Material Translation and Exclusion: Barad’s Entanglement and Post-Pandemic Medical Humanities

Monika Class reflects on some of the theoretical underpinnings of a translational, post-pandemic medical humanities and suggests that the concept of “material translation” might offer a productive way forward.


Problematising and adapting translation theoretically

Translation renders meaning into another language or code, is vital for communication across linguistic and cultural barriers and supports literacy and participation in all kinds of areas. Poststructuralist translation theorists suggest that translation does not merely repackage and transport the meaning of the source text into the target text but inevitably modifies the meaning of both target and source text.

Jacques Derrida (1985) and Homi K. Bhabha (2016), for instance, emphasise that translation changes the translated, calling translation’s capacity to generate or alter meanings “performative.” Like Derrida (1985, 178), Bhabha takes this idea from Walter Benjamin’s influential essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (“The Task of the Translator”), which basically credits translators with the survival (“Überleben”) of texts (Benjamin [1923] 1972, 10). A text can be said to owe its afterlife to any translation which continues the text’s generation of meaning.

Building on Benjamin’s notion, Bhabha (2016, min. 29) considers translation as a practice that operates beyond the linguistic realm: “Translation is,” he notes, “a temporal displacement of scale as much as it is of meaning and language.” Translation, then, is part and parcel of our material existence in time, shaping history as well as patters of dominance, hierarchy and exclusion in our daily lives (see also Baker 2006; Ødemark 2019; Zheng, Tyulenev, and Marais 2023). In this poststructuralist vein, translation points to recent adaptions of translation theory in the medical humanities (Engebretsen, Henrichsen, and Ødemark 2020).

Barad’s entanglement theory

Accordingly, my present contribution applies poststructuralist notions of translation to the feminist materialism of Karen Barad (b. 1956), calling this tentative adaptation “material translation.” Barad’s theory is useful, I propose, to combine two ways of thinking: to conceive translation, firstly, as a practice that encompasses both nature and culture, biomedicine and socio-cultural theory (“naturalcultural practice,” as Barad (2007, 32) would term it) and, secondly, as a material practice that emphasises foundational connectedness, especially in matters of human, animal and environmental health.

Overall, this piece contends that academic attention to material translations seems a timely approach for the medical humanities as the field finds itself in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic (Macnaughton 2023), which drastically exposed what had been known before: human and non-human health on this planet are inseparable (Carson 1964). Combining translation studies, Barad’s theory (2003; 2007; 2022) and medical humanities, I will focus on the role of exclusion. Barad’s feminist materialism has been known under the key term of “entanglement” in medical humanities scholarship at least since 2015 (e.g. Viney, Callard, and Woods 2015), but the affinity between Barad’s (2007; 2022) thinking on exclusion and poststructuralist translation has yet to be explored.  

Source: Image 21a in “La selva sanadora: plantas medicinales y tóxicas del noroeste del Amazonas“ (2009).
With thanks to Georgia Nasseh for designing the conference poster.

Barad’s posthumanist performativity

Both Barad’s new materialism and poststructuralist translation theory emphasise performativity. Drawing on at least four fields – feminist theory, poststructuralist theory, physics and science and technology studies – Barad models performativity on quantum physics. The theorist calls this their “posthumanist” approach (2007). By “posthumanist”, Barad means “the crucial recognition that nonhumans play an important role in naturalcultural practices, including everyday social practices, scientific practices and practices that do not include humans” (2007, 32). Crucial to Barad’s posthumanist performativity are patterns of exclusions and boundary-drawing.

Material translation à la Barad

One of Barad’s primal scenes of entanglement is the laboratory measurement of interference patterns through the application of two-slit devices (2022). Barad focuses on the experimental interaction between the observed object and the observing apparatus, calling their essential inseparability “intra-action” (Barad 2022, 1036; see also 2007). Barad draws substantially on the distinction between wave-behaviour (physical entities in motion) and particle-behaviour (localisable physical entities). Experimental evidence at the beginning of the twentieth century showed, as Barad (2007, 29) notes, that light behaved sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, depending on the experiment. What generates material properties, such as those of light, in a laboratory experiment is neither inherent in the observed object nor in the observing physical apparatus (Barad 2007; 2022). Rather, material translation à la Barad consists in the inseparability of both the observed object and the observing apparatus, as they mark and are marked by each other and thus retain certain properties “to the exclusion” of others (Barad 2022, 1037).

Exclusion, boundaries and cuts play an essential role in the generation of material properties (Barad 2007, 93). To signpost their significance, Barad refers to these exclusions as “agential cuts” (2007; 2022). Material translation seems a promising framework to attend to material practices from the perspective of the inseparability of physical properties (“intra-action”). Considering the decisive role of exclusion, it is possible to say that material translations connote the generation of material properties by cutting away at other cuts. Analogous to poststructuralist performativity in translation studies, Barad’s materialism reinforces the basic idea that the translated/observed object is brought into existence by translation/observation.

