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Barad’s Agential Realism from a RE Perspective

Dr. Svein Sando, associate professor Queen Maud University College, Trondheim, Norway

This paper was presentet at the Nordic Conference of Religious Education (NCRE) in Trondheim June 2019


One of the outstanding researchers within posthumanism, is the American Karen Barad (1956-), with PhD in particle physics, to day professor in feminist studies. Her theory Agential Realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway (MUH) find arguments from the discussion within quantum physics in which Niels Bohr is central. Barad claims that her enterprise also have great ethical impact, by uplifting the concept entanglement, derived from phenomena in quantum physics, and. She raises questions like what/who is entangled with what/whom? What matters? How does matter matters? Her ethics is post-human insofar as she encompasses almost everything in what is ethically relevant, and that both human and non-human agents intra-act.

Barad’s ethics seems however largely to be old stuff in new clothes. Arne Næss broke out of pure inter-human ethics about 50 years ago with his deep ecology. Earlier ethicist like Lévinas and Løgstrup have anticipated most of her ethics. It is also a similarity that both Barad and Løgstrup have references to prominent physicists from the early era of quantum physics. Both are also hampered with a difficult language, which obscure their ability to be understood and grasped by others. Thus, there is an education challenge to reach out with this otherwise fruitful relational/ontic ethics.



One of the most outstanding researchers and proponents of the new materialism branch within posthumanism, is the American Karen Barad (1956-), with a PhD in particle physics, to day professor in feminist studies in Santa Cruz, California. Her theory Agential Realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) (abbreviated MUH), finds arguments from discussions within quantum physics, especially methodological questions about scientific apparatuses posed by the Danish scientist Niels Bohr. The whole field of quantum physics brought complete new ways to think about realities that not only shattered Newtonian and classical physics, but also have implications that even Einstein, in opposition to Bohr, could not agree to. Einstein’s famous comment that he “could not believe in a dice-throwing God” (Einstein in Jammer, 1974, p. 188).

Barad takes things even further, considers matters as the fundamental entity in universe, and gives it agentive status: “Matter is agentive, not a fixed essence or property of things” (MUH p. 137). Using Bohr, she claims in MUH chapter 4 that the border between the observer, apparatus and object in experiments is not sharp. An apparatus must be configured to observe some specific phenomena, whereas others are cut off. Barad replaces the concept ‘interaction’ with “intra-action” to emphasize that interacting agents are in fact entangled.

Barad’s project is enormous: “Agency needs to be rethought. Ethics needs to be rethought. Science needs to be rethought. … every aspect of how we understand the world, including ourselves, is changed [by her project]” (MUH p. 23).

In this short paper, I restrict myself to test her claim that ethics needs to be rethought. Is Barad’s ethics really so novel and original? What kind of consequences will this have for education?

The impact of Meeting the Universe Halfway has been increasing exponentially since 2007, with more than 1000 citations in 2016 (Hollin, Forsyth, Giraud, & Potts, 2017, p. 920). In pedagogy posthumanism has become increasingly popular, but also controversial (Time, 2017). My interest for MUH was my own background as physicist (B.S. 1976), ethicist (PhD 2014), and papers on the connection of embodiment and ethics (Sando, 2003, 2006). Quantum physics is familiar to me, so it was interesting to see how Barad connects this to ethics.

Barad’s ethics in Meeting the Universe Halfway

One of Barad’s main concepts is entanglement, used throughout MUH, but especially in chapter 7. Entanglements are important phenomena in quantum physics, but Barad rescales it to macro and mental levels as well, for which she are criticised (Hollin et al., 2017, p. 936). This critique seems relevant since Barad herself rejects both analogical methods and reductionism (sociology -> biology -> chemistry -> quantum physics) (Barad, 2007, p. 24). Entanglement is based on diffraction instead of reflection, the latter she criticizes to be an out-worn metaphor for thinking since a mirror just reflects the same things, whereas diffraction “attends patterns of difference” (p. 29) and is creative: “diffractions involves reading insights through one another in ways that help illuminate differences as they emerge: how different differences get made, what gets excluded, and how those exclusions matter” (p. 30).

