Notes on: Barrad,K. (2014) Re-membering the Future, Re(con)figuring the Past: Temporality, Materiality, and Justice-to-Come. Keynote Presentation at the 8th Annual Conference of the Feminist Theory Workshop, Duke University.

Dave Harris

[A gee-whizz romp through some popularized aspects of particle physics. My own lack of knowledge is clearly a problem here -- I only read for fun, and then only occasionally,  popular accounts like Cox and Forshaw The Quantum Universe. The main argument for me is how this might connect with social identities. It seem a bit paradoxical. On the one hand, there are still those who wish to insist that sexual identities and social divisions are 'natural', and it might be very useful to them to hear that modern physicists have a radically different view of 'Nature' from the usual one, with unpredictability, uncertainty, discontintuity, and quite different conceptions of time and thus of causality. On the other other hand to insist, as Barad does, that 'quantum = queer' is still tying identity and division to theories of nature --but do these theories explain social divisions etc adequately? Are we just 'natural' ? Of course, Barad goes on to insist that nature and culture are no longer separated but intermingle - -something historians of science have been arguing for a long time -- and this is an appealing project to put humans back into nature. Problems remain though, as Lather and other feminist theorists have noted, because it invalidates 'objective' feminist research as well as positivist research. Lather says feminists, like everyone else, are 'lost' in the implications of some of the stuff Barad is talking about. You can't go from arguing for uncertainty in Nature to certainty in politics -- but you can certainly use uncertainty to radically undermine other people's certainties. Finally, the occasional dead Frenchman crops up in this -- mostly Derrida, even Specters[US spelling] , the only book of his I have notes on here -- while other obvious candidates like Latour or Deleuze and DeLanda remain outside].

The intention is to be playful in this account.  It is partly inspired by Freeman [in an article in GLQ, whatever that is] saying that the time is out of joint, and that implies that sexuality is out of joint as well.  We can think of time as something embodied, and if we develop a notion of it as asynchronous, this can have implications for Queerness, which can also be seen as a matter of [intensive not extensive?] erotic difference, and therefore as something untimely. 

There has been a lot of work on nonlinear conceptions of time, and on the natural as embedded in universal time.  New particle physics challenges these notions of nature as something distinct from culture, of nature and culture as a binary.  Perhaps as a result of experiencing this presentation, we can start to understand a sense of disorientation that is at the centre of theoretical physics.  [Part of the disorientation will be not following the orthodox structure of the standard academic presentation -we are going to leap backwards and forwards between examples and between dates, for example].

Part of the project is to deconstruct science, as in Derrida, which will lead us to political possibilities that avoid authority and that stay radically open, indeterminate, and self-questioning [we're going to use the annoying habit of fans of Derrida of emphasizing particular syllables, as we shall see].

Matter should not just be seen as some inanimate stuff needing some supplementary force to enliven it [supplements add nothing, says Derrida] .  Matter is not inert or dispassionate, only inscribed by culture, something available to be exploited.  Instead we have to think of it as something becoming [a clear link for fans of Deleuze and Guattari -- eg Chapter 10 of Thousand Plateaus,or, simpler, the first few pages of Logic of Sense], featuring morphological activity, something alive.  We do not need to differentiate the world along the lines which we are used to [Deleuzians would say that we need to think of different sorts of differences {sic}, like intensive differences].  We can talk of materialization, transmateriality and relational differences, for example,  those across spaces or between gender and subjectivities.  Seeing Being as becoming can help us live well.

Matter materializes time [sounds like Bergson now] and enfolds different temporalities, so we need new imaginaries to grasp this.  We can proceed through consideration of the electron.  Electrons clearly are very important elements of the physical world, for example in explaining the way in which the synapses of the human brain work.  They were among the first to be grasped in quantum terms, their behaviour unsettled conventional notions of time on all the scales, from the subatomic to the evolutionary, and this consideration lead to radically new thinking about production and reproduction, causes and change.  Electrons are particles in the micro world, but their characteristics can be scaled up [to the human and social?].  Starting with considering electrons has the benefits of us avoiding the premature applications of the normal social categories - we are 'not easily seduced' by the behaviour of electrons.  Work on the electron revealed all sorts of possibilities, different stories and responses, and a new material imagining.

We're going to indicate some of the difficulties by using unorthodox pronunciations [and spellings] such as dis/continuity, dis/jointedness etc, to show how terms have been 'cut together'[and how they can be uncut, or do I mean cut apart - this is Derrida, as above.  I have always found it rather tiresome when it's repeated - just do it once or twice, and we get it].

