Postmodernism: slicing and separations (agential and other cuts)

August 18, 2016 – 3:27 pm

And yet another! (Yeah, see previous posts.)

Another aspect of a postmodern perspective is the subjective and arbitrary nature of the “slices” that divide the world into differentiated items. By using language, we describe the world as if it had cleanly separated components: for instance, one might say that a man is not a woman, or that blue and red are different colors. However, the line between “male” and “female” or the line between “blue” and “red” and “purple” is not necessarily clear. It’s not that there are no differences or distinctions among things; quite the opposite. The distinctions and separations are real because they are decisions made by thinking beings who decide and determine where the differences split to make seams between items, and could also decide to split them differently.

To draw an example from the discipline of engineering, take the division of engineering into sub-disciplines. A given university might have multiple engineering majors: mechanical, chemical, electrical, and so forth. However, interdisciplinary projects and programs cross between those boundaries, challenging them. After all, what determines the boundary between bioengineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, etc. when studying the design of a medical device? How is the separation between computer engineering and electrical engineering determined — and are they two separate programs, or a unified degree in “electrical and computer engineering”? What is the difference between engineering compared to engineering technology? These boundaries are not only socially constructed and contested; they wobble simultaneously in many places at once, like an electron.

This challenging of boundaries can be referred to as “deconstruction,” a concept usually associated with Derrida’s treatise “Of Grammatology.” As might be expected with a boundary-challenging concept, the boundaries of the concept itself are not clear — which is to say there is no on clear definition of what “deconstruction” is.  Deconstruction is at once theory, methodology, and method. It asks what binaries and categorizations exist, what those boundaries suppress/prohibit, and whether they contradict each other. (Saukko, 2003, p. 135-152)

Deconstruction is not a verb that we as agents execute on a text as object; rather, it is something that we notice the text has always done to itself. (Derrida, 1998; Cavallaro, 2001, p. 26). When we deconstruct a text, we make our world more writerly because we see texts as shifting, changing things; one signifier may refer to many signifieds (as with classifiers), and many signifiers may refer to the same signified (as with synonyms). Lather depicts the goal of deconstruction as “neither unitary wholeness nor dialectical resolution.” Instead, deconstruction seeks to “keep things in process, to disrupt, to keep the system in play, to set up procedures to continuously demystify the realities we create, to fight the tendency for our categories to congeal” (Lather, 1991, p. 13).

A particularly important categorical separation is the one between the observer and the observed — or in the case of this project, the narrating self and the narration, or the self and the world it narrates. The self and the world are inextricably intertwined; as Heidegger famously pointed out, it is impossible to have the notion of “being” without somehow “being-in-the-world” (the usual English translation of his German term “Dasein”) amongst other things (Heidegger, YYYY). However, there do exist notions of “observer” and “observed” as different and separate things, so some sort of “slice” must take place. Such a slice is what Karen Barad calls the “agential cut” — the cut between an agent (self) and things that are not-that-agent. This cut is itself arbitrary and subjective; consider the example of a researcher recording interviews through a transcriptionist, as I did in this project. Is the transcriptionist part of the “researcher” (observer/self) apparatus, or the “narrator” (observed/world) apparatus being observed by the “researcher”? I could choose either, both, or neither (somewhere else) in deciding where to make the agential cut. Although the agential cut itself is subjective, it is what makes the notion of objectivity possible, since objectivity demands exteriority (2007, p. 139-40).

This idea has other parallels to engineering practice. Systems diagrams are used in multiple engineering fields to convey the separate components of a system and the interactions therein. [IMAGE: SEVERAL EXAMPLES OF SYSTEMS DIAGRAMS]. The decision of how to separate a system into interacting components is the same sort of slicing as discussed in this subsection. Each component in a systems diagram is then treated as a “black box,” where the inner workings don’t matter as long as the input and output are as expected. Decisions about “black-boxing” something (for instance, purchasing Components Off The Shelf (COTS) for usage in a project) and “popping the hood” (modifying the interior workings of a previously black-boxed device) are similarly decisions to become aware of and/or modify the “slicing” decisions previously made. On the part of the designing and constructing engineer, some of these decisions take on the nature of agential cuts as the engineer decides which part is “theirs” (i.e. their responsibility to understand and modify) and what they will therefore care about and see as lying within their locus of control.

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