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In 1000-1300 words, and using at least three of the authors we’ve read, choose and answer one of the two prompts below.

Additionally, as part of your essay, discuss at least one media object/artifact of your choice (a film, TV show, novel, painting, website, mobile app, video game, song or album, etc.) that exemplifies and illuminates your claims. Use

Use the two documents I’ve supplied for the argument only. Please don’t use any other outside sources.

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Fredric Jameson (1991)
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Source: Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Verso, 1991. Just
two sections from Chapter 1 reproduced here.
The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism in which
premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of
the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the “crisis” of Leninism,
social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.); taken together, all of these perhaps
constitute what is increasingly called postmodernism. The case for its existence
depends on the hypothesis of some radical break or coupure, generally traced back to
the end of the 1950s or the early 1960s.
As the word itself suggests, this break is most often related to notions of the waning
or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its ideological or
aesthetic repudiation). Thus abstract expressionism in painting, existentialism in
philosophy, the final forms of representation in the novel, the films of the great auteurs,
or the modernist school of poetry (as institutionalised and canonised in the works of
Wallace Stevens) all are now seen as the final, extraordinary flowering of a highmodernist impulse which is spent and exhausted with them. The enumeration of what
follows, then, at once becomes empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous: Andy Warhol and
pop art, but also photorealism, and beyond it, the “new expressionism”; the moment, in
music, of John Cage, but also the synthesis of classical and “popular” styles found in
composers like Phil Glass and Terry Riley, and also punk and new wave rock (the
Beatles and the Stones now standing as the high-modernist moment of that more
recent and rapidly evolving tradition); in film, Godard, post-Godard, and experimental
cinema and video, but also a whole new type of commercial film (about which more
below); Burroughs, Pynchon, or Ishmael Reed, on the one hand, and the French
nouveau roman and its succession, on the other, along with alarming new kinds of
literary criticism based on some new aesthetic of textuality or écriture … The list might
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be extended indefinitely; but does it imply any more fundamental change or break than
the periodic style and fashion changes determined by an older high-modernist
imperative of stylistic innovation?
It is in the realm of architecture, however, that modifications in aesthetic production
are most dramatically visible, and that their theoretical problems have been most
centrally raised and articulated; it was indeed from architectural debates that my own
conception of postmodernism – as it will be outlined in the following pages – initially
began to emerge. More decisively than in the other arts or media, postmodernist
positions in architecture have been inseparable from an implacable critique of
architectural high modernism and of Frank Lloyd Wright or the so-called international
style (Le Corbusier, Mies, etc), where formal criticism and analysis (of the highmodernist transformation of the building into a virtual sculpture, or monumental
“duck,” as Robert Venturi puts it), are at one with reconsiderations on the level of
urbanism and of the aesthetic institution. High modernism is thus credited with the
destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and its older neighbourhood culture (by
way of the radical disjunction of the new Utopian high-modernist building from its
surrounding context), while the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern
movement are remorselessly identified in the imperious gesture of the charismatic
Postmodernism in architecture will then logically enough stage itself as a kind of
aesthetic populism, as the very title of Venturi’s influential manifesto, Learning from
Las Vegas, suggests. However we may ultimately wish to evaluate this populist
rhetoric, it has at least the merit of drawing our attention to one fundamental feature of
all the postmodernisms enumerated above: namely, the effacement in them of the older
(essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or
commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms,
categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all
the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way
to Adorno and the Frankfurt School. The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated
precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and
Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B
Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the
gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science
fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote” as a Joyce or a Mahler
might have done, but incorporate into their very substance.
Nor should the break in question be thought of as a purely cultural affair: indeed,
theories of the postmodern – whether celebratory or couched in the language of moral
revulsion and denunciation – bear a strong family resemblance to all those more
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ambitious sociological generalisations which, at much the same time bring us the news
of the arrival and inauguration of a whole new type of society, most famously baptised
“Postindustrial society” (Daniel Bell) but often also designated consumer society, media
society, information society, electronic society or high tech, and the like. Such theories
have the obvious ideological mission of demonstrating, to their own relief, that the new
social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely,
the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle. The
Marxist tradition has therefore resisted them with vehemence, with the signal except on
of the economist Ernest Mandel, whose book Late Capitalism sets out not merely to
anatomise the historic originality of this new society (which he sees as a third stage or
moment in the evolution of capital) but also to demonstrate that it is, if an thing, a
purer stage of capitalism than any of the moments that preceded it. I will return to t is
argument later; suffice it for the moment to anticipate a point that will be argued in
Chapter 2, namely, that every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia
or stigmatisation – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or
explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today.
A last preliminary word on method: what follows is not to be read as stylistic
description, as the account of one cultural style or movement among others. I have
rather meant to offer a periodising hypothesis, and that at a moment in which the very
conception of historical periodisation has come to seem most problematical indeed. I
have argued elsewhere that all isolated or discrete cultural analysis always involves a
buried or repressed theory of historical periodisation; in any case, the conception of the
“genealogy” largely lays to rest traditional theoretical worries about so-called linear
history, theories of “stages,” and teleological historiography. In the present context,
however, lengthier theoretical discussion of such (very real) issues can perhaps be
replaced by a few substantive remarks.
One of the concerns frequently aroused by periodising hypotheses is that these tend
to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period as massive
homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological metamorphoses
and punctuation marks). This is, however, precisely why it seems to me essential to
grasp postmodernism not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception
which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet
subordinate, features.
Consider, for example, the powerful alternative position that postmodernism is itself
little more than one more stage of modernism proper (if not, indeed, of the even older
romanticism); it may indeed be conceded that all the features of postmodernism I am
about to enumerate can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding modernism
(including such astonishing genealogical precursors as Gertrude Stein, Raymond
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Roussel, or Marcel Duchamp, who may be considered outright postmodernists, avant
la lettre). What has not been taken into account by this view, however, is the social
position of the older modernism, or better still, its passionate repudiation by an older
Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie for whom its forms and ethos are received as
being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive, and
generally “antisocial.” It will be argued here, however, that a mutation in the sphere of
culture has rendered such attitudes archaic. Not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer
ugly, they now strike us, on the whole, as rather “realistic,” and this is the result of a
canonisation and academic institutionalisation of the modern movement generally that
can be to the late 1950s. This is surety one of the most plausible explanations for the
emergence of postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now
confront the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics, which
“weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as Marx once said in a different
As for the postmodern revolt against all that, however, it must equally be stressed
that its own offensive features – from obscurity and sexually explicit material to
psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political defiance, which
transcend anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of
high modernism – no longer scandalise anyone and are not only received with the
greatest complacency but have themselves become institutionalised and are at one with
the official or public culture of Western society.
What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into
commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh
waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to aeroplanes), at ever greater
rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position
to aesthetic innovation and experimentation. Such economic necessities then find
recognition in the varied kinds of institutional support available for the newer art, from
foundations and grants to museums and other forms of patronage. Of all the arts,
architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of
commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship. It will
therefore not be surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern
architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and
development is strictly contemporaneous with it. Later I will suggest that these two new
phenomena have an even deeper dialectical interrelationship than the simple one-toone financing of this or that individual project. Yet this is the point at which I must
remind the reader of the obvious; namely, that this whole global, yet American,
postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave
of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as
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throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.
The first point to be made about the conception of periodisation in dominance,
therefore, is that even if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical
with and coterminous to those of an older modernism – a position I feel to be
demonstrably erroneous but which only an even lengthier analysis of modernism
proper could dispel the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their
meaning antisocial function, owing to the very different positioning of postmodernism
in the economic system of late capital and, beyond that, to the transformation of the
very sphere of culture in contemporary society.
This point will be further discussed at the conclusion of this book. I must now briefly
address a different kind of objection to periodisation, a concern about its possible
obliteration of heterogeneity, one most often expressed by the Left. And it is certain
that there is a strange quasi-Sartrean irony – a “winner loses” logic which tends to
surround any effort to describe a “system,” a totalising dynamic, as these are detected
in the movement of contemporary society. What happens is that the more powerful the
vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is
the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the
theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine,
to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralysed,
and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation,
are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.
