Anthropology courses often teach us to recognize the humanity in others. Introductory textbooks reveal the logic behind social practices of native peoples, inviting the reader to identify with foreign cultures. At the same time, the desire to preserve the sanctity of such common humanity motivates communities to demonize individuals who commit “acts against nature.” The moral belief in our shared human nature is entangled with the moral outrage directed toward deviants whose conduct exceeds the limits of cultured behavior.
Feminist-physicist-philosopher Karen Barad offers a fresh perspective on this conundrum by reflecting on how distinctions between humans and less-than-humans are made to matter. She examines the character of some “queer critters” whose substance, identity, or very existence is called into question by modern science: stingrays, atoms, unicellular predators, and lightning. For example, dinoflagellates are unicellular creatures that are neither plant nor animal, but can act as both. In varying environments, they obtain energy through photosynthesis, like plants, or by feeding on other organisms, like animals. A toxic species of this creature was profiled by The Washington Post as a “Cell from Hell,” and accused of “terrorizing” coastal estuaries as the “phantom suspect in a string of mass killings that destroyed more than a billion fish.” Its notoriety swelled when scientists were unable to identify even its most basic characteristics. In laboratory settings, toxic dinos exhibited inconsistent behavior, and the material entanglement between these creatures and their environment could not be reproduced in an artificial culture. The question of whether their toxicity is responsible for ecological destruction remains unresolved.
This example of “nature’s queerness” is not a metaphor for human relations. Instead, it illustrates the particular relationship between social practice, the boundaries established by disciplinary knowledge, and the suspicions that arise when such boundaries are violated. It indicates that questions of identity that have preoccupied scholars of the humanities remain a blind spot in how we understand both our natural and social worlds. Barad suggests that our knowledge of these worlds should take their mutual entanglement as its starting point. Her reflections challenge us to rethink the stakes behind the age-old anthropological question of “what makes us human?”
Karen Barad. 2011. “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” Qui Parle 19, no. 2: 121–158.
This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.
In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.