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Chapter 3. Breathing as diffraction – “reading diffractively”

Allow me to quote Evelien Geerts and Iris van der Tuin’s entry about diffraction1. They start with the classical physics aiming at the difference Karen Barad puts into the term: 

“According to classical physics, diffraction is a physical phenomenon that comes into being when a multitude of waves encounter an obstacle upon their path, and/or when these waves themselves overlap. Waves in fact always already overlap and extend into one another, so even in the classical rendering, when pushed to an extreme, “we can understand diffraction patterns – as patterns of difference that make a difference – to be the fundamental constituents that make up the world” (Barad, 2007, p.72).”

What interests me not only in their approach but also in the definition given by Barad is the proximity to breathing. We – so to say – breathe in waves and the process of understanding follows such a pattern: poetry understood as a diffraction pattern of language (language here is the material of which the waves are constituted) makes a difference as well. 

“Seen through the perspective of quantum physics, however, we are invited to think about the inherent diffractivity of sets of waves, of single waves, and of single particles, under the right (experimental) conditions.”1

As for dark hermeneutics one should do the same when it comes to understanding poetry (literature or other artifacts). Difference understood as “making a difference” as Geerts and Tuin explain regarding to Trinh Minh-ha and Donna Haraway1, makes a difference to différance spelled out by Derrida. One does not hear a difference, but one can see/read one. Although one can identify three phases of breath, inhale, gap, exhale, it seems to be worth to think about those phases as intra-related and therefore of understanding as intra-related. Geerts and Tuin pinpoint what is at stake:

“Thinking diffractively steps out of the phallogocentric, reflective logics of producing the Same all over again by acknowledging the differences that exist, while at the same time pointing at where the problematic reductions and assimilations of difference have taken place.”1

Diffraction as a method of thinking and understanding cuts right through the dichotomy of reflection as the classic philosophical mode and interpretation, explaining what something means. Diffraction also deals again with the metaphorical power of optics and skopic regimes as deconstructed by Derrida. The project of enlightenment has always had a power of seeing clear as understanding. Reflection therefore becomes the subject’s mode to make the world understandable. Herein we touch what Quentin Meillassoux and others call “correlationism”: For Kant, Meillassoux argues, the world exists only for the human subject to understand it. In other words, thinking and being are correlated2 and it is the only access to the world for the human subject. Sbriglia and Žižek do have a point when the ask: “From where does the subject (understood here as the ego or individual) who deploys these object- oriented ontologies, these thing power materialisms, speak?”3 But their answer remains in the metaphorical regime of light and reflection, a realm which will be circumvented by dark hermeneutics. Allow me to quote Sbriglia and Žižek again: 

“We reach the Real only when we reflect on how we fit into the reality of the objects around us, when we reflect on how the Real is not the In-itself of objects beyond our perceptive reach, but rather the very ‘subjective excess’ which distorts our access to reality.”4

For me one should not “reflect on how we fit into the reality” but diffract who, how, where and when we seemingly fit. This mode of thinking and understanding transforms what Sbriglia and Žižek understand as “subjective excess” and distortion of the access to reality. The access to reality is always already distorted because there is no non-distorted access nor an undistorted reality: reality itself is distortion. This leads me to a second agenda: I want to argue for a transformation not only of deconstruction to a diffraction but also for a de-correlationism. 

I am not a “anti-correlationist”. I am fully aware of some need of correlationism in some point but I will follow the “anti-correlationist position” as quoted by Nathan Gorelick “the question of how we know cannot come first, for our way of knowing is itself a consequence, or a product, of how things actually are and what they do.” And Gorelick adds: “The new materialist question, therefore, is: how are things, actually?”5 Language is not the only form of getting in touch with the world, it is only the common tool for thoughts in our western European perspective. But it is to say that other entities have other modes of worlding (Weltwahrnehmung) which could be also called “poetic”.

This leads to a few problems: What does it mean to think outside/inside thought, speak outside/inside language – and understand outside/inside understanding. Why do we have to understand at all? Understanding is – taking de-correlationism seriously – the beyond of language, not beyond (or inside) language. Therefore, reflection will not help because reflection is related to the paradigm that understanding aims at what is beyond language. Only diffraction will give one tools to understand understanding as language’s beyond. And with Lacan one could argue for a diffraction like “I speak where I do not understand, I understand where I do not speak” – but this is only one possible result of diffraction. 

Let me now turn to Karen Barad. She writes „a diffractive methodology provides a way of attending to entanglements in reading important insights and approaches through one another“6. I think that this definition gives a pretty good hint on what dark hermeneutics want to achieve: an ability to read not only in one way or as a reflexive process between a subject and an object, constantly missing out on the object and talking solely about the subject. Reading is reading through one another, which does not mean that everything merges into one, but – as the breath goes – as a process of inhale, gap and exhale. Further Barad writes: „Diffraction is a material-discursive phenomenon that challenges the presumed inherent separability of subject and object, nature and culture, fact and value, human and nonhuman“7. With the word “phenomenon” we enter not only Barads approach with Niels Bohr and his concept of the term but also the discussion in deconstructivism as well as the field of tension between object (Harman) within an OOO-perspective and phenomenon as explained by Husserl’s phenomenology (and later destructed by Heidegger). The “term” phenomenon therefore is diffracted itself as well as the term “object” in object-oriented-ontology/philosophy. This is because objects are constituted through their “appearance” and their “essence”, which is always withdrawn even for the object itself8. Therefore objects can be a phenomenon as of their “appearance”: but between appearance and essence is always a gap9 and such a gap opens up the possibility for a medium, a diffractive, de-correlational medium which can be (but is not limited to) a reading human subject.

  1. https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/d/diffraction.html) [] [] [] []
  2. Sbriglia/ Žižek 2020 []
  3. Sbriglia/ Žižek 15 []
  4. Ibid. 16 []
  5. Gorelick 2020, 174-175 []
  6. Barad 2007, 30 []
  7. Barad 2007, 381 []
  8. Harman []
  9. Morton []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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