Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: September 2016

In anticipation of Week 4’s focus on texture and touch, we may locate some of these threads (an apt, but unintentional pun) in the Timaeus and Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses. We ended last class thinking about the “fabric” of Lucretius’ universe, and the ways that it is, even at the most fundamental level, uncannily textured. It is the texture of Lucretius’ atoms that determine the character of our sensations, and the threat of their separation is figured as an unweaving: “There would be no need of any force to separate its parts and loosen their links…a force that shatters it with a blow creeps into chinks and unknits it” (Lucretius 15). It seems, in the first, as if this textile quality will be lost in Plato’s cosmology, as the fundamental bodies of his universe are so different from Lucretius’; these are not hooked atoms whose configuration is determined by texture, but divinely precise triangles, “fitted together…in due proportion” (Plato 50). Their art is not tapestry, but architecture: they seem to fit together by force and shape, without needing to be sewn into place.

And yet, there is a kind of slippage in Plato’s language, which endues the universe with a fibrous character, despite its crystalline regularity. This may be accounted for by Plato’s figuration of divine the creator as a craftsman working from a model, which encourages analogies to handicraft. Even in his precise categorization of the universe’s component geometry, Plato includes on offhand mention to “a fifth construction, which the god used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven” (48). Though this explicit figure is of embroidery is not picked up again (save for a footnote explaining that “The Greek word (diazôgraphô) means embroidering or drawing figures of living creatures,” as in the constellations) it allows us to see the creation of Plato’s universe as a fabrication, one determining and determined by texture. One sees this also in the divine creation of the “soul” of the universe: the creator “put a soul in the centre and stretched it throughout the whole and covered the body within it” (23). The soul thereby becomes a garment, woven and worn by the body. This is, as Plato’s word choice reminds us, a universe that has been “fashioned” from a model—not unlike the way a dressmaker may work from a pattern (20).

For more than this “feminine” analogy, the receptacle, or chōra, may be the site of such fibrous elasticity. “A matrix for everything, which is moved and refigured by the things which enter it,” the chōra seems to function as fabric itself, onto which images are “imprinted” like a kind of dye or ornament. Though the chōra has been figured in many ways—both by Plato himself, and in the extensive catalogue provided by Bianchi—I am most interested by Liddell and Scott’s reading of the ekmageion as “napkin or wiping cloth: something that instead of creating marks rather removes them” (Bianchi 91). One may think of the process of Batik dyeing, which is a negative imprint: patterns are made precisely where dye is deterred by wax from staining the fabric. However, Bianchi’s reading of Liddell and Scott takes on (perhaps unintentionally) an divine valence in its ambiguity: “The verb from which ekmageion is derived, ekmassō, means to wipe clean; in the middle voice to wipe away one’s tears. It also means to mold or model in wax or plaster, to take an impression of or imprint an image” (91). These contradictory actions, of erasure and creation, converge in the Christian figure of the Mandylion: particularly, in the legendary veil given by Veronica to Jesus before his crucifixion. Meant to wipe away his tears, it was believed to have been imprinted by the image of Christ. It is hard to think, too, that Berssenbrugge’s “Verdant Heart” does not refer to this transfer: “I can transfer this color imprint / onto the healing of others, like a symbol that can be experienced without my presence or / veronica’s” (Berssenbrugge 56). The chōra may be, in this way, a kind of miraculous shroud, an agential power constituted no less by its ability to remove marks, than to make them.