There are no simple origins to time, no beginnings and therefore no simple past, and, by implication, no simple notion of present or future either.  We should see time as offering a series of iterations or enfoldings of different temporal states [clarified a bit more below].  Neither time nor matter can be understood in terms of a simple smooth topology.  Dis/jointedness and im/possible relations are apparent [try Deleuze's book on Leibniz  on the compossible and the incompossible? Yer man likes the metaphor of the fold too] .  We should not see episodes separated in time as separate aspects, but part of a 'single event'[the term 'event' is riddled with philosophical implications, of course - for example Deleuze uses it to describe something happening which is by definition beyond the grasp of normal empirical understandings, because it trails links to the past and the future, and the virtual: it is a multiplicity with an empirical component]. 

This paper is not to be structured as a history of science either: there can be no conventional history of science as some progress towards the truth through discovery.  Instead we are to embark on an imaginative journey, like the experience of the electron, featuring dis/jointedness, entanglements.  The dis/continuity in question is not just the normal sense of the discontinuity, but itself discontinuous with normal definitions [presumably, normally the term discontinuity implies an inversion of some simple notion of continuity, but Barad wants to abandon the whole schema and illustrate what might be thought of as radical discontinuity].  There is no coherent story to be told.  There is no coherent self.  Instead we experience various temporalities with different entanglements, differences in the way time and matter are cut and displaced.  Différance, interactivity, hauntology [all Derrida] .  Something queer [or possibly Queer, depending on the etiquette].

The quantum troubles the notion of a beginning.  All was well with early models of the atom, such as those of Böhr, the notion of particles circulating the nucleus like planets circulating the sun.  However, the model did not add up with what we observed about electrons: one problem was that their energy was insufficient to maintain their 'orbit', and should gradually diminish until they collided with the nucleus [but it didn't] , and another was that they did not seem to describe a continuous wave in their paths. Planck had already begun to see energy as divided into quantum packets, and Einstein to see photons as such quanta [Barad says that it was this work that got him the Nobel prize, not his work on relativity].  The new model saw electrons as occupying discrete energy levels, but also having the capacity to jump from one level to another.  When they jumped, they emitted a photon, and the size of the jump affected the colour of the photon that was emitted.  There seem to be no continuous exercise of this energy, and there were problems with the line spectra [the details eluded me I am afraid - I think there was a difficulty in predicting the exact form of the line spectra, possibly of the emitted photon].  Problems emerge with the notion of the leap as well, especially trying to reconcile it with classical newtonian physics.  The newtonian schema came under increasing challenge from this work, with its notion of predictable movements of particles over calculable amounts of time, a mechanical model.  'Demons' had already been identified as having a part to play in interrupting this mechanical system, according to LaPLace.

Smooth continuity had always been crucial to Newton's schema, and was, for example, central to his work on the calculus [I am very rusty here, but I think the calculus faces the problem of plotting the shape of those curves that continued to infinity {like parabola}: the method involves calculating the shape of the curve where you can, and then projecting that on to the bit that heads toward infinity, which assumes some smooth continuity with no radical changes in the curve. This could be Leibniz, not Newton though].  Newton worked with the normal notion of determinism and with a clockwork kind of time.  The universe was tidy, until the quantum emerged: even then it was seen as just the smallest possible unit of discrete matter, a kind of basic phenomenon [I think they ran out of words when they found things inside atoms].  However, the notion of a quantum leap introduced radical discontinuity, especially since leaps from one level to another seem to occur with no detectable intermediate stage.  The emission of photons also raised problems with causality.  The proton was, as it were, ready to be emitted before it actually reached anywhere, and its colour [detectable in line spectra?] was pregiven by the leap even though that leap had not yet happened.  The normal [well, the rigidly logical] notion of causality is destroyed, and so is the normal [logical] separation of present past and future.  [As I recall, Deleuze says that philosophers had realized these problems with causality already, in Hegel if not in the Greeks.  As I understand the problem, it is that if we observe that whenever X appears, a Y soon follows it, we can conclude that X causes Y.  However, the implication is that Y is already bundled up with X, as a kind of potential in X, so that it becomes difficult to think of Y as something that is going to happen in the future: it is contemporaneous with X.  Nasty conclusions follow, since we rely on this strict difference in time,  between present and future, to infer that one technically causes the other in the first place. If we can't use cause we have to talk about something vague like 'unfolding' -- that also heads for infinite regress if we assume that X is also caused by something. Of course none of this matters in the real world where we can use empirical probabilities -- same goes for quantum mechanics. Theorists love to play with the abstract possibilities to shake us normal folk up, though, just like philosophers always did].

