Diffracting and Entangling System-Correcting Praxis

AmyMay's picture

Diffracting and Entangling System-Correcting Praxis

            In my post from week 4, I posited a question to the class: what place do diffraction and entanglement have in practices of system-correcting praxis?  Are the concepts diametrically opposed?  To answer this question, it is necessary to delve deeper into the theoretical and functional foundations of correcting vs. system challenging praxis.  Only by understanding the problems inherent to these types of activism can we utilize diffraction and entanglement to improve their implementation.  Integrating processes of diffraction and entanglement into system correcting activism offers a way to prevent the passive subscription to existing systems of power inequality and reduce the disabling nature of enabling acts.

            As theoretical models of scholarship and activism, diffraction, entanglement, and system correcting vs. system challenging praxis are necessarily in dialogue with each other.  Drawing on analogies derived from quantum physics, Karen Barad proposes scholars integrate diffraction and entanglement into their analysis of social phenomenon.  She describes diffraction as looking at social issues through a new opening or perspective, to reveal new patterns and relationships; entanglement involves viewing all social relationships as inherently tied up in each other.  These methodologies encourage an interdisciplinary, globalized view that recognizes that social phenomena are “intertwined with each other… lack[ing] an independent, self-contained existence” (Barad, ix).  Barad’s model necessarily complicates the analysis of social relations and systems of power, by acknowledging and seeking to understand the complicated, entangled nature of such relationships through diffractive processes.

            Though Barad’s work is an important theoretical contribution to epistemology, the question of its applicability to activism still remains.  The model of applied scholarship model proposed by medical anthropologist Merrill Singer offers a useful way of viewing the issue.  Singer proposes the existence of two forms of activist interventions: system correcting and system challenging praxis. System correcting praxis seeks to compensate for the power inequalities created by social systems, without addressing the system itself.  Singer criticizes this methodology, claiming that in failing to question the foundations of power structures, system-correcting praxis passively subscribes to and recreates these structures, obscuring the root causes of social inequality (Singer, 89).  In lieu of this form of activism, Singer advocates for system challenging praxis—activist efforts that seek to unearth the causes of power inequalities, increase activism and agency, and permanently alter the system (Singer, 90).

            Though Singer clearly advocates in favor of system challenging praxis and against system correcting praxis, system-correcting interventions are at times a practical necessity. Systems of power inequality have a huge impact on the everyday lives of individuals living within them.  The common phrase from second wave feminism “the personal is political” is also true in reverse: the political is very personal.  Though it is also crucial to challenge the foundations of sexism, racism, ageism, and ableism, interventions that help the individuals suffering under these power regimes to cope and reclaim their agency are equally important.  People need to have their everyday needs met; programs that provide people with wheelchairs, or political campaigns that seek equal pay for equal work may not upset the foundations of ableist or sexist culture, but they are important nonetheless. 

Given the practical importance of system correcting praxis, it is crucial to address Singer’s critiques.  Barad’s epistemological methodology offers a framework through which such activism might address practical needs while refusing to acquiesce to structures of inequality.  In my previous post, I posed the idea that processes of diffraction/entanglement and system correcting praxis might be inherently opposed to each other.  As a form of activism that focuses on the practical treatment of the symptoms of inequality, at the time it seemed that diffraction and entanglement would unnecessarily complicate activist issues, wasting time on theoretical complexity that might otherwise be put toward more practical efforts.  However, in light of Singer’s critique of system correcting praxis, it seems that diffraction and entanglement might have a very useful place in practical activism.  Incorporating diffraction and entanglement into such practices would provide a more contextualized perspective with which to design interventions.  An example will help illustrate this point.

As someone who has spent a lot of time working with the disabled, I have seen first-hand the limitations of system correcting praxis.  Last summer, I worked at a non-profit camp for individuals with developmental and physical disabilities.  Most sessions, our clients tended to be adults on fixed incomes; for many of them camp was the only “vacation” they, their families, or their group homes could afford.  However, one of the weeks during the summer was a special session designed as a training week for people seeking degrees in special education, communication technology, and related areas.  The campers that came this week were all non-verbal children who used communication devices—$5,000-$10,000 portable computers— to interact with others.  Rather than arriving in large vans from local group homes, these clients were dropped off by attentive parents driving BMWs, Range Rovers, and Mercedes.  The class difference between these clients and our regular campers was outstanding.  Reflecting on this experience, I began to understand what Varienne means when he claims that every enabling act is also simultaneously disabling.  Though the communicative devices were enabling for the children who had access to them, this access was clearly limited based on class, age, and availability of resources.  Our regular session campers did not have the economic resources to afford such enabling devices. Even when the money is available through grants, adults who are out of the educational system often lack the personal support to apply for public funding, as well as the training to be able to use the devices, which would typically occur in a special education classroom.  Though these communication devices were enabling for non-verbal children from middle class families, the broader system that ends special education at age 21, places clients in group homes that often have little social support, and the ableist culture that makes it difficult for developmentally disabled individuals to become economically self-sufficient all interacted to simultaneously disable other subsets of the disabled community. 