Fabric is an explicit concern also of Mei-Mei’s “A Placebo,” which explicitly engages fashion as a mode of self-expression and even self-creation: “My dress is a visual image of unconscious affirmative processes, the way spontaneity / expresses its order, as I create a world, stocking it with small dogs on the runway, / handbags, a bouillonne of rose tulle at the waist of a jacket” (13). This must be more than a simple observation on the performativity of identity, as she repeatedly invokes a garment’s ability to act on the wearer through both its textured material and its network of associations, as “the intent of a dress” (17). Fashion, too, becomes atmospheric: people are woven together as “a surface, alive and redolent, half unseen, like iridescent cloth” (13), while the speaker’s friend Kiki both recedes into and emerges from the background of the scene, in “a blue silk coat embroidered with gold” (not unlike the constellations of Plato’s universe) that seems equally as active and as textured as the room’s “Ming wallpaper” (17). I am fascinate by such moments, in which Berssenbrugge prompts us in turn, to look through and at a fabric, as a piece of vibrant material both for wearers and in itself. At this nexus, Berssenbrugge offers her own fascinating definition of the chōra: “Style, soul, is power through which matter is formed” (16).

Berssenbrugge’s ontological interplay or fusion of the speaker/subject with proximal objects, and of objects with one another, is particularly interesting where it’s accomplished on a sentence or word level. The use of specific compound words establishes relationships between these objects according to abstract or subjective interpretations of sequential causality. In disrupting or conflating notions of simultaneity and sequence, Berssenbrugge’s sentence structure in certain moments exemplifies her speaker’s preference of ‘vitality’ to ‘time’ as well as for the arrangement of objects in narrative according to ‘order of chance and order from within (p. 22).’ Other expositive, more philosophical statements make heavy lifting such as this possible for (in some ways) a more simple compound sentence comprised of two sensory images, without much other scaffolding required.

On p. 74: ‘Bee lands on yellow flower, and now air is warm.’ Immediately there are several possibilities for how this is being perceived by the speaker. The speaker observes the bee move through space and describes the air. ‘And now’ may suggest the simultaneity of the speaker both seeing the bee land on the flower and feeling the air, or these things having occurred in sequence. It could also suggest that the sight of the bee, or specifically the way in which the bee moves through space to land on the flower, activates for the speaker the sensation of the air; that the color of the flower suggests a visual warmth, or that somehow the sight of the bee landing on the flower—perhaps too that the flower is a yellow color—affects the temperature of the air as the speaker experiences or realizes the sensation of it. I also find the lack of articles before ‘flower’ and ‘air’ very striking; as if these are every, or anywhere.

Similarly, on p. 83: ‘A flat rock, waist-high, is covered with oxalis, because a break in the trees lets in sunlight’ (serving the structure of the compound, I am treating the rock as one object and the sunlight as the other). Here the word ‘because’ accomplishes what might otherwise or elsewhere in the text be expressed as the speaker describing the quality of themselves observing this event and then providing support for inscription of meaning by way of describing memory or sensory experience. In sentences like these, while the speaker is the clear apparatus of observation (Barad), serving as the site of the two objects’ relationship in text, the speaker’s presence does not explicitly appear within the sentence (though the body is implicated in describing the size of the rock), thus, in language at least, removing more obvious signifiers of human observation, and destabilizing ideas of causality conventional to that mode of observation.     –Alex

Reading the Barad it seemed to me she was trapped in a specific game of terminology; still playing the language game of writing a rule-following academic paper, and still engaging with a canonical philosophical tradition of arguments that requires a tacit naïve realism with respect to terms. By this I don’t mean that she “should” have written an unpublishable art-essay which looks visually weird or something—the more useful paper I want to implicitly posit in opposition to hers could still earnestly invoke terms like realism and representation, could still be aesthetically conservative and eminently readable, but would not give issues of epistemology and subject-object relations the same ne plus ultra credence. Instead of talking about “new forms of knowledge” or “knew ways of knowing” why not just give up on the concept of knowledge entirely? Giving epistemology anything but a sliding/playful/creative credibility seems suspect to me; I think one should do one’s best to rhetorically foreground one’s awareness of the mereness of creativity—or, put another way, the absoluteness of it—which perhaps means excising the will-to-truth latent in platonic/Christian structures of thinking and talking.

