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Barad offers meaningful insights into just about everything, exploring notions of entanglement, mutual-transformation through mutual participation in and as a shared world, and justice. And that's just in the Preface. The rest of the book....you'll want to discover for yourself (and everyone you love!)
Meeting the Universe Halfway is a remarkable accomplishment. In it the author presents her philosophy-physics agential realism. As developed in this book, the power of agential realism to resolve paradoxes of quantum physics that have, until now, defied explanation is quite amazing; as is its application in fields such as sociology, epistemology, and ethics. In fact, there seems to be no realm of consideration that agential realism does not touch. Moreover, the repercussions for everyday living are profound. An agential realist point of view changes everything, including the entangled viewer's sense of self and place in world.
I find agential realism's defeat of both determinism and absolute freedom to be essentially optimistic. In a recent discussion with a friend I defended science as the best hope for our survival as a species. Meeting the Universe Halfway, particularly agential realism's take on ethics, has confirmed my belief that this is indeed the case. This book is a challenging but immensely rewarding read. The importance of this work, in terms of our understanding of the world and the responsibility we all bear as integrated phenomena of and within it, cannot be overstated.
In Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad convincingly removes the human observer from the center of the quantum formalism. To ruin the punchline, she does this by re-introducing the human observer into the physical universe, and in particular into the quantum entanglements being observed. To loosely paraphrase Barad, obtaining determinate values for a quantum phenomenon is what it is like to be entangled *in* that phenomenon; the collapse of the wave function is in fact no collapse at all but rather what it is like to *become* entangled in that phenomenon; in other words, determinate values are what you get in the view from *within*.
Barad metaphorically labels her overall approach to the subject "diffractive". The approach is to draw unflinchingly from different disciplines and let the "interference patterns" reveal themselves, much like how dropping rocks into a pool sets up interference patterns that reinforce and dampen each other in interesting ways. She draws from science studies, social studies, feminist studies, etc. - but her principal inspiration is quantum mechanics and in particular Niels Bohr. Key insights obtained from this exercise are the performative-ness of the universe (in contrast to the usual focus on thing-ness) as it continually creates novel possibilities for itself (at the cost of excluding others) in its own becoming.
Barad then introduces her metaphysics of "agential realism". In her metaphysics, phenomena (or more precisely, quantum entanglements) are the basic ontological unit. At its most fundamental, this metaphysics is about how material cuts (or distinctions) performed as part of the ongoing becoming of the universe can lead bodies to leave marks on one another (cause and effect) within each entanglement. Within the context of controlled laboratory experiments, a body which is marked is part of the "agencies of observation" whereas the bodies leaving marks are the "objects of observation". But a crucial point here is that both are parts of one and the same entanglement (phenomenon). This "exteriority within phenomena" is what secures objectivity for science without forcing the human to be on the outside looking in. Another crucial point here is that controlled laboratory experiments are merely a special case of entanglements and that material cuts within entanglements are routinely performed by the universe outside of controlled experiments. (Since humans are part of the universe, they may enact these cuts - but then again so may other parts of the universe.)
Barad then tests out her metaphysics via what she terms "empirical metaphysics". That is, the ability today to actually execute some of the metaphysical gedanken experiments posed and counter-posed by Einstein and Bohr. The results of these experiments bode poorly for Einstein's metaphysical views and better for Bohr's. However, Barad's agential realism fares better yet, having rid itself of Bohr's implicit anthropocentric biases.
This new metaphysics of "agential realism" is extremely fertile ground for thought, and that's where Barad heads next. Since humans are part of the universe and as such may enact the material cuts that determine which bodies will leave marks on which other bodies within a given phenomenon, there is an ethical dimension to the cuts that humans enact. Nanotechnology, bio-mimicry, etc., are explored as material cuts that need ethical consideration. Not in the sense of disinterested human stewardship of nature as was the case for traditional anthropocentric metaphysical views, but in the sense of the ethical human contribution to the ongoing becoming of the universe of which we are but one part.
Barad can sometimes get a little repetitive in trying to express her metaphysics, and there are points she does not delve into (e.g., what is the generic mechanism by which the universe enacts material cuts?) - but all in all this is a book extremely rich in ideas worth thinking about.
Karen Barad has written a long, dense and brilliant book which proposes a welcome revolution in the way we think about things. She starts with a discussion of Bohr's "philosophy-physics" (Schrödinger's cat and all that). This is penetrating, surprising and very helpful. The conclusion that I found most helpful (and which she justified at length and in detail) was that it is phenomena (not material things) that are "ontologically primitive". The point here is that we cannot say where an electron IS (even if we might be able to say where the electron WAS) and the reason for this is that the very idea we have of "an electron" is only an approximation (and a rather poor one in some circumstances).
There are lots of consequences of this way of looking at things, and I think this is a major contribution to thinking clearly (even if I haven't done too well in this review!).
This book has really changed my thinking and practice in the visual arts. Unlike many of those writing from a science background, I found this book accessible for the layperson. It's helped me bridge some conceptual divisions that have (in the West), traditionally existed between the sciences and the arts. One of the other reviewers says that she says the same thing over and over. I really can't agree - there's a lot here for me to mull over, and continues to inform my thinking around new materialism and speculative realism.
Excellent. New theory that advances the New Materialisms. Her critique of "The Enlightenment culture of objectivity" that has produced representationalism, strict anthropocentrism, and metaphysical individualism (fixed ontologies) is a welcome addition to any serious research library. Her Agential Realism reworks how agency can be understood in radical, useful ways. Contingency is so important in science and how we culturally relate, that I also recommend her essays on time. Google them. One is a keynote speech.
This theorist is so important, she will have you questioning premises again!
This is a wonderful, exciting book. It shows the way forward in feminist criticism and the new material studies for all of us. It revolutionized my thinking in the field of literary studies. Cassandra Laity Editor of Feminist Modernist Studies (Routledge)