I have felt, however, that it was only in the light of some conception of a dominant
cultural logic or hegemonic norm that genuine difference could be measured and
assessed. I am very far from feeling that all cultural production today is postmodern in
the broad sense I will be conferring on this term. The postmodern is, however, the force
field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses – what Raymond Williams has
usefully termed “residual” and “emergent” forms of cultural production – must make
their way. If we do not achieve some general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall
back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a
coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable. At any rate, this
has been the political spirit in which the following analysis was devised: to project some
conception of a new systematic cultural norm and its reproduction in order to reflect
more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today.
The exposition will take up in turn the following constitutive features of the
postmodern: a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary
“theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent
weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new
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forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan)
will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal
arts; a whole new type of emotional ground tone – what I will call “intensities” – which
can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime; the deep constitutive
relationships of all this to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole
new economic world system; and, after a brief account of postmodernist mutations in
the lived experience of built space itself, some reflections on the mission of political art
in the bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital.
The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a merely
stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for which
the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available and one which
seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism: the two
approaches in fact generate two very different ways of conceptualising the phenomenon
as a whole: on the one hand, moral judgments (about which it is indifferent whether
they are positive or negative), and, on the other, a genuinely dialectical attempt to think
our present of time in History.
Of some positive moral evaluation of postmodernism little needs to be said: the
complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world
(including its social and economic dimension, greeted with equal enthusiasm under the
slogan of “postindustrial society”) is surely unacceptable, although it may be somewhat
less obvious that current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology, from
chips to robots – fantasies entertained not only by both left and right governments in
distress but also by many intellectuals – are also essentially of a piece with more vulgar
apologies for postmodernism.
But in that case it is only consequent to reject moralising condemnations of the
postmodern and of its essential triviality when juxtaposed against the Utopian “high
seriousness” of the great modernisms: judgments one finds both on the Left and on the
radical Right. And no doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of
older realities into television images, does more than merely replicate the logic of late
capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it. Meanwhile, for political groups which seek
actively to intervene in history and to modify its otherwise passive momentum (whether
with a view toward channelling it into a socialist transformation of society or diverting
it into the regressive re-establishment of some simpler fantasy past), there cannot but
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be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction
which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively
abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby
abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and
inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of “terrorism” on the social level to those of cancer
on the personal. Yet if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to
conceptualise it in terms of moral or moralising judgments must finally be identified as
a category mistake. All of which becomes more obvious when we interrogate the
position of the cultural critic and moralist; the latter, along with all the rest of us, is now
so deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its new
cultural categories, that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological critique, the
indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable.
The distinction I am proposing here knows one canonical form in Hegel’s
differentiation of the thinking of individual morality or moralising from that whole very
different realm of collective social values and practices. But it finds its definitive form in
Marx’s demonstration of the materialist dialectic, most notably in those classic pages of
the Manifesto which teach the hard lesson of some more genuinely dialectical way to
think historical development and change. The topic of the lesson is, of course, the
historical development of capitalism itself and the deployment of a specific bourgeois
culture. In a well-known passage Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible,
namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in
other words, a type of thinking that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably
baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism
simultaneously within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of
either judgment. We are somehow to lift our minds to a point at which it is possible to
understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever
happened to the human race, and the worst.
The lapse from this austere dialectical imperative into the more comfortable stance of
the taking of moral positions is inveterate and all too human: still, the urgency of the
subject demands that we make at least some effort to think the cultural evolution of late
capitalism dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together.
Such an effort suggests two immediate questions, with which we will conclude these
reflections. Can we in fact identify some “moment of truth” within the more evident
“moments of falsehood” of postmodern culture? And, even if we can do so, is there not
something ultimately paralysing in the dialectical view of historical development
proposed above; does it not tend to demobilise us and to surrender us to passivity and
helplessness by systematically obliterating possibilities of action under the
impenetrable fog of historical inevitability? It is appropriate to discuss these two
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(related) issues in terms of current possibilities for some effective contemporary
cultural politics and for the construction of a genuine political culture.
To focus the problem in this way is, of course, immediately to raise the more genuine
issue of the fate of culture generally, and of the function of culture specifically, as one
social level or instance, in the postmodern era. Everything in the previous discussion
suggests that what we have been calling postmodernism is inseparable from, and
unthinkable without the hypothesis of, some fundamental mutation of the sphere of
culture in the world of late capitalism which includes a momentous modification of its
social function. Older discussions of the space, function, or sphere of culture (mostly
notably Herbert Marcuse’s classic essay The Affirmative Character of Culture) have
insisted on what a different language would call the “semi-autonomy” of the cultural
realm: its ghostly, yet Utopian, existence, for good or ill, above the practical world of the
existent, whose mirror image it throws back in forms which vary from the legitimations
of flattering resemblance to the contestatory indictments of critical satire or Utopian
What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not precisely this semi-autonomy of
the cultural sphere which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism. Yet to
argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once
enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of capitalism (let alone in precapitalist societies) is not necessarily to imply its disappearance or extinction. Quite the
contrary; we must go on to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of
culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of
culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life –
from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the
psyche itself – can be said to have become “cultural” in some original and yet
untheorised sense. This proposition is, however, substantively quite consistent with the
previous diagnosis of a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of
the “real” into so many pseudo-events.
It also suggests that some of our most cherished and time-honoured radical
conceptions about the nature of cultural politics may thereby find themselves
outmoded. However distinct those conceptions – which range from slogans of
negativity, opposition, and subversion to critique and reflexivity – may have been, they
all shared a single, fundamentally spatial, presupposition, which may be resumed in the
equally time-honoured formula of “critical distance.” No theory of cultural politics
current on the Left today has been able to do without one notion or another of a certain
minimal aesthetic distance, of the possibility of the positioning of the cultural act
outside the massive Being of capital, from which to assault this last. What the burden of
our preceding demonstration suggests, however, is that distance in general (including
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“critical distance” in particular) has very precisely been abolished in the new space of
postmodernism. We are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the
point where our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and
practically (let alone theoretically) incapable of distantiation; meanwhile, it has already
been observed how the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up
penetrating and colonising those very pre-capitalist enclaves (Nature and the
Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical
effectivity. The shorthand language of co-optation is for this reason omnipresent on the
left, but would now seem to offer a most inadequate theoretical basis for understanding
a situation in which we all, in one way or another, dimly feel that not only punctual and
local counter-culture forms of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare but also even
overtly political interventions like those of The Clash are all somehow secretly disarmed
and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a part,
since they can achieve no distance from it.
What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily
demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of truth”
of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only the
moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest to the
surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right – even though
a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most notably in the hightech thematics in which the new spatial content is still dramatised and articulated. Yet
the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be
seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object.
The argument for a certain authenticity in these otherwise patently ideological
productions depends on the prior proposition that what we have been calling
postmodern (or multinational) space is not merely a cultural ideology or fantasy but has
genuine historical (and socioeconomic) reality as a third great original expansion of
capitalism around the globe (after the earlier expansions of the national market and the
older imperialist system, which each had their own cultural specificity and generated
new types of space appropriate to their dynamics). The distorted and unreflexive
attempts of newer cultural production to explore and to express this new space must
then also, in their own fashion, be considered as so many approaches to the
representation of (a new) reality (to use a more antiquated language). As paradoxical as
the terms may seem, they may thus, following a classic interpretive option, be read as
peculiar new forms of realism (or at least of the mimesis of reality), while at the same
time they can equally well be analysed as so many attempts to distract and divert us
from that reality or to disguise its contradictions and resolve them in the guise of
various formal mystifications.
