Notes on Agential Realism Part II: Material-Discursive Practices and the Limitations of Language | Obstinate Obscurity-Cynthia Bateman

I think when most of us hear the word “discourse” we think of language, and when we think of “language” we think of human language. We think of human speech, possibly writing where “writing” means the act of putting together letters, numbers, and symbols to form sentences.
In Meeting the Universe Halfway, however, Karen Barad writes that discourse is not a synonym for language. Following (and advancing) Foucault’s notion of discursive practices, Barad argues that to think of discourse as “mere spoken or written words forming descriptive statements is to enact the mistake of representationalist thinking” (146). Discourse, Barad argues, is not what is said but what enables or constrains what can be said. “Discursive practices define what counts as meaningful statements” (146). Discursive practices are intrinsically material by nature. Barad writes, “In an agential realist account, discursive practices are specific material (re)configurings of the world through which the determination of boundaries, properties, and meanings is differentially enacted” (148).
Meaning, for Barad, is not a property of individual words or groups of words but an “ongoing performance of the world in its differential dance of intelligibility and unintelligibility” (149). Meaning is made possible through specific material practices. Discursive practices, then, are both ontic and semantic. Via intra-actions, material-discursive practices form “boundaries” that are fluid in that they are dependent upon the continuation of agential intra-activity to “exist.” In an agential realist understanding of meaning, words and things are indeterminate outside of particular intra-actions. “Matter is therefore not to be understood as a property of things but, like discursive practices, must be understood in more dynamic and productive terms- in terms of intra-activity” (150). Matter is not a thing; matter is a doing.
It is also important to note that Barad defines intelligibility as an “ontological perfromance of the world in its ongoing articulation” (149). Intelligibility is not a human-dependent characteristic but a “feature of the world in its differential becoming” (149). Unlike Foucault and Butler who limit their philosophies to human subjects, Barad’s notion of agential realism goes beyond an anthropocentric understanding of matter and discourse.
In summary, Barad writes:
Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior. Neither can be explained in terms of the other. Neither is reducible to the other. Neither has privileged status in determining the other. Neither is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are mutually articulated. (152).
Applying agential realism to the two main areas of my research (placing animals in rhetorical studies and conducting an analysis of the slaughter industry) allows me to look at specific boundary-making practices in absence of preexisting meanings about particular words or concepts. Or, at least it allows me to ask my readers what the world might look like if  we could operate in absence of those preexisting meanings.
Coming up in Part III: The Brittlestar