Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

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A feminist approach to "The Visible and the Invisible" through Karen Barad's agential realism

Gina Zavota

pp. 147-169


In this essay, I argue that the “agential realism” proposed by physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad provides a paradigm for conceiving of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh in a manner that preserves the particularities of bodies and prevents the eradication of sexual difference. In Meeting the Universe Halfway, Barad describes the “phenomena” which are at the center of her ontology as neither mind-independent objects nor mental constructs, but rather “entangled” complexes consisting of both material and discursive elements. Drawing on Niels Bohr’s work, Barad argues that individual agencies do not exist independently, but only emerge through their “intra-action” or entanglement, in much the same way in which Merleau-Ponty’s perceiver and perceived are mutually constituted through the intertwining of the flesh. Importantly, inasmuch as Barad’s phenomena incorporate discursive elements, individual agencies cannot be conceived of outside of their social, political, and historical contexts any more than they can be abstracted from the material conditions of their existence. By reading “The Intertwining – The Chiasm” through Barad’s agential realism, I argue that the “entanglements” of the flesh can be conceived of in a way that preserves the specificity of individuals, in particular sexual difference. If, as Barad maintains, materiality is necessarily intertwined with social and historical contexts, then, far from erasing difference, the flesh constitutes an inexhaustible space for it.

0In The Visible and the Invisible, particularly in the chapter “The Inter­twining – The Chiasm,” Merleau-Ponty develops his ontology of the flesh. Central to this ontology is what he calls the “reversibility” of perception: the notion that seeing, touching, or any other perceptual act is in fact a mutually constitutive relationship through which both self and world are affected. Within this relation, it is meaningless to speak of boundaries between per­ceiver and perceived, since both belong to the fabric of the same material world. Despite the challenge his thought poses to traditional metaphysics, Merleau-Ponty’s notions of the flesh, and of embodied perception, have been criticized by many prominent poststructuralist feminists. In particular, in her essay “The Invisible of the Flesh” (1993), Luce Irigaray has argued that Merleau-Ponty relies on feminine imagery and language to describe the flesh while simultaneously erasing sexual difference from his account. As a result, it is impossible to conceive of an explicitly feminine embodiment or language within the confines of his thought.

0In this essay, I argue that the “agential realism” proposed by physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad provides a paradigm for conceiving of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh in a manner that preserves the particu­larities of bodies and prevents the eradication of sexual difference. In Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), Barad describes the “phenomena” which are at the center of her “ontoepistemology” as neither mind-independent objects nor mental constructs, but rather “entangled” complexes consisting of both material and discursive elements. Drawing on the work of the physicist Niels Bohr, Barad argues that individual agencies do not exist independently, but only emerge through their “intra-action” or entanglement, in much the same way as Merleau-Ponty’s perceiver and perceived are mutually constituted through the intertwining of the flesh. Importantly, inasmuch as Barad’s phenomena incorporate discursive elements, individual agencies cannot be conceived of outside of their social, political, and historical contexts any more than they can be abstracted from the material conditions of their existence. By reading “The Intertwining – The Chiasm” through Barad’s agential realism, I believe that the “entanglements” of the flesh can be con­ceived of in a way that preserves the specificity of individuals, including sexual difference. If, as Barad maintains, materiality is necessarily intertwined with social and historical contexts, then, far from erasing difference, the flesh constitutes an inexhaustible space for it. This analysis will thus hopefully serve as an impetus for poststructuralist feminists to reconsider the value of Merleau-Ponty’s late work for their own projects, particularly given his account of embodied perception, which has already proven fruitful for ex­ploring issues concerning embodiment and otherness, for example.1

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0One of the guiding themes of Merleau-Ponty’s work, particularly his later texts, is his challenging of traditional philosophical dualisms such as those between subject and object and self and world. Rather than subsuming one term into the other, however, his work consists in investigating what is ontologically prior to dualistic thinking (or any thinking at all, for that matter). As Elizabeth Grosz has pointed out, “[H]is defiance of and challenge to binary polarizations places his interests very close to those of many femi­nists, especially those working in philosophy who regard logocentrism as fun­damentally implicated in and complicit with phallocentrism” (Grosz 1993, 39). Perhaps the most profound example of this defiance comes in his ex­tensive discussion of the flesh in “The Intertwining - The Chiasm,” the fourth chapter of his late, unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible. The work, intended to be part of a larger project of constructing a pheno­menological ontology, consists primarily of an examination of the “perceptual faith” inherent in Western ontology, with a particular focus on the work of Kant, Bergson, and Husserl. “The Chiasm,” however, is where Merleau-Ponty begins his positive project of laying out the ontology that he presumably hoped would supplant it. He begins by questioning the traditional notion of percep­tual qualia: individual, subjective experiences of perceptual content that are not reducible to any specific brain process and are thus non-physical in nature. Stating that “a naked color, and in general a visible, is not a chunk of absolutely hard, indivisible being, offered all naked to a vision which could be only total or null,” he suggests that what I see when I notice the color of, for example, a red apple is “less a color or a thing, therefore, than a difference between things and colors, a momentary crystallization of colored being or of visibility” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 132). He goes on to describe this “crystallization” as “the tissue that lines” the visible objects and as “a possibility, a latency, and a flesh of things” (Ibid., 133). The perceiver’s vision is thus no more static and absolute than the objects of that vision; the look “envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things” (Ibid., 133). This “palpation” of the objects of sight creates such an intimate intertwining between perceiver and perceived that “finally one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command” (Ibid., 133).

