Technoscience Essay Definition

Read and share this collectively written essay that queries ecology along with the Technoscience Salon.

Querying Eco-logics: A collective experiment in affective ecologies and the politics of form and function

by Astrid Schrader, Roberta Buiani, Jessica Caporusso, Lisa Cockburn, Peter Hobbs, Kelly Ladd,Darren Patrick

The Space of the Technoscience Salon

The term ‘ecology’ was introduced by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 as an ‘economy of nature’ in comparison with and contradistinction to human economies; ecology implies a science of counting and accounting. The scientific discourse is about countable nature, that is, an entity composed of measurable bits that naturally strive toward a specific direction in order to maintain a balance. Historically, the ‘economy of nature’ has been used interchangeably with the notion of ‘balance of nature’, suggesting that without human interference nature is self-regulating and teleological, striving to maintain itself.[1] Without such a goal, the science of ecology seems to be unable to ‘function’ — no models, no predictions, or even statements about how species might relate seem possible. This collectively authored essay queries ‘ecology’ alongside a yearlong project undertaken at the Toronto Technoscience Salon.

The Technoscience Salon — jointly organized by Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto) and Natasha Myers (York University) — is an open forum that poses conceptual and political questions about technoscience under varying themes. In 2012-2013 the Salon met for its fifth consecutive year and was accompanied by a graduate student reading and writing collective, organized by postdoctoral fellow, Astrid Schrader (York University, co-organizer of the Salon this year). Our theme this year was ‘ecologies’ and our collective goal was to explore the many contours, incarnations, and limitations of the concept of ‘ecology’.

Following the Salon organizers’ ‘opening provocation’,[2] we seek to query ecology’s inheritances as a functionalist systems science and to provoke alternative articulations. Can we envision ecology without function or without a functional teleology? What would this mean for the kind of relations implied by the notion of ecologies? Interrogating function requires a reflection on form, modes of attention, and kinds of performances. Moving beyond mere conceptual inquiries, our reflections take seriously modes of presentation, methodologies, and the spaces in which ‘objects’ are enacted.

Monthly Salon events gathered interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists, who were prompted by the organizers to report on their current research and to problematize the concept of ecology in relation to it. In addition to asking ‘What counts as ecology, and for whom?’, the Technoscience Salon sought to challenge conventional forms of academic knowledge exchanges. Organized around six subthemes, ‘Re-making Ecologies’, ‘Endangerments and Apocalypse’, ‘Queer(y)ing Ecologies’, ‘Magical Ecologies’, ‘Auditing Ecologies’, and ‘Affective Ecologies’, the speakers in each session offered a rich sense of ecological relations and their limitation and disruption, laying bare the deeper sensibilities needed in order to unpack knowledge practices and interventions that involve humans and more-than-human others. At the same time, they drew attention to the gaps that manifest between messy practices of science and the imperatives to provide viable explanations, clear results, and comprehensible theories.

The informal presentations were usually followed by two respondents before a broader discussion was opened up. A group of interdisciplinary graduate students and postdocs, whose work relates to the theme of ecology, attended (almost) all the events throughout the year and met regularly after the events. The authors of this paper formed the core of this group, which we call the Eco-logics Collective. In small group discussions, during which a designated rapporteur reported on the highlights of the events, we reflected on a specific Salon event in relation to other events and tried to push conceptual inquiries further. In this collaborative paper, we report on the major themes that emerged throughout the events and our follow-up discussions. We believe that our reflection on the politics and multiple meanings of form, witnessing and auditing cultures, affect, and time will contribute to a larger discussion on ecologies and interdisciplinarity. Under these headings, we are particularly concerned with engagements that emphasize the importance of spatial arrangements, performativity, and experimentation with formats as a means of developing ecologies of practice. We use the term ecologies in its plural form in order to credit its interdisciplinary nature and to show its ability to call attention to the coagulation of complex, often ephemeral, relations.

Our first Technoscience Salon meeting: we sit around a city park campfire on logs and camping chairs. As dusk fades to dark, the fire illuminates our faces as we share food and tell stories and anecdotes about what ecology has meant to us. We are a large group and the acoustics are bad. Although we can barely hear each other, we somehow feel connected. At our next gathering, we sit in a conference room, at tables assembled in a v-shape, thus leaving a widening gap in the middle, like an arrow departing from the speaker and converging in the direction of the audience. The room is fluorescently lit, its space conspicuously uninspiring. The fire has disappeared. While the organizers provide ample ‘space’ for informal discussion, the institutional setting has left its mark on the kind of stories that can be shared. We snack together on whatever makes its way to the potluck table. A loud announcement marks the formal beginning of the gathering. The chair of the Salon discussions, Michelle Murphy, encourages the presenters to use the middle of the room, the space in between the tables. A few of them reluctantly use the space. This does not seem possible without a comment on the boldness of the move: ‘There Michelle, I used the middle!’ We laugh and the atmosphere instantly changes. The invitation to ‘use the middle’ becomes something of a signature of the Salon. Our experience of relocation from the warm and friendly campfire to a cold and sterile conference room makes us self-conscious about the extent to which space determines our experiences and behaviours.

Like our movement from outside to inside, Jennifer Willet’s BioARTCAMP[3] demonstrates the transformative power of spatial relocation. For her performative experiment, Willet moved the aseptic environment of the scientific lab (microbes included) to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. In turn, this spatial shift affected the types of experiments and the interactions that occurred in that space. By moving the tools, media, and the test organisms and building a DIY (do-it-yourself) lab in the park, the invisible processes of laboratory science were rendered visible and their power was undermined; in addition the park setting lost its presumed naturalism. The scientific instrumentalization of living systems became visible. Organisms native to the park — fungi, lichens, and microscopic organisms — that are usually isolated in the institutional space of the lab seemed to lose their strangeness when they were analyzed in the very contexts they inhabit, while the strangeness of the very act of isolation that removes a life form out of its ecology was pronounced. Estrangement also worked the other way around as innocuous laboratory specimens were released back in the wilderness.[4] The BioARTCAMP simultaneously crosses the boundaries between art and science and nature and technology. Like Willet’s project, our collective experiment is an attempt to performatively reconfigure the ecologies that we inhabit.

Ecologies of Practices at Play: The Politics of Form and Function

The very format of the Technoscience Salon — both in terms of its conceptualization and its physical configuration — motivated us to interrogate further how the format of a presentation relates to the formation of the objects presented. The Salon discussions prompt us to not only query the connections between our ‘academic objects’ and their substantiation, but also the relations between ‘life forms’ (ordinarily called ‘organisms’) and ‘forms of life’ (the cultural forms they take). Following Stefan Helmreich, we suggest that ‘life forms’ and ‘forms of life’ are inseparably entangled.[5] While probing, prodding, playing, and experimenting with concepts, the Salon speakers made particularly evident that the forms that our academic objects take are deeply entangled with how they are enacted. We ask how these entanglements are directed and how they become overruled and transformed.

Natasha Myers, one of the speakers, asks us to consider biological relationships outside of functional economies. Myers is wary of the seemingly magical ‘just so’ stories, conventional evolutionary stories that presuppose a purpose of life and a function behind any kind of engagement between species. Instead of a functionalist economy that dominates evolutionary ecologies, she proposes an ecological thinking that allows for an attunement to the ways in which life forms are affectively entangled. In this way, Myers relates presuppositions about function to specific modes of engagement. Affect becomes a ‘form’ that reshapes functional teleologies. What if we were to take Myers’ affective reorientation of our thinking about life forms and bring it to bear on our academic forms of life? What does it mean to think the form of practice otherwise? An ‘affective ecology’ would then allow us to rethink both the relations between life forms and forms of life and their relations to and within an ‘ecology of practice’. Traditional discourses and academic/scientific language and methods appear to be inadequate to express the intricacies of the entanglement between life forms and forms of life.

One way to examine the relationship between form and function in academic scholarship is to interrogate the politics of substantiating accounts. As we attended each session of the Salon, we listened to, evaluated, and ascribed meaning to the stories told to us. In turn, we transcribed these events into field notes in an attempt to ‘freeze’ these experiences temporally and spatially into a written manuscript — a process we call the ‘documentary moment’. This practice stands as a reminder that what we observe and what we record are not causal relations of direct perception. Instead, ‘bearing witness to’ and accounting for each Salon presentation must be understood as a profoundly material process. Our aim is to adopt an ecological mode of attention, contending that perception is a multisensory and embodied enactment that does not privilege the parsing of the experiential into discrete sensations (e.g. the sense of vision, of touch, and so on). This position challenges tendencies in academic scholarship of relegating the act of witnessing to the realm of the visual,[6] and draws attention to importance of mediated listening in creating knowledge.[7] We do not simply see the production of knowledge as it unfolds before our eyes; rather we produce it when we listen to lectures, articulate discourses, and offer testimony — audible enactments that contour specific forms of academic life.

No matter how hard one tries to disentangle form and function in academia, sedimented modes of being more often than not reassert themselves. How can we give our thinking new forms of life, new life to our thinking? The scientist or ethnographer (whomever she may be) seems to have only two options: she can either re-create the conditions that have caused an event, eliminating all those elements deemed superfluous — those elements that are not needed for its re-creation — a practice which Isabelle Stengers compares to gardening — or she can apply a holistic method that takes into account all the factors participating in the making of the event — an ecology of practices.[8] Taking into account all the factors participating in the making of an event (the knowledge and the discourses, the material conditions, the phenomena and the objects engendered, and the ‘self’ of the researcher) is at the basis of Stengers’ cosmopolitics. Stengers also insists that ‘ecology is not a science of functions’ but is more akin to ‘bricolage’, as the various individuals that comprise entanglements are never solely defined based on where or how they might fit.[9] Thus, the scientist/ethnographer/gardener is always in the process of ‘making do’ through trial and error and improvisation. She, in effect, plugs into the multiplicity of ecologies so that the forms of her work become experimental, rather than reinforcing consensus. Stengers champions ‘an ecology of practices’ in which practitioners of science and the social sciences are encouraged to develop methods that challenge the stratification and stasis of grand theories by acknowledging our ‘attachments’ to a multitude of forces and affects.[10] What are the practices of making intellectual life forms? Or, as Tim Choy[11] asked in his presentation: ‘What kinds of forms are adequate to the problems that you want to present?’

