[Excerpt from the Introduction of Diffractive Technospaces. A Feminist Approach to the Mediations of Space and Representation, Ashgate, UK, 2015]
Diffractive Technospaces undertakes a redefinition of the relationship between space and representation, beginning from a revision of both according to a performative, non-representational perspective. Here, representation is not refused, but differently articulated in a relation of reciprocity with the same articulation of technospaces. With the latter, I intend dynamic and contingent formations whose emergence cannot be disjoined from the generativity of the mediations that traverse them all over, making recourse to external, preformed representations impossible, since technospaces develop together with representations thanks to the creative capacity at their core.
Diffraction (Haraway, 1997; Haraway, 1992) [is] the fundamental concept around which Diffractive Technospaces revolves, that not only shows how representations can and must be differently articulated, but also the mutual relation between observing practices and observed phenomena, which only permits a performative, situated reconceptualisation of both space and representation. Literally, diffraction describes the interference of waves when they encounter an obstacle, such as when light passes through a slit.
According to the laws of classical mechanics (see Barad, 2007, pp. 97 ff.), when a number of particles – imagined as little balls – are emitted by a ‘ball machine’ and sent through a two-slit screen, they hit the detection screen opposite the source machine according to the path that they take, that is, maintaining the separate trajectories of the two slits through which they have passed, whereas waves that pass through the two openings overlap on the detection screen, creating interference among themselves. However, quantum physics has shown that when the experiment is performed using tiny particles of matter, like electrons, these behave as waves once they have arrived on the detection screen; they interfere and overlap just like waves, a phenomenon which contrasts with the wave-particle duality of classical physics.
Additionally, the experiment conceived by Niels Bohr in the late 1950s (see Barad, 2007) and effectively realized only in the mid-1990s shows that when a ‘which-path’ device is used in the two-slit experiment in order to understand which path an electron – imagined as a particle – takes each time it passes through the two openings, whether through the upper or the lower slit, then the electrons behave as particles once they hit the detection screen, without creating interference. This demonstrates that a given apparatus interferes in the process observed; thus, given spatiotemporal boundaries cannot be assigned to objects prior to observation, and measuring apparatuses cut the entanglement between the observing agent and the observed object differently each time, intimately linking ‘measurement and description’ (Barad, 2007, p. 109) and exposing an essential failure of representationalism to describe the presumably inherent properties of the objects observed (p. 124).
The uncertainty on which Bohr’s experiment is based (Barad, 2007, pp. 115–18) does not so much postulate the unknowability of reality as the ontological performativity of epistemological practices: this means that referents do not have independent essential properties prior to the practices of observation for which, and through which, they come to matter. Potentially, matter exists in two states at the same time. Matter, thus, is substantially performative and informational, never inert and stable. Conversely, information and representation acquire a mattering performativity as they cannot be separated from what they describe. Indistinguishable quantum states interfere, but cuts are created that configure distinctions and inhibit this interference whenever observation interferes with them.
When Haraway retrieves representation by means of the metaphor and methodology of diffraction, she is pointing to the performativity of representations not only to show the co-emergence of meaning and matter, but also to affirm that it is always possible to materially intervene in the world’s becoming by interfering with existing representations. Accordingly Barad (Barad, 2003; 2007), drawing on Haraway’s link between situated knowledge and optics as forms of political positioning, considers diffraction an ‘ethico-onto-epistemological matter’ (Barad, 2007, p. 381) that challenges the absolute separability of differences, while requiring an entangled engaging with their entangled nature that is an act of responsibility for configuring and reconfiguring the boundaries of the world with which we also connect through our visual practices. That distinctions do not inhere in the observed objects as their properties but rather concern ‘matters of practices/doings/actions’ (Barad, 2003, p. 802) is a serious blow for classical representationalism and the series of dichotomies of which it avails itself.
From the perspective of media theory, similar issues are initially assessed in such analyses as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s (Bolter & Grusin, 1999), who explain how both the search for an immediacy of representation and the effect of hypermediacy are but two sides of the same coin of remediation, that is, the coimplication of mediation and reality. They are echoed in the more recent discussion that Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska (Kember & Zylinska, 2012) make of mediation in contemporary technospaces, where the being and becoming-with of the social and the technological can be observed. In this respect, particular importance in the field of media studies has been given to recent theorisations of the digital interface by such authors as Anna Munster (2006), Timothy Murray (2008) and Alexander Galloway (2012), in which, contrary to an instrumental view of technologies as well as to the relegation of interfacial conjunctions in an invisible seamless background, the relational and performative mediations of interfaces are foregrounded.
In their contingent configurations, technospaces do not pre-exist their mediations, but continuously take place in an elastic, variously expandable ‘middle’ (Mitchell, 2008, p. 4), where processes of in-formation and ‘mattering’ combine in heterogeneous ways (see also Grusin, 2010; Thrift, 2008). Such entangled flows of distributed materiality and distributed information weaken and disenfranchise the representational imagination of spatiality that would like to keep space and representation separate as well as motionless.
