Reflection and Diffraction

I’ve been trying to get my head around why posthumanists assert that diffractive thinking is more useful than reflection. Karen Barad uses optical analogies throughout her agential realist treatise and I want to play around with her ideas using images and some creative thinking. Truly understanding this holds great importance for the methods I employ in research as well as my research in transitions. Reflection and reflexivity (personal transformation as a result of reflection) are core components of qualitative and transition research. If an alternative idea works better, I need to own it.


Barad talks about reflection in terms of a mirror and reflexivity as a mirror of mirrors.


Snow White. Disney Pictures (1937)

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? That’s what I do when I look in a mirror. I check myself out. Am I too fat? Do I look good in this colour? This cut? How can I change what I look like?

While making sure my lipstick isn’t smeared up the side of my face or ensuring half my breakfast isn’t stuck between my teeth, my relationship with mirrors is quite toxic. If I spend too much time in front of them I get too much in my head about my appearance. I get depressed because a mirror is a constant reminder of my flaws. Despite all the feminist literature that tells me that I am more, it’s the flaws that continue to stick out (including the unmade bed behind me).

Reflexively? I’d prefer not to have a mirror.

So when we ask people to reflect on their practice are their flaws the go to? That can’t be healthy. Especially if it’s constant.

Furthermore, a mirror is stable, attached to a wall. It is a poor tool for capturing the life that changes when something happens. I still look mostly the same in the mirror (maybe more bags under my eyes or a happier grin).  The mirror can’t reflect what’s going on inside me, nor outside of it’s objective gaze.

And that’s the thing, the mirror is objective but I am not. I lay my own social and cultural understandings over the image. So am I ever actually engaging in good reflection?

In a mirror, my gaze is looking back at me. The face (if it became animated in its own right) could see everything that is behind me, but I am looking forwards at a reflective solid wall. Does that mean I lack the capability of predicting how something might work out in the future?

Transformation is as much feeding backwards as feeding forwards.



Lookangmany (2011) Diffraction black and white visualization for w= λ (CC BY SA 3.0)


Imagine the yellow line is the wall the mirror is mounted on. The straight lines represent the force of your entire life that has resulted in you standing there in front of the wall. Your upbringing, education, relationships, materials, environments, everything. All of those tangled and mangled things have brought you too this point in your life.

The little gap in the wall is the porthole to your future. You have no idea what it will look like because the hole is way too small, but at least you have a glimpse because you have glanced at your reflection when checking your teeth.

The moment you pass to the other side of that yellow line your life could go in any direction because new people, materials and environments wait for you there. Those things will transform you as a person every step you take and you will transform those things. There is no all-important figure staring back at you through a mirror telling you old age and middle age spread are inevitable. Out there exists a Wonderland of possibilities.


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