Choy’s invitation to consider the relationship between our academic forms and their desired effect/affect introduces an important conceptual coupling between form and function. A striking example of thinking academic forms otherwise was provided by Martina Schlünder’s ‘Sheepish Ecologies’.[12] Her talk took the form of an affective performance — a becoming sheep — that exceeded our ability to capture it in the traditional academic form of note taking. Schlünder introduces us to flock and laboratory life forms: different ways of handling sheep make different kinds of sheep in different contexts. In her talk, Schlünder combined images and text that bore no apparent or direct relation with each other, narrating in the first person her experience researching the lives of mountain sheep, as they were cared for, as they were selected to become food or to produce wool, and as they were subjected to laboratory and scientific inquiry.

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Schlünder’s examples departed from traditional models that assume life forms are self-contained and demonstrated how ‘organisms’ are profoundly connected with any other life forms and forms of life. However, this relationality is not only proverbially difficult to convey, it is also often unwelcome, as Western academic paradigms of knowledge tend to conform to stable categories. As we listened to Schlünder’s talk we were unable to take detailed notes, not only because the performative aspects of the talk could not be properly reproduced in written form, but also because our academic training only partially prepared us to absorb the peculiar intricacy and performativity of her talk. In many ways, she presented sheepishness using recognizable academic forms, images, and speech. However, the images did not support her talk in the traditional academic mode. Instead, the images were on a continuous loop, performing sheepishness. In so doing, Schlünder disrupted normative modes of bearing witness to/providing an account for sheep. These forms exceed testimony and resist classification to form something much more lively and unsettled. The sheep, in effect/affect, eluded capture.

Most speakers in the Salon played with different methods to capture the nuances and the volatility of their subjects. For instance, in Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong, Tim Choy attempts to ‘substantiate’ or ‘materialize’[13] the politics that saturate the air we breathe. Choy chooses a purposely meandering strategy that pieces together anecdotes, newspaper headlines, and animals to construct what he refers to as ‘an anthropology of air’.[14] Focusing on Hong Kong, Choy shows how the simple act of breathing is always already political and enmeshed in uneven relations of power and privilege. ‘How are Hong Kong’s air spaces distributed?’ asks Choy. ‘Who gets to occupy those with the cleanest air? Who breathes the street? Who breathes mountains? Who breathes the sea? Who breathes flies?’.[15] In Choy’s work, the performative nature of his anecdotes stands out. His storytelling is an effective way of making the invisibility of toxicity visible. It is not simply a matter of telling stories of toxic poisoning or the tragedies of pollution. Instead, Choy crafts nuanced anecdotes that reveal the subtleties of living with toxins. Rather than laying blame solely at the feet of corporations or consumer culture and engaging in a narrative of ‘us against them’ (a standard narrative in environmental justice texts), his anecdotes trace the slowly moving political ethos that ties citizens in Hong Kong and elsewhere to the production of toxins to reveal how we all are imbricated or woven into a toxic will to power.

In the Salon, Choy performed these meanderings by refusing to present his work on ecologies of air in the traditional manner; rather than a presentation he offered a musing that could be shared, inviting all of us to reconsider our own methodologies and the political work that they do. His own reflections on methodology are guided by the desire to capture the elements of ecologies on a single page. ‘Don’t you know how it is when you want to say everything at once, right at the beginning?’ Choy works with comics now, a form that fuses the visual and the textual, the message and the form, the humorous and the serious. Choy, standing in the middle of the room, reminds us of how attached we are to recognized academic forms and, in so doing, underscores the limitations of the academic publication.

In this context, we are reminded of Choy’s statement that an attunement to form allows one to hear the ‘air whistling through the hollows of theory’.[16] For Choy, such a mode of attention requires making permeable the boundary between unruly matter and ‘putatively prior conceptual forms’.[17] That is, making porous the boundary between the vitality of life and a lifeless sharp-edged rationalism. In many ways, this is the kind of work we saw in much of the Salon’s discussion of ecology.

For example, Sarah Wylie’s work in and against institutionally sanctioned rationality enacts the porousness of this boundary. The collective-public platform that Wylie helped establish, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), has initiated public science projects that relocate scientific instruments and methods (such as GIS and other monitoring tools) from the lab and the academic institution into the local community. It empowers the community by letting the public fabricate their own DIY instrument, based on blueprints and kits supplied by PLOTS, and uses them to acquire knowledge about the territory in which they live by monitoring such things as air quality and the landmass dedicated to industry. In turn, this newly acquired specific and unique knowledge improves scientific knowledge with the collection and dissemination of data regarding those under-researched territories that institutional science is normally not able to reach. Of particular interest are the ways in which this knowledge is disseminated and archived in order to create what Wylie defines as ‘recursive publics’. In order to make the community aware of, and work continually at refining the structures that bring them together, PLOTS opened both their research in public mapping and their web archive to the community, enabling them to contest official maps, reinvent maps, build maps that science does not recognize, and create an archive of resources that can be constantly changed, updated and re-combined.[18]

Holding to Account: Forms of Witnessing and Auditing

Another angle from which to approach the politics of form is to call attention to modes of documentation and forms of witnessing. In ‘Auditing Ecologies,’ speakers Kregg Hetherington[19] and Carlota McAllister[20] addressed auditing as an act that Donna Haraway would call ‘modest witnessing,’[21] alluding to the ways in which academic research is often presented as an apolitical objective knowledge making practice marked by distance and indifference.[22] Hence, our own documentation of the Salon in the form of written notes, audio recordings, and this article itself calls attention to the institutionalized forms of knowledge sharing in academia alongside our own return to modest witnessing in the construction of certain forms of knowledge. To examine which accounts are official stories (or become officiated) is to call into question that which is being represented and who should be held accountable to these representations. Critical to this concern is an understanding that documentary accounts are always politicized — simultaneously fact and fiction, story and testimony. They converge at the interstices of recording and remembrance. What, exactly, is audition? As a noun and verb fused together, ‘audit’ refers to inspection or examination, a review or an accounting for. A ‘form of audition’ implies listening or qualification through listening. Tellingly, the act of listening, that is, the interplay between call and response, as opposed to hearing, which can be seen as a more passive form of knowledge gathering.[23] This point spanned our session on Audit Cultures the Salon itself.

Given the political implications of this sort of knowledge production, we ask: how does the audit itself make the epistemological leap of turning experience into fact? We contend that paying close attention to the work auditing does necessitates paying attention to its form as well. This requires an interrogation of auditing as a technical practice of verification and credibility that operates alongside the construction of truths and fact-making produced by witnesses. Through the seemingly benign management of documentable facts, statistics, and testimonies,[24] auditing solders not only words into material form, but also people and things mise en place. The power of the documentary moment lies in its potentiality to render the unintelligible intelligible; it provides a manageable framework in which scholars can not only render visible, but also traceable, events that otherwise resist capture. In so doing, auditing attempts to render events as calculable.[25] That is, people and things are made quantifiable and knowable and, therefore, controllable.

How then can critical examinations into ecologies as a concept help us to elude the stickiness of the documentary moment as a fixating and controllable force? Instead of focusing on the limits of what is accounted for in the archive of our thoughts, Hetherington and McAllister propose that we cultivate an attention to things that are often overlooked, that which cannot be easily tracked or traced, thereby crafting an ‘imperceptible politics’[26] aimed at acclimatizing bodies that are not attuned to subtle differences such as seeing and being heard or being rendered visible or factual by a qualifying subject via testimony or documentation. They do so by drawing attention to moments of hesitation and resistance that disrupt the audit, as when those testifying withhold their stories by feigning ignorance — what Hetherington has called a strategic ‘disqualification’ — or when interlocutors deliberately turn the lens of inquiry away from themselves and on to their interrogators.[27]

A withholding engenders a different sort of engagement between auditor and audited. Not only does the refusal to share testimony substantiate the presence of things left unsaid — those ephemeral relations left beyond the margins of the page that defy fixation on paper and ink — but it also illuminates the unevenness of audition as a politics and as practice. From Hetherington’s and McAllister’s interventions, we learn that social inequalities are manufactured into the landscapes in which they work and that certain forms of technical practice are privileged, contouring how ecological relations are constructed in the process.

The documentary moment is utilized as a device to make things knowable through the convention of a single story. The task of the auditor is to render the narrative account of a given event comprehensibly, even if it requires the flattening of the time and space of particular experiences into a singular grid of intelligibility. However, the task of reproducing ‘the singularity of the story in which it was produced’ is a particular challenge.[28] To do this, one does not need to reject completely the rules and conventions that dominate a practice. The goal here is to transform and rework these rules, without necessarily setting them aside completely. How is this shift happening if not by invoking politics? How to preserve an idea of ecologies that blend objects, subjects, and politics without recurring necessarily to the overdetermining notion of agency?