I had honestly thought that most of the reasonable intellectual world kind of put representationalism behind them, so the whole first bit of Barad’s essay seemed to be getting up in arms about something with which I already disagreed. (I liked her on Foucault, though.) I was surprised, then, not to see any invocation of philosophical Pragmatism among Barad’s listed critiques of representation (Richard Rorty’s seminal book is literally called “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”; Donald Davidson’s work on post-metaphor, Robert Brandom on global anti-representationalism). In any case, Barad seemed to be proceeding as if Wittgenstein never wrote the investigations; or at least as if she failed to assimilate some of that book’s central tenets. (The philosophical debates Wittgenstein undermined do seem to just ‘churn on,’ somehow.) Barad’s dismissal of the linguistic turn seemed misguided, to me, and directed at that version of the linguistic turn which we now essentially view as having been an antidote to positivism. (And then as having somehow reforged positivism inside analytic philosophy). So I am, I think, indifferent to that linguistic turn as well. The linguistic turn that interests me is the one that says—proleptically, I guess—“look, posthumanism is infinitely interesting as a creative or political endeavor, but as long as we are inside the historical tradition of metaphysics, epistemology, etc., anthropocentrism ‘is just correct’.” It will never not be /according to a human/ that [this or that posthumanist claim / cows feel more pain via their neural networks / whatever]. It will never not be /in language/ that we express things like “F**k the linguistic turn.” I agree with Barad that continuing to proselytize for “language!” is barking up the wrong tree, but I disagreed with how she wanted to query the fundamental ‘results’ of the linguistic turn, which are formidably important, I think, to her entire critical angle being able to exist at all. (I was also surprised not to see someone like Kuhn feature in Barad’s discussion of Bohr and representation in science; Bohr’s solution seemed somewhat frail; it felt like Barad invoked him because of his name’s reputation, because of the easy, wieldy, epistemological structuralism of his solution to representation, and maybe to give her rhetorical movements credibility in a discourse which purports to greater objectivity (kind of a paradox)).

I had a hard time taking the essay seriously once it moved past her discussion of the macro relationships between historical movements. The guy in class who said that Barad was “trying to do Derrida” I think was on the right track, in the sense that, as he said, she was trying to criticize metaphysics, or “debunk” a fixation on certain trends in postwar theory. (by acknowledging, (within a tidy system?) an increase in ontlg/epistemological untidiness). But it’s as if “theory” has opened up this whole space in which people feel okay to unself-awarely build systems whose vocabularies purport to greater objectivity because we’ve “already established” that we’re considering them rhizomatically or something, willfully forgetting about their implicit terminological realism and focusing on what their creativity offers other artists/theorists/civilians. (Again Deleuze – “You can use this book how you want”, etc.) Derrida’s books like Glas or The Post Card seem examples of self-consciously contingent work which still perform interesting manoevers in the vein of “traditional philosophical problems”; moving outside of those problems, we are in for example vast swathes of postcolonial theory, where politics and the interests of real people are more severely situated at the forefront, and the pitfalls of metaphysics are usually less consequential to the theory coming off.

Reading the Barad made me feel a strong skepticism toward “anti-anti-realism”; the writers I like are forever being accused of relativism & anti-realism; I think people feel a lot of political pressure to be realists, because “if the world doesn’t exist” then “why would people choose to do anything ever.” To invoke my own experience, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that pressure, really. Of course the world is there – or “something” is there – it’s just that language and ideas don’t stick to it. We don’t need for language to cut reality into pre-language-sized shapes to be able to open the front door or vote. The relationship between incentive and realism seems like an overdone problem which has been encountered before with existentialism or determinism. I don’t personally perceive any autonomy/agency in my experiential life, but I still feel like a potent, politically-engaged subject.