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As for that reality itself, however – the as yet untheorised original space of some new
“world system” of multinational or late capitalism, a space whose negative or baleful
aspects are only too obvious – the dialectic requires us to hold equally to a positive or
“progressive” evaluation of its emergence, as Marx did for the world market as the
horizon of national economies, or as Lenin did for the older imperialist global network.
For neither Marx nor Lenin was socialism a matter of returning to smaller (and thereby
less repressive and comprehensive) systems of social organisation; rather, the
dimensions attained by capital in their own times were grasped as the promise, the
framework, and the precondition for the achievement of some new and more
comprehensive socialism. Is this not the case with the yet more global and totalising
space of the new world system, which demands the intervention and elaboration of an
internationalism of a radically new type? The disastrous realignment of socialist
revolution with the older nationalisms (not only in Southeast Asia), whose results have
necessarily aroused much serious recent left reflection, can be adduced in support of
this position.
But if all this is so, then at least one possible form of a new radical cultural politics
becomes evident, with a final aesthetic proviso that must quickly be noted. Left cultural
producers and theorists – particularly those formed by bourgeois cultural traditions
issuing from romanticism and valorising spontaneous, instinctive, or unconscious
forms of “genius,” but also for very obvious historical reasons such as Zhdanovism and
the sorry consequences of political and party interventions in the arts have often by
reaction allowed themselves to be unduly intimidated by the repudiation, in bourgeois
aesthetics and most notably in high modernism, of one of the age-old functions of art –
the pedagogical and the didactic. The teaching function of art was, however, always
stressed in classical times (even though it there mainly took the form of moral lessons),
while the prodigious and still imperfectly understood work of Brecht reaffirms, in a new
and formally innovative and original way, for the moment of modernism proper, a
complex new conception of the relationship between culture and pedagogy.
The cultural model I will propose similarly foregrounds the cognitive and pedagogical
dimensions of political art and culture, dimensions stressed in very different ways by
both Lukacs and Brecht (for the distinct moments of realism and modernism,
We cannot, however, return to aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of historical
situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours. Meanwhile, the conception of space
that has been developed here suggests that a model of political culture appropriate to
our own situation will necessarily have to raise spatial issues as its fundamental
organising concern. I will therefore provisionally define the aesthetic of this new (and
hypothetical) cultural form as an aesthetic of cognitive mapping.
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In a classic work, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch taught us that the alienated city
is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own
positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves: grids such as those of
Jersey City, in which none of the traditional markers (monuments, nodes, natural
boundaries, built perspectives) obtain, are the most obvious examples. Disalienation in
the traditional city, then, involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place and the
construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in
memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of
mobile, alternative trajectories. Lynch’s own work is limited by the deliberate
restriction of his topic to the problems of city form as such; yet it becomes
extraordinarily suggestive when projected outward onto some of the larger national and
global spaces we have touched on here. Nor should it be too hastily assumed that his
model – while it clearly raises very central issues of representation as such – is in any
way easily vitiated by the conventional poststructural critiques of the “ideology of
representation” or mimesis. The cognitive map is not exactly mimetic in that older
sense; indeed, the theoretical issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of
representation on a higher and much more complex level.
There is, for one thing, a most interesting convergence between the empirical
problems studied by Lynch in terms of city space and the great Althusserian (and
Lacanian) redefinition of ideology as “the representation of the subject’s Imaginary
relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.” Surely this is exactly what the
cognitive map is called upon to do in the narrower framework of daily life in the
physical city: to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject
to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s
structures as a whole.
Yet Lynch’s work also suggests a further line of development insofar as cartography
itself constitutes its key mediatory instance. A return to the history of this science
(which is also an art) shows us that Lynch’s model does not yet, in fact, really
correspond to what will become map-making. Lynch’s subjects are rather clearly
involved in pre-cartographic operations whose results traditionally are described as
itineraries rather than as maps: diagrams organised around the still subject-centred or
existential journey of the traveller, along which various significant key features are
marked oases, mountain ranges, rivers, monuments, and the like. The most highly
developed form of such diagrams is the nautical itinerary, the sea chart, or portulans,
where coastal features are noted for the use of Mediterranean navigators who rarely
venture out into the open sea.
Yet the compass at once introduces a new dimension into sea charts, a dimension
that will utterly transform the problematic of the itinerary and allow us to pose the
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problem of a genuine cognitive mapping in a far more complex way. For the new
instruments – compass, sextant, and theodolite – correspond not merely to new
geographic and navigational problems (the difficult matter of determining longitude,
particularly on the curving surface of the planet, as opposed to the simpler matter of
latitude, which European navigators can still empirically determine by ocular
inspection of the African coast); they also introduce a whole new coordinate: the
relationship to the totality, particularly as it is mediated by the stars and by new
operations like that of triangulation. At this point, cognitive mapping in the broader
sense comes to require the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of
the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality.
Finally, with the first globe (1490) and the invention of the Mercator projection at
about the same time, yet a third dimension of cartography emerges, which at once
involves what we would today call the nature of representational codes, the intrinsic
structures of the various media, the intervention, into more naive mimetic conceptions
of mapping, of the whole new fundamental question of the languages of representation
itself, in particular the unresolvable (well-nigh Heisenbergian) dilemma of the transfer
of curved space to flat charts. At this point it becomes clear that there can be no true
maps (at the same time it also becomes clear that there can be scientific progress, or
better still, a dialectical advance, in the various historical moments of map-making).
Transcoding all this now into the very different problematic of the Althusserian
definition of ideology, one would want to make two points. The first is that the
Althusserian concept now allows us to rethink these specialised geographical and
cartographic issues in terms of social space – in terms, for example, of social class and
national or international context, in terms of the ways in which we all necessarily also
cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international
class realities. Yet to reformulate the problem in this way is also to come starkly up
against those very difficulties in mapping which are posed in heightened and original
ways by that very global space of the postmodernist or multinational moment which
has been under discussion here. These are not merely theoretical issues; they have
urgent practical political consequences, as is evident from the conventional feelings of
First World subjects that existentially (or “empirically”) they really do inhabit a
“postindustrial society” from which traditional production has disappeared and in
which social classes of the classical type no longer exist – a conviction which has
immediate effects on political praxis.
The second point is that a return to the Lacanian underpinnings of Althusser’s theory
can afford some useful and suggestive methodological enrichments. Althusser’s
formulation remobilises an older and henceforth classical Marxian distinction between
science and ideology that is not without value for us even today. The existential – the
3/3/2021, 9:17 AM
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positioning of the individual subject, the experience of daily life, the monadic “point of
view” on the world to which we are necessarily, as biological subjects, restricted – is in
Althusser’s formula implicitly opposed to the realm of abstract knowledge, a realm
which, as Lacan reminds us, is never positioned in or actualised by any concrete subject
but rather by that structural void called le sujet supposé savoir (the subject supposed
to know), a subject-place of knowledge. What is affirmed is not that we cannot know the
world and its totality in some abstract or “scientific” way. Marxian “science” provides
just such a way of knowing and conceptualising the world abstractly, in the sense in
which, for example, Mandel’s great book offers a rich and elaborated knowledge of that
global world system, of which it has never been said here that it was unknowable but
merely that it was unrepresentable, which is a very different matter. The Althusserian
formula, in other words, designates a gap, a rift, between existential experience and
scientific knowledge. Ideology has then the function of somehow inventing a way of
articulating those two distinct dimensions with each other. What a historicist view of
this definition would want to add is that such coordination, the production of
functioning and living ideologies, is distinct in different historical situations, and, above
all, that there may be historical situations in which it is not possible at all – and this
would seem to be our situation in the current crisis.
But the Lacanian system is threefold, and not dualistic. To the Marxian-Althusserian
opposition of ideology and science correspond only two of Lacan’s tripartite functions:
the Imaginary and the Real, respectively.
Our digression on cartography, however, with its final revelation of a properly
representational dialectic of the codes and capacities of individual languages or media,
reminds us that what has until now been omitted was the dimension of the Lacanian
Symbolic itself.