Attempts to fix events on paper or in a recording illuminate the limitations of documentation as a practice. Like cadastral maps, censuses, and other bureaucratic tools used to enumerate and account for people, places, and things, recording personal testimony into written accounts crosscuts time and space, splicing events into a single comprehensible narrative. Here, the act of documentation serves as an impoverished device that seems to foreclose all potentiality. Yet, as we discuss below in the context Rich Doyle’s account of the very impossibility to give an account of drug-induced transformative experiences, these acts may also guide practices that seek to undo the very limitation of documentation. That is what we are trying to do with this document. As McAllister contends, testimony is not the capture of knowable facts. Rather, it operates as contingent performance. It is not only dependent on what information is shared, by whom, and what can be heard by others, but it is also defined by what is withheld and why. Paying attention to auditing helps us evaluate our complicity in reproducing the hegemony of academic writing over other forms of knowledge production.

A reorientation of sensibilities through an ecological, collective, and multidirectional mode of attention is one way to resist documentary fixation. Our emphasis on thinking collectively and ecologically seeks to challenge the notion that seeing or writing is a direct outcome of perception. By attending to imperceptible politics of what is said and what is left unspoken, we can start to move away from simply questioning what sorts of testimonies are to be recorded or how much agency is afforded the act of witnessing, instead formulating more relational sorts of questions, such as: What escapes the possibility of being audited? What cannot be audited? What gets messed up in these sorts of relations?

Trickster Ecologies: Fire, Time, Grace, Love

Many of our presenters disrupted the progressive temporality associated with a functional economy of nature by challenging the opposition between reproductive futurism and immanent presence. For example, Rich Doyle and Dorion Sagan offer technologies of self-undoings and remaking, that affirm our interconnectedness with the rest of nature and which trouble the narrative ‘I’. The ‘I’ or ego, for Doyle, is a lifeless form of rationalism that needs to be reconnected with the organic body and the rest of nature in order for the body to dwell in the present. This reconnection takes the form of ‘ego death’ and can be thought as a kind of rational-mysticism or magical-rationalism. Both Doyle and Sagan adopt a holistic approach that collapses the distinction between immanence — characterized by the co-implication of matter and mind, the vitality of becoming, and a continuous flux of relational forms of life — and a transcendence that posits holistic/spiritual experiences beyond and outside mundane practices. The accompanied imagined temporality of life is continuous and progressive, implying a progressive differentiation, interconnection and complexification of life. But there are also ruptures in the apparently continuous narrative against narrative. What brings us back to earth in Doyle’s account of drug induced transcendence of the mortal self is the impossibility to articulate the experience of an altered consciousness or self on drugs. There nevertheless exist plenty of written and oral accounts of the consciousness-altering experiences that necessarily guide future experimentations. Experiences thus become articulated in spite of the affirmation of this very impossibility. Ruptures through the materiality of language allow for partial connections, disrupting the phallocentric desire for an all encompassing holism articulated as eco-death.

In her presentation, Cate Sandilands performed a different kind of alliance generating rupture of temporal homogeneity and teleology. Echoing Donna Haraway, Sandilands offered ‘fire’ as a ‘queer critter’ and ‘an unruly trickster’, which intervenes in heteronormative assumptions intrinsic to a futurist ecological desire to save the environment for ‘our children’. Fire destroys and renews. Sandilands presented Jane Rule’s novel After the Fire, which features the intimate relations that five women form after they suffer a series of dramatic events.[29] Using this novel as a springboard, Sandilands poses fire not as destructive or apocalyptic force, but also as source of biodiversity and as a queer alternative to reproduction as the only means for generativity. Fire uncouples ‘the present from the future anterior’, a future that can only be perceived as a consequence of the present, challenging the ‘repro-normative time and space’ of reproductive futurism.[30] To present fire as a queer critter is to underscore the combined material-semiotic forces of fire and its capacity to queer heteronormative kinship relations, that is, to undo and redo ‘conventional’ progressive, future-oriented temporalities. Fire physically deterritorializes the forest and the lives of people, plants and animals, while at the same time it creates niches, — marginal worlds or ‘ecotones’ — that allow for species like jack-pines and Kirkland warbles to emerge.

In Rule’s novel, it is not a coincidence that ‘after the fire’ a queer community emerges that ‘nurtures unthought forms of possibility’, as a house burns down not only a ‘father’ but also a series of heteropatriachal bonds die with the fire.[31] The creative-destructive capacity of fire suggests alternative notions of kinship, replacing heteronormative relations with queer and multispecies affiliations. Proper names no longer mark genealogies, but allow for kinships across species. Three characters, called Red, Blackie, and Blue, have names that do not reveal who would be the child, the dog, or the mother.

Fire is not merely a ‘metaphor’ of radical renewal; when it whips through a forest or a home, fire is not just acting like radical renewal, fire is radical renewal in both a material-spatial and temporal sense. Instead of advocating a politics without a future, as an inherently unpredictable and transformative event, fire allows for a different relation between present and future. By insisting on the material-semiotic forces of fire that deterritorialize spatial and temporal relations simultaneously, Sandilands marks the forest and the natural world as a performative space in which the conventions of life are routinely unseated. As both Sandilands and Rule insist, fire is a queer bird. It is no coincidence that faggots are a bundle of kindling tied together and set on fire to burn witches and heretics. Witches, fire, and faggots have been bound together as unruly technologies.

Grace can also be considered an unruly technology that disrupts temporal homogeneity and progressive futurity in testimonial accounts of environmental destruction and the violent displacements of people. McAllister offered the notion of grace as a moment of hesitation and deferral in anthropological witnessing. For McAllister, acts of grace establish sociality; they instantiate the social. Like Sara Ahmed’s notion of affect,[32] grace binds together; it is a sort of social glue situated in-between relationships. In this context, grace is not a divine virtue, but a mode of sociality. Moments of grace engender not only a response but also a withholding that disrupts the traceability in ‘auditing ecologies’. As something unspeakable falls in-between verifiable accounts, an indeterminate ‘secret’ simultaneously retains and demonstrates the violence entailed in testimony. Withholding breaks the spell between the present and the future anterior; it disrupts the illusion of continuity between call and response, refusing to acknowledge hailing as an inevitable outcome. By suspending response, there is no way to move forward simply. The denial of participation exposes the teleology of auditing as an inadequate device for capturing that which resists temporal fixation. In McAllister’s account, moments of grace disrupt exchange and reciprocity. Grace is the affective expression of that which simultaneously binds us and disrupts the circulation of affect in economic terms. Grace, like fire, and the articulation of inarticulable experiences in Doyle’s account, simultaneously connects and disconnects. Together, they are metaphors, methodologies, and practices that disrupt the functionalist and temporal economy of a balance of nature by offering moments of intensity that allow for new connections and alliances across times and spaces.

The concept of grace can also help articulate the ways in which love and affect operate in ecology. Discussing ‘the place of grace in anthropology’, Julian Pitt-Rivers contrasts grace with the principle of law as a parallel code of conduct to the ‘affective side of life’.[33] For Pitt-Rivers, ‘grace is always something extra, over and above “what counts,” what is obligatory or predictable’.[34] It cannot be counted or traced, it exists beyond the law, rational form, and sovereignty. Similarly, for Lauren Berlant, ‘love always means non-sovereignty. Love is always about violating your own attachment to your intentionality, without being anti-intentional’.[35] The paths that love draws us into unfold as ‘stories’ that disrupt functional teleological time. Thus, love may provide an answer to the question Astrid Schrader posed at the end of her presentation on affective ecologies: how do we think about motivation without teleology? The collaborative duo Mogu Mogu (Tim Choy and Shiho Satsuka) of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group quote Minoru Hamada to affirm that ‘love is the whole process of movement stimulated to move toward a certain direction. Love is positive or negative action, that is, approach or estrangement. Once the movement is over, love is over’.[36]In this way, love provides directionality without teleology, a direction that ceases to exist once the attachments that form the necessary glue in an affective ecology break. For Choy and Satsuka, ecological pathways or relations are only momentarily traceable, only as long as there are affective investments, or in this case love for the matsutake mushroom. These affective relations ‘do not work only serially — they work in parallel or radially, refusing a single direction, cause, or logic’; they require a ‘different kind of calculus of nature, love, and value’ that disrupt serial lines of connections.[37]

In a similar vein, Matt Stata,[38] another speaker in our Salon, alluded to a different ecological calculus; he spoke of how saving seeds is beneficial not because it necessarily saves money but for a ‘psychological benefit’ that is not simply about feeling the benefits of ‘closing of an ecological loop’, but due to a deep respect for other forms of life. The notion of deploying love as a tactic or technology was also invoked in Jennifer Willet’s discussion of bioethics during the ‘re-making ecologies’ salon. Laughing, Willet declared, ‘I’m not a hippie! But…’. She went on to assert that caring for other species cannot be done well if we do not also care for each other in these settings. This kind of caring is intensely motivated but no longer directed at a specific purpose. It is a caring without intentionality that manifests beyond the rational, and at times beyond the capacity of words to make sense.

Multispecies Entanglements

So far, we have discussed forms of performance actively generated by humans and those that refigure the relationships between humans and nonhumans. In addition, our focus on experimentation has led us to stumble upon unexpected and surprising forms that left their history of generation more or less untraceable. In keeping with our openness to unexpected encounters, here we are particularly concerned with forms that substantiate alternative relationships among humans and nonhumans in scientific studies of transspecies encounters.

In her response to the ‘Affective Ecologies’ session, Shiho Satsuka emphasized the difficulties communicating with the nonhuman other. How might the notion of ‘affective ecologies’ open our senses to the many languages in which the world speaks to us? Again, it is no coincidence that in Doyle’s account, plants speak. This powerful suggestion of plant creativity, the implication that plants may be using us, is appealing. Here we might ask what it is that a non-human wants and how do its desire(s) challenge our understanding of sexuality?

