this work is based on the work of Donna Harroway, which i will subsequently discuss.

Barad’s article is aimed at any theory that is biased towards language over matter, or representations over represented, signifiers over signified. Barad wants to argue that matter matters, is no less accessible than language or culture, is not static, but has a history and even, agency.

Barad advances a “performative” notion of discursive practice, focusing on “doings/actions” rather than a representationalist focus on “questions of correspondance between descriptions and reality”, whether from a social constructionist viewpoint (i.e. representation <> culture) or a scientific realist viewpoint (i.e. representation <> nature).

First move: from representationalism to performativity

Barad first describes representationalism as a liberal ideology of separate individuals: On these accounts individuals and their attributes pre-exist their representation. Sometimes typified by a tripartite model:

  1. knowledge (representations)
  2. the known (that which is represented)
  3. the knower (someone who does the representing)

On this model, 1 is the mediation between 2 and 3. 2 and 3 are ontologically separate. Thus the accuracy of 1 as a relation is a question.

E.g. does science acccurately represent reality? Does language accurately represent its referent? Does a politician represent their people?

Butler/Foucault criticise this representationalism. Butler summarises Foucault’s theory of subjectivation, which says that:

“juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent”.

E.g. norms produce subjects, rather than merely recognise subjects.

But representationalism has also been criticised in science studies, (not only studies of governance). This happened via studies of the practice of science.

Two examples of representationalism: scientifc realism and social constructionism
(p. 805-6)

Joseph Rouse’s Knowledge and Power (1987), Engaging Science (1996), and How Scientific Practices Matter (2002).

Criticised the debate between scientific realism and social constructivism. These two have more in common than they think. Both share “representationalist assumptions”.

In particular they share a belief that:


scientific knowledge (in its multiple representational forms such as theoretical concepts, graphs, particle tracks, photographic images) mediates our access to the material world

I.e. they both see scientific knowledge as a representation that mediates access to the material world. However they do see this material world differently:

“they differ…on the question of [the] referent, e.g. on whether scientific knowledge represents:”
a) “things in the world as they really are (i.e., “Nature”) (e.g. scientific realism)
b) ““objects” that are the product of social activities (i.e., “Culture”) (e.g. social constructivism),”
a + b) “both groups subscribe to representationalism”.

History of representationalism:
(p. 806

Representationalism begins with Democritus, with “atoms and the void”. Basically, the idea that our concept of “the table” as a solid mass made of wood, became understood as a (quite different) representation of what it is in reality – an aggregate of discrete atoms moving in a void.

With Descartes the trust in our access to representations, over reality, was cemented. (Obviously, through his mind-body split), and his skepticism about our knowledge of the world, over our knowledge of mind.

“In other words, the asymmetrical faith in our access to representations
over things is a contingent fact of history and not a logical necessity.”
(p. 806)

Barad says that the post-structuralist notion of ‘performativity’ can be an antidote to this representationalism, and its correspondance theory of separate representations and referents:

“A performative understanding, which shifts the focus from linguistic representations to discursive practices, is one such alternative.”

E.g. there’s lots of different practices we can bring to bear on representationalism, in the course of developing a performative understanding of discursive, scientifc practices. In particular, Barad wants a post-humanist notion of performativity, typified by Harroway’s ouevre, and Butler’s theories, where:

“performativity is linked not only to the formation of the subject but also to the production of the matter of bodies”
(p. 808)

Furthermore, Foucault’s account of subjectivation (his analytic of power) links discursive practices to the materiality of the body [bipower – L.C. ?]. But, for Barad, both Foucault and Butler are limited by Foucault’s constraints. In particular, they aren’t able to understand:

“precisely how discursive practices produce material bodies”

Basically, Foucault says he wants to show:
– how power is connected to the body, “to functions, physiological processes, sensations and pleasures”,
– how biological and historical “are not consecutive to one another”, but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with [technologies of bio-power].

Barad reckons he doesn’t pull this off. He’s got vestiges of representationalism that asign a passivity to matter. “discursive” practices are agential, but “non-discursive” ones are not.

“He cheats matter out of the fullness of it’s capacity.”
(p. 810)

“It is difficult to imagine how psychic and sociohistorical
forces alone could account for the production of matter.”

“there is a host of material-discursive forces—
including ones that get labeled “social,” “cultural,” “psychic,” “economic,” “natural,” “physical,” “biological,” “geopolitical,” and “geological”— that may be important to particular (entangled) processes of materialization.”

What is needed?

What is needed is a robust account of the materialization of all bodies—“human” and “nonhuman”—and the material-discursive practices by which their differential constitutions are marked. This will require an understanding of the nature of the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena, an accounting of “nonhuman” as well as “human” forms of agency, and an understanding of the precise causal nature of productive practices that takes account of the fullness of matter’s implication in its ongoing historicity. My contribution toward the development of such an understanding is based on a philosophical account that I have been calling “agential realism.”

Three things to do next:

  1. propose “agential realist ontology” against “metaphysical underpinnings of representationalism”
  2. propose a posthumanist performative version of discursive practice and materiality, and the causal relation between them.
  3. discuss “agential realist” conceptions of causality and agency vital to understanding the productive nature of material-discursive practices.

To be continued…

An interesting thing to look at > correlationism