An aesthetic of cognitive mapping – a pedagogical political culture which seeks to
endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global
system – will necessarily have to respect this now enormously complex representational
dialectic and invent radically new forms in order to do it justice. This is not then,
clearly, a call for a return to some older kind of machinery, some older and more
transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or
mimetic enclave: the new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the
truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of
multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as
yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to
grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act
and struggle which is at present neutralised by our spatial as well as our social
confusion. The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its
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vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well
as a spatial scale.
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Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter
Author(s): Karen Barad
Source: Signs, Vol. 28, No. 3, Gender and Science: New Issues (Spring 2003), pp.
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Karen Barad
Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of
How Matter Comes to Matter
Where did we ever get the strange idea that nature—as opposed to culture—is ahistorical and timeless? We are far too impressed by our own
cleverness and self-consciousness. . . . We need to stop telling ourselves
the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories.
—Steve Shaviro 1997
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.
What compels the belief that we have a direct access to cultural representations and their content that we lack toward the things represented?
How did language come to be more trustworthy than matter? Why are
language and culture granted their own agency and historicity while matter
is figured as passive and immutable, or at best inherits a potential for
change derivatively from language and culture? How does one even go
about inquiring after the material conditions that have led us to such a
brute reversal of naturalist beliefs when materiality itself is always already
figured within a linguistic domain as its condition of possibility?
anguage has been granted
I would like to thank Sandra Harding and Kate Norberg for their patient solicitation
of this article. Thanks also to Joe Rouse for his helpful comments, ongoing support, and
encouragement, and for the inspiration of his work.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 28, no. 3]
䉷 2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2003/2803-0006$10.00
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It is hard to deny that the power of language has been substantial. One
might argue too substantial, or perhaps more to the point, too substantializing. Neither an exaggerated faith in the power of language nor the
expressed concern that language is being granted too much power is a
novel apprehension specifically attached to the early twenty-first century.
For example, during the nineteenth century Nietzsche warned against the
mistaken tendency to take grammar too seriously: allowing linguistic structure to shape or determine our understanding of the world, believing that
the subject and predicate structure of language reflects a prior ontological
reality of substance and attribute. The belief that grammatical categories
reflect the underlying structure of the world is a continuing seductive
habit of mind worth questioning. Indeed, the representationalist belief in
the power of words to mirror preexisting phenomena is the metaphysical
substrate that supports social constructivist, as well as traditional realist,
beliefs. Significantly, social constructivism has been the object of intense
scrutiny within both feminist and science studies circles where considerable
and informed dissatisfaction has been voiced.1
A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representationalist belief in the power of words to represent preexisting
things. Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn
everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to
language to determine what is real. Hence, in ironic contrast to the misconception that would equate performativity with a form of linguistic
monism that takes language to be the stuff of reality, performativity is
actually a contestation of the unexamined habits of mind that grant language and other forms of representation more power in determining our
ontologies than they deserve.2
The move toward performative alternatives to representationalism shifts
the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and
reality (e.g., do they mirror nature or culture?) to matters of practices/
doings/actions. I would argue that these approaches also bring to the
forefront important questions of ontology, materiality, and agency, while
social constructivist approaches get caught up in the geometrical optics
Dissatisfaction surfaces in the literature in the 1980s. See, e.g., Donna Haraway’s “Gender for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word” (originally published 1987) and
“Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (originally published 1988); both reprinted in Haraway 1991. See also Butler 1989.
This is not to dismiss the valid concern that certain specific performative accounts grant
too much power to language. Rather, the point is that this is not an inherent feature of
performativity but an ironic malady.
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Spring 2003
of reflection where, much like the infinite play of images between two
facing mirrors, the epistemological gets bounced back and forth, but nothing more is seen. Moving away from the representationalist trap of geometrical optics, I shift the focus to physical optics, to questions of diffraction rather than reflection. Diffractively reading the insights of feminist
and queer theory and science studies approaches through one another
entails thinking the “social” and the “scientific” together in an illuminating
way. What often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns)
with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority
at all. Like the diffraction patterns illuminating the indefinite nature of
boundaries—displaying shadows in “light” regions and bright spots in
“dark” regions—the relation of the social and the scientific is a relation of
“exteriority within.” This is not a static relationality but a doing—the enactment of boundaries—that always entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite questions of accountability.3 My aim is to contribute to efforts
to sharpen the theoretical tool of performativity for science studies and
feminist and queer theory endeavors alike, and to promote their mutual
consideration. In this article, I offer an elaboration of performativity—a
materialist, naturalist, and posthumanist elaboration—that allows matter its
due as an active participant in the world’s becoming, in its ongoing “intraactivity.”4 It is vitally important that we understand how matter matters.
From representationalism to performativity
People represent. That is part of what it is to be a person. . . . Not homo
faber, I say, but homo depictor.
—Ian Hacking 1983, 144, 132
Liberal social theories and theories of scientific knowledge alike owe much
to the idea that the world is composed of individuals—presumed to exist
Haraway proposes the notion of diffraction as a metaphor for rethinking the geometry
and optics of relationality: “[F]eminist theorist Trinh Minh-ha . . . was looking for a way
to figure ‘difference’ as a ‘critical difference within,’ and not as special taxonomic marks
grounding difference as apartheid. . . . 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” (1992, 300). Haraway (1997) promotes
the notion of diffraction to a fourth semiotic category. Inspired by her suggestions for usefully
deploying this rich and fascinating physical phenomenon to think about differences that
matter, I further elaborate the notion of diffraction as a mutated critical tool of analysis
(though not as a fourth semiotic category) in my forthcoming book (Barad forthcoming).
See Rouse 2002 on rethinking naturalism. The neologism intra-activity is defined
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before the law, or the discovery of the law—awaiting/inviting representation. The idea that beings exist as individuals with inherent attributes,
anterior to their representation, is a metaphysical presupposition that underlies the belief in political, linguistic, and epistemological forms of representationalism. Or, to put the point the other way around, representationalism is the belief in the ontological distinction between
representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular,
that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of
representing. That is, there are assumed to be two distinct and independent kinds of entities—representations and entities to be represented. The
system of representation is sometimes explicitly theorized in terms of a
tripartite arrangement. For example, in addition to knowledge (i.e., representations), on the one hand, and the known (i.e., that which is purportedly represented), on the other, the existence of a knower (i.e., someone who does the representing) is sometimes made explicit. When this
happens it becomes clear that representations serve a mediating function
between independently existing entities. This taken-for-granted ontological gap generates questions of the accuracy of representations. For example, does scientific knowledge accurately represent an independently
existing reality? Does language accurately represent its referent? Does a
given political representative, legal counsel, or piece of legislation accurately represent the interests of the people allegedly represented?
Representationalism has received significant challenge from feminists,
poststructuralists, postcolonial critics, and queer theorists. The names of
Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are frequently associated with such
questioning. Butler sums up the problematics of political representationalism as follows:
Foucault points out that juridical systems of power produce the
subjects they subsequently come to represent. Juridical notions of
power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms.
. . . But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue
of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in
accordance with the requirements of those structures. If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation of language and politics
that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representationalist
politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate
its emancipation. (1990, 2)
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Spring 2003
In an attempt to remedy this difficulty, critical social theorists struggle to
formulate understandings of the possibilities for political intervention that
go beyond the framework of representationalism.
The fact that representationalism has come under suspicion in the domain of science studies is less well known but of no less significance.