Retelling the Darwinian story of the (forbidden) sexual encounters between Ophrys orchids and their bee pollinators, which affectively devoid of any apparent advantage to the bees, Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers suggest an answer. For Hustak and Myers, ‘an affective ecology [is] shaped by pleasure, play, and experimental propositions’, rather than reproductive desire or mere survival.[39] They assert that many orchid species in the ‘Ophrys genus have the remarkable ability to lure pollinators in spite of the fact that they do not offer the insects a nectar “reward.’’’.[40] Continuing, they add that ‘Ophrys species can attract their pollinators selectively by exhaling volatile compounds that mimic the sex pheromones of their insect pollinators’.[41] Without a sense for play or pleasure in these interspecies hook ups, scientists refer to these evolutionary friendships without mutual benefits as ‘sexual deception’. In contrast, Hustak and Myers call for a mode of engagement that is attuned to the involutionary momentum of bee and orchid, the ‘affective push and pull among bodies’ that they observe in Darwin’s historical experiments.[42] Hustak and Myers recall in minute detail the pleasurable interspecies minglings of anatomical parts in orchid-bee interactions. Without the performative reading and writing practices of the authors — their own involutionary momentum — these ‘erotic acts’ remain difficult to grasp outside of the functionalist purview of sexual reproduction. That is, they will always remain a matter of deception. But don’t believe us, go ahead, read the paper and enjoy; as one of us just recalled: ‘it’s hot’. An affective engagement is not merely a tactic that would move us away from functionalist accounts, but an attunement; it cannot be applied, it must be practiced and evoked.

Extending the realm of ecological politics to include affective relations and nonhuman agents or actants was part of an ongoing debate in the Salon. For some of us, paying particular attention to affect offers a greater understanding of the complexities that inform, influence, and transform objects and practices. It was also argued that this amassing of affect and nonhuman forces threatens to displace politics, that paying attention to affect prevents us from addressing issues of global inequality and environmental (in)justice. In other words, affect is assumed to crowd out and downplay the role of politics. We can envision the floodgates opening and affect and everything that is not human rushes in to overwhelm our sense of political practice. One may counter that extending the ‘political’ to include nonhumans (which in addition to animals would also include plants, microbes, and inanimate material, such as toxins and micro chips) constitutes a different mode of attention in the making of scientific knowledge. While some Salon participants insisted that this reconfiguration of the political constitutes a necessary gambit that directly confronts our illusions of mastery, others were equally insistent that such claims could be construed as politically irresponsible. Attention to affect offers a ‘new’ kind of politics, not based on merely extending the political realm, but one that is based on new alliances engendered by affective modes of relating. Nevertheless, this raises concerns of what might be lost in this transformation. These types of exchanges were essential to the Salon’s productivity, and with this in mind, we have tried to duplicate this creative and unresolved debate in this collective text.

The projects presented at the Salon are informed by the awareness that current scientific paradigms end up reducing the relations established between the subject researching, the object researched, the contexts of research, and the rationales that lead research to univocal and dry facts detached from the realities that generated them. The speakers at the Salon articulated the difficulties of translating their findings into straightforward statements and definite results, as in Schlünder’s talk, or to limit research to conventional spaces and recipients, as in Wylie’s repurposing of scientific inquiry and Willet’s relocation of the scientific object. A significant shift occurs in those instances when science is displaced from its original locus, when objectives are withdrawn from their original purposes, or when we create spaces in which local communities who usually do not benefit from scientific research become empowered to improve their conditions through access to these technologies. Here affect plays a crucial role in modulating the way in which we interpret an event, eliciting new politics that effectively shift our relations with or understandings of such events.


Striving towards an ecology of practices was a prime motivator that led us from attending the Salon to the process of writing this collective text. The simple act of showing up on a regular basis, listening to speakers, asking questions, and engaging in conversation, debate, and gossip, proved to be a technology of belonging with life-changing effects. In feminist science studies, the meeting place is both a metaphor for political engagement and the very site in which lives are collectively changed, work-shopped, and imbricated. Two scholarly meetings spring to mind: Haraway asks us to acknowledge our meetings with species as a form of companionship that not only is necessary to our existence but also operates as an ethics of care and a technology of belonging.[43] Similarly, Karen Barad asks us to meet the universe halfway by acknowledging that the refracted and agential world around us unfolds as a constant meeting of matter and meaning.[44] Inspired by the shifting space of the Salon, by its encounters with sheep, orchids, fire, microbes, and zombies, and by the repeated calls to see and do things differently, we find ourselves pulled in two opposing directions. On the one hand, we have become aware of the necessity to formulate novel and more creative methods to address the complicated processes unfolding through these spaces and these encounters. And on the other hand, we have grown increasingly self-conscious about the risks of drifting too far from academic legibility, namely: meeting at the appropriate venue, using the requisite technologies, quoting recognizable authorities, following a specific organization and a regular schedule. In this space of collective production and engagement we have not sought to reignite the fire around which we first gathered, but instead hope to have conveyed parts of the struggles and troubles that a multi-vocal, interdisciplinary, collective querying of eco-logics engendered. Few of us would dare to use term ‘ecology’ in the singular again or would assume that balance is a property of nature.

[1] Anya Plutynski, ‘Ecology and the Environment’, in Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology, ed. by Michael Ruse (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2008), <> [Accessed 23rd July 2013]

[2] In the opening provocation, the organizers invited presenters and participants to think through current ontological struggles over ecology: where ecology begins and ends; how ecology and economy are bound together in advanced captial; ecological temporalities; and, alternative ecological imaginaries. These can be found at <> [Accessed 31st July 2013]

[3] Jennifer Willet reported on her experience leading the BioARTCAMP, a hybrid workshop/conference/performance event where 20 national and international artists, scientists, filmmakers, and university students worked for two weeks to build a portable biology laboratory in the Banff National Park.

[4] Documentation and a video summary of the BioARTCAMP project can be found at <> [Accessed 23rd July 2013]

[5] Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (New York City: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 6-9.

[6] Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 28.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York City: Schocken, 1968), pp. 90-91.

[8] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, trans. by Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 33.

[9] Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, p. 34.

[10] Isabelle Stengers, ‘Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices’, Cultural Studies Review, 11 (2005), pp. 183-196.

[11] Tim Choy discussed his research on atmospheres, in particular the politics of air in Hong Kong, in the context of the theme of ‘Endangerments and Apocalypse’.

[12] In her talk, Martina Schlünder discussed how the relocation of a flock in a research facility produces different sheep ontologies.

[13] Tim Choy, Ecologies of Comparison: an Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 157

[14] Choy, p. 158

[15] Choy, p. 158.

[16] Choy, p. 167.

[17] Choy, p. 167.

[18] Shannon Dosemagan, Jeffrey Warren, and Sarah Wylie, ‘Grassroots Mapping: Creating a Participatory Map-Making Process Centered on Discourse’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2011 <>

[19] Kregg Hetherington works on the politicization environmental knowledge in Paraguay. His talk on the theme of ‘Auditing Ecologies’ draws on his concerns regarding the politics of creating officiated knowledge through situated interventions between people and things.

[20] Carlota McAllister contributed to ‘Auditing Ecologies’, presenting her project on political mobilization against contemporary capitalism and ‘large-scale projects for both extraction and conservation in the ends-of-the-earth spaces’ in Chile.

[21] Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium_FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTm: Feminism and Technoscience (New York City: Routledge, 1997), p. 2. For Haraway, modest witnessing refers to the self-invisibility of the subject in knowledge production, a self-invisibility that is ‘specifically modern, European, masculine, scientific form of the virtue of modesty’.

[22] Haraway, p. 24

[23] We distinguish between hearing and listening in order to underscore listening as a cultivated practice that requires an attention to the contingency of sensory development and knowledge formation. This mode of attention draws on the works of Charles Hirschkind (The Ethical Soundscape, 2006) and Walter Benjamin (Illuminations, 1969), who argue that listening is an actively engaged relationship between orator and audience as opposed to hearing which implies a disinterested or passive association.

[24] Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 94

[25] Peter Miller and Ted O’Leary, ‘Governing the Calculable Peson’, in Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice, ed. by Anthony G Hopwood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 98–115

[26] Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos, Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-First Century (Pluto Press, 2008), pp. 71-84.

[27] In her Salon presentation, McAllister demonstrated how her interlocutors quite literally and figuratively pulled her unwilling presence into frame. During her talk, McAllister screened a video recording that documented an outing with her interlocutors in Patagonia. In the clip, one participant teasingly calls out McAllister’s filming as intrusive as she films everyone present except herself. McAllister turns the video camera back onto herself, at once interrupting a violent mode of testimony and recording her presence in the process.

[28] Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, p. 52.

[29] Jane Rule, After the Fire, (Tallahassee: Naiad Press, 1989).

[30] Catriona Sandilands, ‘Queer Life: Ecocriticsm After the Fire’, in Oxford Companion to Ecocriticsm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), pp. n-a.

[31] Sandilands, p. n–a.

[32] Sara Ahmed, ‘Affective Economies’, Social Text, 22, 2 (2004), 117-139.

[33] Julian Pitt-Rivers, ‘The Place of Grace in Anthropology’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 1 (2011), 423-450 (p. 445).

[34] Pitt-Rivers, pp. 423-450 (p. 425).

[35] Heather Davis and Paige Sarlin, ‘“On the Risk of a New Relationality:” An Interview Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt’, Review in Cultural Theory, 2, 3 (2012), 7-27 (p. 9).

[36] Timothy Choy, Lieba Faier, Michael J Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and Anna Tsing, ‘A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds’, American Ethnologist, 36 (2009), 380-403 (p. 389).

[37] Choy et al, pp. 380-403 (p. 389).

[38] Botanist Matt Stata introduced us to the Skygarden, a volunteer-run rooftop vegetable garden that serves as a teaching space for urban agriculture workshops at the University of Toronto.

[39] Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers, ‘Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters’, differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies, 23 (2012), 74-118 (p. 78).

[40] Hustak and Myers, pp. 74-118 (p. 75).