Ethics is in Barads view entangled with both ontology and epistemology, which she claims otherwise are “separate fields of study” within the metaphore “reflextion” (p. 90). Instead she makes the neologism “ethico-onto-epistem-ology” (p. 90) which should be the outcome of diffractive thinking because they are not separable. She makes a lot of new concepts by putting together known concepts or splitting them by means of hyphens. ‘Interaction’ becomes ‘intra-action’, in order to emphasize the entanglement between those having interaction.

In general, Barad seems to use the concept ‘ethics’ whenever something or someone intra-act due to their entanglement. This goes along with her stressing that agency is not about a commitment one has, but something that takes place in given situations: “Agency is “doing” or “being” in its intra-activity” (p. 178). Barad makes the concept “cut” to differentiate where intra-actions take place or not, to discern what matters or not:

Cuts are agentially enacted not by willful individuals but by the larger material arrangement of which “we” are a “part”. The cuts that we participate in enacting matter. Indeed, ethics cannot be about responding to the other as if the other is the radical outside to itself. Ethics is not a geometrical calculation; “others“ are never very far from “us”; “they” and “we” are co-constituted and entangled through the very cuts “we” help to enact. Intra-actions cut “things” together and apart. Cuts are not enacted from the outside, nor are they ever enacted once and for all. (pp. 178-179)

At first glance, this ethics seems to be a kind of relational ethics emerging out of given situations. Moreover, Barad has an affirmative reference to Emmanuel Levinas (pp. 391-192) and Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.1 And each meeting matters” (p. 353, see note 1 p. 466). Another place however, she widens the scope completely: “Ethicality is part of the fabric of the world; the call to respond and be responsible is part of what is. There is no spatial-temporal domain that is excluded from the ethicality of what matters” (p. 182), at least in principle. Which kind of entanglements an agent is part of, will, I presume, be what matters in a specific situation or instance.

Barad’s ethics is in my view a meta-ethic. It gives no rules or principles. In the following quote, she seems to discard consequentialism: “ethics is not simply about the subsequent consequences of our ways of interacting with the world, as if effect followed cause in a linear chain of events” (MUH p. 384). In general, she has very few references to ethical scholars; Levinas as one important exception. Her ethics seems to be crystalized around two concepts: mattering and entanglement. The last chapter in MUH is named exactly “Toward and ethics of mattering” (p. 391). She combines the two concepts nicely in this quote a few pages earlier: “Ethics is about mattering, about taking account of the entangled materializations of which we are apart, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities – even the smallest cuts matter” (p. 384). By this, she broadens the ethical scope to encompass everything. Man is no island. We have responsibilities to more than other human beings, to everyone we might be entangled with, and not only close to us in space and time.

In a world with increasing ecological crisis and growing polarizations among people almost everywhere, Barad’s ethics seems to carry important messages to everyone, and even more in 2019 than when she published this in 2007. That may be one reason for the increasing interest MUH has experienced the last years, as mentioned earlier. This ought to be an argument for using her insight in education.

A new ethics?

Is, however, Barads ethics new or original? Is it but old speech in a new language? And is it speech in a language that are too complex and strange in order to reach out?

Barad has herself referred to both Levinas and Buber, and thereby given hints about her mentors. There are further similarities with earlier ethicists. Zygmunt Bauman claims (1996) that there are two main paradigms of ethical theories; those many based on the myth of Moses getting the ten commandments on mount Sinai, and those very few based on the myth of Eden where Adam and Eve become ethically responsible by discerning between good and evil. The latter lack rules and principles, the first is about making rules or principles. Bauman claims that Levinas and the Danish philosopher/theologian K.E. Løgstrup are two of the very few ethicists within the Eden-paradigm. Løgstrup’s ethics is about being entangled with other people (Løgstrup, 1956/1991, p. 25), and is about being responsible not because of rules or principles but by knowing intuitively what matters in the given context (Løgstrup, 1996, p. 20), i.e. in Barad’s language: ethico-onto-epistemic! And these situations are for Løgstrup neither restricted to only human-to-human meetings, but to the whole environment (Løgstrup, 1994, 1995). Like Barad (e.g. MUH p. 133), Løgstrup is an anti-representationalist (Løgstrup, 1995, pp. 20-29). Like Barad (MUH Ch. 4) Løgstrup writes that matter matters, or more precisely that the importance of sensation of the materiality is neglected by most because meaning and understanding takes effective precedence over matter; but matters have ontic precedence (Løgstrup, 1995, pp. 19-20, 27-28, 30-34) in Løgstrup’s view. It is also interesting to note that Løgstrup cites Erwin Schrödinger several times in Opphav og omgivelse, one of the other important physicists describing the quantum physics in the 1930-ties. Both Barad and Løgstrup have thus drawn similar philosophical conclusions from the same scientific field.

