THE “REDISCOVERY” OF COMPLEMENTARITY IN THE CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT OF POST-MODERNIST AND FEMINIST STUDIES
Below is a slightly edited version of an email conversation that arose after some questions that I posed for this blog. It is a conversation between art historian Helle Brøns and Joao Leao, Senior Systems Specialist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were both participants at the seminar workshop at the Museum Jorn in Silkeborg, March 2012. As their conversation to a large part revolves around Karen Barad I will now introduce her briefly:
Karen Barad is Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her Ph.D. is in theoretical particle physics. She held a tenured appointment in a physics department before moving into more interdisciplinary spaces. Her publications include Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press, 2007); “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, Spring 2003. You’ll be able to find the full article here:
Barad also published numerous other articles in the fields of physics, philosophy, science studies, poststructuralist theory, and feminist theory.
Helle Brøns: I mentioned Karen Barad (both in my answer and at the seminar), stating that it is noticeable that a new theory such as Karen Barad’s Agential Realism – which takes its vantage point in Niels Bohr’s theory of complementary just as Jorn did in his triolectics – makes specifically feminist conclusions from observations that are in many ways similar to Jorn’s (exceeding the classical contradiction between subject and object, mind and body, discursive and material). This goes to show, I think, that Jorn’s theoretical and artistic approaches generally have a lot of potential – though in the case of gender our contemporary engagement would reach different conclusions than Jorn did himself.
I know that you have an opinion on her work, Joao. I would love to hear more about that. I will soon be attending a seminar on feminist materialism, so I hope I will learn more about her theory and see if I find it usable. Anyway, I hope it is OK, if I get back to you with some questions after that, Joao.
Joao Leao: I have been meaning to write to you about your questions concerning the “rediscovery” of Complementarity in the contemporary context of post-modernist and feminist studies because I believe I owe you an explanation and justification of my views on this. I must confess that I was not counting on addressing this subject on my essay because I found them peripheral to my own focus and that is the reason I did not mention it the talk. But I think you may have convinced me to take another look and, since I got back, I have collected and reviewed the material I had on the subject and gathered some more. I will definitely include some discussion of this in my essay/book but I am still looking for how to fit it in the overall project. Let me just give you a short summary of my qualms with Barad and Co that may be helpful for your upcoming seminar but, please, take my opinions with a grain of salt since I am, I admit, a bit opinionated!
As I mentioned in Silkeborg the impulse for this development came from a man named Arkady Plotnitsky, a Russian mathematician turned English, Theory and Cultural Studies professor at Purdue, who wrote a 1994 book titled “Complementarity” in which he claims to draw a bridge between Bohr’s ideas and Derrida’s Deconstruction via George Bataille’s conception of a General Economy. The analogy between these proposals, according to him, comes from recognizing them as anti-epistemologies and anti-metaphysics which he finds gratifying to the postmodernist context and akin to Derrida’s program. You can read his introduction here: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~plotnits/PDFs/Complementarity.pdf
I read this book when it came out and found his thesis, let us just say, unconvincing. It’s reception was quite negative in both the postmodernist and the physics camp, at the time, still reeling from the “Science Wars” episode (my guess). There is a particularly detailed and damaging critique of the book in the doctoral thesis of Makoto Katsumori which you can find on the web (Here is the TOC and abstract: http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl/bitstream/1871/13150/2/2title_page.pdf and is now published in book form.
Katsumori expresses most of my qualms much better than I can so I will just conclude by pointing out that Plotnitsky has reacted by publishing TWO more books on Bohr and a third one will be out this year! These, surprisingly, do not deal with any post-modern authors or thematics but aim at “reconstructing” (rather than deconstructing) Bohr’s ideas much in the same way as a good dozen of philosophers of science have been doing since the mid 80s. Unfortunately these books are hardly any better than the first, in my opinion at least! But I will spare you any more trivia on Plotnitsky after I point out that Barad shares with him (and with Slavoj Zizek in his book on Schelling) the notion that Bohr’s Complementarity holds some profoundly revolutionary and liberating novelty of metaphysical, epistemological or (in Barad’s take) even ethical proportions. This happens to be exactly what Jorn very explicitly denied and in what, I believe I can show, contemporary physics fully agrees with him!
Now, I must confess that I also got Barad’s book a few years ago but I was much discouraged to read through it by her introduction which is a long but very partial critique of the famous play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn which had a very successful series of performances in most world capitals around 2004/5. I don’t know if you had a chance to see it but I am sure you have heard that this play has shaken up a lot of controversy and quite deservingly so. It is what good theater is supposed to do, after all. Barad appears to be still very taken by this play judging by this more recent article:
which echoes much of her book and now adds Hamlet’s ghost (why not?) for added drama! I am afraid, however, she misses the point of the play and takes some of it a bit too literally while, on the physics side of her writing she sins in the other direction and ends up making statements that are simply misleading. One positive thing I can say about her is that she pays some attention to the notion of Entanglement which, as I mentioned in my talk, came to replace Complementarity as the central feature of quantum theory. On the other hand I don’t really think she understands what Entanglement is from her statements in this article and she manages to mystify further something that is already pretty bizarre to begin with! Unfortunately for her we do not know yet enough about this feature to make philosophical use of it, much less to base an ethical theory on it!
About her proposal of Agential Realism I have to read a bit more to give you an assessment, though I am very dubious that Quantum Theory is able to provide support for ANY type of Realism whatsoever and there are many examples I could mention of well minded but failed attempts in that direction.
I should add that I am partly sympathetic to this trend towards a feminist materialism since it looks to me that it invites reflection on the current state of women’s condition and struggle in the world rather than on the mostly sterile academic debates of last century. But I fear that relying on old chestnuts like Complementarity is not going to help. Happily (quantum) matter has generously revealed much deeper layers of dialectics (and triolectics) that Bohr never dreamed of and are waiting to be acknowledged! I am talking about anti-materialism, dark materialism, metamaterialism and such which, for now, are a bit of a joke but promise to arm us with much better metaphors and strategies in the near future!