0In the course of this analysis, Merleau-Ponty also draws our attention to the fact that the same bodies which have the ability to see are themselves also visible objects, and anything with the capacity of touching is itself tangible. His famous example of a left hand which touches a right hand, which in turn touches some object in the world, serves to illustrate the interpenetration of sensing and being sensed, inasmuch as the right hand oscillates between touching and being touched, never simultaneously experiencing both. Rather than a perfect coin­cidence of the two, “it is a reversibility always imminent and never realized in fact” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 147). This lack of coincidence does not reinstate the dualism between touching self and tangible world, however, for it neither opens up a void between them nor encompasses them both in a totalizing whole. Instead, the “hiatus ... is not an ontological void, a non-being: it is spanned by the total being of my body, and by that of the world” (Ibid., 148).

0This reversibility is central to an understanding of embodied perception and for the overcoming of the duality between subject and world. It is so essential, in fact, that Merleau-Ponty wonders, in “Eye and Mind”:

What if our eyes were made in such a way as to prevent our seeing any part of our body, or if some baneful arrangement of the body were to let us move our hands over things, while preventing us from touching our own body? ... Such a body would not reflect itself; it would be an almost adamantine body, not really flesh, not really the body of a human being. There would be no humanity (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 163).

0A body that is unable to experience itself as both seer and seen, or tou­ching and touched, thus lacks a necessary criterion for humanity. Unlike the Cartesian cogito, which confirms its own existence and recognizes its essential nature in thought, Merleau-Ponty’s subject defines itself through embodied cognition and the realization that “the world is made of the same stuff as the body” (Ibid., 163). This reversibility is the central target of Irigaray’s critique of Merleau-Ponty’s late work, due to the foundational role that it plays in that work. It has also led other poststructuralist feminists such as Judith Butler, Shannon Sullivan, and Iris Young to hold that Merleau-Ponty pro­duced an account of embodied existence in which “the particularities of bodies have been overlooked” (Sullivan 1997, 1). To give one example of this sort of critique, I will now turn briefly to Young’s work; her phenomeno­logical approach and the clarity and conciseness of her arguments make her the ideal starting point for an understanding of both the feminist critique of Merleau-Ponty’s thought and its value to poststructuralist feminism.

0Young acknowledges a great debt to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body, going so far as to say that the “unique contribution” of Merleau-Ponty and other existentialist phenomenologists “to the Western philo­sophical tradition has consisted in locating consciousness and subjectivity in the body itself. This move to situate subjectivity in the lived body jeopardizes dualistic metaphysics altogether” (Young 2005, 47-48). However, for Young, “Merleau-Ponty’s account of the relation of the lived body to the world, as developed in Phenomenology of Perception, applies to any human existence in a general way” (Young 1990, 144). This general understanding, while an important founda­tion for a feminist phenomenology, is not sufficient to capture the “particular style of bodily comportment that is typical of feminine existence” (Ibid., 144). In “Throwing Like a Girl,” she discusses how the characteristics that Merleau-Ponty attributes to the body in Phenomenology of Perception need to be rethought in order to be applied to specifically feminine bodies, given the way in which women are “physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified” (Ibid., 153) within a sexist society. As a result, women’s bodies cannot function as the locus of inten­tionality and the originators of meaning-giving acts the way the “general” bodies of Phenomenology of Perception do; the former display only an “inhibited” intentionality and a “discontinuous unity” with the world around them (Ibid., 147-150). Rather than experiencing the body as a transcendental sub­ject, “feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing ... a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon” (Ibid., 150).

0Nowhere is this more obvious than during pregnancy, where the move­ments of a fetus inside a woman’s body call into question whether the body-as-transcendental subject is truly as unified as Merleau-Ponty insists, at least in Phenomenology of Perception, that it must be. As Young puts it, “Pregnancy challenges the integration of my body experience by rendering fluid the boundary between what is within, myself, and what is outside, separate. I experience my insides as the space of another, yet my own body” (Ibid., 163). Thus, while Merleau-Ponty’s work is an important first step toward the dismantling of the dichotomies that lie at the center of the Western meta­physical tradition, by reinstating a unified, if embodied, subject, he allows the distinction between self and world, or inside and outside, to resurface in a different form. In order to account for the ambiguity and discontinuity of pregnant embodiment, the subject as described in Phenomenology of Percep­tion needs to be rethought in specifically feminist terms. For Young, at least, this involves looking beyond what Merleau-Ponty and the tradition of existentialist phenomenology can offer.

0As mentioned above, Young offers a straightforward example of the critique that Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the body is too “generalized” to account for sexual difference and gendered experience. However, Young also gives one of the most succinct statements of a fundamental reason why Merleau-Ponty’s thought can be of value to poststructuralist feminism, namely that he locates consciousness within the body. Although I will argue that the value of his work extends far beyond this, Young’s point provides the general phenomenological context for my discussion in the following sections of this essay. With this in mind, I will now turn to the much lengthier and more detailed analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology given by Luce Irigaray in her essay “The Invisible of the Flesh.”

