A Question is a Measurement

by Alexandra Ionescu

Fig. 1 Woman and dense atomic cloud, J.P Wolff, 1950s

During the Fall 2019 semester, two of my liberal arts classes assigned 101 readings and over 1000 pages to read from September to December in precisely 101 days. I wondered what would happen if I attempt to understand the readings through the questions the different authors asked and what happens to a question when it is taken outside its context.

At that time, I was enrolled in a physics class, and we have just been introduced to Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” Heisenberg formulated in one of his thought experiments that the position and the momentum of a particle cannot be measured with absolute prcision, simultaneously. In the act of measurement, one value must be sacrificed.

Besides, theoretical physicist Erwin Schrodinger argued that a system could be in multiple states at once. When the measurement is made, its wave function collapses, allowing one of the states to emerge.

Werner Heisenberg stated that “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”Therefore, I imagined a question as a measurement one makes into any given text, where all questions co-exist in simultaneity.

Out of simultaneity, meaning emerges.

Our semester was divided into 11 modules:  
1. Land
2. Species
3. Air
4. Science
5. Wilderness
6. Animal
7. Food
8. Energy
9. Water
10. Waste
11. Climate

In total I have found over 200 questions and tried to find patterns among them. I became curious to understand if different authors are asking the same questions, I tried to see if there is any trace of a collective consciousness, and quest.

I made 36 measurements.
(a question = a measurement)
(some texts did not contain any questions)

Do not expect to make any sense. That is because the questions are isolated from their context.


“What are Hyperobjects?” (Morton, 21)

“So, is the Earth’s atmosphere in danger of becoming more like that of Venus, unlivable?” (Serres, 4)

“Is the behavior of the system suddenly going to be disrupted? Is it possible to describe, estimate, calculate, even conceive, and ultimately steer this global change? Will the climate become warmer? Can one forsee some of the consequences of such transformations and expect, for example, a sudden or gradual rise in sea levels? What would become, then, of all the low countries – Holland, Bangladesh, or Louisiana – submerged beneath a new deluge? According to the second interpretation, this is something new under the sun, something rare and abnormal, whose causes can be evaluated but whose consequences cannot: can it be acclimated by standard climatology?” (Serres, 4)

“But who is on the fourth corner of the square or at the end of the gyroscope axis? Who is doing violence to the worldwide world? What do our tacit agreements cover up? Can we draw a global picture of the worldly world, of our strictly social contracts?” (Serres, 7)

“Can an individual actor, lost in these gigantic masses, still say "1" when the old collectivities, themselves so lightweight, have already been reduced to uttering a paltry and outmoded "we"? (Serres, 17)

“The Philosopher of Science asks but who, then, is inflicting on the world, which is henceforth a common objective enemy, this harm that we hope is still reversible, this oil spilled at sea, this carbon monoxide spread in the air by the millions of tons, these acidic and toxic chemicals that come back down with the rain . . . whence comes this filth that is choking our little children with asthma and covering our skin with blotches? Who, beyond private and public persons? What, beyond enormous metropolises, considered either as aggregations of individuals or as networks of relations?” (Serres, 32)

“What do we give back, for example, to the objects of our science, from which we take knowledge? What should we give back to the world? What should be written down on the list of restitutions?” (Serres, 38)

“If the industrial way of life was what got us into this crisis, then the question is, why think in terms of species, surely a category that belongs to a much longer history? Why could not the narrative of capitalism-and hence its critique-be sufficient as a framework for interrogating the history of climate change and understanding its consequences?” (Chakrabarty, 217)

“How does the crisis of climate change appeal to our sense of human universals while challenging at the same time our capacity for historical understanding?” (Chakrabarty, 201)

“If, indeed, globalization and global warming are born of overlapping processes, the question is, how do we bring them together in our understanding of the world?” (Chakrabarty, 200)

“How do we hold the two together as we think the history of the world since the Enlightenment? How do we relate to a universal history of life-to universal thought, that is-while retaining what is of obvious value in our postcolonial suspicion of the universal?” (Chakrabarty, 219)

“How many art historians would interpret a log or a brook in the same manner in which they interpret a painting?” (Kelsey, 10)

“How much carbon, we might ask, does it take to carry out an international conference on art and climate change?” (Kelsey, 11)


“How then does the world look in which our negative model exists (“da ist”) Is it the same world as ours, only seen from a different perspective? Or is it an environment, with the vampyroteuthis at its center, that somewhere or somehow overlaps with our environment? Such questions must be asked before we can follow it into tis abyss.” (Flusser and Bec, 30)

“What is meant exactly when one speaks of a “species” the origin and extinction of which is supposedly of such great concern?” (Flusser and Bec, 31)

“But how can this Darwinian, sociobiological explanation of vampyroteuthic culture be reconciled with its orgasmic, orphic, and artistic character?” (Flusser and Bec, 53)

“How foolish can humans be to entrust their acquired information to lifeless objects such as paper or stone?” (Flusser and Bec, 62)


“Thus, four ways of owing hold sway in the sacrificial vessel that lies ready before us. They differ from one another, yet they belong together. What unites them from the beginning? In what does this playing in unison of the four ways of being responsible play? What is the source of the unity of the four causes? What, after all, does this owing and being responsible mean, thought as the Greeks thought it?” (Heidegger, 292)

“But how does bringing forth happen, be in nature or in handwork and art?” ((Heidegger, 293)

“What is modern technology?” (Heidegger, 296)

“Does such revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing?” (Heidegger, 305)

“For example – what pertains to all kinds of trees – oaks, beeches, birches, firs – is the same “treeness” Is then the essence of technology, enframing, the common genus for everything technological?” (Heidegger, 311)

“Can the category of the human persist, practically speaking, without such forms indebted to

fossil fuels?” (Lemanger, 6)

“How to power the air conditioners of Europe, or of New York City, on a grid that we saw dramatically collapse in the northeastern United States and southern Canada, also in the early twenty-first century?” (Lemanger, 8)


“If we are radical gardeners together is it possible that we might be able to save the world, just when it needs saving – we need saving – most?” (McKay, 13)

“Can we describe as “milk sharing” the nursing that takes places across species—as in a mother’s voluntary and affectionate suckling of an infant of another species, as was common for pigs, dogs, monkeys, and bear cubs in precolonial Polynesia, the forests of South America, and the hunter-gatherer societies of Southeast Asia, Australia, and Tasmania? Or is taking the milk of another mother—whether a human mother or a cow mother, goat, sheep, or elephant—to be appropriately described as “gift,” “wages,” or “theft”? What is milk “worth”?” (Gaard, 599)

“How does drinking this bovine mother’s milk shape human identity? Who do we become?” (Gaard, 613)

“Do we go to the restaurant our friends want to visit even though it has steps and we will have to be carried? Do we eat with a fork in our hands, versus the fork in our mouth, or no fork at all, to make ourselves more accept- able at the table - to avoid eating "like an animal"? Do we draw attention to the fact that the space we have been invited to debate in is one of unacknowledged- edged privilege and ableism?” (Taylor, 760)

“How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible?" (Taylor, 760)


“But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here? (Foucault)

“if all the animals divided up here can be placed without exception in one of the divisions of this list, then aren’t all the other divisions to be found in that one division too? And then again, in what space would that single, inclusive division have its existence?” (Foucault)

“When we establish a considered classification, when we say that a cat and a dog resemble each other less than two greyhounds do, even if both are tame or embalmed, even if both are frenzied, even if both have just broken the water pitcher, what is the ground on which we are able
to establish the validity of this classification with complete certainty. On what ‘table’, according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things? What is this coherence – which, as is immediately apparent, is neither determined by an a priori and necessary concatenation, nor imposed on us by immediately perceptible contents?” (Foucault)

“How was the Classical age able to define this realm of ‘natural history’, the proofs and even the unity of which now appear to us so distant, and as though already blurred? What is this field in which nature appeared sufficiently close to itself for the individual beings it contained to be
classified, and yet so far removed from itself that they had to be so by the medium of analysis and reflection?” (Foucault)


“A scientific worldview answers the key questions:
1. What is the world made of? (the ontological question)
2. How does change occur? (the historical question)
3. How do we know? (the epistemological question)

Worldviews such as animism, Aristotelianism, mechanism, and quantum field theory construct answers to these fundamental questions differently.
Environmental history poses similar questions:
1. What concepts describe the world?
2. What is the process by which change occurs?
3. How does a society know the natural world?” (Merchant, 5) 


Jane Bennett’s questions from the chapter Political Ecologies, found in her book “Vibrant Matter”: 

1. “Even if a convincing case is made for worms as active members of, say, the ecosystem of a rainforest, can worms be considered members of a public?”
2. “What is the difference between an ecosystem and a political system? Are they analogs? Two names for the same system at different scales?”
3. “What is the difference between an actant and a political actor? Is there a clear difference?”
4. “Does an action count as political by virtue of its having taken place “in” a public?”
5. “Are there nonhuman members of a public?”
6. “What, in sum, are the implications of a (meta)physics of VIBRANT MATERIALITY for political theory?”
7. “How can communication proceed when many members are nonlinguistic?”
8. “Can we theorize more closely the various forms of such communicative energies?
9. How can humans learn to hear or enhance our receptivity for “propositions” not expressed in words? How to translate between them?”
10. “What kind of institutions and rituals of democracy would be appropriate?”
11. “But what if we loosened the tie between participation and human language use, encountering the world as a swarm of vibrant materials entering and leaving agentic assemblages?”
12. “Did the typical American diet play any role in endangering the widespread susceptibility to the propaganda leading up to the invasion in Iraq?”
13. “Do sandstorms make a difference to the spread of so-called sectarian violence?”
14. “Does mercury enact autism?”
15. “In what ways does the effect on sensibility of a video game exceed the intentions of its  designers and users?”
16. “Can a hurricane bring down a president?”
17. “Can HIV mobilize homophobia or an evangelical revival?”
18. “Can an avian virus jump from birds to humans and create havoc for systems of health care and international trade and travel?”
19. “Are you ready, and at what price of sacrifice, to live the good life together?”

Karen Barad’s questions from her essay “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”: 
1. “What compels the belief that we have a direct access to cultural representations and their content that we lack toward the things represented?”
2. “How did language come to be more trustworthy than matter?”
3. “Why are language and culture granting their own agency and historicity while matter is figured as passive and immutable, or at best inherits a potential for change derivatively from language and culture?”
4. “How does one even go about inquiring after the material conditions that have led us to such a brute reversal of naturalist beliefs when materiality itself is always already figured within a linguistic domain as its condition of possibility?”
5. “For example, does scientific knowledge accurately represent an independently existing reality?”
6. “Does language accurately represent its referent?”
7. “Does a given political representative, legal counsel, or piece of legislation accurately represent the interests of the people allegedly represented?”
8. “What is the nature of causality on this account?”
9. “What possibilities exist for agency, for intervening in the world’s becoming?”
10. “Where do the issues of responsibility and accountability enter in?”

I am ending with a quote from Michael Serres, “Birth of Physics.”


“So, the vers is the verse is vertex is vortex. As verus is “a preposition for questions of place,” the inclination to veer away from the non-position of disorder is the pre-position to aposition, or the stating of a (pro)-position. The vers, the turn-toward-verse, causes Sense to birth itself form the non-sense of noise.” 

Works cited

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to             Matter.” Gender and Science: New Issues, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801–831.,                                           doi:10.14361/9783839403365-008.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009,               pp. 197–222., doi:10.1086/596640.
Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies.” American Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3,               2013, pp. 595–618., doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0040.
Flusser Vilém, et al. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique        
De Recherche Paranaturaliste. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Routledge, 2010.
Heidegger, Martin, and William Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays.               Harper Perennial, 2013.
Heisenberg, Werner. Physics & Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. Harper Perennial,             2007.
Kelsey, Robin. “Ecology, Sustainability, and Historical Interpretation.” American Art, vol. 28, no. 3,         2014, pp. 8–13., doi:10.1086/679694.
LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford University               Press, 2016.
McKay, George. Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden. Frances Lincoln,             2013.
Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England.                           University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of               Minnesota Press, 2014.
Philips, Dana. “Excremental Ecocriticism and the Global Sanitation Crisis.” Material Ecocriticism,          
by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, Indiana University Press, 2014, pp. 172–85

Taylor, Sunaura. “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship.” American                         Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3, 2013, pp. 757–764., doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0042.
Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Wertheim, Christine. “A Science of Exceptions: On Michel Serres's ‘The Birth of Physics.’” Los                   Angeles Review of Books, 14 Aug. 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-science-of-                  exceptions-on-michel-serress-the-birth-of-physics/.