To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Amy Catanzano: Excerpt from “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light” (Part One)

June 2009

The more I think about theoretical physics and the implications of its principles on poetry and prose, the more I question the spacetime of my own poems. I also have new questions of the poems I am reading: How does gravity behave? Where does the poem’s universe warp? Broader questions surface: Is poetry a form of space/time travel? What is the result of using a causality-based language in a universe where, through the use of telescopes, the farther we look into space the farther we are looking back into time? By this I mean: Telescopes are time machines.

When we look into space from the relative position of Earth, we view objects in space as they existed in the past. It takes about eight minutes for the light from the sun to reach our eyes. This delay in light travel appears constant throughout the known universe. In a context where looking into space is looking into the past, the determination of how far away something is from our relative position of Earth is made by measuring the expansion of the universe in relation to an object’s light spectrum, or what’s called its redshift. Just as noteworthy is the word developed for this measure of spacetime. Light, a unit of space, marries years, a unit of time, and they make a hyphenated hybrid named light-years. Under this ambiguity of spacetime, can we describe what is happening? In Happily (2000), Lyn Hejinian writes, “This is happening” and “All that happened is what is happening.” Is it possible to write what is happening?

According to the theory of the Big Bang as well as data from NASA space probes, the universe has been expanding from a dimensionless point of extreme density and temperature for 13.7 billion years. Matter, gravity, and electromagnetic forces coalesced, and novel elements were introduced into the universe. Each novel configuration of matter, from elementary particles to solar systems, marks an increase in spatial and temporal complexity as the universe expands. Terence McKenna once proposed that the most novel form of matter in the universe might be situated behind our eyes. If this is even somewhat accurate, novelty, as a trait and force of evolution, expressed through the action of innovative language, which is an activity of perception, is one way of understanding consciousness and also conceiving of what is happening.

Spin the Kaleidoscope

Neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain (who, sadly, recently passed away), in his book, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (2001), examines how in geometry, Euclid codified space into a field of knowledge where abstract thought is conceived through diagrams, and space is organized as if its points could be connected by an imaginary web of straight lines that do not exist in the natural world. As Euclid articulated linear space, Aristotle articulated linear time. Just as imaginary lines in nature became the key to Euclidian space, sequence, duration, past, present, and future became the key to Aristotelian time. Based on his linear notions of time and Euclid’s notions of linear space, Aristotle developed rules of logic and problem-solving techniques using syllogisms, if-then hypotheses. Newtonian physics was one direct lineage of Aristotelian time and Euclidian space in that it described the natural world in mathematical relationships by developing a system of ordering called classical mechanics.

Shlain argues that breakthroughs in science often happen near the same time as similar breakthroughs in art. The development of perspective through a single vanishing point gave visual art the third realistic dimension of depth and rejected years of flat depictions of space and time. While the Renaissance painters were elaborating on the development of perspective, the scientific method was developed from realistic observations of nature by means of measurement. Similarly, Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity within a few years of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developing cubism and Gertrude Stein using language for similar experiments. Einstein asked a new question, one that would usurp thousands of years of Euclidian space and Aristotelian time. He asked: How would the world look to someone sitting astride a beam of light? Shlain notes that Picasso, through cubism, and Einstein, through relativity, imagined that all points in space along a path of observation occupy the same location, simultaneously. In his theory of general relativity, Einstein illustrated how the world would look to someone with access to multiple, and all, perspectives at the same time. In cubism, objects are often viewed from multiple angles at the same time, fractured into visual fragments and rearranged so that the viewer does not have to move through space in time in order to view the objects in linear sequence. In cubism and relativity, space and time appear relative and inseparable, uniting in a new dimension where Euclidian and Aristotelian notions of space and time—those of linearity, sequence, duration, and logic—have no meaning. Michael Palmer: “All clocks are clouds.” “A and Not-A are the same” (“Autobiography,” At Passages, 1995).