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0In this text, Irigaray, like Young, uses pregnant embodiment to ques­tion whether Merleau-Ponty’s ontology truly breaks down the dichotomies that are characteristic of western metaphysics. In “The Invisible of the Flesh,” which consists of an extended analysis and critique of “The Chiasm” chapter of The Visible and the Invisible, she acknowledges the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s return to a pre-discursive moment, before the emergence of the rational subject and the discursive, dichotomous thought which defines it. Commenting on the passage where Merleau-Ponty states that “[i]t is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible,” she declares that “[i]f it were not the visible that was in question, it would be possible to believe that Merleau-Ponty is alluding here to intrauterine life” (Irigaray 1993, 152). With this statement, Irigaray is referring to the way in which pregnant embodiment blurs the experience of interiority and exteriority and entails a “nesting” of one body within another. For her, this “intrauterine nesting,” in which a fetus is enclosed within the mother’s body, provides an important counterpoint to Merleau-Ponty’s example of bodily intertwining discussed above. Unlike in Merleau-Ponty’s example, where one hand touches another, which in turn touches something in the world, the mother cannot see her fetus, while the fetus presumably cannot see anything at all. The fetus is thus doubly obscured, being neither seer nor seen. By focusing on the visible, then, Merleau-Ponty ignores “the invisible of intrauterine life” (Ibid., 152), conceiving of a world in which a mother’s own fetus is not present to her.

0Irigaray acknowledges that, for Merleau-Ponty, vision is a convoluted process, one that folds in around itself. He states, for example, that visibility and tangibility “belong properly neither to the body qua fact nor to the world qua fact” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 139). While this certainly indicates a recognition of the interconnection between what is traditionally considered the “inside” of my subjective perceptual experience and the “outside” of the world of visible objects, Irigaray is not satisfied that this formulation is sufficient to encompass uterine and pregnant embodied experience. Despite its being “a connective tissue between the interior and the exterior” (Irigaray 1993, 156), vision is nonetheless still housed within the body, specifically within the organs responsible for sight. As a result, it is “formed inside ... within the living tissue of my body” (Ibid., 156-157) and thus cannot truly constitute a blurring of inside and outside, inasmuch as it unambiguously takes place “inside” the perceiver’s body. The intermingling that Merleau-Ponty describes thus remains a function of the subject, albeit a subject defined by its body as opposed to its rational faculties. Irigaray questions how the flesh could truly bridge or negate the gap between inside and outside, arguing that “[t]he subtlety of what is said of the visible and of its relation to the flesh does not rule out the solipsistic character of this touch(ing) between the world and the subject ... Merleau-Ponty’s whole analysis is marked by this labyrinthine solipsism” (Ibid., p. 157). In essence, the privileging of vision amounts to a retraction of the subject back into her own body, to an inner horizon, enveloping the things of the world without truly being of that world.

0Irigaray also questions the legitimacy of the parallel Merleau-Ponty draws between vision and touch. Vision cannot simply be “a palpation with the look” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 134) which necessarily implies its own doubling, the way a hand that touches is itself tangible, because vision excludes “the prenatal sojourn which is always invisible” (Irigaray 1993, 165). If there is a realm of perceptual experience that is fundamentally invisible, then “[t]he two maps of the visible and the tangible are not completely situated the one in the other and the other in the one” (Ibid., 164). While Merleau-Ponty holds that embodied subjectivity overcomes the distance between the body and other objects in the world, calling the body’s own “sensible mass” and that of other objects its “two lips”2 (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 136), Irigaray questions whether two lips residing in different realms, one within the body and one without, could usefully bridge any gap, as they “do not touch each other in the same sensible realm, [...] rigorously speaking, do not touch at all, unlike the lips of our “body”” (Irigaray 1993, 166).

0In her assessment, this is another way in which Merleau-Ponty, while using feminine imagery, nonetheless fails to account for what is particular to a woman’s body, namely the fact that her (vaginal) lips are always touching and are both situated in her body, not in two different sensible reams. Thus “the two lips of which Merleau-Ponty speaks can touch themselves in her, between women, without having recourse to seeing” (Ibid., 166). Thus, by discussing a generalized subject, Merleau-Ponty winds up maintaining the dualisms he starts out hoping to dissolve, by conceiving of the flesh in terms of two lips which can never touch. Women’s embodiment, however, encom­passes lips which truly are “reversible,” and which do not merely oscillate between touching or being touched, in the way that Merleau-Ponty’s vision, or the touch that is modeled after it, always do. Irigaray is nonetheless sympathetic to Merleau-Ponty’s project not only because of the emphasis he places on embodied experience and the overcoming of dichotomies, but also because of the centrality of language in his analysis. However, as Margaret Whitford points out in her analysis of Irigaray’s thought, for Irigaray, “[Merleau-Ponty’s] philosophy reproduces in one form or another the mor­phology or imperatives of the male body” (Whitford 1991, 152). Merleau-Ponty wants to consider language under the same rubric of reversibility under which he discusses vision and touch, stating that “if my words have a meaning, it is not because they present the systematic organization the linguist will disclose, it is because that organization, like the look, refers back to itself” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 154). But for Irigaray, this reversibility is another indication of the “incestuous” nature of Merleau-Ponty’s meta­physics, where “the world turns back on itself. The seer does not open his eyes to the world or the other in a contemplation that seeks and respects their different horizons” (Irigaray 1993, 181). A language that emerges from a sub­ject whose vision already reflects back on itself is one which is ill-suited to recognize the radically other.

0Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language does, however, allow for “that certain divergence, that never-finished differentiation, the openness ever to be reopened between the sign and the sign, as the flesh is, we said, the dehiscence of the seer into the visible and of the visible into the seer.” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 153). To this, Irigaray responds that the “never finished-differentiation might be the symptom, the secret recollection of a sexual difference that has never been achieved in language” (Irigaray 1993, 167). Again, a language whose meaning comes from the speaker’s under­standing of the self-referential nature of language can never do more than reproduce the (perhaps endless) possibilities of the structure that has already been determined from within. Nothing outside this structure, outside the realm of a “generalized” language, can find a voice within such a language. In particular, Irigaray argues, there is no room for a sexed language to appear as radically other than the implicitly male language which Merleau-Ponty is describing. There is no room for a silent, prenatal language in which the possibilities for speech are not yet formed. As Irigaray puts it, “[t]here is no silence for Merleau-Ponty. The structure of a mute world is such that all the possibilities of language are already given there” (Ibid., 180).

0Ultimately, then, Irigaray’s critique hinges on the notion that Merleau-Ponty’s conception of reversibility, whether applied to vision, touch, or language, is not sufficient to overcome the solipsism of a subject who experiences this reversibility from within the confines of an interior world. In the end, he reinstates the subject/world dichotomy, albeit from the perspec­tive of an embodied subjectivity, and fails to recognize the possibility that what is seen is characterized by a difference, particularly sexual difference, that is not conceived of within the pregiven set of possibilities constituted by the subject. Irigaray ends her reading of “The Intertwining - The Chiasm” by questioning whether Merleau-Ponty undermines his own project with his focus on reversibility. Specifically, she states that for Merleau-Ponty:

the function of philosophy is to restore a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning. The question is: can this be possible for it without changing the foundations of language? Without lifting the hypothesis that reversibility is the final truth? A hypothesis that must be questioned and “opened up” if a meaning which has not yet been heard is to come into existence, that of a language which is sexual and which encounters through speech and in the world a sex which is irreducible to it, and with which it is impossible to have relations of reversibility without remainder (Ibid.,184).

0On the basis of this critique, it would seem that Merleau-Ponty’s late work has little to contribute to poststructuralist feminism. Clearly, a meta­physics which leaves no room for recognizing the specific nature of women’s embodied existence, or that subsumes pregnant embodiment under the rubric of a generalized, unitary subjectivity, would not be a suitable ground for contemporary feminist inquiry, no matter how much of an advance it represented over what came before it. But the notion of the flesh, and specifically its reversibility, does not have to be discarded in order to open up a space for sexual difference within metaphysics. In fact, I believe that Merleau-Ponty’s late work can provide a constructive framework for the discussion of women’s embodiment within poststructuralist feminist philo­sophy. In particular, the replacing of the Cartesian cogito with the experience of material embodiment, and the attribution of reversibility to language as well as sense experience, suggest a metaphysics which is capable of recogni­zing both the material differences between different types of bodies and the discursive elements that Irigary emphasizes when searching for the space in which women’s speech can be heard. In this way, it offers the possibility of a synthesis of the constructivist elements of much poststructuralist feminism and the concrete specificity that essentialist conceptions of sexual difference call for. Thus, rather than being incompatible with contemporary feminism, Merleau-Ponty’s thought may prove uniquely well-suited to reconciling one of its most pervasive divisions.

0Grosz makes a similar point when alluding to the potential of Merleau-Ponty’s late work for contemporary feminist though. She states: “Merleau-Ponty develops a powerful and important notion of the body-image as a psycho-physiologic hinge, which, in my view, can enable feminists to rethink subjectivity, mind, and even reason itself, as sexually specific” (Grosz 1993, 53). In fact, she claims, such a notion provides a possible response to radical forms of social constructivism that leave no room for a subject that is essentially gendered, or indeed one that possesses any traits at all that are not products of societal and discursive practices. As she puts it, “[t]he thickness, the recalcitrance or resistance of experience to social inscriptions and inculcations is a necessary postulate if we are to retain the hope of trans­gressive resistances and refusals of the kinds of inscription that would other­wise fully constitute us as subjects”(Ibid., 57). The notion of the body as a space where discursive and material elements of lived experience, and specifically of gender and sexual identity, are intertwined, is one of the most important contributions that Merleau-Ponty’s work can make to contem­porary poststructuralist feminism. Far from excluding the possibility of a radical otherness, the reversibility of vision and language allows for the incommensurable interior and exterior realms to “touch” and intermingle in a way that does not privilege either. Although Merleau-Ponty does not explicitly discuss sexual difference in The Visible and the Invisible, he opens a space in which to do so in that work.

