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Epistemological Misgivings of Karen Barad’s ‘Posthumanism’

Abstract

Karen Barad develops a view she calls ‘posthumanism,’ or ‘agential realism,’ where the human is reconfigured away from the central place of explanation, interpretation, intelligibility, and objectivity to make room for the epistemic importance of other material agents. Barad is not alone in this kind of endeavor, but her posthumanism offers a unique epistemological position. Her aim is to take a performative rather than a representationalist approach to analyzing ‘socialnatural’ practices and challenge methodological assumptions that may go unnoticed in some disciplinary fields. Yet for all the good of the challenge, Barad must support it with sound epistemological theorizing, theorizing that would apply to any methodology, whether that be sociological, historical, anthropological, or philosophical. Thus, where one might critique Barad on her assessments of sociological, historical, or anthropological incorporations of humans and the nonhuman, I critique Barad’s epistemology on its sense of objectivity and dismissal of the centrality of the human. I argue that Barad’s epistemology must retain a particular form of humanism, a humanism that stakes human subjectivity as the locus of rationality and objectivity, without which it creates intractable problems. To recuperate Barad’s challenge to contest assumptive distinctions while avoiding her epistemological problems, I offer some parting reflections.

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Notes

  1. To acknowledge this turn does not require acceding to the reification of ‘social causes’ or ‘social facts’.

  2. While Barad may talk about more physical conceptions of ‘matter’ and the ‘nonhuman’ than others like Pickering, Latour, and Rouse, her intent is to generalize her findings into an account of material-discursive practices that cut across particular conceptions of ‘matter’ and even differences in methodologies (Barad 2007: 146–150). Her project against humanism is the same thread of thought as those theorists above.

  3. Ironically, Trevor Pinch (2011) criticizes Barad for her apparent disinterest in the social and historical contexts that have infused physicists’ thought and the field of science studies.

  4. I use the term ‘anti-humanism’ differently than Barad. Barad says that she is not ‘anti-humanist’ in the way that structuralists and post-structuralists make “human bodies and subjectivities … the effects of human-based discursive practices” (2007: 171). She is not ‘anti-humanist’ in that manner because, according to her, that is still a form of humanism. In contrast, I use the term as against humanism in whatever form that makes the human the center of analysis.

  5. Schatzki (2002: 109–119) also advances that the material world cannot make itself intelligible without humans. He interprets Rouse (1996) as arguing that matter can render itself intelligible (like Barad), but Schatzki rejects that view endorsing what Rouse calls a dispensable ‘residual humanism,’ that intelligibility requires human thought and practice. Thus, what Rouse seeks to purge from epistemology, Schatzki finds it necessary. I argue the same.

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Correspondence to Chris Calvert-Minor.

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Calvert-Minor, C. Epistemological Misgivings of Karen Barad’s ‘Posthumanism’. Hum Stud 37, 123–137 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-013-9285-x

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Keywords

  • Epistemology
  • Objectivity
  • Barad
  • Bohr
  • Humanism
  • Posthumanism
  • Matter