[41] Hustak and Myers, pp. 74-118 (p. 75).

[42] Hustak and Myers, pp. 74-118 (p. 97).

[43] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[44] Karen Barad, Meeting the University Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).


We would like to thank Cameron Murray and Sonia Grant for their close reading and comments on an earlier version of this paper. Sonia was also a member of the eco-logics collective and contributed substantially to the discussion that let to this paper.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara, ‘Affective Economies’, Social Text, 22, 2 (2004) pp. 117-139.

Barad, Karen, Meeting the University Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007)

Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York City: Schocken, 1968)

Choy, Tim, Ecologies of Comparison: an Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011)

Choy, Timothy K, Lieba Faier, Michael J Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and Anna Tsing, ‘A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds’, American Ethnologist, 36, 2 (2009) pp. 380-403.

Davis, Heather, and Paige Sarlin, ‘“On the Risk of a New Relationality:” an Interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt’, Reviews in Cultural Theory, 2, 3 (2012) pp. 6–27.

Dosemagan, Shannon, Jeffrey Warren, and Sarah Wylie, ‘Grassroots Mapping: Creating a Participatory Map-Making Process Centered on Discourse’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2011. Online (Accessed 31st July 2013)

Doyle, Richard, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011)

Haraway, Donna, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium_FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTm: Feminism and Technoscience (New York City: Routledge, 1997)

—–, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Helmreich, Stefan, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (New York City: University of California Press, 2009)

Hetherington, Kregg, ‘Beans Before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and the Paraguayan Soy Boom’, Cultural Anthropology, 28, 1 (2013) pp. 65-85.

Hirschkind, Charles, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia University Press, 2006)

Hustak, Carla, and Natasha Myers, ‘Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters’, differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies, special issue ‘Feminist Theory Out of Science’ edited by Sophia Roosth and Astrid Schrader 23, 3 (2012) pp. 74-118.

Miller, Peter, and Ted O’Leary, ‘Governing the Calculable Peson’, in Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice, ed. by Anthony G Hopwood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 98-115.

Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos, Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-First Century (Pluto Press, 2008)

Pitt-Rivers, Julian, ‘The Place of Grace in Anthropology’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 1, 1 (2011) pp. 423–450.

Plutynski, Anya, ‘Ecology and the Environment’, in Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology, ed. by Michael Ruse (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2008). Online (Accessed 31st July 2013)

Sandilands, Catriona, ‘Queer Life: Ecocriticsm After the Fire’, in Oxford Companion to Ecocriticsm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Stengers, Isabelle, ‘Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices’, Cultural Studies Review, 11, 1 (2005) pp. 183–196.

—–, Cosmopolitics I, trans. by Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

Stoler, Ann Laura, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

Published by the Technoscience Research Unit, 7/24/2015

July 24, 2015 in Essay.


This essay focuses on the possibility of adopting a representational approach for technoscience, in which representation is considered as a situated process of dynamic “intra-action” (Barad 2007). Re-elaborating the recent critiques of representationalism (Thrift 2008), my analysis begins by analysing Hayles’s situated model of representation from an early essay where she explains her definition of constrained constructivism (Hayles [1991] 1997). The essay then discusses the notions of figuration and diffraction and the way they are employed by Haraway in many of her writings for her critique of technoscience (Haraway 1991, 1997). Finally, after considering diffraction through Barad’s reading of this practice in the context of her theory of agential realism (2007), it shows the links that relate constrained constructivism, situated knowledge and agential realism, and the way all of them work at “diffract[ing] the rays of technoscience” (Haraway 1997: 16) through an alternative representational practice.


Cette rédaction de focalise sur la possibilité d’adopter une approche représentationnelle envers la technoscience, dans laquelle la représentation est considérée comme un processus située d’ “intra-action” dynamique (Barad, 2007). En ré-élaborant les critiques récentes de représentationalisme (Thrift, 2008) mon analyse commence par l’analyse du modéle situé de représentation de Hayle, tiré d’un essai antérieur dans lequel elle explique sa définition du constuctivisme contraint (Hayles [1991] 1997). Puis, je traite les notions de figuration et de diffraction et la manière dans laquelle elles sont employées par Haraway dans beaucoup de ses publications concernant sa critique des technosciences (Haraway 1991, 1997). Enfin, après avoir considéré la diffraction à travers les écrits de Barad sur cette pratique dans le contexte de sa théorie de réalisme agentiel (2007), un lien devient évident entre le constructivisme contraint, la connaissance située et le réalisme agentiel, ainsi que la manière dans laquelle ils participent dans la “diffraction des rayons de la technoscience” (Haraway 1997: 16) par une pratique alternative représentationelle.


Der folgende Essay befasst sich mit der Möglichkeit, in der Analyse von Technowissenschaft einen repräsentationalen Ansatz zu verfolgen, der Repräsentation als situierten Prozess dynamischer Intra-Aktion (Barad 2007) versteht. Mit Bezug auf rezente Kritik des Repräsentationalismus (Thrift 2008) setzt meine Analyse bei Hayles’ ([1991] 1997) situiertem Repräsentations-Modell und dem von ihr propagierten constrained constructivism an. Der Essay diskutiert daraufhin die Konzepte der Figuration und Diffraktion in Haraways (1991, 1997) Analyse von Technowissenschaft sowie Barads Analyse von Diffraktion im Kontext ihres agential realism (2007). Schließlich werden Gemeinsamkeiten von constrained constructivism, situiertem Wissen und agential realism dargestellt; insbesondere deren Versuch, durch alternative repräsentationale Praktiken “die Strahlen der Technowissenschaft zu beugen” (Haraway 1997: 16).


According to Haraway, three “crucial boundary breakdowns” have put an end to the “border war” of Western science and politics today, which involve the territories of production, reproduction and imagination (Haraway 1991: 151–153); these boundaries are those between human and animal, organism and machine and the physical and non-physical realms. Hence, Whatmore (2006) lists some important shifts in scholarship that reflect such breakdowns, involving many theoretical fields, from cultural geography to science and technology studies. The first shift that Whatmore identifies is the relocation of agency in practice and performance, and a re-embodiment of theory itself, which marks the passage from discourse to practice. The second is the shift from meaning to affect, involving a rediscovery of the precognitive and of its role in sense making as a “force of intensive relationality” (ibid.: 604). The third, a consequence of the previous dislocation, is the shift from the human to the more-than-human, or from society conceived as a closed and exclusively human whole to a multiplicity of assemblages constituting a heterogeneous sociomaterial fabric. Finally, the fourth shift is the move from a politics of identity to a politics of knowledge, the way this is produced, negotiated or contested according to different sociotechnical contexts and distributed practices (ibid.: 603–604). According to a similar approach, knowledge does not stand outside the world it represents, but emerges from it and is enmeshed in it, being in this sense situated; given that representations are social facts, we cannot get rid of them: it doesn’t matter if they are true or false; what matters is, rather, how they work, and why (Rabinow 1996: 28 ff.).

In her analysis, Whatmore directly quotes Barad to reinforce her argument that matter does matter, and that it also “comes to matter,” performatively and processually (Whatmore 2006: 605); Whatmore also refers to Barad in her previous work in which, discussing the importance of distributed agency and the material-semiotic practices of the constitution of the subject, she draws on Barad’s notion of “intra-action” (Whatmore 2002: 4, 57), which the latter formulates in the context of her philosophy of “agential realism” (see below). In what follows, a compared analysis of Hayles’s theorization of constrained constructivism, Haraway’s concept of diffraction and Barad’s agential realism aims to reconceptualize the role of representation for technoscience as an intra-active practice embedded and embodied in hybrid sociotechnical networks. If “representationalism takes the notion of separation as foundational” (Barad 2007: 137), talking of representation as intra-action means considering the “mutual constitution of entangled agencies” (ibid.: 33) which do not precede, but rather emerge through their intra-acting processes.

Whereas conventional epistemologies have conceptualized science as a “set of representations of reality,” interactionist (or, rather, intra-actionist) approaches consider science as intrinsically technological and performed through different practices, interpretations and applications (Harding 2008: 186–187).1 Scientific knowledge cannot accurately represent the world from a distance, let alone its objectivity, but only shows how the world effectively works and how representation can adequately fit such workings (Latour 1987; Haraway 1997). Let us think, for instance, of the “less false accounts” or “less false beliefs” about the world in the sense that Harding intends them in her theory of standpoint epistemology, “ones, apparently, as far as we can tell, less false than all and only those against which they have so far been tested” (Harding [1997] 2004: 256). These are provisional truths whose standards vary over time and space, but which are nonetheless useful, effective notions against both universalist and relativist claims. They are adequateinterventions that replace the search for a semantic match between sign and things with the search for efficacy (Harding 2003: 156–157).

Beyond representationalism

In the last two decades, the debate around the issue of representation has occupied several different fields, primarily as a reverberation of the anti-realist constructivist turn that has permeated postmodern philosophical debate.2 Discussing the different traditions of the conceptualization of representation as the knowledge of reality, Peschl and Riegler (1999) show the change of focus that has occurred in the last decades, from an attempt to grasp the structure of the environment and map it onto a representational structure, according to an analogical correspondence between signs and things, to an awareness of representation as a dynamic and generative process where environment, rather than reality, only constrains representation instead of determining its outcomes.

According to a radical realist position, the domain of our experiences as Wirklichkeit equates the world of things as Realität. Classical representational theory transforms Wirklichkeit into a function of Realität. Only in a dialectic materialistic perspective representation is re-contextualized and considered as the result of an interaction between the observer, the observed object and the context where observation takes place. But if we go further and adopt a self-referential framework, drawing on the theory of autopoietic systems, we can definitely drop the search for an external reality (without needing to either deny or affirm its ontic existence): in this case, representation is described as the perception of relations among the element of the observed and self-observing system, which is characterized by its operational closure. Once we consider representations not as passive, however, accurate, reflections of an independent reality, but as active constructions and viable, embodied and contingent processes of knowing, we can continue to employ them and at the same time disengage them from a correspondence with reality (and representationalism in a realist sense).