The overarching thing that I struggled with in Barad is—and honestly a huge part of the way this registers for me is in terms of rhetoric and tone—is the way she seems to be such an implicit realist with respect to terms. Words like “object,” “space,” “agency,” “phenomena,” “performance,” “properties,” “structure,” “time”: these all seem like entirely contingent historical concepts that we could very easily not have evolved to talk about at all. Obviously we have to accept that all language has a social history, and try to manage as best we can within whatever social-philosophical vocabularies have evolved, but I think that anyone who doesn’t proceed with the absolute contingency of their theoretical vocabulary at the front of their mind is going to induce at least mild exasperation. This isn’t to say the reading wasn’t really exciting/productive for me, but mainly productive in generating some of the thinking-through of this post. Longer post, hope that’s OK…

One objection we may raise against K. Barad’s “performative metaphysics” is that it doesn’t fulfill its promise – that promise being to unify ontology and epistemology. For her, “the separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse”.  These dualisms (both starting points and conclusions of every representationalist metaphysics) is what must be obliterated by means of what she calls “onto-epistem-ology”.

In a sense, Barad’s proposal is very appealing: se claims that there aren’t discreet entities preexisting the crucial moment of interaction (i.e. interaction of themselves with themselves), the moment in which differentiation (and therefore conceptualization and so to say “discreetization”) arises. If we believe so, it may be a way of acknowledging that knowing subjects don’t just impose on the reality their categorizations – amorphic reality becomes intelligible to the human mind (as phenomena) through/as-a-result-of an “agential intra-activity” which involves both the material and the discursive. Reality is amorphic before it “morphicizes” itself. Phenomena emerge through particular intra-actions, actions “inside” those same phenomena pre-phenomena. Boundaries and delimitations instantiate themselves (being/becoming causally, bilaterally, and locally determined).

However, I think that this option leaves us at the same cul-de-sac as representationalist metaphysics, as soon as the question of how to shift (coherently) from ontology to epistemology is made arises. If the problem of representationalism is that the moment you distinguish between appearances and reality-beyond/behind-appearances you are stuck with the mystery of what might be the bridge between the two, and what kind of (efficient or inefficient) walker is your human consciousness, the problem of Barad’s suggestion is in turn that epistemology is not able to even be born. She talks of “material constraints” – but how would that be possible, within the limits of her own theory? Constraints entail limits, and limits are “made” in the becoming; the becoming cannot be severed into “material” and “discursive” prior to its own constitution. In other words, how would we know what are the material constraints when, for example, choosing between scientific/descriptive/explanatory theories of material-discursive phenomena (that is, every phenomena, including biological phenomena) which, by her definition, cannot be divided into the material and the discursive?

It might be, in the end, a matter of rethorics. For, if she advocates for “agentic intra-activity” and “indistinguishness” of the material and the discursive but, at the same time, speaks of a certain “material constraint”, my question is: isn’t this phrasing equivalent to saying: the difference between human mind / knower / subject, on the one hand, and objects of knowledge (both humans and non humans), on the other, is not an inherent quality of reality but a necessary difference within the realm of what the human mind is capable of thinking of (i.e. due to its cognitive structure)?

A “messy” dualism of this kind, as long as it is stated not ontologically but “just epistemologically” (for the sake of, let’s say, human cognitive makeup), could help us the same to reevaluate matter, without falling into the contradiction of saying that (1) the material and the discourse are one and intra-local-casually produced, and (2) the material is different from the discourse up to the point that the material offers constraints to the discursive. Other “solution” (my favorite!) would be just stop worrying about the ontological-epistemological conundrum and, when facing the “other”, engage in an a-epistemological and a-ontological openness of imagination (imagination-intuition as Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge would say?), as an ethical practice of empathy and “togetherness”. I believe this is what Jane Bennett does.

This was too long. So sorry!

I wanted to bring up the concept (or perhaps rather, practice?) of diffraction, which was only noted in the Barad reading—though it figures centrally in her larger critical project—and consider how a diffractive reading/writing might be at work in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses. Barad’s interested in the use of diffraction, over and in place of reflection and refraction, for its potential as what she calls a “mutated critical tool of analysis.” She traces a lineage through the work of Donna Haraway and Trinh Minh-ha, theorists using diffraction to rethink relationality and difference, where difference is figured as a “critical difference within,” which resonates with Dorothy Wang’s approach to Berssenbrugge’s work, where racial subjectivity “can make itself felt in and as language,” the linguistic structures of the poems themselves carrying the impress of social and historical influences. For Barad, through Haraway: “Diffraction does not produce ‘the same’ displaced, as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of differences appear.” I’m still trying to understand diffraction as a critical practice, but want to venture, and further consider, how Berssenbrugge’s poetry might function as a diffractive creative practice, as a mapping of interference in language.

