In an interview published in 2009 by New Materialism, Karen Barad responds to the idea that the dualist tradition in cultural theory,  i.e. the historical strand of thought engaged in considering relations between mind and body, has given way to a ‘new’ materialism (also referred to as the ontological turn or post- humanism) that emphasises the complexity of these relations and considers them as ‘travelling fluxes of nature and culture, matter and mind’ and that through these fluxes ‘active theory formation’ is possible.

A link is made here with Barad’s agential realism, which proposes that matter is always inextricably intertwined with discourse. Of course this is not a new idea and it has roots in Foucault’s dispositif and especially in Judith Butler’s discursive-linguistic concept of performativity. A key underlying concept of agential realism is intra-action, which Barad calls ‘an ongoing open process of mattering through which ‘mattering’ itself acquires meaning and form in the realization of different agential possibilities’. This is in opposition to interaction, which presupposes the existence and relational aspect of already mattered (that is, objectified) phenomena. Through intra-actions the entanglement of matter with the material-discursive strand in cultural theory is given new theoretical instruments with which to dismantle the old dualisms and transcendences.

Following Haraway, Barad then deploys a metaphor from physics, diffraction, which is used  in a generative sense to frame a non-dualistic and consciously ethical analysis. Barad proposes that the practice of diffraction involves ‘reading diffractively for patterns of differences that make a difference’ (in a clear reference to Bateson) and is a way of being ‘suggestive, creative, visionary’. A diffractive methodology means reading insights through one another, attentively reading for differences, and is ‘a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness’ (Haraway). Barad explains this metaphor through the physics of optics, contrasting geometrical optics, which is unconcerned by the nature of light, and physical optics, which considers the light passing through the measurement apparatus, and the measurement apparatus itself, to be interdependently entangled. 

The diffraction metaphor is further developed by Barad with reference to quantum entanglement, part of a much wider theoretical project to weave the natural sciences into the humanities. Indeed much of the work diffraction is intended to do is produce ‘new patterns of thinking-being’ by reading texts from contrasting traditions through each other, generatively producing new insights from the resulting intervolvement. Barad also uses the famous double slit experiment to show how wave-particle duality demonstrates intra-action between electrons and the apparatus used to measure their distribution. The phenomenon arises in its enactment, in fact the phenomenon is the enactment, measurement produces properties and boundaries. This is the difference between an ontological and an epistemological reading of diffraction. 

Diffraction is at once a practice, a methodology, a route to analysis, and an ethical commitment. One question for me here (following the principles of pragmatism) is; how can we use these ideas? what use can an onto-epistemological mattering be in design? How should we implement agential realism in design practices? what kinds of suggestive, creative, and visionary designs might be possible? 

Diffractive design would draw on other knowledge domains to produce new insights. This is not at all a new idea in design and is already seen in design’s productive engagement with, say, synthetic biology or space science. One criticism of this kind of work is that it avoids methodological entanglement, reserving a special place for itself in the sphere of representation. Non-denominational diffractive design would abandon its exceptionalism and be willing to read itself through, say, chemistry or palaeontology, rather than through semiotics or ethnography. This is not to say that these disciplines would be looking for reflections of each other, but that the diffraction pattern of their mutual interference would uncover their previously existing entanglement.

Diffractive design would attend to the intra-actions of its own separate disciplines. In other words textile design would come into meaningful (by which I mean generative) entanglement with interface design, vehicle design with typographic design. This would produce what Barad calls ‘inventive provocations’ by consciously designing for the entangling agencies (the meanings, habits, materials, and discourses) of different creative domains. From diffractive design then would come a new kind of designer, she would configure material-discursive situations across various traditions to generate new entanglements, rather than new products or objects. 

Diffractive design would also acknowledge the apparatus (knowledges, experiences, educations, clients, fundings and institutions) through which it comes into being. In fact it would necessarily be inextricably intertwined with these things. Agential realism would suggest that this is a matter of responding to ‘the particularities of the power imbalances’ in design. These are seen as always contingent and always enacted through practice. Designs that responded directly to the set of conditions that produced them would not just be reflective, they would also be transmutative of those conditions, and observable in systems of meaning and matter.  