The acknowledgement of the agency of matter and of the hybrid connections between theory and practice, human and non-human beings, takes the form of a strong critique of representation in non-representational theory in particular. This, in most cases, associates representation with the metaphysics of visualism, although, to paraphrase Pickering (1994), when vision is delinked from “the representational idiom” and rather aligned with the “performative idiom,” a recovery and redefinition of visuality always appears possible. The terms of the debate regarding non-representational theory were initially assessed in the field of human geography, but soon turned out to be of interest for many other theoretical domains, such as feminist studies, performance studies and science and technology studies (cf. Lorimer 2005).

In non-representational theory, knowledge is firmly located in matter or, to partially paraphrase the subtitle of Barad’s book (2008), in “the entanglements of matter and meaning;” it is also relationally generated, and by no way solely rational, nor a subjective or even a human property, all assumptions that, on the contrary, belong to the tradition of Western Modernity (Thrift 2008: 122). As Thrift (2008) shows, non-representational theory has its roots in different philosophical traditions and their reciprocal points of contact: for example, feminist theory of performance and feminist spatial analysis, ranging from Butler to Irigaray, the theory of practices drawing on the work of such authors as Bourdieu and De Certeau, and what goes under the name of “biological philosophy,” from Deleuze to the current speculations of biosciences (cf. Thrift 2008: 113; Whatmore 2002). Thrift (2008: 5 ff.) characterizes non-representational theory as the conjoined insistence on a number of aspects. It features a radical empiricism—which is anti-essentialist in character and which also distances itself from constructivism—while aligning itself with the philosophies of becoming, without completely abandoning the lived immediacy of the phenomenological and the precognitive. It includes an anti-subjectivism that disengages perception from the human perceiver and attributes it to encounters among heterogenous forms, or what he calls “new matterings” (ibid.: 22). It relies on practices as being generative of actions rather than being their consequences, thus showing an interest in the “effectivity” of the world (ibid.: 113). It insists on the transhuman co-implication of bodies and things in a network of functions, where embodiment becomes a diffuse situation of shared relationality. It requires an experimental attitude, which owes much to the performing arts and is based on the unpredictability and radical possibility of the evenmental (ibid.: 114). It takes an affective stance that allows the retention of a sort of “minimal humanism” (ibid.: 13) while at the same time being anti-humanistic in a traditional sense, and which translates into an affirmative ethics of responsibility and care. Finally, it has a situational character where space is itself becoming, distributed and networked.

Needless to say, most of these elements can already be found in the theory of situated knowledge, but then this should come as no surprise, given the common root of non-representational theory and Harawaian philosophy in actor-network theory (cf. Latour 2005). Haraway’s politics of representation, however, insists on the importance of vision and images and, recognizing their contemporary pervasiveness, tries to articulate a different, opaque and non-innocent representational attitude which is partial, embodied and situated at the multiple crossings of the material-semiotic field. Her project of situated knowledge recognizes the impossibility of doing without representations; a recovering of the sense of vision, or better, of re-vision, is of the utmost importance for the feminist project of a multidimensional cartography, which is itself a representation of a different kind, being always generated from somewhere, from below and from within the networks of technobiopower. That is why Haraway insists that we pose the following questions:

How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinkered? Who wears blinkers? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision? (Haraway 1991: 194)

In a sense, a simple opposition to representation advanced in the name of the world of matter is still risky, implicated in the double bind that sees matter and meaning, or the semiotic and the material, as standing in a relation of mutual exclusion. Analogously, says Haraway, if we counterpose situatedness to universalism in a scheme which is still oppositional, we give the false illusion of a symmetry between the two, where each position is seen as purely alternative or reciprocally exclusive (ibid.). Instead, “a map of tensions and resonances between the fixed ends of a charged dichotomy better represents the potent politics and epistemologies of embodied, therefore accountable, objectivity” (ibid.). As Jacobs and Nash (2003) affirm, commenting on recent scholarship in cultural geography, there is no need to dismiss representation altogether, particularly if we consider the importance of a critique and a politics of representation for feminist work, and even if we share the assumptions of non-representational theory. As they put it, we “might insist on attending to the place of image,” so as to keep open a “wider semiotic framework” where words and things interrelate, without contradicting the semiotics of materiality of non-representational theory (ibid.: 273).

Consistent representations

It is in this direction that Hayles ([1991] 1997) has looked for an escape from the alternative between realism and anti-realism through her notion of “constrained constructivism,” which does not tell us what reality is, but rather what fields of possibility make certain representations “consistent” with reality, and thus practicable for us. As a matter of fact, constrained constructivism is built on an “interactive, dynamic, locally situated model of representation.” Here, the notion of “consistency” replaces that of “congruence.” Whereas congruence implies a one-to-one correspondence between signs and things, based on Euclidean geometry, consistency eschews this oppositional logic; rather than being kept in between the true/false dichotomy, it stands in between the not-true/not-false relation, which is one that subverts the symmetry between affirmation and negation.

What we call “observables,” writes Hayles, always depends on locally situated perspectives according to which different pieces of information about the environment are processed, as demonstrated in the example of the frog’s visuality, which Hayles gives at the beginning of her essay, drawing on the well-known article of Lettvin et al. (1959). For the frog, the Newtonian first law of motion, which for humans applies to every object upon which a force is exerted, does not work equally. A frog’s brain is only stimulated by small objects in rapid movement, allowing it to detect potential prey, whereas bigger or static objects elicit a completely different response. Recognizing, however, that every reality is relative to the observer does not lead Hayles to conclude that systems close in on themselves leaving the world outside, or that perceptions can do without representations at all, as Lettvin, Maturana, McCulloch and Pitts seemed to presuppose, and which Maturana and Varela further developed (Maturana and Varela 1980).

As Hayles notes (1995), even if we agree with the non-representational aspect of perception, we do not necessarily need to believe that “it has no connection with the external world,” particularly when we consider that a relation can also be transformative, rather than solely reflexive (ibid.: 75). And further, she argues contra Maturana and Varela, the observer is caught in continuous feedback loops within the autopoietic processes of the system, rendering “the domain of the observer” a convenient fiction (ibid.: 78). Not willing to renounce a term like representation, but rather intending to formulate it differently, as “a dynamic process rather than a static mirroring” (Hayles [1991] 1997), Hayles opts for the way Niklas Luhmann, whose systems are as closed as Maturana’s, nonetheless contemplates much more activity in systems, showing their contingency rather than their inevitability, and thus finds a way to escape the realist/constructivist debate (Hayles 1995: 98). Actually, claims Hayles, “unlike Maturana,” Luhmann

twists the closed circle of tautological repetition (“we do not see what we do not see”) into an asymmetric figure (“one does not perceive when one perceives”). The energy generated by these contradictory propositions rebounds like a loaded spring toward the very term that Maturana’s closure was designed to erase, namely “reality.” What is enacted rhetorically within the structure of this sentence is formalized in Luhmann’s theory by investing the observer with the agency to draw a distinction. By making a distinction, the observer reduces the unfathomable complexity of undifferentiated reality into something she can understand (ibid.: 97).

What Hayles appreciates in Luhmann’s position is that he recognizes “that closure too has an outside it cannot see” (ibid.: 98). This leads us to acknowledge, on the one hand, the fact that “the very interlocking assumptions used to achieve closure are themselves the result of historical contingencies and embedded contextualities.” (ibid.: 98). On the other, it allows for a preservation of the “correlation” or “interactivity” that connections, rather than absolute distinctions, make possible (Hayles et al. 1995: 16). Representations, in this context, appear not as a mirroring of “external” reality, but as “species-specific, culturally determined and context-dependent” processes of dynamic interaction.

In Hayles’s terms (Hayles [1991] 1997), a representation can be consistent with reality, or inconsistent with reality. In the latter case, this suggests that an inconsistent representation does not offer an adequate account of our interaction with what Hayles calls “the flux.” She uses the terms “cusp” and “flux” in order to reformulate the notion of representation and its viability3:

On one side of the cusp is the flux, inherently unknowable and unreachable by any sentient being. On the other side are the constructed concepts that for us comprise the world. Thinking only about the outside of the cusp leads to the impression that we can access reality directly and formulate its workings through abstract laws that are universally true. Thinking only about the inside leads to solipsism and radical subjectivism. The hardest thing in the world is to ride the cusp, to keep in the foreground of consciousness both the active transformations through which we experience the world and the flux that interacts with and helps to shape those transformations (ibid.).

Representations, then, connect the sides of the cusp and allow us to ride it. The more representations are consistent, manifesting “local interactions rather than positive correspondences” with the flux, the more their “instrumental efficacy” allows us to “ride the cusp,” so to speak (ibid.). Representations are ruled by constraints, which do not tell us what reality “in its positivity” is, but can tell us when representations are consistent with reality, enacting some possibilities and enabling certain distinctions instead of others. Constraints, then, operate in the making of selections between those representations which are viable and those which are not (ibid.).

To better show the role of constraints for representations in her theory of constrained constructivism, Hayles adopts and modifies the Greimas Square (Fig. 1).

