A Review of Meeting the Universe Halfway
A very brief summary might be matter matters. I first read Karen Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007) about two years ago, and go back quite often — for clarification, examples, resources. My most immediate overall response is, and remains, gratitude: This book makes a convincing case that contemporary research in particle physics is perfectly relevant to research in cultural studies, e.g. philosophy, language studies, visual studies, in fact to any sort of research with a claim to address reality. It’s a very careful and caring warning about the limits of human perception, a reminder of how much of what we ordinarily call reality is projected–by us. As well as a sobering insight, however, it is also a thrilling opening on to a reality that is far larger and longer, more complex and astonishing than anything any of us can legitimately claim to know.
Barad builds out from the philosophyphysics of Neils Bohr, the Danish physicist widely credited with having developed the main principles of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. She merged the two words “philosophy” and “physics” into one, contending that Bohr did not separate them, and going on to imply that we shouldn’t either. One of Bohr’s firm beliefs arguably lies at the heart of the matter, namely that we — scientists, observers, curious people — are a part of whatever reality we may study. From the basis Bohr provides, she builds, absorbing much, expanding occasionally, objecting rarely.
To the extent there is a story being told in this book, it begins with the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics, which in turn is often dated to 1927, the date of the Fifth Solvay Conference. Entitled “Electrons and Photons,” the conference drew 19 of the most prominent physicists in the world together: Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein were the informal spokesmen for two differing views of how to interpret troubling but unavoidable conflict in recent experimental evidence: light could apparently be either a wave or a particle, depending on how it was measured. The discussion involved Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty, Bohr’s understanding of complementarity, the nature of the physical evidence under consideration, and the role of the scientist, the experimental apparatus, the expectations and assumptions that govern the structure of experiments, the status experimental results and the vast implications for our understanding of reality.
Although the “Copenhagen Interpretation” is often taken to be a common understanding among physicists, Barad denies that there ever was any single interpretation or any durable agreement about it. The open issues ordinarily do not impede continuing research in physics, but they matter in ways that may have far more immediate implications for our interactions with our environment, our apparatuses, and with one another: she goes on to examine which open questions have been experimentally resolved, but more broadly what questions arise when we accept the findings of the Solvay conference, namely that is ultimately impossibility for a researcher to truly withdraw from either the tools or the object of his or her work.
Barad sometimes draws things as familiar and ordinary as sentence structure into the discussion. In particular, she examines the way subjects and objects in speech fix our thinking. English, along with many, many other languages, builds and maintains assumptions about one thing acting on another, as in “I set the clock”. Exactly this relationship has long structured the relationship between scientist and nature as well, or more generally, or observer and that-which-is-being observed, a relationship of distance, detachment. To suppose that an observer can’t be neatly or thoroughly detached from whatever she or he is observing, to expect the stars to have an effect on their observers, is to change many things. A tidy reversal of sentence structure would be provocative and not necessarily wrong: The clock sets me, the stars amaze the stargazers. But it still has one entity doing something to another. In ancient Greek, there was a way of getting around it, something like “There is a setting between me and the clock,” or “amazement exists between stars and stargazers”.
It is, finally, a book about reality, a respectful reminder that human beings, with all our absolutely astonishing capacities, remain participants a reality we know only very partially but that figures in everything, from the most distant galaxies to our own bodies. We have never and can never dominate it. We can know better if we’re willing and able to meet it halfway.