In fitting with Singer’s critique, this system-correcting implementation of communication technology acquiesces to the broader classist, ableist system, and as a result is only enabling for a particular privileged population within the disabled community.  However, utilizing Barad’s method of diffraction and entanglement (as I have done above—examining this intervention from a perspective integrating other elements of the broad social context) reveals the failures and inequalities that continue to be reinforced by this system-correcting social program.  This contextualized, entangled view provides greater awareness of the multiplicity of intra-acting factors influencing communicative disability.  An intervention that address these factors would be much more effective at enabling without disabling; at correcting without reproducing systemic inequality.  A diffracted, entangled program addressing the communicative capabilities of non-verbal individuals would make communication technology available to more individuals not just through grants, but also by reaching out to individuals across social class through day programs and group homes.  Such programs would work within these existing resources to not only provide people with technology, but also with continuing education training on how to use it.  This program could also network with local businesses in the community, to sort out work placements where these individuals could use their communication technology to function in a work environment, practicing work skills they learn in training programs, and simultaneously earning money so that they may make a partial contribution to the cost of the communicative device that makes it all possible.  Contrary to the critiques leveled by Singer, such a diffracted, entangled intervention does not accept and recreate inequality, but through contextualization offers practical solutions to people in need across demographic characteristics.  With the help of Barad’s framework, system-correcting praxis can correct without reproducing systemic inequality.

Though entanglement and diffraction on the surface seem at odds with system-correcting praxis, in actuality the contextualized perspective offered by such epistemology is a necessary component to such activism, in that it prevents the recreation of social inequality.  Though the above analysis has used as a working example the intersection of classism, ageism, and ableism within the context of the disabled community, these conclusions apply equally to all intersecting systems of inequality, including gender.  In our readings by Richi Wilchins and Eli Claire, both authors have pointed to how gender cuts across other social factors such as race, class, sexuality, disability, abuse, religion, and geography.  Though their argument for the entanglement of these elements within activism may at first seem theoretical and abstract, such contextualization is essential to the implementation of even practical, system-correcting solutions that do not reproduce other forms of inequality.  The importance of an entangled, diffracted perspective on gender and sexuality is demonstrated by the string of teen LGBT suicides that occurred in 2010.  This social trend exposed the absence of LGBT youth representation in the gay rights movement, which until then had focused primarily on marriage and work rights. The entanglement of gender (the ability to “pass” and avoid bullying”), sexuality, age, and class (without economic resources, the ability to move or otherwise escape bullying is limited) had until then been ignored.  As Wilchins and Claire state, systems of inequality are inherently entangled with each other.  Whether the issues is gender, disability, or class, an understanding of these relational systems is essential to the development of any system-correcting activism that does not reinforce disability and inequality across one system, while enabling and equalizing individuals within another.





Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.


Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd, 1999. Print.


Singer, Merrill. "Beyond the Ivory Tower: Critical Praxis in Medical Anthropology."Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9.1 (1995): 80-106. Print.


Varenne, Herve. "Culture and Disability." Hervé Varenne: General Information. 2003. Web. 02 Oct. 2011. <http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/hv/edu/brdn03/notdisabling.html>.


Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: an Instant Primer. Los Angeles, [Calif.: Alyson, 2004. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

System Correcting--> Challenging!


this paper leapfrogs to the end of our course, when Kaye and I intend to offer "Act III: Activism." The complex intra-action you offer here -- of Singer's "system-correcting" vs. "system-challenging" praxis, in dialogue with Barad's concepts of "entanglement" and "diffraction," and with Varenne's  analysis of the "disabling nature of enabling acts," AND with your own experiences working in a camp for individuals with developmental and physical disabilities -- harkens toward some of the complexities we anticipate, going forward. Thanks for pre-figuring this rich terrain (and for warning us how complicated it's going to get!).

There's lots here to like and learn from: the dynamic way in which you quote yourself, then revise your thinking; the deep challenge you see Barad posing to system-correcting praxis, and then the very interesting way in which you use her ideas to redefine what that might mean (would you say that you have actually dismantled Singer's binary? shown it to be too simple? if system-correcting praxis, corrected to take a "contextualized perspective" into account, can "prevent the recreation of social inequality," does it then become "system-challenging"?). Also, when you observe that interventions that "address these factors would be much more effective at enabling without disabling," are you disagreeing w/ Varenne's claim that we cannot build social structures that do not disable? (Along these lines, you might find helpful  Eva Tuck's wonderful Harvard Education Review essay replacing damage-centered with desire-based research frameworks.) I appreciate, too, the way the essay ends by opening out, reflecting on the larger implications of the patterns you have been tracing.

I'm sure it was you who--at the end of our discussion last week about "the god-trick"--said that you actually trusted Joan Roughgarden "more," because she didn't pretend to speak in a voice that was omniscient and unlocatable, but rather was honest about her biases. One of the things I like about your essay is the way you begin by locating yourself as a question-asker ("In my post from week 4, I posited a question to the class"); and "I" speaks later, as you reflect on the "classism, ageism, and ableism" in action @ the camp where you worked last summer. But in-between, sometimes, I seem to hear the voice of god: "to answer this question, it is necessary"; "the question of its applicability … still remains"; "As theoretical models of scholarship and activism, diffraction, entanglement, and system correcting vs. system challenging praxis are necessarily in dialogue with each other." An essay that aims to call us, as this one does, to more contextualized perspective, should never lose sight of its own context, I think! (Which leads me to ask, finally, what message your user-name and avatar send to your audience: What does "attack of the 50s woman" signal about who you are, how-and-why you should be listened to? How does it locate you in relation to your text?)

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