Evelien Geerts

The notion of “ethico-onto-epistem-ology” was first coined by physicist-philosopher Karen Barad to point at the inseparability of ethics, ontology and epistemology when engaging in (scientific) knowledge production, with scientific practices, and with the world itself and its inhabitants – human and non-human beings that intra-actively co-constitute the world (Barad, 2007, p. 90).

Inspired by Jewish Continental philosophers Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, and firmly rooted in the (Harawayian) feminist science studies tradition that emphasizes the need for accountable and just knowledge production, the idea that one cannot but ethically engage with the world, has a central place in Barad’s new feminist materialist theory of agential realism (see e.g. Barad, 1999/1998, 2003, and 2007). Barad’s ethico-onto-epistem-ology itself can in fact be regarded as a quantum entanglement that demonstrates that because we are part of the world, we can no longer see ourselves as innocent bystanders, observing the world from a freestanding perspective, or, as feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway has called such a falsely neutral, over-arching point of view; a “god trick” (Haraway, 1988, p. 581).

The importance of the ethical, and of the entanglements between the ontological, the epistemological, and the ethical, is becoming more and more apparent in Barad’s oeuvre: Ethico-onto-epistem-ology already plays a key role in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but is also crucial to more recent articles, such as “Quantum Entanglements” (2010), “Nature’s Queer Performativity” (2011), “On Touching” (2012), and “Diffracting Diffraction” (2014). Influenced by the Levinasian idea that the subject that is in-the-world all of a sudden stands “face to face” with the Other, and therefore becomes ethically obliged to respond to the Other’s call (Levinas 2015/1961, 39), Barad’s model of an “ethics of entanglement” is fundamentally about discovering and following up on these ethical demands (Barad, 2011, p. 150). Seen through Barad’s agential realist perspective that underlines the intra-activity between the world and its ‘subjects’ (which, in Barad’s work, are both labeled as phenomena) there is also an immediate indebtedness to the Other that cannot be expressed in economic terms or with the motto do ut des (see Barad, p. 2012). According to Barad’s point of view, “[e]ntanglements are relations of obligation,” and hence our ethical debt towards the Other is interwoven into the fabric of the world (Barad, 2010, p. 265).

Barad’s new materialist ethics overlaps with Levinas’ and Derrida’s urge to rethink ethics outside an a priori sketched-out model of formal rules and calculations; the ethical for all three thinkers is instead related to the subject that is being interrupted in her/his actions, and is all about reckoning with ghosts from the past, and the unexpected, the disjointed, and the what-could-happen (also see Derrida, 1994/1993). Yet, because of Barad’s agential realist thinking together of ontology, epistemology and ethics, her ethical model, unlike the Derridean and Levinasian models, is also radically posthumanist: The face of the Other for Barad first of all should not be limited to the face of a human being, formerly symbolized by Levinas’ Stranger, as our being-in-the-world is always already entangled with other beings’ existence (see Barad, 2007, p. 392). Barad underlines this as follows:

Responsibility – the ability to respond to the other – cannot be restricted to human-human encounters when the very boundaries and the constitution of the ‘human’ are continually being reconfigured (loc. cit.).

Additionally, Otherness – often expressed as the self/Other cut in the Western philosophical tradition – in Baradian ethics (a model inspired by the queering combination of quantum physics and Derridean différance) never exists a priori, meaning that Otherness never comes from below or from above, but from within intra-actions between the world and its beings (see Barad, 2007 and 2014).

It is this radically reworked model of ethical mattering of the world, of ethico-onto-epistem-ology, in which not responsibility but the more relational attitude of “response-ability” towards all of our fellow beings, becomes key (see Haraway, 2008, p. 88, and Barad, 2012, p. 208).[1] This responding-to obviously cannot be disconnected from the Levinasian call for ethical accountability and care that arises when perceiving the face of the Other. But the agential realist version of response-ability at the same time moves beyond responding to the human Other’s call and relates to an instantaneous accountability that all beings share in their intra-actions with the world, as we are all in and part of the world’s becoming – a becoming that, for Barad, in the end, is a matter of morality. This is truly “an ethics of worlding” that starts from a relational, situated and embodied model of (inter)subjectivity, and that reveals how ethics, being, and knowing no longer can be separated (Barad, 2007, p. 392).

And the latter is exactly what Barad’s notion of ethico-onto-epistem-ology wishes to express. And if we, to conclude, were to follow up on this radical idea, we would first of all discover that there is a corresponding inseparability of politics, theory, and differing methodologies in new materialist thought as well. And, secondly, that such a Baradian take on ethics, ontology, and epistemology could eventually lead us to new feminist materialist models of ethico-politics in which the traditional Western philosophical dualistic self/Other paradigm, and the debates on subjectivity, identity, and difference, could potentially be profoundly transformed…

[1] This reconceptualized version of responsibility as response-ability, or responding to a certain call, seems to be Levinasian of nature, as Levinas in Totality and Infinity constantly relates taking up responsibility to answering to the call of the Other (see e.g. Levinas 2015/1961, 23, 99, 197). This notion has later on been picked up in a more posthumanist matter by Derrida, who refers to it in his “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” article from 2002. This article touches upon the question of the animal and its suffering in relation to the human – without however referring to the exact notion of response-ability. This by the way is the article that Haraway cites when using the notion of response-ability in relation to non-human beings, and their (supposed) killability in When Species Meet (2008).

Keywords: Ethico-onto-epistem-ology, new feminist materialism, agential realism, response-ability
Genealogies: Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad
Synonyms: The inseparability of ethics, ontology and epistemology
Antonyms: Separatedness, atomism & metaphysical individualism
Hypernyms: Baradian agential realism
Hyponyms: Ethcio-onto-epistem-ology

Barad, Karen. (1999). “Agential Realism. Feminist Interventions in Understanding Scientific Practices.” In The Science Studies Reader, edited by Mario Biagioli. New York – London: Routledge. pp. 1-11. Originally published in 1998.
Barad, Karen. (2003). “Posthumanist Performativity. Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs 28, 3: pp. 801-831.
Barad, Karen. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham – London: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen. (2010). “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance. Dis/continuities, Spacetime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-come.” Derrida Today 3, 2, pp. 240-268.
Barad, Karen. (2011). “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, 2, pp. 121-158.
Barad, Karen. (2012). “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” Differences 23, 3, pp. 206-223.
Barad, Karen. (2014). “Diffracting Diffraction. Cutting Together-Apart.” Parallax 20, 3, pp. 168-187.
Derrida, Jacques. (1994). Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated from the French by Peggy Kamuf. With an introduction by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. New York – London: Routledge. Originally published in French by Éditions Galilée in 1993.
Derrida, Jacques. (2002). “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Translated by David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28, 2, pp. 369-418.
Haraway, Donna. (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, 3, pp. 575-599.
Haraway, Donna. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. (2015). Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alfonso Lingis. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Originally published in French by Martinus Nijhoff in 1961.

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