One of the most problematic passages in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway begins on page 378, where she states,
"Brittlestars know better than to get caught up in a geometrical optics of knowing.”
This is a sentence that is so breathtakingly problematic as to halt readers in their tracks, in part because it is meant to be a playful, sophisticated, rhetorical use of language. Be that as it may, it is a sentence that defeats much of the argument and position that Barad has been seeking to construct.
First, while Barad has been berating humanists and deflating the role of humans in the world's becoming, is this not an anthropomorphic act? She grants brittlestars the status of being participants engaged in the practical debate about Western epistemology which she has been elaborating.
Perfomatively, this anthropomorphic act may be said to ground and constitute an epistemic claim, itself an act, a complex act that incorporates projection, identification, appropriation and exploitation, as we will see. The epistemic claim is that: ‘I know that “Brittlestars know better than to get caught up in a geometrical optics of knowing”’.
Second, having anthropomorphised the brittlestar, is this not a case of projection and identification? It is as if brittlestars are close academic colleagues of Barad’s advancing her arguments alongside her, on her side against the representationalists and the humanists, those who only know the geometrics of reflection. Does she not suggest that they are brittlestars-colleagues rather than, as she herself subsequently states, being "merely tools that we can use to teach”, i.e. pedagogic tools or pedagogic resources for the study and practice of 'science', as a field of acts of knowing.
Brittlestars are, in short, abstracted and extracted from their ‘apparatus’, the environment in which they exist and survive, and in which they have determinate value, and given fictitious (narrative and performative) value as knowing actors in a communal, academic, epistemological debate, a further apparatus.
Performatively, this may be said to ground the initial epistemic claim in a further a communal epistemic claim: ‘We, brittlestars and I, know better than to get caught up in a geometrical optics of knowing’.
Third, is this not an appropriation of brittlestars to a particular position for a particular purpose? Does it not take whatever capability to act in specific environments brittlestars have, their phenomenal existence, and grant them an epistemologically-informed, communal agency in which they not only ‘know’ a geometric optics of knowing, but demonstrate an awareness that shows that they ‘know better’ than to adhere to its practices and principles.
Knowing better, indeed, by being beyond knowing; or rather being incapable of knowing reflectively, mediately. While claiming to be on their side, by recognising their superior form of ‘knowing’, is Barad not simply appropriating them for her arguments, as if they themselves were making those arguments? As she says later: "Brittlestars literally enact my agential realist ontoepistemological point about the entangled practices of knowing and being.” (Barad, 2007: 379)
Performatively, this may be said to take the initial epistemic claim (‘I know’) and its communal extension ('We know’) to generate an ontological entity as a persona, the brittlestar-agential-realist, in this communal, academic, epistemic apparatus.
Fourth, in reducing them to being pedagogic tools, "merely tools that we can use to teach”, is it not an exploitation of brittlestars as a ‘resource’, much in the same way that ’natural resources’ are exploited by scientific research, engineering and capitalist industrial production?
Performatively, brittlestars become a technological resource within an economic praxis, an apparatus with its own regimes of cognition and re-cognition, of knowing and knowing better, and its own ecologies of mutual interdependence and contingency. Their performative 'identity' is that of being a technical 'entity'.
In brittlestars, has Barad not constituted a 'technical entity', a ’scientific entity’ and a ‘pedagogic entity’, within a technical, scientific, pedagogic apparatus. This entity, this onto-epistemological entity, we might say, is replete with its own distinctive attribute: that of ‘knowing better than to get caught up in a geometrical optics of knowing’. Yet this attribute is not a ‘property’ of brittlestars; it is an attribution.
All this, as Barad says, without eyes or a brain, such that brittlestars might respond enactively: ’No, that is not what we are doing. No, that is not what we know. No, that is not what we mean. No, that is not who we are’; a kind agential realist resistance to, or refusal of, technical, scientific, pedagogic, enclosure, if such were possible?
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.