Review: Karen Barad’s “Meeting the Universe Halfway”

I had the great pleasure and challenge of reading Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. I review the book here in hopes to share new perspectives on Barad’s arguments. Most popular and academic reviews (mostly by those in softer sciences rather than physics) seem uncomfortably favorable toward the book, and while I appreciate it greatly, I feel her work, for (due to) all its apparent or self-declared nuances, requires a more nuanced interrogation. I give it 3.5 stars of 5:

I really wanted to love this book, as someone with a background and aspiration in physics, philosophy, and moral cosmologies. But it did not quite live up to my expectations. Barad gets points (enough to bump her up .5 from 3 stars) for engaging seriously and passionately with quantum physics, ethics, and philosophy in (close to) equal measure, in particular with her premise of the fascinating Heisenberg/Bohr correspondence and much later in the book with her 100-odd page chapter (chp 7) on various classic quantum physics experiments, tested and theorized, reframing them to prove her ideas about entanglement and agential realism. We need more scholarship like this, or at least in this vein, which does not shy away from breaking disciplinary boundaries. Her arguments about entanglement (“we are all connected,” though a bit more complex than that) is not wholly original, but her attempts to demonstrate its truth through thorough, step-by-step analyses of classic physics experiments does feel new and laudable. Similarly, I found her extension from Bohr’s notion of “phenomena,” of intra-actions being the ontological reality, rather than there existing some pre-existing reality, thought-provoking and nuanced. Her methodological approach to “diffraction” (rather than reflection) was also appreciated (as was her intellectually entertaining and lengthy Acknowledgements section). There’s also a fascinating, 2 or 3-page section toward the end of the book about the wholeness of the universe that was a highlight.

That said, while at first I dove into this as a fascinating and dense work that would reveal its intricate parts as the pages flew by — I was really enjoying it for the first 100-150 pages — it eventually began to feel more and more diffuse. Or perhaps vacuous. Barad explicitly states that diffraction is the nature of her methodological approach, but, while some scholars do a wonderful job of writing similarly with many nuances, puzzles, and intellectual meanderings along the way (I think of Talal Asad or Gil Anidjar), it is very hard for me to appreciate Barad on that level. She repeats herself frequently to the point where her agential realist vocabulary, which once felt new and promising and exciting, begins to feel tiresome and empty, words only, jargon. She keeps pushing important questions to later chapters — especially chapter 7, whose detail (and lack of repetition) I regard as one of the most worthwhile pieces of the book — and while there is payoff (sometimes), it is increasingly frustrating as a reader as the pages drag on. If it is diffractive methodology, it’s across the infinite and headache-inspiring space between parallel mirrors, the stuff of Borges, perhaps, but not this. 

More deeply, I took great issue with her attempt to 1) “prove” an ontology, and, as well, to then, 2) based on this ontology, “prove” an ethics. To address each:

1) Drawing from Bohr, Barad argues that reality is the stuff of intra-actions, meetings between mutually constituting bodies in a non-causal world, rather than some external, preexisting thing to be observed, represented, or cleanly reflected. The argument is interesting and her use of quantum physics to try to prove it more so, but the question lingers: How does one prove an ontology? Her argument assumes prima facie that ontology, epistemology, and semantics are entangled, constituting one another… Which leaves this lingering question uncomfortably evaded. On the other hand, if it is true that there is no preexisting reality, then how can we definitively prove such a thing when such reality is, in its prima facie assumptions, at best only partially accessible to empirical methods of evidence because of the separateness/preexistence that defines it? Thus is the unresolvable dilemma of ontology (at least for a logician…Al-Ghazali would refer to “dhawq,” fruitional experience, as a realm of knowledge above rationality). Barad’s description of agential realism is interesting but, like those it argues against, it remains an idea. True, she contends that ideas are ultimately “marks on bodies,” — but I would say that that description in itself is also an idea; how would we even know what these marks were if we are all entangled?…I understand her desire to complicate the picture, but here I feel that we reach the problem of being left “without definition,” so to speak, and while I don’t appreciate critiques that dismiss arguments as “not useful” or “not provable,” I think in this case the character and force of Barad’s argument itself becomes weak and unnecessarily ambiguous. It fails to recognize that, in an important sense beyond the academic jibber jabber of empirical/nonempirical intellectual persuasions, everything is epistemic. She might view this as too humancentric a perspective…but, by definition, aren’t all perspectives we know humancentric because we, as humans, are the perceivers? Even if we recognize nonhuman entities as shaping our “humaness,” that recognition is, perhaps, a human one. If there is a way out of this problem, I’m not sure an appeal to science and evidence, as Barad does in chapter 7 especially, is effective (again, see Al-Ghazali); in fact, this use of evidence seems to contradict her other challenges to empiricism in the first place.

2) If we even assume that Barad’s agential realist ontology is correct, how does this lead to an idea of ethics, to being morally responsible to everything, to the world which consitutes “us” and vice versa, in her ontology? We can outline it as follows:

  • [ontology of agential realism/entanglement/intra-actions] 
  • thus–> B [every thing, small or big, alive or dead, sentient or not, creates the world; crudely, “we are all connected”] 
  • thus–> C [we are each ethically responsible to what happens in the world]

My issue is the significant logical jump between B and C. Just because we are all connected, and therefore contribute to effects and causes creating, say, an economic disaster on the other side of the world, does not mean we have a moral or ethical responsibility to that phenomenon. Perhaps we can say, “Screw them!” (Accepting Barad’s ontology, this might be more properly stated: “Screw us/me!”) Why not, right, if we don’t have an explicitly described logical connection between B and C. Barad eventually addresses this point within a 3 or 4 page section toward the very end of her book, arguing that entanglement is ethical responsibility, that ethical responsibility is implied by the very existence of our intra-actions. She’s resolving one of the great classic philosophical debates, the Is/Ought question, by saying is=ought. I happen to agree with her conclusion. But her methods are not particularly convincing nor deeply interrogated, and I felt shortchanged. To me this is a central part of her work — its implications for ethics — but its most important logical leap comes far too late and far too briefly. It’s a missing link tied with loose string.

Overall, it is easy to dismiss Barad as spewing academic gibberish, especially for a physicist. And it is easy for someone in softer sciences to get lost in her detailed physics (or to take it, uncritically, with an applauding “woah, I don’t totally get it but that was amazing!”). But I think such reactions would do an injustice to the creativity and passion of her efforts, and to such audiences’ own specialized fields. It is worth taking Barad seriously. Despite my frustrations and disagreements, I think the length of this review indicates how much it stimulated me intellectually, which should count for something.
I also posted this review on Goodreads.

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