Sunday, January 6, 2013

A New Year’s Resolution: Quantum Storytelling




     Claiming a title carries with it certain privileges and responsibilities: husband, father, doctor, horseman, storyteller.  Each of these textures personal integrity, and a title is not taken on lightly, especially if you believe, as I do, that integrity stands alongside truth and it requires walking the talk.  Sometimes a title just feels off.  Perhaps it’s compromised due to the way others have worn it.  Perhaps a modifier or a compound noun offers the alteration needed to make a better fit.  For example, “natural” horsemanship distinguishes the quality of riding that’s part of my identity as different from that associated with breaking horses. 
     Wearing the label “storyteller” in academic circles is rather like putting the kick-me sign on my backside.  So imagine my interest upon seeing the term Quantum Storytelling.  Like the incantation of a fairy godmother, Quantum might transform a creature out of the frog pond and into the Royal Court of Physics.  At least it might make the Council of Deans wonder: So is storytelling more than glorified show-&-tell?  Is it possible that he does more than reading aloud nursery rhymes? 
     There’s privilege—but then along comes responsibility.  Tacking quantum in front of storytelling requires wading into the murky territory of quantum physics.  Yuck.  Well, at least physicist/feminist Karen Barad promises that the mathematics in her explication does not exceed multiplication.  In her 544 page Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, she asserts instead (and accurately, in my judgment) that:
“The challenge is in following the arguments, and this takes care and sometimes more than a bit of patience, especially when the results run counter to one's intuition. The issues in the foundations of quantum mechanics are subtle and complex, and therefore it is crucial that we rigorously engage with the issues, paying careful attention to the necessary details” (p. 248).
The density of Barad’s text owes much to the multiplicity of meanings in contested concepts where reality, cause-effect, material, measurement, and much more play like chameleons along the physical/metaphysical borderland.
     Quantum, as its applications in physics have proven deadly serious, also merits the highest level of cognitive and ethical attention in the world of story. To claim quantum storytelling, we’ll have to confront the hegemonic paradigm that Barad articulates as the worldview around classical physics:
Representationalism, metaphysical individualism, and humanism work hand in hand, holding this worldview in place. These forces have such a powerful grip on contemporary patterns of thought that even some of the most concerted efforts to escape the grasp of these anthropocentric forces have failed. Niels Bohr's philosophy-physics poses an energetic challenge not only to Newtonian physics and metaphysics but to representationalism and concordant epistemologies, such as conventional forms of realism and social constructivism, as well  (pp. 134-135).
     Barad challenges us on getting lost in representation and emphasizes the risk of metaphor.  While I love the symbolic, I like her point; just as any rider should also muck stalls, anyone engaging in policy or theory should regularly get in the grime of poverty to avoid being vaporized in talk-about.  Perhaps the most compelling reason I ride horses comes in the close contact with physical experience.  That’s what drives the power of symbols.  The body fires imagination and fuses applications beyond the dressage arena as well as within it.  Each touch of more subtle ask-trust-release-response that’s generated in good riding fuels capacity for better engagement in the power dimensions of any relationship: husband-wife, teacher-student, human-environment, and on.
     While quantum storytelling is still storytelling and a celebration of the imagination, a close cousin to metaphysics, my teeth grind when the body gets overly neglected.  Storytelling easily goes too new-agey; it needs to be coupled with real social justice, with personal health, with all-my-relations.  The quantum physics, as told by Barad, serves this purpose.  Matter stands tall, inseparable from mattering. 
     As we work to establish the significance, the distinctive meaning and purpose of quantum storytelling, we would do well to consider these three conceptual forces (representationalism, metaphysical individualism, and humanism) because their tentacles grip existing forms of storytelling and other symbolic structures as well as classical physics.  I wince when storytelling plays in fairy tales and fails to translate into matter; equally painful is the personal story that sustains injustice and isolation because it doesn’t move past the arrogance of humanism.  Barad models the issues of this force with special application to physics.   Those of us who work with story for social justice can learn from her lead. 
     The challenge of going against a prevailing worldview, especially when it’s penetrated through the collective unconscious as well as entrenched in the personal and cultural status system, looms large.  Barad’s elaboration of quantum offers storytellers a powerful partner; we only have to meet the universe halfway.