Diffractive Genealogies

Natasha Mauthner

Drawing on Barad’s (2007) notion of diffraction I propose ‘diffractive genealogies’ as a new materialist practice of inquiry (Mauthner, 2016).

In seeking to develop a methodological practice for enacting her agential realist metaphysics Barad proposes diffraction drawing on the physical phenomenon of diffraction. Building on Haraway’s (1992, 1997) suggestion of embracing a different optics in science studies—diffraction rather than reflection—and on a longer genealogy of the concept of diffraction threaded through quantum physics and feminist theory (Barad, 2014)—Barad proposes that we think of scientific practices in terms of “diffraction apparatuses.” In physics, diffraction is “an intra-active phenomenon, and as such does not hold one set of concerns as preexisting or stable or primary over another” (Barad, 2011, p. 449). On this approach, “knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing but rather from a direct material engagement with the world” (Barad, 2007, p. 49). On my reading, this material engagement takes the form of diffractive practices that account for their non-innocent (Haraway, 1991, p. 121) metaphysical specificity and that of the phenomena they intra-actively produce (Mauthner, forthcomming). In particular, diffractive practices enact a commitment to a non-essentialist ontology by accounting for their own ontological existence and for the role they play in materializing the ontology of their objects of study (Mauthner, forthcoming).

Diffractive genealogies are genealogies that account for the ontological practices through which these genealogies, and their objects of study, are constituted. By diffractive I mean a practice that does not take the ontology of the world as already constituted. By genealogy I mean a practice that can materialize ontological processes of formation “at different scales” (Barad, 2007, p. 246). Genealogies are understood as “the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components” (Barad, 2007, p. 246). They are intra-acting material-discursive relations and practices: dynamic topological reconfigurings, entanglements, relationalities, (re)articulations, en/foldings of the world (Barad, 2007, p. 141).

Diffractive genealogies do not innocently go back in time and through space searching for origins and tracing a past and a history that really happened. Diffractive genealogies intra-actively and topologically (re)configure the genealogies they produce. They are underpinned by the ontological assumption that neither the genealogical practices that are engaged, nor the genealogies that are generated, nor the “spacetime manifold” (Barad, 2007, p. 246) implied/enacted by genealogies, are ontologically given.

Diffractive genealogies have resonances with Haraway’s (1988) ‘situated knowledges’ and Dolphijn and van der Tuin’s (2012, p. 107) ‘qualified cartographies’. They are metaphysically specific, situated or qualified philosophical histories or cartographies.

Keywords: diffraction, genealogy, agential realism
Genealogies: new materialism, agential realism, physics, feminist theory
Synonyms: qualified cartographies, situated knowledges
Antonyms: representational genealogies, objective genealogies, reflexive genealogies
Hypernyms: diffractive practices of inquiry
Hyponyms: diffractive genealogies of philosophies, diffractive genealogies of theories, diffractive genealogies of methods

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen. 2011. Erasers and erasures: Pinch’s unfortunate “uncertainty principle.” Social Studies of Science, 41 no. 3: pp. 443–454.
Barad, Karen. 2014. Diffracting diffraction: cutting together-apart. Parallax 20 no. 3: pp. 168–187.
Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin. 2012. Eds. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated knowledges. Feminist Studies, 14: pp. 575-599.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. 1992. “The promises of monsters: A regenerative politics for inappropriate/d others,” pp. 295–337 in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Winess@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. New York and London: Routledge.
Mauthner, N. S. (2016) Un/re-making method: Knowing/enacting posthumanist performative social research methods through ‘diffractive genealogies’ and ‘metaphysical practices’. In: Victoria Pitts-Taylor (ed) Mattering: Feminism, Science and Materialism. New York: New York University Press. pp. 258-283.
Mauthner, N. S. (forthcoming) A posthumanist ethics of mattering: New materialisms and the ethical practice of inquiry. In: Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich (eds) SAGE Handbook of Ethics in Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.

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