False and True occupy the top line of the square, so that they are mutually exclusive, since they stand in an exclusionary relation of opposition. Instead, the bottom line is occupied by the couple Not-true and Not-false, whose relation is not an oppositional one: actually, not-false are those representations which are consistent with the flux, while not-true are all the unknown representations, that is, the not yet practiced representations. This puts not-true and not-false in a relation that is one of consistency and of unknowability, rather than of antithesis—a relation that “folds together the ability to negate with the ability to specify,” that is a relation of denial (the unknown) and assertion (the consistent) rather than of negation and affirmation (ibid.). If I, for instance, look at the pen that lies at my desk, I can surely say that it is an orange pen. However, my assertion is based on the observation of the colour that the plastic case of my pen appears to be. But if someone asks whether I have a black pen to lend, I can surely give them the same pen, given that it writes in black ink, thus is a black pen too. While asserting that my pen writes in black ink, I am not negating the orangeness of my pen, so to speak, but only further specifying something about the way it works.

The difference here is that denial and assertion are what Hayles calls “marked,” or modal, terms, which cannot be assimilated to the “transparencies of non-modal statements” proper to realism, like true and false ones. This means that both not-true and not-false positions do not only not exclude the corresponding terms along the vertical axis, but stand with them in a relation of implication, which, nonetheless, is in no way symmetrical: “denial implies negation while subtly differing from it, just as assertion implies affirmation without exactly being affirmation.” This, then, should rather be intended as a relation of articulation, where “articulations emerge from particular people speaking at specific times and places, with all of the species-specific processing and culturally-conditioned expectations that implies” (ibid.).

But the terms of the semiotic square are implicated along the diagonal axis too, revealing what Hayles calls “a common concern with the limits of representation” (ibid.). The “elusive negativity” expressed by the not-true position at the bottom left of the semiotic square is worth considering in detail. This, in fact, is the position that mostly escapes the either/or alternative of both realism and anti-realism, being a kind of negativity that is neither negative nor positive, and is thus inassimilable: let us think of the inappropriate/d other in Min-ha’s terms as Haraway (1992) explains it, where the inappropriate/d other is not the untouched, authentic other, but the other that is not “originally fixed by Difference” and that stands in a “critical, deconstructive relationality, in a diffracting rather than reflecting (ratio)nality” (ibid.: 299).

Elusive negativity is, for Hayles, precisely what designates the position at the cusp:

The diagonal connecting true and not-true reveals their common concern with the limits of representation. At the positive (“true”) end of the diagonal, the limits imply that we cannot speak the truth. At the negative (“not-true”) end, they paradoxically perform the positive function of gesturing toward that which cannot be spoken. Elusive negativity, precisely because of its doubly negative position, opens onto the flux that cannot be represented in itself (Hayles [1991] 1997).

The signification of the cusp is obviously always ambiguous, depending on the result of the encounter between physical and semiotic constraints that allude both to the reality of the world and the reality of language—the Harawaian material-semiotic field—without fully representing them. Such a position recognizes that what we can get to know are, at least, the boundaries of the cusp; it thus bypasses not only realism but also relativism. As Hayles explains at the end of her text (ibid.), commenting on the notion of partial perspective elaborated by Haraway, it is not that we only partially see the truth in things while remaining ignorant of its totality. It is, rather, that partiality is the whole that we see as the result of contextual and specific interactions with the “flux.” That is why she insists on what happens “at the dividing line,” in between the two sides (Hayles et al. 1995: 34). So,

If it is true that “reality is what we do not see when we see,” then it is also true that “our interaction with reality is what we see when we see.” That interaction has two, not one, components—what we bring to it, and what the unmediated flux brings to it. […] Omitting the zone of interaction cuts out the very connectedness to the world that for me is at the center of understanding scientific epistemology (ibid.).

Inhabiting figurations

Constrained constructivism presupposes a language of metaphors: the difference that passes between metaphors and descriptions is, for Hayles, the same that passes between consistency and congruence. Haraway prefers speaking of figurations to name such “performative images that can be inhabited” (Haraway 1997: 11). Even though figurations always retain a visual aspect, which is not a secondary element in our “visually saturated technoscientific culture” (ibid.; Haraway 2000: 102–103), figures need not be literally representational or mimetic. They “involve at least some kind of displacement that can trouble identifications and certainties” (Haraway 1997: 11): they are neither complete nor static pictures of the world, but are representationally adequate insofar as they keep their performativity, with all its contradictions, alive.

Braidotti (2003), in her postmetaphysical feminist philosophy of difference, explains that this distinction between figurations and metaphors is intended to overcome the classical dichotomy of identity and alterity. From a Deleuzian perspective, the figural, based on difference and becoming, is opposed to the traditional aesthetic category of the figurative (or traditional representation) which, on the contrary, is based on identification and analogy between sign and object (Braidotti 2002: 78 ff.; 2003: 48; 2006: 170). According to Braidotti, figurations map the metamorphoses and hybridizations of subjectivities in technoculture. Actually, figurations do not stand outside the world they describe, but are living maps and transformative accounts never detached from their geopolitical and historical locations; they serve to “represent what the system had declared off-limits” without, in turn, attributing a separate status to it, as if the representation of differences were an end in itself (Braidotti 2006: 170). Figurations do not reify nor romanticize alterity, but “materially embody stages of metamorphosis of a subject position towards all that the phallogocentric system does not want it to become” (Braidotti 2002: 13).

Whereas metaphors generally presuppose two distinct tracks—that of signs and that of things—and work at reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar by linking two meaning systems, of which one is considered inert and stable, so as to reduce the one to the other—like the practice of mapping traditionally does (cf. Smith and Katz 1993)—figurations maintain a reciprocity between the two orders of meaning that shed light on another kind of space (and on different subject positions): one that is relational, active and unfixed. They stress transition, interconnectedness, interaction and border-crossing, as opposed to individuation and distinction (Braidotti 2002 Met: 70). As Smith and Katz contend, discussing the function of spatial metaphors in contemporary social theory, reconceived metaphors can work as an “Alice’s passage through the looking glass,” since they also “have the reciprocal effect of revealing the familiar as not necessarily so familiar” (Smith and Katz 1993: 91). Haraway’s figurations rework precisely the unfixity that co-implicates the two sides of Hayles’s analysis, transforming an exterior relation of correspondence into a relation of co-implication. They are of the utmost importance, then, for a project of technoscience intended as a travelogue of “distributed, heterogenous, linked sociotechnical circulations” (Haraway 1997: 12).

Haraway traces the origin of the meaning of the practice of figuration back to the semiotics of Western Christian realism, on the one hand, and to Aristotelian rhetoric on the other (Haraway 1997: 9 ff.; 2000: 141). In the history of Catholicism, the literal and the figurative continuously intersect, and figures are attributed to the power to contain the development of events, either of salvation or of damnation—something which Haraway also devises in the millenaristic tone of many discourses of technoscience. Aristotle highlights the spatial character of figures of discourse: in his philosophy, “a figure is geometrical and rhetorical; topics and tropes are both spatial concepts” (Haraway 1997: 11). This spatial aspect is visible in the strong link that Haraway’s figurations, in fact, maintain with location, although clearly locations cannot be made to coincide with abstract space, but rather, as Braidotti (2003) emphasizes, outline a cartography of spatial power relations and make sense of the different positionalities that these define. Figurations, moreover, also retain a temporal aspect that is by no means developmental, but assumes the modality of “condensation, fusion and implosion” which is contrary to the modalities of “development, fulfilment and containment proper of figural realism” (Haraway 1997: 12). It is precisely this implosion of boundaries between subject and object, or between the material and the semiotic, that puts borders in a constructive and transformative tension rather than using them as dividing lines. Figurations are thus tropoi, in that they, according to Greek etymology, do not simply figure, but “turn” what they figure (Haraway 2008: 159).4

It is once again Braidotti who, drawing on Haraway, shows how Harawaian figurations can be employed to develop a “politically charged practice of alternative representation:”

Feminist theories of “politics of location” (Rich [1984] 1987), or “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1991) […] stress the material basis of alternative forms of representation, as well as their transgressive and transformative potential. In feminism, these ideas are coupled with that of epistemological and political accountability (Harding 1987), that is the practice that consists in unveiling the power locations which one inevitably inhabits as the site of one’s identity (Braidotti 1999: 91–92).

This alternative practice, as Haraway repeats, can be delinked from the theologics of representation that revolves around reflection and reflexivity and their root in the mastery of light, which the tradition of feminist critique rightly dismisses, and be rather coupled with an optics that registers the passages of light rays through screens and slits, looking at the resonance and interference that light undergoes while passing through them.

A different way of thinking about light

As a joke, albeit a serious one, Haraway affirms that semiotics is a science of four branches, “syntactics, semantics, pragmatics and diffraction” (Haraway 2000: 104). Intended as the production of difference patterns, diffraction, the fourth “optical” branch of semiotics, treats light differently from reflection, though, as we will see, not necessarily in opposition to representation. As Barad (2007) so poignantly summarizes,

First and foremost […] a diffractive methodology is a critical practice for making a difference in the world. It is a commitment to understanding which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom. It is a critical practice of engagement, not a distance-learning practice of reflecting from afar. (ibid.: 90)

Undoubtedly, reflection and reflexivity have their roots in representationalism (ibid.: 87), but the opposite is not necessarily true. I thus disagree with the reading that Campbell (2004: 174 ff.) offers of Haraway’s writings and their presumed evolution regarding the issue of representation, because I think that the model of articulation that a practice like diffraction presupposes is analogous to the way representations are reworked according to the notion of figuration, a project already pursued by Haraway in such writings as “Situated Knowledges.” I would not counterpose the latter to texts like “The Promises of Monsters” or “Modest Witness” where, according to Campbell, Haraway would abandon the representational model in favour of the diffractive one. Rather, what Haraway drops is the metaphysics of representations, while at the same time she articulates representations by means of diffractive practices, so as to render them still employable for feminist technoscience.