Three advantages (or shortcomings)

Barad’s insights into material translation and discursive materialisation can make an important contribution to medical humanities for three main reasons, which – I should note – some scholars regard as Barad’s shortcomings (Zizek 2012; McNay 2016; Calvert-Minor 2014). First, their notion of “agential cuts” presupposes a radical kind of relationality in which there exists no single cause. Rather, Barad claims “relata only exist within relations” (Barad 2022, 1031). Analogously, it is possible to say that source texts only exist within translations, none is untouched by translation. Second, Barad’s theory aims to naturalise the social construction of knowledge and power through quantum theory. Bhabha’s (2016) recent extension of translation theory to temporal displacement resonates with such naturalisation. Third, Barad’s entanglement credits humans and non-humans equally with agency. Barad’s framework is an attempt to decentre the Enlightenment tradition that posits human consciousness at the centre of knowledge, existence and ethics. Alternatively, Barad (2007) seeks to replace this philosophy with a web of causal relations in which humans are implicated but not exceptional. According to Barad (2007), the ethical consequence of such human implication in agential cuts is the moral obligation to consider what gets deselected. In brief, Barad’s posthumanist perspective offers an alternative to human exceptionalism.

Relevance for the medical humanities

Barad’s approach (2003; 2007; 2022) has gained importance in the medical humanities in and after the times of the Covid-19 pandemic because of the need to improve resilience and preparedness. According to recent health research, one of the lessons to be learnt is the inseparability of human health, animal health and environmental health (De Paulo 2021, Fihlo 2022, Hill-Cawthorne 2019, Horton et. al 2014, Kortetmäki et al. 2021, Lerner and Berg 2017, Lewis 2021, Rüegg et al. 2019, Whitmee et al. 2015). Barad’s material translation can help us to understand that global warming, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and other forms of environmental damage affect human health fundamentally and increase the risk of outbreaks. After all, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease.

Accounting for seventy-five per cent of all infectious disease, zoonotic diseases spill over to humans from wildlife reservoirs or domestic animals, either directly or via intermediate hosts (Saylors et al. 2021; Chakraborty, Kumar, and Mishra 2021: WHO (2022); Thunberg 2022). The World Health Organization states in the Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from Covid-19 that “the world cannot afford repeated disasters on the scale of COVID-19, whether they are triggered by the next pandemic, or from mounting environmental damage and climate change. Going back to ‘normal’ is not good enough” (WHO 2020, 1; see also WHO 2021). Therefore, it is important that medical humanities’ “translation” services look increasingly beyond human health and encompass nature and culture (Arnaldi 2022; Arnaldi and Forsdick 2023; Ostherr 2020; McLellan 2021). Barad’s (2007; 2022) material translation is well suited as a framework for this task.

Possible areas of application

Barad’s approach lends itself to the examination of exclusion patterns that happen when health policies take material shape. On the one hand, Stephen Hinchliffe, Lenore Manderson and Martin Moore (2021, e232) contend that biomedical and technological fixes are a case in point since they do not target the underlying drivers of the pandemic, including inequalities, governance failures, asymmetric resource distribution, “habitat destruction, illegal trade with animals, climate instabilities and changing intensities of the relationships between humans and other animals.”

On the other hand, Robert Wallace (2015, 71) observes that epidemiological measures “increasingly represent declensionist rationales for the neoliberal land grabs, wholesale deforestation and agricultural intensification that underpin many of the epizoonotic outbreaks in the first place.” Outbreaks in the Global South, for instance, appear to mask the clearing of all agriculture and alternate economies except for “the most highly capitalized and ‘biosecure,’ which in actuality (. . .) are implicated in recent outbreaks and new strains” (Wallace 2015, 71). Barad’s notion of exclusion is relevant for the study of invisible drivers of the pandemic and adverse effects of epidemiological measures. 

Conclusion

The metaphor of translation is helpful to visualise how health regulations take physical shape. Beyond that, Karen Barad’s theory of entanglement (2003; 2007; 2022) directs our attention to material translation practices that tend to occur outside of the clinic, care home or other sites of medical practice. Modelled on experimentation in physics, Barad’s approach is guided by the questions of how boundaries materialise. The interzone of poststructuralist translation studies and Barad’s entanglement contains the potential for studying material translations in terms of exclusion patterns. Considering the post-pandemic need to prioritise the interdependency of human and environmental health for the sake of preparedness and resilience, Barad’s material translation appears as a promising pathway for the medical humanities to examine the “naturalcultural” practices exerted by humans and non-humans.


About the author

Monika Class’s research examines cultural transformations in anglophone literature and culture from the 18th to the 21st centuries from the perspective of hermeneutical phenomenology, gender studies, science studies, medical humanities and environmental humanities. She earned her doctoral degree from the English Faculty of the University of Oxford in 2009 and joined Lund University as Associate Professor of English Literature in September 2022, having previously researched and taught at universities in Germany and the UK. Besides her monograph, Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796-1817 (Bloomsbury 2012), Monika’s publications include journal special issues, “Medical Case Histories as Genre” (Literature and Medicine 2014) and “Trace: Embodied Approaches to the Novel in English” (English Studies 2023), and the article “The Visceral Novel Reader and Novelized Medicine in Georgian Britain” (2016), which is also the title of the funded project and the second monograph on which she is currently working. Her next project investigates the transformative possibilities of the ecopoetry of water. You can follow her on Twitter @MonikaClass.


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