Gaston Bachelard’s ‘material imagination’ + Karen Barad’s new materialism

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Yonat Nitzan-Green

04 April 2016

Text for group’s discussion: ‘”Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers” Interview with Karen Barad’, (from “Meeting Utrecht Halfway” intra-active event, June 6, 2009, at the 7th European Feminist Research Conference, Utrecht University).

‘In the imagination of each of us there exists the material image of an ideal paste, a perfect synthesis of resistance and malleability, a marvellous equilibrium between accepting forces and refusing forces. Starting from this equilibrium, which gives an immediate eagerness to the working hand, there arise opposing pejorative judgments: too soft or too hard. One could say as well that midway between these contrary extremes, the hand recognizes instinctively the perfect paste. A normal material imagination immediately places this optimum paste into the hands of the dreamer. Everyone who dreams of paste knows this perfect mixture, as unmistakeable to the hand as the perfect solid is to the geometrician’s eye.’

Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 2005, p. 81.

This session opened up with a performative act, entitled ‘10 minutes of making Tahini’. The participants were given all the right ingredients, however only one instruction as to how to make tahini. The intention was to bring to light the dialogue between artist and material. In Bachelard’s words: ‘…there arise opposing pejorative judgment: too soft or too hard.’

Both, Bachelard’s quote and this performative act served as an invitation to engage in an interview with Physicist feminist Karen Barad in which she explains her theory of ‘agential realism’.

According to Barad ‘agential realism’ is part of relational ontologies. Agency is ‘about response-ability’. It ‘is not something possessed by humans, or non-humans … It is an enactment. … it enlists … “non-human” as well as “humans.”’ Entanglement is the consideration of meaning and matter together which questions the dualism nature – culture and the separation of ‘matters of fact from matters of concern (Bruno Latour) and matters of care (Maria Puig de la Bellacasa)’. The notion of intra-action is called for in order to re-think causality. ‘Causality is not interactional, but rather intra-actional.’ By this Barad means that causality is a process of emergence rather than a game of billiard balls: ‘Cause and effect are supposed to follow one upon the other like billiard balls … causality has become a dirty word.’ Barad invites us to find new kinds and new understandings of causalities.

Barad developed diffraction as a main concept in her theory, as a practice and a methodology. She expands the classical physics definition of diffraction, by understanding this metaphor through quantum physics. On the one hand, ‘Geometric optics does not pay any attention to the nature of light … it is completely agnostic about whether light is a particle or a wave…’. On the other hand, understanding diffraction by using quantum mechanics ‘allows you to study both the nature of the apparatus and also the object’. This, she claims, is ‘not just a matter of interference, but of entanglement, an ethico-onto-epistemological matter.’