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0The possibility of reconciling the essentialist and constructionist strands of poststructuralist feminism using a concept like the flesh is not entirely hypothetical. Physicist and feminist philosopher Karen Barad has developed a metaphysics which allows for gender specificity by means of concepts akin to the intertwining and reversibility that characterize the flesh. My goal here is not to argue that Barad herself was influenced by Merleau-Ponty’s work, or even by phenomenology generally, although she is clearly knowledgeable about the tradition. Rather, I put her work forward as an example of how a notion such as the flesh could provide space for sexual difference, rather than erasing it. In particular, I will argue that, in the feminist metaphysics and epistemology that she develops, Barad uses the concept of quantum entangle­ment in a way that has striking parallels to Merleau-Ponty’s use of the reversibility of the flesh. She thus provides an example of a contemporary feminist with ontological commitments similar to Merleau-Ponty’s produc­tively engaging with the question of sexual difference and other issues central to poststructuralism. In this sense, she serves as a unique link between Merleau-Ponty and poststructuralist feminism, in that she shares her onto­logy with the former and her subject matter, in large part, with the latter. Furthermore, while theorists like Grosz have argued for Merleau-Ponty’s relevance to feminist thought, Barad, while not engaged in this debate, is utilizing ideas similar to his to productively address feminist issues. Arguably, she does this to a greater extent than any of the feminist scholars who have explicitly argued for his relevance. Without directly engaging with his work, then, she becomes a uniquely effective advocate for his thought.

0Barad works at the intersection of feminist theory and science studies, and as a result, her analysis is grounded in an attempt to rethink the relation­ship between scientific knowledge and reality. In the first chapter of her 2007 book Meeting the Universe Halfway, she positions herself within the landscape of poststructuralist feminism. She sees her work as an attempt to address one of the most vexing questions facing both feminist theory and the philosophy of science, namely the conflict between realism (including essentialism concerning sexual difference) and the various constructivist schools, such as deconstruction and semiotics. As she puts it, “I seek some way of trying to understand the nature of nature and the interplay of the material and the discursive, the natural and the cultural, in scientific and other social practices” (Barad 2007, 42). While she ultimately describes herself as a realist, Barad rejects traditional, representationalist forms of scientific realism, refer­ring to the “ontoepistemological framework” she is developing as “agential realism.” Within this framework, she attempts to incorporate the insights of semiotic and other traditionally antirealist poststructuralist theories into a metaphysics which is realist at least insofar as it holds that science can pro­vide us with reliable information about the world. As she puts it, “agential realism rejects the notion of a correspondence relation between words and things and offers in its stead a causal explanation of how discursive practices are related to material phenomena” (Ibid., 44-45).

0By attempting to move past the traditional divide between realist and constructivist understandings of scientific knowledge, Barad seeks to foreground the notion of discursive practices, particularly those in the sciences. However, unlike many poststructuralist thinkers who have seen discursive practices as a function of interactions among individuals in society, with very little influence from the natural world, Barad professes “a strong commitment to accounting for the material nature of practices” (Ibid., 45). Even at the outset, then, it is apparent that Barad’s work, like Merleau-Ponty’s, incorporates both discursive and material elements, attempting to navigate a path between positions which have traditionally minimized one or the other of them. Furthermore, given her feminist approach, she provides a unique and compelling response to the conflict between essentialism and constructivism within contemporary feminism. Most poststructuralist feminist thought has favored constructivism,3 and Irigaray has been criticized extensively for the perceived essentialism of her theory of sexual difference.4 Theorists such as Grosz and Rosi Braidotti, on the other hand, have argued for the irreducible and immutable specificity of sexual difference as manifested in the materiality of women’s bodies.5 Barad’s discursive realism accommodates both constructivist and realist or essentialist approaches, and its ontological similarity to Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh indicates that his thought would be equally accommodating.

0The parallels between Barad’s and Merleau-Ponty’s systems can be made clear through an understanding of the “agential” nature of Barad’s meta­physics. Central to her analysis is the notion of quantum entanglement, a principle from quantum mechanics which describes the state of groups of two or more particles whose physical properties, such as position and spin, are correlated in such a way that it is not possible to measure the value of one such particle in isolation; instead, measurements are necessarily performed on the system as a whole. One widely-used example is that of a hypothetical pair of particles which are generated such that one must have spin up and the other spin down. While it is impossible to know beforehand which particle will have which spin direction, once the spin of one of the particles is measured, we necessarily also gain knowledge about the spin of the second one.

0At first glance, this might not seem like a particularly interesting state of affairs, since there are many cases where gaining a piece of information about one of a pair of related items automatically tells us something about the other one. For example, if I take one shoe out of a box containing a pair of shoes, and I observe that the shoe I have chosen is the left one, then I know without further investigation that the remaining item in the box is the right shoe. Quantum systems, however, have been shown to possess a property known as complementarity, meaning the objects involved have pairs of properties which cannot both be measured simultaneously. For example, if we measure the spin of an elementary particle along one axis, we cannot also measure its spin along another axis. Perhaps the best known instance of complementarity is the dual wave-particle nature of photons, the carriers of electromagnetic radiation such as light. While photons are known to be simultaneously both particles and waves, when an experimental apparatus is constructed to exa­mine particle-like behavior, no wave-like behavior is observed, and vice versa. In Barad’s words, “the nature of the observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus” (Barad 2007, 106). In the same way that the hand in Merleau-Ponty’s example oscillates between touching and being touched, the photon behaves like a wave or a particle as a function of its environment.

