Matter and Reality: Barad, Bachelard and Simondon[1]

It was in a dinner party, the theme was about energy and spirit in different cultural contexts. A group of 8 people were listening to a cognitive scientist who used to work for one of the Max Planck Institutes. This gentleman proposed with a convincing voice, there is no cups, no vegetable, everything on this table don’t exist as such. They only exist as such when human direct its intention, and where micro-particles actualize according to these intentions. The objects present to us as such are psychological necessities. We probably have already know that this is the paradigm of science named correlationism which Meillassoux criticized in his book Après la Finitude : objects exist because there is an subject which perceives and thinks of it. I became rather nervous, I worried that at some points I may hit the wine glass on his head and see if it is only a question of intentionality, because after all, we may all be puzzled: how can particles hurt us? By the end, this form of constructionism only admits one reality which is micro-physics, while this reality is grounded in specific discourse. In her 2003 article Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter, Karen Bard started with “Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter”. If constructionism is a language game, then reality understood as such is only linguistic. Things exist, but they exist as such is only a question of language: matter doesn’t matter.” True, Barad continued, “it is hard to deny that the power of language has been substantial. One might argue too substantial, or perhaps more to the point, too substantializing”

The origin of this problem comes from the metaphysical interpretation of the individual as the foundational entity of society and phenomenon, the organisation of the individuals demands laws which found themselves on representationism: “Liberal social theories and theories of scientific knowledge alike owe much to the idea that the world is composed of individuals—presumed to exist before the law, or the discovery of the law—awaiting/inviting representation. The idea that beings exist as individuals with inherent attributes, anterior to their representation, is a metaphysical presupposition that underlies the belief in political, linguistic, and epistemological forms of representationalism”. We could find a similar reading in the thoughts of Simondon concerning individual and identity, and Gaston Bachelard’s concept of relativity. For Simondon the subject-predicate model is not enough to explain individuation, since it is only applicable to individuals[1]. This problematic comes from the fact that the ancients cannot think about genesis and hence they need to posed an opposition between being and becoming; while for Bachelard, the concept of substance is dangerous and useless[2], because it will prevent us from discovering a plural realism.

The critique of individual as a stable and static entity leads to Barad’s concept of the agential realism, a motif to return to objects and find an understanding from its matter. There is no matter, but only matters; there is not only inter-activities that demands human, but also intra-activity. Matter is performative in itself and for itself; representationism misses the point of seeing the energetic side of matter, since all movements and chances could be generalized as a phenomenon or rules that explain this phenomenon. When matter are considered to be energetic and performative, then the becoming can only be found in the becoming of matter (or individuation) but not the principle of individuation. In fact, Bachelard has already proposed a theory very similar to Barad’s in his Essai sur la connaissance approchée (1927), in which he proposed to understand a phenomenon in terms of different orders of magnitudes. An observer can always observe the approximate knowledge of a certain order, but never the complete knowledge of the whole phonemenon, nor even the precise knowledge of the order. We can admit reality is discursive, but we also have to admit that there are plural realities. The discursive reality is only one of the realities that we can observe. Matter of different orders interact with each other and constitute an asymmetric relation in terms of the level of affections. This is best exemplified by the example that Barad gave on the dual nature of light as particles and as waves, epistemology depends on the instrument or apparatus for observation. This is very close to Bachelard’s phenomenotechnics.In the book that I just finished writing On the Existence of Digital Objects, I call these relations and the dynamics of these matter inter-objectivity.

Like Bachelard, Barad goes further than the phenomenon, she wanted to propose an unified ontology of being, which is independent from the observer and the observed: “…on my agential realist elaboration, phenomena do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of “observer” and “observed”; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting “components.” (Barad:815). This includes both human and inhuman, since all these two opposite entities have to dissolve into intra-activity of matters. It also implies there is no difference between nature and technics, culture and technologies, human and non-human, since in order to understand a phenomenon, it doesn’t need an observer but necessarily understand the observer in terms of matter. We can probably say this is the biggest difference between Barad and the Actor Network Theorist of science. In Barad’s theory, there is virtually no actor, since once we recognize the role of actor, we have already given them identities or individualities. Hence there is no interactivity of actors, but intra-activity of matters. The presence of a phenomenon depends on an “agential cut” of certain matter, e.g. the double slits for observing the wave form of light, but a new concept of causality. The new onto-epistemology for the posthuman is the recognition of phenomena as constant becoming of matters and their intra-activities. But the question is what is really matter? And how do matters matter when we admit that matters are not all equal in terms of power and potential at the same time rejecting the concept of substance? Simondon encountered a similar question in his invited intervention at the French Society of Philosophy, after giving a talk on form, information and individuation, Paul Riceour[3]asked:

“I would emphasize a prejudicial difficulty; I don’t mean that there isn’t response to this difficulty, but I would like to listen; this difficulty is following: can one aim for an axiomatisation of human sciences from a domain which itself doesn’t belong to human sciences? More precisely, what seems to me anterior to human sciences, it is not nature, but the Human + Nature totality; can we, from a structure of thought borrowed from nature, axiomatise the Human+ Nature totality? It seems to me that one is necessarily condemned as a paralogism every time that one tries to explain the totality by the laws of its parts.”

[1] Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, 85-97
[2] Dominique Lecourt, L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard, 25
[3] Simondon, G. (1960) Forme, Information et Potentiels, Séance du 27 février 1960 (723-764)

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