Meeting the Universe Halfway: Reflections on Diffractions

by Catherine Montgomery

As we gathered at the Radcliffe Observatory to “meet the universe halfway”, the building itself seemed to comment on us, the group of us STSers, anthropologists and historians who had turned up to discuss Karen Barad’s seminal work. We were welcomed in by the Greek gods of the eight winds – were they there to encourage our knowledge-gathering or to toy with us mere mortals as we grappled with quantum mechanics and its ‘ontoepistemology’?

Feminist technoscientist analysts in actionIn Steve Woolgar’s introduction to our situated space, we heard how, in the eighteenth century, it was the role of the Observer to make meteorological observations, but the role of his successor to interpret them. He went on to tell us of the building’s transition from observatory to vascular laboratory in the 1930s, alluding to a photograph of sheep milling in its vestibule. Should we conceive of ourselves as sheep, following blithely in the footsteps of STS’s ontological turn, or as the esteemed interpreters of previous scholars’ scientific inquiry? Or perhaps, as Barad herself suggests, such analogical thinking takes us down a blind alley.

Barad’s (2007) book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning provides a challenging and heady exhortation to rethink some of social research’s most fundamental, stock-in-trade concepts: power, agency, and causality (to name but a few), and in the process, the relationship between the epistemological, the ontological and the ethical. Barad fearlessly tackles these big questions through an exposition of quantum physics, rejecting the notion of inherent uncertainty and seeking to reinstate philosophy-physics as an apparatus for comprehending matter and meaning. She professes not only to provide a ‘rigorous’ re-telling of the Bohr/Heisenberg debate, but, in the feminist science studies tradition, to dismantle persistent dichotomies by questioning how ‘we are part of the world in its differential becomings’ (Barad 2007:185) – and thereby to contribute to making a better world.

The Radcliffe Observatory observedBut a better world for whom, where and when? And why the insistence on rigour and giving a definitive account of physics? And how does feminist technoscience help to dismantle dichotomies over and above other approaches? These were just some of the questions that arose from our discussion, often turning around the book’s location at the intersection of quantum physics and STS. Challenged by the dense subject matter, some among us wondered if it was really necessary to read about quantum eraser experiments or if we could skip straight to the STS insights. Perhaps, it was suggested, Barad’s attention to ‘serious science’ was an implicit response to the science wars of the 1990s, the legacy of which has been to squeeze out STS playfulness and irony? But what about the joy of uncertainty and the powerful moral positions that such uncertainty can engender? As we needled through these issues, the subject-object relationship in social-scientific research recurred, prompting reflections on the STS trope of the detailed empirical case study and (on cue) the need for a healthy dose of reflexivity. This culminated in the question as to what we should take from ethnographies of scientific practice, and why it is that we hanker after certainty and intellectual resolution?

The gods were obviously enjoying themselves. In our own reflexive moment, we imagined a group of physicists sitting around in a circle, as we were, wondering if they could skip the feminist technoscience and cut straight to the quantum mechanics. But this moment was short-lived, as the conversation returned to ‘serious’ STS concerns: were we witnessing a proto-split between Mollaw and Calltour? Should we escape the local and reach for a meta-perspective or embrace contingency, multiplicity and uncertainty? We left the Radcliffe Observatory with such questions playing on our minds, not a sheep in sight…

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

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