0The principle of complementarity was first put forward by the physicist Niels Bohr, who is a major focus of Barad’s work. In the epistemological framework that both grew out of and came to define his formulation of quantum mechanics, Barad sees a challenge to both the notion of individual objects with clearly delineated boundaries and the idea that the values ob­tained by measuring apparatuses are unaffected by the nature of the appa­ratus and the act of measuring (Ibid., 107). As Barad puts it, Bohr held that “the central lesson of quantum mechanics is that we are part of the nature that we seek to understand” inasmuch as “our knowledge-making practices are material enactments that contribute to, and are part of, the phenomena we describe” (Ibid., 247). As is the case with her agential realism, then, Bohr’s understanding of the practice of science, and particularly quantum me­chanics, acknowledges that the material elements under examination cannot be understood without also taking into account the nature of the practices that scientists engage in, the body of scientific knowledge influencing those practices, and the situatedness of the scientist in society.6 Barad is not a phenomenologist, but she does make use of the concept of “phenomena” as a central component of her metaphysics.7 For Barad, a phenomenon consists of a complex of “intra-acting agencies” or elements drawn from both the ma­terial and discursive realms, none of which can be fully understood outside the relations comprising the phenomenon. The emphasis she places on phenomena can be seen in the following passage:

I take the primary ontological unit to be phenomena, rather than independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties. In my agential realist elaboration, phenomena do not merely mark the episte­mological inseparability of “observer” and “observed”; rather, pheno­mena are the ontological inseparability of intra-acting “agencies.” That is, phenomena are ontological entanglements. ... [Phenomena] are the basic units of existence. Phenomena are ontologically primitive relations - relations without pre-existing relata (Ibid., 333).

0While phenomena exist in every sphere of life, Barad focuses primarily on the realm of scientific practice, particularly as it bears on the examination of women’s bodies. In the case of an experiment to measure a particular property of light, for instance, the “ontologically primitive” phenomenon includes the scientist, the experimental apparatuses and facilities, and the photons being studied, as well as the cultural, institutional, and socioeco­nomic contexts within which the experiment is carried out, which affect the process and its results no less than the experimental apparatus does. If a scientist is looking to measure the wave-like properties of photons, then she will naturally select (or create) equipment designed to measure such pro­perties. This will in turn ensure that no particle-like properties will be ob­served, a fact that is attributable both to the experimental design and to the intentions of the researcher who created that design. In fact, it is not even truly possible to determine where one sphere of influence ends and the other begins, inasmuch as the scientist’s intentions are expressed in the choice of apparatus, which then produces data that reflects her expectations. In the final section of this paper, I will discuss how Barad applies this analysis to the practice of ultrasound scanning that is carried out on pregnant women.

0This description brings to mind some of the central characteristics of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility. The visible subject belongs to the same world as the objects of sight; if this were not the case, the subject would not be able to oscillate between seer and seen, and would thus lack the fun­damental characteristic of visibility: “since vision is a palpation with the look, it must also be inscribed in the order of being that it discloses to us; he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 134). In the same way that, for Merleau-Ponty, vision is chara­cterized by the subject’s immersion in the visible world, for Barad, “knowing is a matter of part of the world making itself intelligible to another part. 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” (Barad 2007, 185). In the same way that a seer must be part of the visible world, then, a knower can only learn about the knowable world if she is a part of it. Thus when Merleau-Ponty states that “[t]here is a human body when, between the seeing and the seen, between touching and the touched . . . a blending of some sort takes place” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 163), he is essentially conceiving of embodied experience as “the ontological entanglement of objects and agencies of observation” (Barad 2007, 309) — as a phenomenon which, despite incorporating diverse intra-acting elements, does not have clearly defined interior and exterior realms.

0Furthermore, while we are used to conceiving of vision as funda­mentally unidirectional, for Merleau-Ponty, “one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 133). There is thus no priority of the seer over the seen or the subject over the world; in an act of vision, both directionalities are equally prominent, and seer and seen are inseparable. Just as Barad’s phenomena are “relations without pre-existing relata,” Merleau-Ponty does not conceive of a seer apart from the world; the act of seeing is prior to any possible division between seer and world. Several pages into “The Chiasm,” Merleau-Ponty makes an even bolder claim, stating that “[o]ne should not even say, as we did a moment ago, that the body is made up of two leaves … fundamentally it is neither thing seen only nor seer only, it is Visibility sometimes wandering and sometimes reass­embled” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 137-138). The earlier passage that Merleau-Ponty is referring to here is the section of text that Irigaray uses to argue that, in conceiving of the flesh in terms of two “lips,” existing in two in­commensurate realms, Merleau-Ponty does not allow for the specific nature of women’s genitalia. But, as I will argue in the final section of this essay, the “generality” within his account is not a hopeless homogeneity in which there is no way to account for difference.

