Abstract This essay is an invitation to take up the nature and problematics of hospitality in its materiality. It begins and ends with the Marshall Islands, at the crossroads of two great destructive forces: nuclear colonialism and the climate crisis. In the after-math of sixty-seven US nuclear bomb “tests” visited upon the Marshall Islands, the concrete “dome” built on Runit Island by the US government was an act of erasure and a-void-ance — an attempt to contain and cover over plutonium remains and other material traces of the violence of colonial hospitality that live inside the Tomb (as the Marshallese call it). Taking the physicality of the hostility within hospitality seriously, and going into the core of the theory that produced the nuclear bomb, I argue that a radical hospitality — an infinity of possibilities for interrupting state sanctioned violence — is written into the structure of matter itself in its inseparability with the void.
Karen Barad (1956 – )
Karen Barad is Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy and History of Consciousness at the University of California Santa Cruz and co-director of the Science & Justice Graduate Training Program, funded by the National Science Foundation. As a feminist-physicist-philosopher her influence in the fields of new materialism, new material feminism, science studies, queer studies, and posthumanism has been profound. Barad’s PhD in theoretical particle physics was awarded by SUNY Stony Brook in 1984 with her thesis entitled ‘Fermions in Lattice Gauge Theories’. Her work has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hughes Foundation, the Irvine Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in the Arts at Gothenburg University in 2016, and is on the faculty of the European Graduate School.
She is the originator of agential realism as a new and distinct, posthuman and performative approach to knowledge-making practices. Barad’s central thesis with agential realism is that post-structuralism and its theoretical predecessors have placed far too much emphasis on language and representationalism and not enough on the materiality of discourse and the role of matter in understandings of how the world is configured. From her doctoral thesis, through her early work on feminism and science pedagogies, and her subsequent development of agential realism, Barad has been instrumental in intellectual moves to put questions of how matter comes to matter centre stage. Agential realism, based on the insights that nothing exists in and of itself, that everything is always-already in relation, and that matter and discourse are co-constitutive, has been widely taken up as a paradigm-shifting analytical move which works through the challenges posed by quantum physics to Cartesian epistemology and the Humanist ontologies which underpin it. Barad’s lexicon – agencies, intra-action, entanglement, the cut, phenomena, apparatus, diffraction – deriving in part from the language of quantum physics, offers social science researchers a new range of conceptual resources for putting agential realism to work to investigate the world in new ways. Central to agential realism is the necessity of developing an ethico-onto-epistemological stance which entangles what Humanist approaches have illegitimately dis-entangled.
Both the quantum physicist and the poet make prescient guides to living into the mystery, the unsettled, the unknown. Never simple abstraction, such exploration has material consequences for how we live and make the world; it opens new ways and doors to examine what it means to be a self and to work towards justice together. Reaching out to explore intimacy, interconnection, and intra-action, to feel the touch and hear the voice of the void, the quantum physicist feminist theorist Karen Barad writes from within and deeper into the quantum indeterminacy that is the space of all possibility. In this lecture, we will follow Barad into the inhuman and the infinite, finding the vastest of multitudes in the smallest particle, and spirited ghosts teetering in the void.
Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretative turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every “thing” — even materiality — is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation. The ubiquitous puns on “matter” do not, alas, mark a rethinking of the key concepts (materiality and signification) and the relationship between them. Rather, it seems to be symptomatic of the extent to which matters of “fact” (so to speak) have been replaced with matters of signification (no scare quotes here). Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter.