A Conversation about Intra-actions in Animal Computing

Written by Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas & Michelle Westerlaken ~ Researchers in ACI

As PhD students, we often struggle with the reading and interpretation of theoretical concepts we come across during our research. Both of us, Ilyena and Michelle, have recently been reading about Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism and intra-action. A really though piece of theory that can help us understand more about our relationship with the world and, specifically in our case, our relationships with animals.

We think that this blog could be a great place to have a public conversation on challenging topics together with researchers in different fields and reflect upon how they can be useful in our work. So we decided to turn this blog post into a conversation. This is our first trial and as usual, any feedback is appreciated.

Michelle: Ilyena, as a start, how would you summarize Barad’s work on intra-action?

Ilyena: Prof Karen Barad is a theorist who came up with the theory of agential realism. This is an opposing theory to the typical interaction, coined intra-action, where the world is composed of phenomena: “ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies”. The main difference in intra-action to interaction, is that entities (objects) cannot exist without each other (as presumed in interaction) but instead are formed from the intra-action with each other. This theory, explores the entanglement of matter and meaning, in terms of the relation between discourse and materiality: its ideation of engagement.

Despite this theory originating from theoretical physics the key framework arguments she brings into her book (meeting the universe halfway) can be applied to ACI (Animal-Computer Interaction).

  • The scientist is always part of the study and through this acknowledgement of involvement the science can be made more credible.
  • Politics and ethical issues are always part of scientific work
  • It is impossible to have full control over everything. Whilst science is part of the intra-action the humans (and their culture constructs) shape knowledge, they cannot control everything.

How did you interpret this theory?

Michelle: Thanks for summarizing it so concisely and making a useful connection to ACI. To me this framework clearly aligns with other principles that have been developed in the area of posthumanism regarding the view that object and subject cannot be separated from each other. For me this also means that we are always influenced by our own subjective way of being. By being inside an individual human body we cannot escape from both mentally and physically, everything we see around us is perceived through our own individual lens. Everything in the world co-exists and continuously influences each other. This is also evident in the (small amount of) work I got to read from philosophers such as Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, and Peter-Paul Verbeek.

When we do research with animals I think that these insights become extremely important, because, as you also pointed out, it means that

  1. We cannot be objective as researchers, we are always influenced by our own perceptions, values, political believes, ethical standards, individual characters, etc.;
  2. We can never truly understand the experience and perceptions of the animals we do research with. If our goal is to contribute to animal welfare, but we fail to understand their experience by definition, how can we then understand what we are even aiming for?

This is a pretty scary thought, don’t you think?

Ilyena: It’s an interesting point on animal welfare and I think in terms of ACI, all we can do is aim for what we think is best whilst, in a self-reflective standpoint, acknowledge that we cannot understand everything only perceive. In this respect it is a very agential realism point of view.

For me at this point, there is a clear cross over space between agential realism and Donna Haraway’s work. Haraway describes a ‘dance’ that forms from a dog and a human both interacting together and with Barad saying there is something that is formed (an entity) from this. For my work in ACI, it is this formation between entities (human, machine & animal) that I aim to capture and equally create. The murky area in all of this is the definition of what is an interaction/intra-action: how do you measure that an interaction is taking place? Does a non-human animal has to be aware of this interaction on some level for it to hold meaning towards the animal and be an interaction? I would argue that there needs to be some acknowledgement of interaction taking place, I am not sure how you feel about this?

Michelle: I think here we need to acknowledge that assigning a particular descriptive meaning to an event in order to reflect upon it (and assign the label ‘inter/intra – action’ to it) is a typically human affair. To the animal, this engagement might be more directly meaningful and less influenced by linguistic labels. The inter/intra – action is complex and might be shaped in different ways for both the human and the animal.

I think what could be useful is trying to identify and reflect on what we share together in this interaction. In the case of playfulness, how do we play together, on our own terms? How do we share this experience together? How do we communicate to each other? What can we learn from the animal and by engaging in this shared activity? How can we use this for designing artefacts that take the animal’s perspective into account? I don’t actually think we can express these experiences in scientific measurements, because I think we can learn more from the experience as a whole, rather than highlighting a single component of it.

Ilyena: similarly to ACI though in defining what is and is not an intra-action, it seems easier to point out what isn’t than is. This can be seen in agential realisms idealistic argument against the human exclusivity of agency, objects and things in constant interactivity, where it backwards operates through what intra-action doesn’t do. This concept of agency is tied up in the possibility of intra-action when in fact it doesn’t belong anywhere but within everywhere and between the actions: our choices.

I am not sure how I feel about the intra-action arising from the two entities. From Barad’s work, through the co-occurrence of interactions, it implies that through our intra-actions we are formed and thus by ACI system developers our machinery would not only change the whole study agenda; but also the people involved. This leads me to wonder if Barad thinks we exist through our intra-actions: is this not our choices we make that we exist through? Is it not through my continual intra-action with my dog and his intra-action that our relationship exists and that we both exist? In this terminology I agree that we cannot exist alone like typical interaction presumes and there is much more continuity to relationships. Maybe in the space between our choices, and in the connections of the intra-actions that pre-exist through this that we exist, that ACI needs to exist in. In this way ACI is responsive acknowledgement (an agency) into and part of the intra-action and we, as a partial controller over the machinery, should recognize this accordingly. How did you take this concept?

Michelle: I think that ACI is definitely more about the spaces between the elements that are involved rather than about the actors themselves. The inter/intra-action consists of active components that constantly shape and influence each other. This is not only limited to the human, animal, and artefact that are subjectively involved. There are numerous other things that play a role in this as well such as the environment (like other artefacts in the room that we are in) and external influences (like sounds that distract us from what we are engaging in, or the weather that influences our behaviour). As designers we should be aware of the complexity that is involved in the changes we make with our designs, and that the way in which our design is used is rarely the same as we intended. I think this is particularly important when we design for other beings, since it becomes even harder to foresee what will happen.

Ilyena: The problems I have with this theory is the presumption that there is no pre-existing entities but that it only forms from the intra-action. What exactly does this mean? Can we not exist solely? There seems to be no map of exactly how this theory exists with the interior and exteriority of this phenomenon: this agential cut. In terms of ACI, where can researchers cut the space between humans, non-humans and machinery? This is only made more elusive by Bared creating an enormous definition of what can be, or is, a phenomenon. Do you have any issues with this concept?

Michelle: conceptually, I like the idea of embracing this complexity and thinking about inter/intra-actions as a whole, rather than breaking it down into smaller components. However practically it becomes quite difficult to work with as researchers with the need to do two things: asking questions that allow us to find specific answers, and describing our work in written or spoken words. I think these two things are problematic when we are involved in such complex encounters. First, the need for specific answers is limiting the opportunity to treat things it its totality. Second, the need to articulate our findings in words is challenging when we engage in interactions with other species that do not engage in language, because it forces us to describe mutual encounters from our perspective.

Perhaps our conversation actually proposed more question than it answered! Therefore, we would like to invite other researchers in ACI to comment on what they’ve taken away from Barad’s theory of agential realism and how they position ACI, themselves and there research within it. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


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