4 |

0While the discussion up to this point has hopefully demonstrated the compatibility of Barad’s agential realism with Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh, it has not yet explained the relevance of Barad’s thought to the question of sexual difference. In particular, the charge that the “general thing” that serves as the foundation of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology does not allow for the specificity of women’s embodiment and discourses must still be addressed. Having argued for the similarity of Merleau-Ponty’s and Barad’s systems, I will use the latter to show that such ontologies do, in fact, provide a strong response to this critique. To do so, I will now turn to Barad’s essay “Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality” (1998), in which she responds not to Irigaray, but to Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity, and more generally to the constructionism that characterizes much of poststructuralist feminism and of which Butler is a prime example.

0In her seminal work Bodies that Matter (1993), Butler writes extensively about the process by which bodies “materialize” through what Barad des­cribes as the “constituting effect of discourses and power.” However, Barad contends, “Butler’s notion of materialization is limited in several important ways” (Barad 1998, 90). Inparticular, Barad is concerned that Butler’s res­ponse to feminist positions in which “the materiality of sex is understood as that which only bears cultural constructions and, therefore, cannot be a con­struction” (Ibid., 28), while motivated by concerns that Barad herself shares, runs the risk of relegating matter to an excessively passive role. While she is careful to state that she is not accusing Butler of idealism, she does wonder whether “the exclusion of particular features of materiality” in Butler’s account is “a constitutive constraint of analyzing materiality performatively,” and she thus seeks to formulate a more robust, “fixed sense of the substantive character of materiality” (Ibid., 91).

0Like Irigaray and Young, Barad addresses the issue of pregnant embodi­ment. She arrives there by way of Butler’s discussion of the “girling” of infants on the basis of the examination of their genitalia at birth, in which Butler only parenthetically alludes to the fact that ultrasound technology allows this process to take place even before birth (Butler 1993, 7). In res­ponse, Barad asks whether “the parenthetic inclusion of gender interpellation through ultrasound [is] really so unremarkable, so insignificant to consider­ations of (interpellation and ultimately of) materialization, that it require no further analysis?” (Barad 1998, 92). Given its costs, limited availability,8 and the lack of universal healthcare, “[t]he sonogram does not simply map the terrain of the body; it maps geopolitical, economic, and historical factors as well” (Ibid., 93).

0From there, Barad goes on to deploy her notion of a phenomenon within a feminist context, using the ultrasound process as her central example; given both its obvious combination of material and discursive elements and its importance to feminist theory, it serves as an effective framework for her response to Butler. It likewise provides an excellent example of the way in which an “ontoepistemology” with striking similarities to Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh can be constructively applied to an analysis of speci­fically female embodiment and experience.

0In this case, the real, material conditions – the body of the woman under­going the procedure, the fetus’ developing genitals, the condition of the ultrasound machine, and so on – provide the specificity that Irigaray con­tends is absent, almost by definition, from such an ontology. At the same time, the inclusion of political, economic, and other societal factors within the phenomenon preserves the discursive elements that are crucial to post­structuralist conceptions of sexual difference. As she does in Meeting the Universe Halfway, Barad grounds her analysis in “Getting Real” in the work of Bohr and the concept of quantum entanglement. As is the case with Merleau-Ponty’s ontology, Bohr held that “there is no unambiguous way to differentiate between the “object” and the “agencies of observation”” (Barad 1998, 95).

0In scientific and medical laboratories, the selection and use of equipment on the part of the practitioner has a profound effect on the measurement, and thus it makes little sense to speak of that practitioner as an independent observer outside the material-discursive system of measurement. In the case of a sonogram performed on a pregnant woman, the medical professionals who acquire, operate, and maintain the apparatus and analyze the images it produces belong to the same phenomenon as the machine itself, the pregnant woman and her fetus, and the social, economic, geographic and political conditions under which the examination is performed. Once again, Barad uses the term “intra-action” to describe this connectedness and dependence among the various elements of the phenomenon, emphasizing the fact that they are not independent agencies existing outside the process of which they are a part.

0Through her analysis of the phenomenon of ultrasound, Barad argues that the gender that is attributed to a fetus by means of the process is as much a function of the apparatus as it is of the technician’s skill in reading the sometimes blurry images that are produced, or even of the physical con­tours of the fetus’s developing body. The apparatus is complicit in the “mate­rialization” of gender, inasmuch as it “does not allow us to peer innocently at the fetus, nor does it simply offer constraints on what we can see; rather, it helps produce and is “part of” the body it images” (Ibid., 101). In proposing her agential realism, then, Barad seeks to take into account the discursive practices surrounding phenomena such as the “girling” of fetuses while also emphasizing the importance of material elements such as the ultrasound machine, which affects the outcome of the process through the quality of the images it produces, its reliability, and its very availability (or lack thereof) in a given medical facility. This last factor, in turn, often depends on precisely the socioeconomic and political conditions that increase or decrease the like­lihood that a given woman will even have access to the procedure. Just as with experiments measuring the spin of entangled particles or the wave-like or particle-like properties of photons, with ultrasound and the social-material construction of gender, “the intertwining of the conceptual and physical dimensions of measurement processes is central” to understanding the phenomenon (Ibid., 95).

