Summary Notes: Karan Barad “Posthuman Performativity”

“Performativity is actually a contestation of the unexamined habits of the mind that grant language and other forms of representation more power in determining our ontologies than they deserve” — Karan Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity:Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” pg 802

In “Posthumanist Performativity,” Karen Barad advocates agential realism as an alternative to representationalist ontologies that split “semiotic” from “material” reality. Barad argues 1) that matter is not a “substance,” but intra-activity and 2) that “agency” is not an exclusively human attribute, but rather the “enactment of iterative changes” across macro/microscopic levels of matter (“PP” 826). Matter is performative in that it (re)produces itself through the effects of its own intra-active dynamic material relationships. Relata do not pre-exist these relationships, but emerge through them in the fluid, diffractive boundaries that crystalize phenomenon (matter) into “things” (thingification) “positioned” in spatial-temporal, affective relation. For example, the “subject”/ “object” dichotomy is performatively enacted through the specific spatial, temporal proximity “between” “the two” necessary for apprehension; the approximal relationship through which “subject” and “object” emerge. The cognitive “split” that constitutes the “I” is a discursive practice called the agential cut; the conception of separability between one “thing” and “another” that grants the illusion of agency. 

For Barad, “discursives practices” are not (only) “linguistic expressions” of human language, but extend to other material “specific practices of intra-action…entangled with other intra-actions”(822) that “produce material phenomenon” (820). The material apparati which constrain, but do not over determine, these practices find within their own diffractive limits possible “dynamic reconfigurations of the world” (821). Because “being” is “not a static relationality but a doing” (803)” “that always entails constituting exclusions” (803),” a posthumanist engagement with performative matter must not only account for the sites of human/nonhuman cuts, but also challenge the ethical stakes of such cuts.

Works Cited:

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity:Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs (University of Chicago Press) 28 (3): 801–831. 2003.

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