Critical examination of representationalism did not emerge until the study
of science shifted its focus from the nature and production of scientific
knowledge to the study of the detailed dynamics of the actual practice of
science. This significant shift is one way to coarsely characterize the difference in emphasis between separate multiple disciplinary studies of science (e.g., history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science)
and science studies. This is not to say that all science studies approaches
are critical of representationalism; many such studies accept representationalism unquestioningly. For example, there are countless studies on the
nature of scientific representations (including how scientists produce
them, interpret them, and otherwise make use of them) that take for
granted the underlying philosophical viewpoint that gives way to this
focus—namely, representationalism. On the other hand, there has been a
concerted effort by some science studies researchers to move beyond
Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983) brought the question of the limitations of representationalist thinking about the nature of
science to the forefront. The most sustained and thoroughgoing critique
of representationalism in philosophy of science and science studies is to
be found in the work of philosopher of science Joseph Rouse. Rouse has
taken the lead in interrogating the constraints that representationalist
thinking places on theorizing the nature of scientific practices.5 For example, while the hackneyed debate between scientific realism and social
constructivism moved frictionlessly from philosophy of science to science
studies, Rouse (1996) has pointed out that these adversarial positions have
more in common than their proponents acknowledge. Indeed, they share
representationalist assumptions that foster such endless debates: both scientific realists and social constructivists believe that scientific knowledge
(in its multiple representational forms such as theoretical concepts, graphs,
Rouse begins his interrogation of representationalism in Knowledge and Power (1987).
He examines how a representationalist understanding of knowledge gets in the way of understanding the nature of the relationship between power and knowledge. He continues his
critique of representationalism and the development of an alternative understanding of the
nature of scientific practices in Engaging Science (1996). Rouse proposes that we understand
science practice as ongoing patterns of situated activity, an idea that is then further elaborated
in How Scientific Practices Matter (2002).
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particle tracks, photographic images) mediates our access to the material
world; where they differ is on the question of referent, whether scientific
knowledge represents things in the world as they really are (i.e., “Nature”)
or “objects” that are the product of social activities (i.e., “Culture”), but
both groups subscribe to representationalism.
Representationalism is so deeply entrenched within Western culture
that it has taken on a commonsense appeal. It seems inescapable, if not
downright natural. But representationalism (like “nature itself,” not
merely our representations of it!) has a history. Hacking traces the philosophical problem of representations to the Democritean dream of atoms
and the void. According to Hacking’s anthropological philosophy, representations were unproblematic prior to Democritus: “the word ‘real’
first meant just unqualified likeness” (142). With Democritus’s atomic
theory emerges the possibility of a gap between representations and represented—“appearance” makes its first appearance. Is the table a solid
mass made of wood or an aggregate of discrete entities moving in the
void? Atomism poses the question of which representation is real. The
problem of realism in philosophy is a product of the atomistic worldview.
Rouse identifies representationalism as a Cartesian by-product—a particularly inconspicuous consequence of the Cartesian division between
“internal” and “external” that breaks along the line of the knowing subject. Rouse brings to light the asymmetrical faith in word over world that
underlines the nature of Cartesian doubt:
I want to encourage doubt about [the] presumption that representations (that is, their meaning or content) are more accessible to us
than the things they supposedly represent. If there is no magic language through which we can unerringly reach out directly to its
referents, why should we think there is nevertheless a language that
magically enables us to reach out directly to its sense or representational content? The presumption that we can know what we mean,
or what our verbal performances say, more readily than we can know
the objects those sayings are about is a Cartesian legacy, a linguistic
variation on Descartes’ insistence that we have a direct and privileged
access to the contents of our thoughts that we lack towards the
“external” world. (1996, 209)
In other words, the asymmetrical faith in our access to representations
over things is a contingent fact of history and not a logical necessity; that
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Spring 2003
is, it is simply a Cartesian habit of mind. It takes a healthy skepticism
toward Cartesian doubt to be able to begin to see an alternative.6
Indeed, it is possible to develop coherent philosophical positions that
deny that there are representations on the one hand and ontologically
separate entities awaiting representation on the other. A performative understanding, which shifts the focus from linguistic representations to discursive practices, is one such alternative. In particular, the search for alternatives to social constructivism has prompted performative approaches
in feminist and queer studies, as well as in science studies. Judith Butler’s
name is most often associated with the term performativity in feminist
and queer theory circles. And while Andrew Pickering has been one of
the very few science studies scholars to take ownership of this term, there
is surely a sense in which science studies theorists such as Donna Haraway,
Bruno Latour, and Joseph Rouse also propound performative understandings of the nature of scientific practices.7 Indeed, performativity has become a ubiquitous term in literary studies, theater studies, and the nascent
interdisciplinary area of performance studies, prompting the question as
The allure of representationalism may make it difficult to imagine alternatives. I discuss
performative alternatives below, but these are not the only ones. A concrete historical example
may be helpful at this juncture. Foucault points out that in sixteenth-century Europe, language was not thought of as a medium; rather, it was simply “one of the figurations of the
world” (1970, 56), an idea that reverberates in a mutated form in the posthumanist performative account that I offer.
Andrew Pickering (1995) explicitly eschews the representationalist idiom in favor of a
performative idiom. It is important to note, however, that Pickering’s notion of performativity
would not be recognizable as such to poststructuralists, despite their shared embrace of
performativity as a remedy to representationalism, and despite their shared rejection of humanism. Pickering’s appropriation of the term does not include any acknowledgement of its
politically important—arguably inherently queer—genealogy (see Sedgwick 1993) or why it
has been and continues to be important to contemporary critical theorists, especially feminist
and queer studies scholars/activists. Indeed, he evacuates its important political historicity
along with many of its crucial insights. In particular, Pickering ignores important discursive
dimensions, including questions of meaning, intelligibility, significance, identity formation,
and power, which are central to poststructuralist invocations of “performativity.” And he
takes for granted the humanist notion of agency as a property of individual entities (such as
humans, but also weather systems, scallops, and stereos), which poststructuralists problematize. On the other hand, poststructuralist approaches fail to take account of “nonhuman
agency,” which is a central focus of Pickering’s account. See Barad (forthcoming) for a more
detailed discussion.
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to whether all performances are performative.8 In this article, I propose
a specifically posthumanist notion of performativity—one that incorporates important material and discursive, social and scientific, human and
nonhuman, and natural and cultural factors. A posthumanist account calls
into question the givenness of the differential categories of “human” and
“nonhuman,” examining the practices through which these differential
boundaries are stabilized and destabilized.9 Donna Haraway’s scholarly
opus—from primates to cyborgs to companion species—epitomizes this
If performativity is linked not only to the formation of the subject but
also to the production of the matter of bodies, as Butler’s account of
“materialization” and Haraway’s notion of “materialized refiguration”
suggest, then it is all the more important that we understand the nature
of this production.10 Foucault’s analytic of power links discursive practices
to the materiality of the body. However, his account is constrained by
several important factors that severely limit the potential of his analysis
and Butler’s performative elaboration, thereby forestalling an understanding of precisely how discursive practices produce material bodies.
The notion of performativity has a distinguished career in philosophy that most of
these multiple and various engagements acknowledge. Performativity’s lineage is generally
traced to the British philosopher J. L. Austin’s interest in speech acts, particularly the relationship between saying and doing. Jacques Derrida is usually cited next as offering important
poststructuralist amendments. Butler elaborates Derrida’s notion of performativity through
Foucault’s understanding of the productive effects of regulatory power in theorizing the
notion of identity performatively. Butler introduces her notion of gender performativity in
Gender Trouble, where she proposes that we understand gender not as a thing or a set of
free-floating attributes, not as an essence—but rather as a “doing”: “gender is itself a kind
of becoming or activity . . . gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial
thing or a static cultural marker, but rather as an incessant and repeated action of some sort”
(1990, 112). In Bodies That Matter (1993) Butler argues for a linkage between gender
performativity and the materialization of sexed bodies. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1993) argues
that performativity’s genealogy is inherently queer.
This notion of posthumanism differs from Pickering’s idiosyncratic assignment of a
“posthumanist space [as] a space in which the human actors are still there but now inextricably
entangled with the nonhuman, no longer at the center of the action calling the shots” (26).
However, the decentering of the human is but one element of posthumanism. (Note that
Pickering’s notion of “entanglement” is explicitly epistemological, not ontological. What is
at issue for him in dubbing his account “posthumanist” is the fact that it is attentive to the
mutual accommodation, or responsiveness, of human and nonhuman agents.)