When Heisenberg met Böhr in 1940, he demonstrated to him the results of his diffraction experiments [You direct a beam of electrons at a barrier with two slits in it, and record the patterns made on a screen behind the barrier.  What should happen is that some electrons pass through the slits and leave a kind of scatter pattern on the screen.  However, when the beam was aimed at just one slit, some of the electrons somehow managed to get through the other slit as well.  This implied that the electrons were not behaving as particles but as waves - see below.  All sorts of implications arose].  In particular, light [we seem to have switched from electrons to photons] must be seen as having the form of both particles and waves - that was the only way to explain the diffraction shapes recorded on the screen.  Before that, particles and waves were thought to be ontologically distinct. Böhr went on to argue that language was also implicated in this new horrible uncertainty [that the observer was implicated in the observation]: he defined the phenomenon as an interaction between an object and an observing apparatus.  The next step was to argue that the concept could be seen as an observing apparatus.

To leap back ourselves [deliberately as 'play'?] some time before, in 1803, a scientist called Thomas Young had invented the whole apparatus with the barrier with two slits and a recording screen.  He argued that logically [NB] particles would produce a scatter pattern on the screen  whereas waves would produce diffraction patterns, like those that appear in water if you drop two stones in at the same time.  He was so pleased with his apparatus that he announced this was a way of distinguishing once and for all whether something took a particular or a wave form.  All was well until you tried it with electrons or photons 100 years or so later, however.

Getting back to Heisenberg and Böhr, they then wrote together on quantum physics.  There is also a well-known discussion about whether this collaboration had a political point, since they were on opposite sides in the World War 2.  Was Heisenberg sent to spy on Böhr?  Was he meant to warn him about the German military attempt to build an atomic bomb [a definite possibility once you can split atoms,although, happily, hard to actually engineer]?  Was the idea that they should both join together to persuade both sides not to develop atomic weapons?  This case shows that science and a sense of justice was combined in a programme of research, 'inextricably fused' [perhaps an unfortunate term to use in the context?].  These dilemmas clearly affected their writing and their research.  However we have known at least since Newton that scientific work was entangled with political and ethical issues. [Kuhn's famous account, or Latour's provide loads of examples]. Newton himself actually predicted an apocalypse in 2060, showing his interest in theology - clearly influenced by Biblical prophecy.  He also had to deal with elements that were occasionally referred to as 'spirits' in his natural philosophy too, and Barad says one example is his rejection of the notion of 'the ether' in favour of gravity [As I recall, the ether was considered to be an invisible, rather magical material that saturated the universe, especially the spaces between the planets.  Straightforward mechanical forces were transmitted from one heavenly body to another, the sun to a planet, for example, through this medium, as one atom nudged the atom next to it.  Newton's suggestion that gravity was an equally mysterious force that operated at a distance seemed a lot less sensible at the time, Kuhn says].  The ether seemed spiritual because it just seemed to appear and disappear, it was a vanishing presence, one of those things that seems to come from a future and a past.

Einstein referred to God (not) playing dice [specifically against Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, I recall, or it could be to support Schrödinger] . He and the others were engaging in thought experiments, and the 2-slit apparatus was important in this work too.Böhr in particular thought it might be possible to arrange the apparatus to show that light is first a wave form then a particle form, and argued that Einsteins's own work showed this 'complementarity'. He insisted that measurement was also a variable, though.

There is no given,fixed time or space, argues Derrida [still in Specters, and illustrated with quotes, which I must have missed altogether].  The point is that the past can be changed, that being in the past can be changed.  An ingenious development of the 2-slit apparatus produced an apparatus that could test these thought experiments,  designed to do what was still called meta/physics.  Specifically, it could be used to test the different arguments of Böhr and Heisenberg about indeterminacy.  For Heisenberg, undecidability was the result of epistemic uncertainty on the part of the scientist, while Böhr saw undecidability as the result of some indeterminacy in reality, an ontological indeterminacy.  The issue turns on whether it was possible to observe the characteristics of light before measuring it.  [I think this is what that bit means about separating the internal degrees of freedom of the electron to behave while still inside the atom, as it were, and the external degrees of freedom which are available to it once it is emitted and on its way to pass through slits and impact on screens. Barad likens the difficulties of separating these two as driving a car at a steady 65 miles an hour while chucking stuff out of the windows]. 

However, it was attempted.  First the electron was made to jump between levels of energy using a laser to excite it.  Then when it was emitted, it could either enter a measuring device [I think this is what the 'cavities' are] or continue to pass through one slit or the other.  [If I have understood the logic of this, electrons that enter the cavities are still displaying only internal degrees of freedom.  These are recorded and electrons then pass through the slits to display the external degrees of freedom.  I could be completely wrong - this is delivered at a frantic pace].  Anyway, the results apparently unambiguously confirmed Böhr's view, that when electrons were detected they changed.  This is not just a disturbance as a result of passing through the detection mechanism [because electrons that had passed through the detection mechanism continued through the slits in exactly the same way as those that did not, possibly], but a result of a combination of the object and the agencies of observation [presumably, this is one of those cases where the 'scientific community' decides if this is a fair experiment or not and what the results were -- I don't think the issue could ever be settled once and for all, since the validity of the measurements could always be challenged, and so on. Both Kuhn and Latour have lots of examples where apparently 'decisive' experimental evidence was still being challenged decades later].

