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, August 12, 2009

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

[The first part of "Quantum Poetics," with a note & commentary on the author, was posted here on July 22, 2009.]

Clinamen’s Swerve

My sense of quantum poetics is sourced in the incandescent writings of French symbolist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), creator of ’pataphysics, a science of imaginary solutions conceived as a next step beyond metaphysics where exceptions are the rule. [Other sources of these topics include Christian Bök’s ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2001); Stephanie Strickland’s essay, “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts” (2007), an approach based in virtuality; and Daniel Albright’s Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (1997).] The inaugural performance of Jarry’s best known work, the absurdist play Ubu-Roi (1896), was incendiary. Bizarre stage settings spooked the audience before Jarry shouted the first spoken word of the play, “Merde!” Half the audience walked out while the other half, including Guillaume Apollinaire, hailed the play as a masterpiece. According to Shlain, who cites Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s essay in Art Quarterly 34, “A New Facet of Cubism: ‘The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry’ Reinterpreted” (1971), Apollinaire was one of the first writers to defend cubism against its detractors when he spoke about the “new measure of space, which in the language of the modern studios are designated by the term, fourth dimension.” Jarry’s experiments, along with cubism, were prominent influences in the development of surrealism by Apollinaire, André Breton, and others.

One foundational context in Jarry’s work is clinamen, a term first coined by the Greek philosopher Epicurus and later reinterpreted by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. Clinamen refers to the spontaneous, microscopic swerving of atoms in space as they fall in a vertical path. The swerve of atoms from their original trajectories was responsible for the creation of matter, it was reasoned, since without the swerve, atoms would never touch to form bodies. According to Roger Shattuck, clinamen is expressed in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In literature, the idea is cited as a basis for oulipo and other writing techniques. In The Anxiety of Influence (1997), Harold Bloom used the term to talk about how writers swerve away from their predecessors. Joan Retallack, in The Poethical Wager (2003), talks of Epicurus’ swerve and a possible “poetics of the swerve.” In a chapter titled “Clinamen” in Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neo-Scientific Novel (1911), Henri Rousseau is given an animated painting machine named Clinamen, a “beast” and “mechanical monster,” to alter canvases hanging in a museum with “primary colors ranged according to the tubes of its [the machine’s] stomach.” The machine creates thirteen new “paintings,” each described in a prose poem. This one is called “Love”:

“The soul is wheedled by Love who looks exactly like an iridescent veil and assumes the masked face of a chrysalis. It walks upon inverted skulls. Behind the wall where it hides, claws brandish weapons. It is baptized with poison. Ancient monsters, the wall’s substance, laugh into their green beards. The heart remains red and blue, violet in the artificial absence of the iridescent veil that it is weaving.”

Poetry and other innovative languages seem to be forms of clinamen as are other modes of perception that invite the swerve to interrupt the path. Clinamen’s swerve usurps the imaginary web of straight lines in Euclidean conceptions of space and Aristotelian conceptions of time. Developments in theoretical physics illustrate that swerves do not just happen at cultural or artistic levels but also within physical reality. Like the relationship between matter and spacetime in relativity, the spacetime of language is affected by and affects these spatial and temporal swerves. Just as swerves in space locate and dissipate words on a page, swerves in time inspire and dissolve rhythm. And like the relationship of the observed and the observer in quantum theory, the reader influences text through interpretation. It is also in this way that meaning, in both the new physics and poetic innovations, is a process rather than an end point. Swerves in spacetime—in physical reality, poetry, and consciousness—detach linear time from its imaginary web of straight lines, allowing for the experience of all points in space at the same time. Gertrude Stein examined this phenomenon in her theory of the continuous present. Jarry, in his essay, “How to Construct a Time Machine” (1899), developed the idea of an imaginary present, a second, symmetrical present that is used to redefine duration as a construct of memory.