It could be argued that “materialized refiguration” is an enterprised up (Haraway’s
term) version of “materialization,” while the notion of “materialization” hints at a richer
account of the former. Indeed, it is possible to read my posthumanist performative account
along these lines, as a diffractive elaboration of Butler’s and Haraway’s crucial insights.
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If Foucault, in queering Marx, positions the body as the locus of productive forces, the site where the large-scale organization of power links
up with local practices, then it would seem that any robust theory of the
materialization of bodies would necessarily take account of how the body’s
materiality—for example, its anatomy and physiology—and other material
forces actively matter to the processes of materialization. Indeed, as Foucault
makes crystal clear in the last chapter of The History of Sexuality (vol. 1),
he is not out to deny the relevance of the physical body but, on the
contrary, to
show how the deployments of power are directly connected to the
body—to bodies, functions, physiological processes, sensations, and
pleasures; far from the body having to be effaced, what is needed
is to make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and
the historical are not consecutive to one another . . . but are bound
together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the
development of the modern technologies of power that take life as
their objective. Hence, I do not envision a “history of mentalities”
that would take account of bodies only through the manner in which
they have been perceived and given meaning and value; but a “history of bodies” and the manner in which what is most material and
most vital in them has been invested. (1980a, 151–52)
On the other hand, Foucault does not tell us in what way the biological
and the historical are “bound together” such that one is not consecutive
to the other. What is it about the materiality of bodies that makes it
susceptible to the enactment of biological and historical forces simultaneously? To what degree does the matter of bodies have its own historicity?
Are social forces the only ones susceptible to change? Are not biological
forces in some sense always already historical ones? Could it be that there
is some important sense in which historical forces are always already biological? What would it mean to even ask such a question given the strong
social constructivist undercurrent in certain interdisciplinary circles in the
early twenty-first century? For all Foucault’s emphasis on the political
anatomy of disciplinary power, he too fails to offer an account of the
body’s historicity in which its very materiality plays an active role in the
workings of power. This implicit reinscription of matter’s passivity is a
mark of extant elements of representationalism that haunt his largely postrepresentationalist account.11 This deficiency is importantly related to his
failure to theorize the relationship between “discursive” and “nondiscur11
See also Butler 1989.
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sive” practices. As materialist feminist theorist Rosemary Hennessey insists
in offering her critique of Foucault, “a rigorous materialist theory of the
body cannot stop with the assertion that the body is always discursively
constructed. It also needs to explain how the discursive construction of
the body is related to nondiscursive practices in ways that vary widely
from one social formation to another” (1993, 46).
Crucial to understanding the workings of power is an understanding
of the nature of power in the fullness of its materiality. To restrict power’s
productivity to the limited domain of the “social,” for example, or to
figure matter as merely an end product rather than an active factor in
further materializations, is to cheat matter out of the fullness of its capacity.
How might we understand not only how human bodily contours are
constituted through psychic processes but how even the very atoms that
make up the biological body come to matter and, more generally, how
matter makes itself felt? It is difficult to imagine how psychic and sociohistorical forces alone could account for the production of matter. Surely
it is the case—even when the focus is restricted to the materiality of
“human” bodies—that there are “natural,” not merely “social,” forces
that matter. Indeed, there is a host of material-discursive forces—
including ones that get labeled “social,” “cultural,” “psychic,” “economic,” “natural,” “physical,” “biological,” “geopolitical,” and “geological”—that may be important to particular (entangled) processes of materialization. If we follow disciplinary habits of tracing disciplinary-defined
causes through to the corresponding disciplinary-defined effects, we will
miss all the crucial intra-actions among these forces that fly in the face of
any specific set of disciplinary concerns.12
What is needed is a robust account of the materialization of all bodies—“human” and “nonhuman”—and the material-discursive practices by
which their differential constitutions are marked. This will require an
understanding of the nature of the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena, an accounting of “nonhuman” as well as
“human” forms of agency, and an understanding of the precise causal
nature of productive practices that takes account of the fullness of matter’s
implication in its ongoing historicity. My contribution toward the development of such an understanding is based on a philosophical account that
I have been calling “agential realism.” Agential realism is an account of
technoscientific and other practices that takes feminist, antiracist, poststructuralist, queer, Marxist, science studies, and scientific insights seri12
The conjunctive term material-discursive and other agential realist terms like intraaction are defined below.
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Spring 2003
ously, building specifically on important insights from Niels Bohr, Judith
Butler, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, Vicki Kirby, Joseph Rouse, and
others.13 It is clearly not possible to fully explicate these ideas here. My
more limited goal in this article is to use the notion of performativity as
a diffraction grating for reading important insights from feminist and
queer studies and science studies through one another while simultaneously proposing a materialist and posthumanist reworking of the notion
of performativity. This entails a reworking of the familiar notions of discursive practices, materialization, agency, and causality, among others.
I begin by issuing a direct challenge to the metaphysical underpinnings
of representationalism, proposing an agential realist ontology as an alternative. In the following section I offer a posthumanist performative reformulation of the notion of discursive practices and materiality and theorize a specific causal relationship between them. In the final section I
discuss the agential realist conceptions of causality and agency that are
vital to understanding the productive nature of material-discursive practices, including technoscientific ones.
Toward a performative metaphysics
As long as we stick to things and words we can believe that we are speaking of what we see, that we see what we are speaking of, and that the
two are linked.
—Giles Deleuze 1988, 65
“Words and things” is the entirely serious title of a problem.
— Michel Foucault 1972, 49
Representationalism separates the world into the ontologically disjoint
domains of words and things, leaving itself with the dilemma of their
linkage such that knowledge is possible. If words are untethered from the
material world, how do representations gain a foothold? If we no longer
believe that the world is teeming with inherent resemblances whose signatures are inscribed on the face of the world, things already emblazoned
with signs, words lying in wait like so many pebbles of sand on a beach
there to be discovered, but rather that the knowing subject is enmeshed
in a thick web of representations such that the mind cannot see its way
This essay outlines issues I developed in earlier publications including Barad 1996,
1998a, 1998b, 2001b, and in my forthcoming book (Barad forthcoming).
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to objects that are now forever out of reach and all that is visible is the
sticky problem of humanity’s own captivity within language, then it begins
to become apparent that representationalism is a prisoner of the problematic metaphysics it postulates. Like the frustrated would-be runner in
Zeno’s paradox, representationalism never seems to be able to get any
closer to solving the problem it poses because it is caught in the impossibility of stepping outward from its metaphysical starting place. Perhaps
it would be better to begin with a different starting point, a different
Thingification—the turning of relations into “things,” “entities,” “relata”—infects much of the way we understand the world and our relationship to it.15 Why do we think that the existence of relations requires
relata? Does the persistent distrust of nature, materiality, and the body
that pervades much of contemporary theorizing and a sizable amount of
the history of Western thought feed off of this cultural proclivity? In this
section, I present a relational ontology that rejects the metaphysics of
relata, of “words” and “things.” On an agential realist account, it is once
again possible to acknowledge nature, the body, and materiality in the
fullness of their becoming without resorting to the optics of transparency
or opacity, the geometries of absolute exteriority or interiority, and the
theoretization of the human as either pure cause or pure effect while at
the same time remaining resolutely accountable for the role “we” play in
the intertwined practices of knowing and becoming.
The postulation of individually determinate entities with inherent properties is the hallmark of atomistic metaphysics. Atomism hails from Democritus.16 According to Democritus the properties of all things derive
It is no secret that metaphysics has been a term of opprobrium through most of the
twentieth century. This positivist legacy lives on even in the heart of its detractors. Poststructuralists are simply the newest signatories of its death warrant. Yet, however strong one’s
dislike of metaphysics, it will not abide by any death sentence, and so it is ignored at one’s
peril. Indeed, new “experimental metaphysics” research is taking place in physics laboratories
in the United States and abroad, calling into question the common belief that there is an
inherent boundary between the “physical” and the “metaphysical” (see Barad forthcoming).