0Returning to Merleau-Ponty’s ontology, and the reversibility that lies at its core, we can begin to see how it might accommodate the gender specificity that Irigaray’s conception of sexual difference calls for.Using Barad’s terminology, the reversibility of vision or touch can be seen as an intra-action, an entangled process in which it is impossible to conceive of a seer or an object of sight that exists independently of the “constant style of visibility from which I cannot detach myself” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 146). Conceiving of reversibility in these terms highlights the fact that blurring the boundaries between subject and object, and between interior and exterior worlds, does not necessarily reduce embodied experience to a solipsism in which all material and linguistic possibilities are given within the consciousness of the subject, as Irigaray contends. Barad’s phenomena, while consisting entirely of intra-acting elements which cannot be considered independently, are not homogenous, totalizing structures. On the contrary, they incorporate diverse material and discursive elements in a way which calls into question the boun­daries between the material and discursive realms without subsuming either one into the other. The possibilities inherent in a phenomenon cannot possibly have been determined beforehand by the subject, since “[k]nowing is a direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic configuring, its ongoing articulation. The entangled practices of knowing and being are material practices” (Barad 2007, 379). The materiality of knowing — whether that knowing comes through scientific experimentation, a medical procedure, or the direct vision or touch that Merleau-Ponty discusses — opens up a space for endless possi­bilities for expression which could not be known to a subject or “agency of observation” prior to the subject’s engagement with the world.

0Barad’s formulation also encompasses what Irigaray characterizes as the invisible, mute world of the fetus. While a woman cannot directly see the fetus inside her body, of course, the sonogram literally renders it visible and gives it a “voice” insofar as it allows for its “materialization” as an “element of agential reality” (Barad 1998, 115). This “element” is not a “self-contained, free-floating body located inside a technomaternal environment” but is rather “the result of particular historically and culturally specific intra-actions of material-discursive apparatuses” (Ibid., 115). As such, the specificity of its agency, and of pregnant or intrauterine embodied experience, is inscribed in the unique set of conditions and intra-actions through which the fetus becomes visible. Indeed, it can only be known through individual intra-actions with the world, practices which are engaged in by entangled yet materially and discursively determined agents of observation. Thus Barad’s agential realism, while maintaining something akin to the reversibility of Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, also provides a means for adding specificity to the “general bodies” which concern Irigaray and other poststructuralist feminists. It thus also allows for the expression of difference and of female embodiment without reference to an independently existing, non-gendered subject. If reversibility does not automatically subsume the experience of women under that of a general, and presumably male, subject, then it is worth revisiting the rich ontology which Merleau-Ponty begins to develop in The Visible and the Invisible and exploring the ways in which it might contribute to the landscape of contemporary feminist philosophy.

0Ultimately, Barad’s work is uniquely valuable for poststructuralist femi­nism in a multitude of ways. First, her agential realism provides a compelling example of how the constructivist emphasis of poststructuralism can be successfully integrated with the realist perspective that essentialist feminism demands, particularly concerning the issue of sexual difference. This alone represents an important contribution to the landscape of contemporary feminist thought, inasmuch as it demonstrates a compatibility between two approaches which have often seems incommensurate with one another. With respect to Irigaray’s critique, Barad’s notion of material-discursive phenomena brings a concrete specificity to the “general bodies” that cause Irigaray, Young, and other poststructuralists to reject Merleau-Ponty’s late work. On Barad’s interpretation of the sonogram, the fetus becomes visible, but not under a totalizing vision directed by “the morphology or imperatives of the male body” (Whitford 1991, 152). On the contrary, it appears along with the materiality of the ultrasound machine and the body of the woman under­going the scan – a materiality that cannot be generalized, as it belongs to this woman and this machine at this moment. The solipsism of the fetus is over­come, and the sexed language which Irigaray believes is impossible within Merleau-Ponty’s framework begins to be heard. Using Irigaray’s terminology, we can say that the materiality and specificity of Barad’s phenomena provide the “remainder” that exceeds the relation of reversibility (Irigaray 1993, 184) and ensures that not all “possibilities of language are already given” (Ibid., 180) in the mute world of the fetus. The fetus’ coming to visibility thus not only allows women’s language to be heard but also positions that language as one that both recognizes and emanates from the radically other.

0While this in itself would be reason enough to accept Barad’s agential realism as a serious contribution to poststructuralist feminist thought, as I have argued here, it also reflects similar ontological commitments to those found in Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh. As a result, its success in addressing the issue of sexual difference indicates that Merleau-Ponty’s late work could be successfully applied to this issue as well. While this might seem superfluous at this point, I believe that this endeavor would still be greatly beneficial. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological perspective brings a dimension to the inquiry that is not found in Barad’s work, and texts such as Phenomenology of Perception have already proven to be a productive starting point for feminist inquiries into issues such as embodiment. By comparison, The Visible and the Invisible and other late works where Merleau-Ponty begins to the develop the ontology of the flesh have received relatively little atten­tion from contemporary feminists. My hope is that this essay has provided a convincing argument in support of feminist engagement with these texts, for I believe that they provide a rich new landscape within which to expand the boundaries of contemporary poststructuralist thought.


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Publication details

Published in:

Stawarska Beata, Flack Patrick (2018) Merleau-Ponty and structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 2.

Pages: 147-169

DOI: 10.19079/actas.2018.s2.147

Full citation:

Zavota Gina (2018) „A feminist approach to "The Visible and the Invisible" through Karen Barad's agential realism“. Acta Structuralica 2, 147–169.