Poetry and the Invisible Universe

Astrophysicists propose that ninety-six percent of the known universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy. Yet we often participate in reality as if the invisible is revealed, as if the universe is seen. Perhaps consciousness, operating in quantum, relative, and multiple states at the same time, and as part of the multiverse’s ecology, unbound by the linearity of space and time, is evolving toward novelty through art such as poetry, which is an innovative language of the imagination, and which might equip the invisible universe to see us, so we might, in turn, see it. This seeing might not function as an epistemological seeing but more like the way a viewer perceives Wonder Woman’s invisible jet in the sky: imagining to see the invisible jet and not to see the representative outline, the viewer perceives the jet as both invisible and detectable simultaneously.

Novelty also seems to be a primary action of evolution. Reading and writing innovative languages evolves consciousness, where our faculties of perception and experience extend as we learn. Reading and writing imaginatively also rearranges consciousness so that we are receptive to novelty in our encounters. Perhaps being receptive to novelty through the regular exposure to and practice of innovative language, which is an activity of perception and experience, is part of an evolutionary process of novelty. Culturally, novel languages operate on different frequencies, like radio waves, registering as alien languages to those who don’t, or refuse to, encounter them. If the universe is comprised of multiple dimensions of space and time beyond the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time we normally experience, and if language is operating beyond these normative dimensions, what is poetry? What are we when we write innovative languages? What are we when we read and hear them? Was Gertrude Stein writing at the speed of light?

In Mad Science in Imperial City (2005), Shanxing Wang asks: “Is there a 4th person narration?” In physics, the fourth dimension of space is time. It is a site of temporality, or, rather, when time intersects with the three dimensions of space. In a string-theory multiverse conceived of multiple dimensions of space and time, fourth-person narration invites us to consider temporality and higher dimensions in relation to point of view. To write within or beyond the fourth dimension of time might be to write outside of time, or in all times, making simultaneity itself a point of view, as in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves (1931). The stream-of-consciousness, first-person singular monologues of the six primary characters are framed by italicized sections describing the sun rising and setting over the sea during one day. The compression of time in the italicized frames swells against the elongated passages of time that follow the six lives from childhood through adulthood. Yet the monologues exist in present tense, thus colliding Jarry’s imaginary present and Stein’s continuous present with both the compression of time, as evidenced in the italicized frames, and the expansion of time, as shown in the primary narrative. By adopting the same non-realistic, artificial idiom, the monologues suggest that consciousness is both an individual and collective construct and reality and the self are constructed through language. Agency is multiplied and expanded through the varied immediacies of perceptions existing in a collective medium—which seems to be the sea-setting of the novel and also the novel itself. It is no surprise that Woolf thought of the text as a “play-poem.” Its self-reflexivity challenges expectations of form through its formal structures and also through overt strategies where characters directly address language, poetry, and story-telling. Such self-reflexivity provokes a relationship between fourth-person narration and the fourth dimension in physics; fish must jump out of the sea to perceive the waves in relation to the sea-bed and the sky.

At quantum scales, the components of the atom, electrons and neutrons, look identical, making the universe in quantum reality appear to look the same everywhere. Complexity in matter is not missing in quantum reality; it’s more likely our mechanical and biological instruments (our technology and senses) are unable to receive these details. The same phenomenon occurs at astronomical scales in space. What machines will we invent—and what senses will we evolve—to explore complexity at invisible scales? What poems could we be?

Sometimes the gravity in poems is absent: Zero-G. Some poems, strong with gravity, behave as if compressed undersea. Some poems have a similar gravity as Earth above the ocean; in these poems, apples drop straight from their tree.


Joe Betz said...

Thanks for posting these links on Amy Catanzano's poetry post. Truly interesting, and a nice development in the "What is poetry?" debate. Intersections between science and art will continue indefinitely.

Rusty Kjarvik said...

breathtaking evaluation of "The Waves" by Virginia Woolf, whose italics I once eyed with immersive vigour, induced into a tremendously mystical experience of longing to immerse my self in literature, as a wave laps against the ocean surface, she struck my mind, a mere adolescent at the time, with no one to share the absolute intensity of my insights with, until now, a fascinating gathering of sight, from these articles on quantum poetry, great work!