This fact should not be too surprising to those of us who remember that the term metaphysics
does not have some highbrow origins in the history of philosophy but, rather, originally
referred to the writings of Aristotle that came after his writings on physics, in the arrangement
made by Andronicus of Rhodes about three centuries after Aristotle’s death.
Relata are would-be antecedent components of relations. According to metaphysical
atomism, individual relata always preexist any relations that may hold between them.
Atomism is said to have originated with Leucippus and was further elaborated by
Democritus, devotee of democracy, who also explored its anthropological and ethical implications. Democritus’s atomic theory is often identified as the most mature pre-Socratic
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from the properties of the smallest unit—atoms (the “uncuttable” or
“inseparable”). Liberal social theories and scientific theories alike owe
much to the idea that the world is composed of individuals with separately
attributable properties. An entangled web of scientific, social, ethical, and
political practices, and our understanding of them, hinges on the various/
differential instantiations of this presupposition. Much hangs in the balance in contesting its seeming inevitability.
Physicist Niels Bohr won the Nobel Prize for his quantum model of
the atom, which marks the beginning of his seminal contributions to the
development of the quantum theory.17 Bohr’s philosophy-physics (the two
were inseparable for him) poses a radical challenge not only to Newtonian
physics but also to Cartesian epistemology and its representationalist triadic structure of words, knowers, and things. Crucially, in a stunning
reversal of his intellectual forefather’s schema, Bohr rejects the atomistic
metaphysics that takes “things” as ontologically basic entities. For Bohr,
things do not have inherently determinate boundaries or properties, and
words do not have inherently determinate meanings. Bohr also calls into
question the related Cartesian belief in the inherent distinction between
subject and object, and knower and known.
It might be said that the epistemological framework that Bohr develops
rejects both the transparency of language and the transparency of measurement; however, even more fundamentally, it rejects the presupposition
that language and measurement perform mediating functions. Language
does not represent states of affairs, and measurements do not represent
measurement-independent states of being. Bohr develops his epistemological framework without giving in to the despair of nihilism or the sticky
web of relativism. With brilliance and finesse, Bohr finds a way to hold
on to the possibility of objective knowledge while the grand structures of
Newtonian physics and representationalism begin to crumble.
Bohr’s break with Newton, Descartes, and Democritus is not based in
“mere idle philosophical reflection” but on new empirical findings in the
domain of atomic physics that came to light during the first quarter of
the twentieth century. Bohr’s struggle to provide a theoretical underphilosophy, directly influencing Plato and Epicurus, who transmitted it into the early modern
period. Atomic theory is also said to form the cornerstone of modern science.
Niels Bohr (1885–1962), a contemporary of Einstein, was one of the founders of
quantum physics and also the most widely accepted interpretation of the quantum theory,
which goes by the name of the Copenhagen interpretation (after the home of Bohr’s internationally acclaimed physics institute that bears his name). On my reading of Bohr’s philosophy-physics, Bohr can be understood as proposing a protoperformative account of scientific practices.
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standing of these findings resulted in his radical proposal that an entirely
new epistemological framework is required. Unfortunately, Bohr does not
explore crucial ontological dimensions of his insights but rather focuses
on their epistemological import. I have mined his writings for his implicit
ontological views and have elaborated on them in the development of an
agential realist ontology. In this section, I present a quick overview of
important aspects of Bohr’s account and move on to an explication of an
agential realist ontology. This relational ontology is the basis for my posthumanist performative account of the production of material bodies. This
account refuses the representationalist fixation on “words” and “things”
and the problematic of their relationality, advocating instead a causal
relationship between specific exclusionary practices embodied as specific material configurations of the world (i.e., discursive practices/(con)figurations
rather than “words”) and specific material phenomena (i.e., relations rather
than “things”). This causal relationship between the apparatuses of bodily
production and the phenomena produced is one of “agential intra-action.”
The details follow.
According to Bohr, theoretical concepts (e.g., “position” and “momentum”) are not ideational in character but rather are specific physical arrangements.18 For example, the notion of “position” cannot be presumed
to be a well-defined abstract concept, nor can it be presumed to be an
inherent attribute of independently existing objects. Rather, “position”
only has meaning when a rigid apparatus with fixed parts is used (e.g., a
ruler is nailed to a fixed table in the laboratory, thereby establishing a
fixed frame of reference for specifying “position”). And furthermore, any
measurement of “position” using this apparatus cannot be attributed to
some abstract independently existing “object” but rather is a property of
the phenomenon—the inseparability of “observed object” and “agencies
of observation.” Similarly, “momentum” is only meaningful as a material
arrangement involving movable parts. Hence, the simultaneous indeterminacy of “position” and “momentum” (what is commonly referred to
as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) is a straightforward matter of the
material exclusion of “position” and “momentum” arrangements (one
requiring fixed parts and the complementary arrangement requiring movable parts).19
Bohr argues on the basis of this single crucial insight, together with the empirical
finding of an inherent discontinuity in measurement “intra-actions,” that one must reject
the presumed inherent separability of observer and observed, knower and known. See Barad
1996, forthcoming.
The so-called uncertainty principle in quantum physics is not a matter of “uncertainty”
at all but rather of indeterminacy. See Barad 1995, 1996, forthcoming.
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Therefore, according to Bohr, the primary epistemological unit is not
independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather
phenomena. On my agential realist elaboration, phenomena do not
merely mark the epistemological inseparability of “observer” and “observed”; rather, phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially
intra-acting “components.” That is, phenomena are ontologically primitive
relations—relations without preexisting relata.20 The notion of intraaction (in contrast to the usual “interaction,” which presumes the prior
existence of independent entities/relata) represents a profound conceptual
shift. It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and
properties of the “components” of phenomena become determinate and
that particular embodied concepts become meaningful. A specific intraaction (involving a specific material configuration of the “apparatus of
observation”) enacts an agential cut (in contrast to the Cartesian cut—an
inherent distinction—between subject and object) effecting a separation
between “subject” and “object.” That is, the agential cut enacts a local
resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological indeterminacy. In other words, relata do not preexist relations; rather, relatawithin-phenomena emerge through specific intra-actions. Crucially then,
intra-actions enact agential separability—the local condition of exterioritywithin-phenomena. The notion of agential separability is of fundamental
importance, for in the absence of a classical ontological condition of exteriority between observer and observed it provides the condition for the
possibility of objectivity. Moreover, the agential cut enacts a local causal
structure among “components” of a phenomenon in the marking of the
“measuring agencies” (“effect”) by the “measured object” (“cause”).
Hence, the notion of intra-actions constitutes a reworking of the traditional
notion of causality.21
That is, relations are not secondarily derived from independently existing “relata,” but
rather the mutual ontological dependence of “relata”—the relation—is the ontological primitive. As discussed below, relata only exist within phenomena as a result of specific intraactions (i.e., there are no independent relata, only relata-within-relations).
A concrete example may be helpful. When light passes through a two-slit diffraction
grating and forms a diffraction pattern it is said to exhibit wavelike behavior. But there is
also evidence that light exhibits particlelike characteristics, called photons. If one wanted to
test this hypothesis, the diffraction apparatus could be modified in such a way as to allow a
determination of which slit a given photon passes through (since particles only go through
a single slit at a time). The result of running this experiment is that the diffraction pattern
is destroyed! Classically, these two results together seem contradictory—frustrating efforts
to specify the true ontological nature of light. Bohr resolves this wave-particle duality paradox
as follows: the objective referent is not some abstract, independently existing entity but rather
the phenomenon of light intra-acting with the apparatus. The first apparatus gives determinate
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In my further elaboration of this agential realist ontology, I argue that
phenomena are not the mere result of laboratory exercises engineered by
human subjects. Nor can the apparatuses that produce phenomena be
understood as observational devices or mere laboratory instruments. Although space constraints do not allow an in-depth discussion of the agential realist understanding of the nature of apparatuses, since apparatuses
play such a crucial, indeed constitutive, role in the production of phenomena, I present an overview of the agential realist theoretization of
apparatuses before moving on to the question of the nature of phenomena.
The proposed elaboration enables an exploration of the implications of
the agential realist ontology beyond those specific to understanding the
nature of scientific practices. In fact, agential realism offers an understanding of the nature of material-discursive practices, such as those very practices through which different distinctions get drawn, including those between the “social” and the “scientific.”22
Apparatuses are not inscription devices, scientific instruments set in
place before the action happens, or machines that mediate the dialectic
of resistance and accommodation. They are neither neutral probes of
the natural world nor structures that deterministically impose some particular outcome. In my further elaboration of Bohr’s insights, apparatuses are not mere static arrangements in the world, but rather apparatuses are dynamic (re)configurings of the world, specific agential
practices/intra-actions/performances through which specific exclusionary
boundaries are enacted. Apparatuses have no inherent “outside” boundary. This indeterminacy of the “outside” boundary represents the impossibility of closure—the ongoing intra-activity in the iterative reconfiguring of the apparatus of bodily production. Apparatuses are
open-ended practices.
Importantly, apparatuses are themselves phenomena. For example, as
scientists are well aware, apparatuses are not preformed interchangeable
objects that sit atop a shelf waiting to serve a particular purpose. Appameaning to the notion of “wave,” while the second provides determinate meaning to the
notion of “particle.” The notions of “wave” and “particle” do not refer to inherent characteristics of an object that precedes its intra-action. There are no such independently existing
objects with inherent characteristics. The two different apparatuses effect different cuts, that
is, draw different distinctions delineating the “measured object” from the “measuring instrument.” In other words, they differ in their local material resolutions of the inherent
ontological indeterminacy. There is no conflict because the two different results mark different
intra-actions. See Barad 1996, forthcoming for more details.
This elaboration is not based on an analogical extrapolation. Rather, I argue that such
anthropocentric restrictions to laboratory investigations are not justified and indeed defy the
logic of Bohr’s own insights. See Barad forthcoming.
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ratuses are constituted through particular practices that are perpetually
open to rearrangements, rearticulations, and other reworkings. This is
part of the creativity and difficulty of doing science: getting the instrumentation to work in a particular way for a particular purpose (which is
always open to the possibility of being changed during the experiment as
different insights are gained). Furthermore, any particular apparatus is
always in the process of intra-acting with other apparatuses, and the enfolding of locally stabilized phenomena (which may be traded across laboratories, cultures, or geopolitical spaces only to find themselves differently
materializing) into subsequent iterations of particular practices constitutes
important shifts in the particular apparatus in question and therefore in
the nature of the intra-actions that result in the production of new phenomena, and so on. Boundaries do not sit still.
With this background we can now return to the question of the nature
of phenomena. Phenomena are produced through agential intra-actions
of multiple apparatuses of bodily production. Agential intra-actions are
specific causal material enactments that may or may not involve “humans.” Indeed, it is through such practices that the differential boundaries between “humans” and “nonhumans,” “culture” and “nature,” the
“social” and the “scientific” are constituted. Phenomena are constitutive
of reality. Reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or thingsbehind-phenomena but “things”-in-phenomena.23 The world is intraactivity in its differential mattering. It is through specific intra-actions
that a differential sense of being is enacted in the ongoing ebb and flow
of agency. That is, it is through specific intra-actions that phenomena
come to matter—in both senses of the word. The world is a dynamic
process of intra-activity in the ongoing reconfiguring of locally determinate causal structures with determinate boundaries, properties, meanings, and patterns of marks on bodies. This ongoing flow of agency
through which “part” of the world makes itself differentially intelligible
to another “part” of the world and through which local causal structures,
boundaries, and properties are stabilized and destabilized does not take
place in space and time but in the making of spacetime itself. The world
is an ongoing open process of mattering through which “mattering”
itself acquires meaning and form in the realization of different agential
possibilities. Temporality and spatiality emerge in this processual his23
Because phenomena constitute the ontological primitives, it makes no sense to talk
about independently existing things as somehow behind or as the causes of phenomena. In
essence, there are no noumena, only phenomena. Agential realist phenomena are neither
Kant’s phenomena nor the phenomenologist’s phenomena.
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toricity. Relations of exteriority, connectivity, and exclusion are reconfigured. The changing topologies of the world entail an ongoing reworking of the very nature of dynamics.
In summary, the universe is agential intra-activity in its becoming. The
primary ontological units are not “things” but phenomena—dynamic topological reconfigurings/entanglements/relationalities/(re)articulations.
And the primary semantic units are not “words” but material-discursive
practices through which boundaries are constituted. This dynamism is
agency. Agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the
world. On the basis of this performative metaphysics, in the next section
I propose a posthumanist refiguration of the nature of materiality and
discursivity and the relationship between them, and a posthumanist account of performativity.
A posthumanist account of material-discursive practices
Discursive practices are often confused with linguistic expression, and
meaning is often thought to be a property of words. Hence, discursive
practices and meanings are said to be peculiarly human phenomena. But
if this were true, how would it be possible to take account of the boundarymaking practices by which the differential constitution of “humans” and
“nonhumans” are enacted? It would be one thing if the notion of constitution were to be understood in purely epistemic terms, but it is entirely
unsatisfactory when questions of ontology are on the table. If “humans”
refers to phenomena, not independent entities with inherent properties
but rather beings in their differential becoming, particular material
(re)configurings of the world with shifting boundaries and properties that
stabilize and destabilize along with specific material changes in what it
means to be human, then the notion of discursivity cannot be founded
on an inherent distinction between humans and nonhumans. In this section, I propose a posthumanist account of discursive practices. I also outline a concordant reworking of the notion of materiality and hint at an
agential realist approach to understanding the relationship between discursive practices and material phenomena.
Meaning is not a property of individual words or groups of words.
Meaning is neither intralinguistically conferred nor extralinguistically referenced. Semantic contentfulness is not achieved through the thoughts
or performances of individual agents but rather through particular discursive practices. With the inspiration of Bohr’s insights, it would also be
tempting to add the following agential realist points: meaning is not ide-
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ational but rather specific material (re)configurings of the world, and semantic indeterminacy, like ontological indeterminacy, is only locally resolvable through specific intra-actions. But before proceeding, it is
probably worth taking a moment to dispel some misconceptions about
the nature of discursive practices.
Discourse is not a synonym for language.24 Discourse does not refer
to linguistic or signifying systems, grammars, speech acts, or conversations.
To think of discourse as mere spoken or written words forming descriptive
statements is to enact the mistake of representationalist thinking. Discourse is not what is said; it is that which constrains and enables what
can be said. Discursive practices define what counts as meaningful statements. Statements are not the mere utterances of the originating consciousness of a unified subject; rather, statements and subjects emerge
from a field of possibilities. This field of possibilities is not static or singular
but rather is a dynamic and contingent multiplicity.
According to Foucault, discursive practices are the local sociohistorical
material conditions that enable and constrain disciplinary knowledge practices such as speaking, writing, thinking, calculating, measuring, filtering,
and concentrating. Discursive practices produce, rather than merely describe, the “subjects” and “objects” of knowledge practices. On Foucault’s
account these “conditions” are immanent and historical rather than transcendental or phenomenological. That is, they are not conditions in the
sense of transcendental, ahistorical, cross-cultural, abstract laws defining
the possibilities of experience (Kant), but rather they are actual historically
situated social conditions.
Foucault’s account of discursive practices has some provocative resonances (and some fruitful dissonances) with Bohr’s account of apparatuses
and the role they play in the material production of bodies and meanings.
For Bohr, apparatuses are particular physical arrangements that give meaning to certain concepts to the exclusion of others; they are the local physical
conditions that enable and constrain knowledge practices such as conceptualizing and measuring; they are productive of (and part of) the phenomena produced; they enact a local cut that produces “objects” of particular knowledge practices within the particular phenomena produced.
On the basis of his profound insight that “concepts” (which are actual
physical arrangements) and “things” do not have determinate boundaries,
I am concerned here with the Foucauldian notion of discourse (discursive practices),
not formalist and empirical approaches stemming from Anglo-Am…
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