The Multiverse

According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, light binds space, time, matter, and energy, and the interplay between these forces results in gravity. In Einstein’s theory, space is not empty, and matter does not inertly move through space. Matter tells spacetime how to warp the spacetime in its vicinity; likewise, warped spacetime tells matter how to behave. The theory of relativity challenged classical mechanics on large scales through observations in astronomy. Conversely, quantum theory challenged classical mechanics on small scales through observations of molecules. In quantum theory, the relationship between the observed and the observer is one in which the observer affects observed reality. In quantum theory, matter at the molecular level swerves in and out of observation and can appear in multiple states of time and space simultaneously.

Theoretical physicists today recognize there is a problem with relativity and quantum theory both being accurate models of physical reality. Relativity breaks down at quantum and molecular scales. Quantum theory breaks down at relativistic scales of space and time. In quantum theory, the relationship of the observed and the observer is made new, but Newton’s conceptions of space and time are retained. In relativity, space and time are made new, but Newton’s conceptions of the observed and the observer are retained. Theoretical physicists have been attempting to bridge relativity with quantum mechanics by developing a single theory of physical reality, a theory of everything, which would allow relativity’s conceptions of space and time as well as quantum theory’s conceptions of the observed and the observer.

Dr. Lisa Randall, a Harvard professor and theoretical particle physicist (who I heard lecture in 2007 after she returned from CERN’s massive particle accelerator, the large hadron collider), suggests that gravity, unlike other forces such as electromagnetism, is present in all dimensions of a higher-dimensional model of the universe. This theory of everything must contain a theory of quantum gravity that addresses space and time from small and large scales. Theories of quantum gravity are unified field theories, based on field theory physics, and some are referred to as M-theory, short for membrane theory. One of the most well known of these unified field theories of quantum gravity is string theory, or superstring theory. In proposals such as string theory, spacetime is an ambiguous ecology, and the known universe is thought to be part of a larger wilderness, a multiverse comprised of multiple and perhaps infinite dimensions of space and time that are created by collisions between subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy. String theory attempts to define the evolution of space and matter from the connections between these vibrating membranes of energy. The multiverse, a concept rooted in science fiction, is now an accepted theory of physical reality in theoretical physics. Poems and other innovative languages also seem to be multiversal, invoking invisible ecosystems outside eye-level, molecular and astronomical scales, ambiguous spacetimes, and collisions between membranes or borders. One problem of the quest for a single theory of everything is the reductive nature of its premise. How can a single theory of physical reality describe a universe comprised of multiple dimensions? It seems multiple theories would be needed to describe the complexity of the multiverse, multiple quantum and relative theories (like poems) that are mutable, relational, and paradoxical. Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)” (“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, 1881).
[To be continued on 8/12/09 …]

EDITOR’S NOTE. As is true in many cases, Catanzano’s poetics exists side by side with her poems in which the intersection between poetry & science plays itself out in a contemporary, even futuristic form. The key work at present is her Multiversal (Fordham University Press. 2009), of which Michael Palmer writes by way of introduction: “Amy Catanzano offers us a poetic vision of multiple orders and multiple forms, of a fluid time set loose from linearity and an open space that is motile and multidimensional. The work exists at once in a future-past and in a variety of temporal modes. … In a time of displacement such as ours, she seems to say, in place of ‘universals’ we must imagine ‘multiversals,” in place of the fixed, the metamorphic. … ‘A blaze within a tighter blaze, engulfed.’ ‘Earth pivots on a pearl.’” For a further take on the poetry-science connection as it first came into a radical poetics, check out the posting here on Goethe, Shelley, & others – a dissolution of boundaries that continues into the present.


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Anonymous said...

How is this essay seminal? Each paragraph is an edited block from an outside source. There is precious little analytical mortar and the resultant connection to poetry is spurious at best,

Amy Catanzano said...

This comment presumably addresses Part One of my essay, which is an excerpt from a longer work. Part One mainly serves to introduce the larger frameworks that relate to my thesis, frameworks that may or may not be common knowledge to readers. My arguments develop throughout the entire essay (all four sections) and employ not only analysis but also non-analytical methods and approaches to my subject. Parts Three and Four are forthcoming here on Poems and Poetics in the weeks ahead.