The identity of the electron therefore is not inherent.  The electron demonstrates a certain quality of performativity, that is its performance is different in different circumstances.  More complications ensued with increased use of the apparatus.  For example, the detector was switched off immediately after the electron had passed through it, which 'erased' the information, and then different patterns in waves were observed, so, remarkably, the information had somehow affected the atoms of light, and left its mark, even though it had been 'erased'.  This seemed to offer some sort of strange determination of events after the atoms had passed through the apparatus [even after any affects of the apparatus had been switched off].  Somehow, the experiment itself had changed the behaviour of the entity fundamentally, its ontology.  This implies that ontology was never fixed, that it could be reworked.  It also implied that the past can be changed, that the wave pattern can be 'recovered' or 'erased'.

At this point, we have to question these notions of recovery and erasure.  They seem to depend on what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence, that we get the patterns from results arising from the behaviour of individually determinate objects [in his case, he went on to argue that it was discourses that had their own effects, but I don't think Barad would want to accept that].  Instead, there seems to be some source of communication between individual atoms [Cox and Forshaw have some intriguing examples of this kind of communication, where the state of one particle seems to affect the state of another, even though they are separated by a considerable distance].  If this sort of communication exists, we have to substantially modify our notions of causality [which assume an individual effect on an individual particle].  Individuals would no longer be actors on the stage, a particular location in conventional time and space.  We would have empirical evidence for Derrida's 'hauntology' [operating in nature as well as with texts - I don't think Derrida ever claimed that himself], where 'ghosts' continue to affect the living, because they are never decisively separated from them.  It follows also that the past is never simply 'there', that the past and the future are enfolded and iterative [I think this is the same implication from criticizing notions of causality that we discussed above].  It also shows that the effects of an experiment itself might be offer a possible intervention.  Overall, we have much more interactive possibilities rather than seeing matter as something outside and given.  Space, time and matter now perform, as agents.

These implications make us rethink recovery and erasure, and make us think instead of new patterns which are produced by specific entanglements which themselves are somehow 'chosen' by the methods we are using to study them.  There is no simple erasure [which implies some correct or normal state of affairs'?].  We should see the phenomenon as a whole [as a multiplicity in Deleuze's terms, as above.  Politically, the issue for D and G might be how to bring into being the more liberating possibilities, which is the gist of Braidotti's account].  Phenomena should be seen as material entanglements enfolded in matter and time.  We can never actually restore the past, but we can bring change its form: all possible traces are held in the world; the world as a kind of memory.  When we follow Derrida's ghosts, we are tracing these entanglements, although we have to remember that ghosts are material possibilities.

[Now a substantial -- and for me dubious -- jump to the social world].  Social justice can mean not restoring the past, but reworking it, not erasing it.  All possible configurations [of social justice] are held in the world's materializations.  Time is never fixed [or acts one way - we are not prisoners of history].  Our being is inherited as something irreducibly connected to relations with others [lots of quotes from Derrida appear on the screen at this point, but I never noticed them when I read Specters].  We must take responsibility for our inheritance and its entanglements.  The indeterminacy of being influences the self and our responsibilities towards the entanglement with the others.  We have to trace these entanglements to construct justice, maintaining our relations of obligation and othering, because these are naturally a part of us [pretty dodgy argument in my  view, and open to the counter that aggression and violence, or the cold indifference of the universe,  are equally 'naturally' a part of us].

The material therefore involves exposures to others. Responsibility is no longer a matter of individual calculation, but something that is already integral.  We have to realize new possibilities and im/possibilities.  Justice should be seen as the  rearticulation of disjunctures [social divisions in the past?].  We cannot change the past but we must realise that it is open to reconfiguration.  The point is not to erase the material affects, but to remember them and try to incorporate them differently  into the present.  We pursue differentiation [from the present fixities?] to make more connections.

Overall, quantum queers continuity.  We should not see discontinuities negatively, not as displacements - the rupture itself configures the here and now.  There are no fixed moments outside this configuration.  Causality does not represent some inevitable sequence of past and future, but discontinuity and destabilisation.  The immediate is always on a cusp  of instability and possibility, and this is the basis of the becoming of the world.  We have to think of dis/continuity in terms of this relation, something that changes each interaction: something becomes and is immediately reconfigured, even undone.  Quantum theory can be seen as a history of discontinuity.  The quantum world is itself disruptive, a stutter [Deleuze like stutters], the source of impasse, contradiction and aporia, but a creative one.  We should think of quantum tunnelling rather than closure:  the effect of the quantum is to undo identity.

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