Concerning ethical scope, environmental or ecological ethics have been around for some decades. Arne Næss wrote about deep ecology back in 1973 (Curry, 2006, pp. 72-81), which is clearly post-human even in today’s notions: “…non-human life on Earth has intrinsic value” (p. 72). My impression is thus that then content Barad’s ethics is not new at all. The novelty is however that she underpins it with deep insight in quantum physics, and thus strengthens the arguments for ethics of the Eden-paradigm using Bauman’s classification, or what Løgstrup calls “the ontological tradition” of ethics.

Consequences for education

Barad’s works have obtained much interest the later years, as mentioned above. Some are inspired by her work (Bazzul, 2018; Lange, 2018), some in between (Hollin et al., 2017), and some very critical (Rekret, 2016). Elizabeth Lange claims that Barad’s “relational ontologies offer significant possibilities for revitalizing” the stagnating field of learning theory (Lange, 2018, p. 280). Relational ontologies, or entanglements using Barad’s own concept, is obviously important facing today’s global crisis, especially if ethics is used as critique “to tear down destructive hierarchies” (Bazzul, 2018, second page). In Scandinavia, Løgstrup and relational ethics has been around for decades, especially in training of health personal (Martinsen, 2003) and teachers (Bugge, 2014). These educations in ethics may, however, have been too human-to-human oriented, even if Løgstrup himself argued for a wider scope, as mentioned. These parts of Løgstrup’s philosophies are regrettably not very easy to understand and are claimed to be controversial (Andersen, 1995, p. 38).

Important thoughts in obscure wrapping seems to be a problem for some parts of Løgstrup’s philosophy, but also for Barad. Her creativity in making neologisms, combined with those followers who make it even more exotic (Time, 2017), is a contra-productive enterprise. Using Vygotsky’s / Bruner’s metaphor scaffolding (Shvarts & Bakker, 2019), both Barad and Løgstrup could be criticized to place the scaffold too far away or make too broad zones of proximal development, so that most people fail to reach the points. An educational task is thus twofold: 1) Teachers must themselves grasp these ideas. 2) Teachers must adapt or translate the relational ontology/ethics so it fits the actual students. How this could be done, is however beyond the reach of this short paper, but my own recent experiences with education in ethics in small groups, using cases from the profession the students are educated into, is promising.

Enhanced to count as Big Idea

How can this paper be enhanced to address Big Ideas / Core Issues in RE?

  1. Ethics in general IS a Big Idea since ethics is “important and concern essential questions (i.e. questions concerning core issues that we return to throughout life)” (Call for special issue Nordidactica).
  2. Barad’s concept entanglement, and making that an ethical concern, stress the ubiquity of ethics, and thus makes it relevant from close micro-level human-human relations to the large ethical questions in economics, political conflicts, environmental problems etc. A lot of these issues is already addressed by several other ethicists who can give input to the discussion on various narrow issues within a broad range of that the concept entanglement help to rise.
  3. Barad’s important contribution is that she underpins her ethics of entanglement not only in materiality, but also by the “hardest” way deriving it from quantum mechanics. Entanglement is part of the very fabric of the world, not just human-human relations.
  4. Education in ethics should make entanglement as a pedagogical key concept to induce questions and discussions about issues like
    • With what or whom other agents am I entangled? (Agents should be taken in the Baradian way, to be more that other humans; even artefacts and environment are agents in her view.)
    • What are the power relations between these agents? Symmetric or asymmetric?
    • Do these other agents give me freedom to act or do put restrictions on my actions?
    • Or do I hamper other agents in their possibility to act freely?
    • Can such restrictions on actions be defended in some way?


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