Phenomena – Agential Realism

Sofie Sauzet

The concept of the phenomena has been subject to a wide array of philosophical writings. Here I unfold on phenomena, as methodological apparatus in Karen Barad's Agential Realism (2007).

In an agential realist sense, the smallest units of analysis are phenomena:

"A phenomenon is a specific intra-action of an 'object'; and the 'measuring agencies'; the object and the measuring agencies emerge from, rather than precede, the intra-action that produces them." (Barad, 2007, p. 128).

The central idea is that "the thing" "we" research, is enacted in entanglement with "the way" we research it. This is an onto-epistemological offset:

"Practices of knowing and being are not isolable; they are mutually implicated. We don't obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming. The separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse." (Barad, 2007, p. 185)

There is in this sense no privileged position from which knowledges can be produced, as the researcher is of the world. Researching phenomena, then, is a methodological practice of continuously questioning the effects of the way we research, on the knowledges we produce. This unfolds itself as an ethico-onto-epistemology of knowing in being. Ethics is about being response-able to the way we make the world, and to consider the effects our knowledge-making processes have on the world (Barad, 2007, p. 381).

A diffractive methodology

This knowledge-making process is a methodology that can be understood as diffraction. Diffraction is the physical phenomenon that occurs as waves emerge, when water flows across an obstacle like a rock. As opposed to reflection, which is a common metaphor for analysis that invites images of mirroring, diffraction is the process of ongoing differences. As thinking-tool for analysis, diffraction attunes us to the differences generated by our knowledge-making practices and the effects these practices have on the world (Sauzet, 2015). In this way, diffractions opens the way for greater sensitivity towards how we are part of the world's continuous becoming, and the ethics concerning the effects of and within these knowledge-making processes.

Agency and cutting together/apart

Starting from the phenomena involves exploring agency as distributed. Barad writes:

"Crucially, agency is a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has. Agency is doing/being in its intra-activity." (Barad, 2007, p. 235)

Agency is not an individual property (Barad, 2003, p. 827). Rather who and what acts, is a phenomenal question. It is a decision, an incision, a cutting together/apart of the agentic qualities of phenomena that emerge in the ongoing performance of the world. This means that we might recognize agency in different forms as relations, movements, repetitions, silences, distances, architecture, structures, feelings, things, us/them/it, words...

Here materiality is not an add-on to the discursive. Rather the phenomena in itself are the leading act, through which components, such as matter and the ephemeral is performed in particular ways. Agencies emerge with specific qualities. Performing phenomena then entails investigations of:

"(…) the material-discursive boundary-making practices that produce "objects" and "subjects", and other differences out of, and in terms of, a changing relationality."(Barad, 2007, p. 92-93)

So, rather than defining the "humanness" or "non-humanness" of agency, in researching phenomena we enact agential cuts, that momentarily stabilizes specific qualities of agential components:

"Agential cuts do not mark some absolute separation but a cutting together/apart – "holding together" of the disparate itself." (Barad, 2012, p. 46)

Agential cuts is the cutting together/apart within phenomena. Agential cuts are momentary stabilizations, doings, rather than beings. They enact that which is inside and outside of phenomena in a single movement. They are two-folded movements that produces the very boundaries through which something is made 'inside' and 'outside', 'this' and 'that', of the phenomena. Detecting cuts is making them. And making cuts is performing phenomena by diffracting different types of agencies.

Becoming phenomena-phile

By considering phenomena the smallest unit of analysis, Agential Realism makes the world simultaneously small and big, as everything potentially can be cut-together and apart through the becoming of phenomena. Everything is entangled prior to the cut. The world is open-ended, and always unfolding.

By being phenomena-phile, we come to be drawn to, and emerge while, performing diffractive methodologies of cutting together/apart intra-active emerging agencies through the becoming of phenomena.

Synonyms: ethico-onto-epistemology, diffraction, onto-epistemology
Antonyms: reflection, perspective, individuality
Hypernyms: cutting together/apart, knowledge-making, material-discursive, materialization (processes of), distributed agency

References :
Barad, K. (2003). Posthuman Performativity: Toward an understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(3): 801-831.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.
Barad, K. (2012). Nature's Queer Performativity. Kvinder Køn og Forskning 1-2: 25-54.
Sauzet, S. (2015). Thinking through picturing. In: P. Hinton and P. Treusch, Teaching With Feminist Materialisms. At Gender.

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