Hello, the Roses foregrounds entanglements of subject and object within the relational interchange of phenomena. With her longer line and use of parataxis, there’s a refusal to level out ambiguity. Perception and natural phenomena touch, exist contiguously, interfere. The poem “Matter” approaches and re-approaches “the effect of time” and ideas of separateness, closeness, through minerals, quantum bonds, and “change in a person,” seeming to map the effects of difference through the diffraction grating of the poem. The first line of the poem, “We call change in a person the effect of time” (18), shortens the first line of “A Placebo” (13), setting up a larger concatenation of difference in the book as a whole. The proliferation of pronouns in the first two lines of “Matter”, and the deictic now (“It separates everything you were from what happens now”), plot an entanglement of identity and temporality. Although this has been only a surface look at diffraction, I’m hoping deeper inquiry into it as critical and creative practice might be useful in considering discretenesses of difference that don’t calcify into fixity.


The “Winter Whites” section of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “Hello, the Roses” contains some of the volume’s most explicit references to an overarching cosmology that, in many respects, resembles Karen Barad’s model of “posthumanist performativity.” Phenomena seem to be the “relational atoms” that allow Berssenbrugge’s speaker to understand the boundaries of her materiality: “More and more an experience becomes a contingent particle” (28). However, these are highly mutable and vulnerable boundaries for the speaker, given that they are “contingent” upon the specific phenomena they come into contact with, both within and outside of her mind: “An event can weave through these manifestations, dissipating itself along with my own borders” (30).

What I think Berssenbrugge’s poems might offer us is a better understanding of how Barad’s model interprets the phenomena that constitute human consciousness. Barad leaves open the question of reconciling the materiality of “matter” with the immaterial qualia of perception; Berssenbrugge’s focus on the “experience” rather than the “phenomenon” suggests to me a figuration that accounts for the unobservable status of our own perceptions. Space, Berssenbrugge posits, is “a psychological property.” In thinking through the “experiences” that shape discursive practices, perhaps we can approach a posthumanist performative understanding of not only matter but “immaterial” consciousness itself.

In taking up “experience,” I also wonder what we can do with Berssenbrugge’s portrayal of memory and the effects of time on our perceptions. When the speaker affirms, “An experience is not one experience,” she underscores that her awareness of herself as a subject is contingent not simply upon external phenomena but the experiences which have accumulated to form her perceptions in the present moment. Can “intra-agential cuts” then occur within one’s own consciousness via memory? Moreover, does Berssenbrugge frame memory as a capacity inherent in all matter, a capacity most visible at the microscopic level of “an electron’s path” (30)? Perhaps then we should consider the passage of time to be among the phenomena that underlie discursive practices. ~Graham

This seminar will draw on emerging conversations in “new materialisms,” animal studies and environmental literature to consider the problem of describing the variegated rhythms of change occurring within material worlds. Placing emphasis on how poetic texts stage a set of lively entanglements between materiality and temporality we will consider writing by Stein, Olson, Smithson, Hejinian, Robertson, Grosz, Barad, and others. In considering how temporality intersects with materiality we will bring to these conversations a sense of how longer-standing discourses particularly among feminist and queer poets, critics, and theorists have sought to develop strategies for non-essentialist and non-dualist engagements with “natural” and in particular biological worlds. The seminar will simultaneously offer grounding in several currents of modern and contemporary poetry, from “poetics of place,” to poetic engagements with description in Language Poetry, to the recent experiments in “somatics” and Conceptual Poetry.