Diffracting design would recognise itself as an apparatus. One through which designers are caused to act in certain ways, and through which non designers are subjected to those acts. Design as an apparatus would draw attention to its own internal workings as a creative act; the generation of ideas, setting of briefs, listing of references, researching into usabilities, putting into tangible form and evaluating outcomes etc. That is not to say that the confines of the apparatus are necessarily definable but as Barad suggests ‘boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted through the intra-activity of mattering’. In other words it is through praxis that design as an apparatus becomes recognisable, or at the very least perceivable. 

Diffracting design would work through the diffraction of its field of operation. By this I mean to use diffracting as a verb rather than adjective. To diffract something in this context means in some way to divide it into a specific selection of its constituent parts that may subsequently emerge as a form of patterning, or as a spatial and temporal signature. Design performs this diffraction through the material realisation of forms. Materials are considered to be in a relational arrangement with the makers, contexts knowledge, and actions that they come into contact with. This is perhaps where Barad’s ‘matters of fact and matters of concern’ take on a more reified aspect. The theoretical backdrop to Barad’s reading of cultural theory through physics has its roots in feminist science and technology studies. These tend to prioritise bodies over substances, emphasising ‘bodily production’, ‘engagements among body parts’, ‘the marks left on bodies’ to pick just a few from the interview. Barad’s description of matter is also clearly embodied ‘Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns, and remembers’. How then should design theorise its use of materials and mattering, which may range from code to concrete? 

Diffracting matter in design, means diffracting design itself. To this end Haraway advises against the ‘god trick’ of positioning ourselves outside of, and separate from the mattering of the world around us. Instead we are inevitably, and thus ethically, intertwined with it. Barad mobilises the metaphor of entanglement from quantum physics to describe this relation. In design this would imply that we think of ourselves as comprising a design material, connecting again to the embodiment motif, or perhaps that ways of shaping and arranging materials by hand or by mind involves an ethical (by which I mean response-able as Barad says) entanglement with making things. Being, acting, and knowing (the onto-ethico-epistemology) meet in matter. 

Much of the language used to describe the concepts of the new materialism is circular and can be contradictory. For example, the dual meanings of the word matter i.e. as verb and noun is consistently evoked, often in a playful poesis. Two parts of the theory stand out for me as potentially problematic. Firstly, much rides on the connection between metaphors from quantum physics and concepts of relationality from cultural theory. The outer reaches of quantum entanglement being possibly unfamiliar territory for readers in the humanities the suspicion remains that the entanglement metaphor is taken at face value and is over-instrumentalised in the argument. Secondly, as others have noted the automatic assumption of an ethico-ontology as a precondition for being and knowing, (that is, ethics does not have to be placed, articulated, or committed to, it just is) may let us off the hook too readily.

Finally, I don’t pretend to understand all of this by any means but wanted to set out my thoughts regarding Barad’s work in relation to design. This post is published in the spirit of open inquiry and questioning. 

photo credit: csvfoto


One thought on “Diffract / ive / ing Design

  1. This is very clear – and a really useful summary of Barad, the question you ask re what defraction can do in practice seems key, where does it take us beyond metaphor? I’m reading Brian Massumi’s ‘Parables for the virtual’ at the moment, and find his questions re the body, or rather his articulation, especially of movement, highly relevant, he asks ‘How does a body perform its way out of a definitional framework that is not only responsible for its very “construction”, but seems to prescript every possible signifying and counter signifying move as a selection from a repertoire of predetermined terms? How can the grid itself change?’
    Elizabeth Grosz is also very articulate on dualism, less oblique than Barad. Dourish on the materialities of information is also clear on Barad and Bohr…but concrete in addressing specific data formats.
    Exciting research John!

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