This essay explores the act of touching as it takes place in physical matter, in theorizing, and in the productive spaces where the two are indistinguishable. First, the author considers how feminist theory goes about touching science and unpacks touch as an act that reveals the self within the other and the other within the self. The essay then offers a tutorial in quantum field theory to prepare the reader for an unexpected interlocutor on the topic of touching: the electron. As Barad demonstrates with descriptions of electrons and how they have troubled physicists to the point of being “normalized” and called “immoral,” these particles resist normative notions of physical contact; they are perverse. On the human scale, electrons trouble the notion of touch by making it impossible to close the distance between atoms: the sense of touch paradoxically relies on electric repulsion between neighboring objects. On the subatomic scale, each electron gleans its energy from touching itself as if undergoing an exchange with another. Not only does the presence of contact come from its absence but also the presence of electrons themselves relies on a void holding their virtual counterparts. On every level, one can never reach the other—even the other within oneself. This paradox on the micro scale that constitutes all macro-scale matter calls into question the spatial and temporal fixity of identity. Barad shows that the notion of a unified, autonomous self is problematic not just on the personal level but on the particle level as well, and she responds to this deconstruction of matter with an ethics of response-ability.
Karen Barad; On Touching—the Inhuman That Therefore I Am. differences 1 December 2012; 23 (3): 206–223. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1892943
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