For this reason, Barad (2007) prefers using the term ‘intra-action’ rather than interaction to underline the active, not merely conjunctive role of mediations in ‘the mutual constitution of entangled agencies’ (p. 33) that emerge in every phenomenon rather than precede it. As a matter of fact, Haraway (1992), who instead continues talking about mediations, also refers to a co-emergence of the subject and the object of representation on a shared ground of ‘neverfinished… articulatory practices’ (p. 313). Actually, her proposal of an articulatory turn in representation (Haraway, 1997) is also a different theory of the mediation of both knowledge and vision, which translates into a political semiotics of representation (Haraway, 1992). According to Haraway, representation can still be employed, but only if delinked from the representational idiom (Pickering, 1994) and aligned with the performative one and with the assumptions of non-representational theory, which Haraway’s theory anticipates in many respects (Anderson & Harrison, 2010; Jacobs & Nash, 2003; Lorimer, 2005; Thrift, 2008; Whatmore, 2006).
For Haraway (D. Haraway, 1991), articulating rather than refusing representation means putting the false dichotomies that have sustained traditional representationalism in tension and, while escaping the oppositional line of reasoning, making it an epistemological and political instrument of confrontation. Haraway’s articulation of representation culminates in her elaboration of a diffractive methodology that, starting from the persistence of vision in her politics of situated knowledges, passes through the notion of figuration to arrive at that of diffraction. Figuration is the term that she (1997) uses to name the possibility we have of mapping the articulations taking place at the boundaries of our realities. Drawing on Christian and Aristotelian traditions, Haraway focusses on the conjoined spatiotemporal aspects of figurations, putting into relief their strong link to location, to which they relate as constructive and transformative cartographies.
Figurations are both topoi, material-discursive meeting points or ‘commonplaces’ that can be inhabited but never in fixed or static ways, and transformative trópoi that continuously tend to turn, shift and displace what they figure thanks to their power of differentiation (Haraway, 2008a). Figurations are thus re-representations that always re-turn as not the same (Doel, 2010; Hughes & Lury, 2013). They not only map the world as it appears, but also highlight what changes in what they map, at the same time that they change what they map and change while mapping. Their role is vital for representing the ‘sociotechnical circulations’ (Haraway, 1997, p. 12) in technospaces, as they manifest internal and active coimplication with them rather than supply exterior correspondences from a distance.
The most powerful figuration that Haraway (1992; 1997) uses to show the entangled performativity of reality and representation and the generative power of visual practices is diffraction, an optical phenomenon that she also employs as a methodology to interrogate the relations of light and matter, for ‘mattering’ light and giving light back its history (Haraway, 2000, p. 103). In Barad’s (2007) words, Haraway’s ‘diffractive methodology is a critical practice for making a difference in the world’ as well as a responsible commitment ‘to understanding which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom’ that puts into play the place of the observer in the observed phenomena (p. 90).
With every measurement, we look inside a phenomenon (Barad, 2007, pp. 283 ff.); we do not have an outside from which to measure, so that observed differences are not so much inherent in the physical states of the observed objects but only a further extension of the entanglement, one that that includes the measuring action inside the measured entanglements. This gives us the possibility of accounting for the phenomena observed in a way which enacts a contingent resolution, an ‘agential separability’ (p. 176) – given that no essential one exists a priori – between the observer and the observed. It follows that measuring agencies cannot measure their own entanglements with the measured object because no absolute exteriority secures objectivity, even though, at the same time, objectivity can still be performed in partial and situated accounts. In fact, the creativity of the mediations through which technospaces assemble can be observed only when the joints and gaps of their completed, incomplete, and yet-to-be-complete connections are made visible as a guarantee of an openness that can still be engaged with and otherwise.
A performative, non-representational approach insists on the immanent creativity of those systems whose actual form does not exhaust the virtual capacity for alternative configurations that are impossible to fully grasp according to exterior representations, because of the autopoietic, fundamentally performative, quality of a creativity that is the same in-forming force of the systems as they exist (Guattari, 1995; Lury, Parisi, & Terranova, 2012). Considering the aesthetics of machines, Guattari (1995) explains, does not mean either privileging the role of institutionalised arts or invoking an aesthetisation of the social, but rather gets to the bottom of the creative nucleus that is the same emerging force of machines when they perform, rather than express, their mode of existence.
Being able to grasp this incipient dimension of creation also means understanding it as a force of differentiation that works at diverting and transcending any stable representation, as in the case of Haraway’s diffractive figurations (1992; 1997; 2008a; see also Stoetzler & Yuval-Davis, 2002), so as to constantly distance the identity of systems from their self-sufficiency and make encounters with alterity possible. Aesthetics, subtracted from the domain of contemplation and realigned with the processuality of the real and involvement in reality-making practices, resituates creativity inside an ecological network of practices in which the constitutive tendency toward alterity necessarily implies care and involvement with our ‘companion’ others, being thus redefinable as aesth-ethics (Haraway, 2003; 2008b). As Haraway (1991) affirms, the awareness of our partiality and of our technological, that is machinic, configuration means taking into account the creative activity where the boundaries that we build everyday in shared technospaces also become the thresholds that allows us to ‘trope’ existing topoi and make differences in the world (Barad, 2007), where our search for connections is also the only possibility that we have to liberate them and make them proliferate.
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