As we have seen, when Haraway retrieves a notion like that of location for her idea of situated knowledge, she is at the same time exposing, via Withehead, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” that lies at the core of either traditional realism or of traditional representationalism, both being based on an ontological distinction between representations and reality as well as on the existence of a distant and invisible representer (Haraway 1991; Barad 2007: 46 ff.). So, Barad’s belief in the dynamism and articulation of matter, which is not “a support, location, referent, or source of sustainability for discourse” or any other external force inscribing onto it, but “always already an ongoing historicity” (Barad 2003: 821), is not so different from Haraway’s faith in the historical embeddedness of figurations. It is worth repeating that Haraway never abandons representations nor opposes diffractions to them. If Barad thinks that we should leave representations behind decisively for “matters of practices/doings/actions” (ibid.: 802), Haraway is saying that seeing too is a doing and that we are responsible for the generativity of our visual practices (Haraway 1991). Accordingly, Barad, when discussing the functioning of scanning tunnelling microscopes (STM), which not only allow the visualization of but also the manipulation of atoms, notes that representations do not depict static objects out there, but are rather “condensations or traces of multiple practices of engagement” (Barad 2007: 53). Representations are performed as well as performing, so that we should rather talk about a set of representational practices that produce “what we take to be the evidence” (ibid.); our belief in them depends on historical and cultural variables, so that critically engaging with representations is always possible and, according to Haraway, also desirable (see also Barad 2007: 49). Only when they are critically engaged are metaphors put in motion, that is, activated through a process of translation, becoming effective, dynamic figurations rather than remaining reflective depictions of static givens.

When considering light, translation requires that we also consider that light has a history (Haraway 2000: 103). In fact, diffraction is a physical phenomenon that records the patterns of difference caused by the movements of rays resulting from the passage of light through a prism or a screen: “a diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of difference appear” (Haraway 1992: 300). This process replaces the idea of a mimetic mirroring proper of reflection and refraction, or what Haraway calls the displacement “of the same elsewhere” (Haraway 1997: 273)—usually employed as a metaphor for the objectivity of science as well as for the traditional notion of artistic representation—in order to encompass interference, difference and interaction instead. “To make a difference in material-semiotic apparatuses,” says Haraway, we must be able “to diffract the rays of technoscience so that we get more promising interference patterns on the recording films of our lives and bodies” (ibid.: 16). The historicity of diffraction, then, lies in its situated, embodied character and in its being involved in facticity and in process making. This also entails a critique of the methodology of reflexivity and its infinite regression, which radical constructivism would counterpose to the realist option, since as we have already seen in Hayles’s critique of the separate domain of the observer, reflexivity too is trapped in a geometry of exclusions (the top line of Hayles’s semiotic square) whenever it poses difference as an absolutely unrelated alternative to sameness (Barad 2007: 72). “Reflexivity does not more than mirror mirroring” (ibid.: 88), because, even if the observers re-enter the picture, they still maintain a distance form the object of their gaze, foreclosing any “reading through” (ibid.: 90) the entanglements of phenomena and the production of borders.

Diffraction concerns the world of physical optics rather than that of geometrical optics. It describes the behaviour of waves when they encounter an obstacle, thus practically all optical phenomena; it also, contrary to geometrical optics, interrogates the nature of light. In physics, as Barad explains in her analysis, diffraction experiments are frequently used to compare the behaviour of waves to that of particles. One way to observe the phenomenon of diffraction, which the naked eye can easily notice when a pebble is launched into water or in the iridescence of a soap bubble, is the two-slit experiment, in which diffraction patterns resulting in bright or dark spots on a target screen—depending on the reciprocal enhancement or destruction of waves—are obtained when a light source passes, precisely, through a two-slit screen (ibid.: 71 ff.). According to classical physics, only waves can produce diffraction patterns, since only waves, not particles, can simultaneously occupy the same place. Barad, however, shows that quantum physics studies how particles can also behave like waves under certain circumstances. She then discusses the “modified” two-slit experiment at length, drawing on Niels Bohr’s diagrams; without entering into too much detail here, it suffices to say for the purpose of our argument that depending on the apparatus used in the two-slit experiment, that is, whether a “which path detector” is employed or not, matter, and light as well, are observed to manifest either particle or wave behaviour. This apparent paradox forces us to radically rethink the dualism that lies at the core of representationalism and the idea that “practices of representing have no effect on the object of investigation” (ibid.: 87), given that diffraction not only shows the entanglements of meaning and matter, but is itself an entangled phenomenon.

Thus, adopting a diffractive methodology, as Barad does drawing on Haraway’s lesson, implies a profound rethinking of Western ontology and epistemology (ibid.: 83) because it replaces the analogical methodology, which consists in relating two separate entities by way of an external observer, with a methodology that shows how “practices of knowing are material engagements that participate in (re)configuring the world” (ibid.: 91). Producing differences is what establishes connections rather than reinforcing distinctions: As Haraway writes, “diffraction patterns are about a heterogeneous history, not originals” (Haraway 2000: 101). A representation is not a sign that mirrors a separate external referent; it is rather a diffractive practice that reveals the coemergence and the co-implication of both meaning and matter. Agency is redefined as precisely “a matter of intra-acting,” from which the “agential realism” at the core of Barad’s philosophy is derived: since “intra-actions are constraining but not determinate,” (my italics) intra-acting neither belongs to a completely free subjectivity nor to a fully determined reality, but rather happens in a material-semiotic field where “particular possibilities for acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail a responsibility to intervene in the world’s becoming, to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering” (Barad 2003: 826–827). Talking about constraining intra-actions brings us back to the idea of consistency theorized by Hayles, according to which, as we have seen, constraints are what enable us to select among viable, that is, consistent, rather than congruent representations, shifting representations from what that we could see to the “interaction with reality [that] we see when we see” (see above).

This very much complicates the notion of vision as well as that of location (and the situatedness of the observer), since it dismantles the exteriority on which both have traditionally relied, and replaces it with specific forms of connectivity as well as accountability. Even if the observer comes back, he/she does not stand in a separate domain, but is connected in continuous feedback loops with his/her cognitive processes, since the closure of the observer’s domain is never pregiven, but always achieved (Hayles 1995: 78). Even as observers, we take part, writes Barad, in the “world’s differential becoming” (Barad 2007: 91) in which our knowledge enacts the world engaging in “specific worldly configurations” from the inside (ibid.).


As Haraway notes, since we as humans need a “different kind of theory of mediations” (Haraway 2008: 174), new representational practices rather than new representations are required to make differences rather than merely see them. Since feminist theory has shown the criticality as well as the importance of a notion like that of representation, representations cannot be easily dismissed but should rather be reworked and signified according to alternative practices and wider semiotic frameworks. Adopting a performative idiom as a substitution for the representational one, thus getting completely rid of representations, leaves a series of questions unresolved, as Hayles and Haraway particularly highlight. These concern the domain of the observer as much as the status of what is observable, and most of all, that which relates the two sides, the sign and reality, or meaning and matter (Barad 2007).

The theory of constrained constructivism elaborated by Hayles ([1991] 1997) tries to formulate the viability of representations through the idea that they can never be congruent with reality but, rather, be consistent with it. Even if we do not get to know reality through representations, we can nonetheless “ride the cusp” that separates and at the same time connects us with the flux, touching the limit of representation (and, also, the limit of the knowability of reality). Modifying Greimas’s Square, Hayles proposes that we define the position at the cusp in terms of “elusive negativity,” a double negativity that connects us with the dividing line where we meet our interactions with reality and our representations of it as well.

This zone of intra-action is what Haraway’s practice of alternative representation goes through in order “to diffract the rays of technoscience” (Haraway 1997: 16). Haraway’s notions of figuration and of diffraction serve to displace fixed identities and put boundaries in constructive tension, requiring engagement rather than distancing. While Barad recognizes the importance of diffraction as a generative practice and interprets this notion in a non-representational way in her philosophy of agential realism, I have tried to argue that there is no need to oppose diffractions to representations, since what Haraway abandons is, first and foremost, the metaphysics of representation, but not the performativity of images which can be read through and used to read through at the same time.

We configure our world and establish connections with it through our ways of seeing. Diffraction, so intended, does not simply regard our visual field, but is a practice that invests our knowledge, our imaginary and our practices at the same time: it is, as Haraway writes, “a […] technology for making consequential meanings” (Haraway 1997: 273). Productive interruption, as well as reciprocal reinforcement, is allowed by diffractions and their unpredictable and unintended effects: different realities and unforeseen possibilities can emerge from diffractive practices (Haraway in Schneider 2005: 150).

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1For a detailed discussion on the implications of a technoscientific approach see the articles contained in the special issue of Poiesis Prax (vol. 7, no. 1–2, 2010) entitled “Focus: Technoscience and Technology Assessment.”

2If we, to take only one example, consider scholarship on visual studies, we observe that what is defined as the “pictorial turn,” an ambiguous concept in itself, is rooted in the acknowledgement of the non-mimetic, and in this sense non-representational, function of the image, which is now perceived as a “complex interplay” of relations rather than as the locus for the re-emergence of a pictorial presence (Mitchell 1994). Not so differently, the linguistic turn that philosophers such as Rorty (1967) advocated has actually been based on the same refusal of the model of representational transparency (and classical textuality) which governed traditional pictorialism. Visuality is so permeated with affect and desires that it is impossible to consider any visual representation independently from its effects, that is, the performative aspects that inhere in visuality, or what Thrift specifically calls the “effectivity” of the world (Thrift 2008: 113).

3These notions of cusp and flux recall the concept of “double contingency” in Luhmann’s theory, which regulates the way Ego and Alter “intra-act,” relating to each other both through the indeterminacy of their own autoreferentality and the determinability of their own selections (cf. Baraldi et al. 1990: 75 ff.).

4Similarly, Latour distinguishes between “intermediaries” and “mediators,” where only the latter transform what they transport rather than simply carry it (Latour 2005: 39).


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