– Madeleine Boyd
Harman suggests in his 2013 explication of Object Orientated Ontology (European Graduate School lecture), two possible critiques of relational and science-based ontologies in philosophy, which therefore could be considered critiques of Barad’s Agential Realism. Harman makes specific reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory relational concepts, but the commentary applies to the broader field as well. The issue at stake here is the stability of objects and whether it is viable to contemplate that objects change as their relational embeddedness changes. Harman claims that objects have stable qualities that relate, but do not eternally emerge in-relation-to. Agential Realism, and new materialism of the non-OOO streams are heavily invested in emergent models of ontology. Johns-Putra (2013; p128) neatly summarises the difference as, “the difference between Barad’s and Morton’s formulations of agency and ontology is a matter of emphasis: Morton is interested in objects in motion; Barad is concerned with objects in motion.” Johns-Putra is referring to Tim Morton, colleague of Harman in OOO. On the second point of contention, Harman seems to relegate science-based ontologies in philosophy to a minor sub-sector of thought, which although attempting to get at the universe using measurements, fall into the same dilemmas of all philosophy and lack the rigour of analytic philosophy. At times he does seem to suggest that mathematics is the only real empirical reference of value to philosophy, outside of analytic traditions.
The frequencies at which Harman’s OOO, new materialism and Agential Realism do all resonate in time are the central contentions that the non-human has independent and significant valence in ontology, regardless of human presence, consideration or intervention; also importantly, that the materiality, or matter, of existence is of primary importance to philosophical consideration, rather than the spiritual, constructed or merely perceptual, for example. Differing views on the ways in which matter relates, touches, and comes into being is how the various material philosophies diverge. Harman suggests that he agrees with the ‘finitude of Kant’, but he asserts that new frontiers have opened up as we consider object-to-object relations, rather than the limits of philosophy being human-human or human-object. Important topics that emerge in these new materialist debates seem to be: how do objects touch?; the stability of objects as extant entities; and in which ways are objects able to be encountered by other objects or forces or entities, and the results of these encounters.
It is contented here that the relegation of important new observations in quantum physics to a sub-sector of philosophy is an incongruent starting point. If the matters at stake concern matter, then the only recently observed behaviour of sub-atomic particles surely has more to say about the processes of existence, than, say the musings of a wine critic about the affective qualities of a particular vintage (as Harman makes so much of). While the manner in which Barad has extended some of her insights to the eco-social sphere might be open to debate, the core subject of physics should be of primary interest to any materialist philosopher. Harman’s metaphors on magnets as descriptors of how objects relate could by contrast be considered nothing more than fanciful, for where is this shown to be true, other than in his own circular tautologies? It is therefore evident that Harman, much more than Barad, has fallen into the same old traps of philosophy. Barad, by contrast, has opened up entirely fresh frontiers in providing a non-mystical, yet still virtual (full of potential), basis for discussing matter.
As to whether objects or entities retain stability, I am sure that Barad is not suggesting that time is ahistorical, or that evolution has not occurred, or that entities such as birds, fish, rocks, and electrons do not exist. A clear statement is made at the outset of her book ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’, that the new materialism has risen to remedy the problems of constructivism, which include this idea of non-existence outside of relation. Barad’s Agential Realism is firmly grounded in material reality, and the idea that the non-human universe does exist always already a priori to human encounter. Her work does develop radical ontologies and mechanisms for the workings of existence, but in a way that should be considered pragmatic for application to research projects, such as the temporal relations between species in environmental studies, or the manner in which political movements operate, and perhaps most importantly concerning ways of making new agential cuts in relations between the human and non-human.
Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
European Graduate School. 2013. Graham Harman. Speculative Realism. .
Johns-Putra, Adeline 2013. “Environmental Care Ethics: Notes Toward a New Materialist Critique.” Symploke no. 21 (1-2):125-135.