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Breaking Margins in Allen Fisher’s SPUTTOR and Rhys Trimble’s Hexerisk

‘I do not believe in things, I believe only in their relationship.’ – Georges Braque

‘It is not things that matter, but the relations between them.’ – E.T. Bell

I was reading Allen Fisher’s essay ‘Breaks Margin’ when his recent poetry book SPUTTOR arrived, so I began reading the book with those ideas in mind. ‘Breaks Margin’ was published in two parts: part as ‘Post-Modernism as Package’ in Poetics Journal 7, Berkley, 1987, and part as a discussion of the work of Harry Thubron and Ulli McCarthy in First Offence 8, Kent, 1993.

In the essay, Fisher questions whether relative and arbitrary are congruent terms, taking dispute with George Steiner’s comment that ‘The relativity, the arbitrariness of all aesthetic propositions, of all value-judgements is inherent in human consciousness and in human speech.’ Fisher argues that aesthetic propositions are not arbitrary, that relativity is in fact a ‘site of non-arbitrariness’.

Arbitrariness for Ferdinand de Saussure means that meaning is not intrinsic but relational. Signs are not essences, but a network of relations. The elements within a system are themselves arbitrary, but their relations are not. A sign is arbitrary if not for its relativity – it’s the relativity that gives it meaning and this is not intrinsic and can be changed.

The link between relativity in linguistics and relativity in physics is identified by Roman Jakobson, beginning with the concept of invariance:

‘The problem of invariance, according to Bell and other mathematicians, became particularly important in the 1870s. Simultaneously, Baudouin de Courtenay arrived at the concept of the phoneme, discovering that to operate scientifically with variations, we must establish the invariants… As we read in the history of mathematics, the full import of invariance was perceived only after the discovery of the principle of relativity, after 1916, with the book of Einstein on the general theory of relativity. The same may be said about linguistics, where precisely in 1916 the posthumous Cours de linguistique generale by Ferdinand de Saussure appeared, defining the basic entities of linguistics as relative and oppositive, and presenting the problem of relativity as fundamental for linguistics.’ (‘Pattern in Linguistics’, in Word and Language)

Invariance refers to elements which are left unchanged by transformation. Relativity shows that what is invariant is not the things in isolation but the relation between them. Linguists, like mathematicians, would identify and study relational invariants from a flux of variables. Topology would become the study of those qualitative properties which are invariant under isomorphic transformations. In Fisher’s essay, isomorphisms are similarities of shape, echoed recurrences: ‘Rather in the way that memory works, perhaps, a piece can be criss-crossed with connections and correspondences’ (Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music).

Fisher draws on Jan Mukarovsky’s proposition that aesthetic function is dominant in art and that it requires the audience’s engagement to produce it. To this he adds Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s suggestion that ‘The discourse of emancipation was, to a great extent, born within the discourse of aesthetics.’ These patterning processes found in art and emancipation are, as Gregory Bateson suggests, the same patterns of connectedness that constitute consciousness. Fisher proposes that this relational patterning preempts and transforms the arbitrary:

  • ‘practice where the aesthetic function dominates transforms part of the arbitrary into the specifically connected or implicitly repatterned.’
  • ‘Relativity becomes a metaphor for the potential patterning processes that preempt the arbitrary.’

Fisher’s idea that both the aesthetic function and consciousness result from patterns of connectedness is comparable to Roger Penrose’s suggestion that consciousness is the result of the collapse of the quantum wave function, when one particular pattern is chosen out of a multiplicity of superposed potential states.

Penrose offers a suggestion of what these superposed states may be. Following Einstein’s theory of relativity and gravity, where mass is a curvature of space-time, Penrose treats each superposed particle as a minute and evanescent change in the curvature of space-time.

However, Penrose’s model of ‘objective reduction’ (OR) differs from Fisher’s use of ‘decoherence’: OR is ‘self-collapse’, while Fisher’s favoured quantum model, decoherence, is caused by the interaction of the quantum superposition with the macroscopic environment.

In the quantum world, wave function is a superposition of multiple potentialities or realities, and decoherence is the process of collapsing this to a single choice or reality. Fisher’s treatment of decoherence is the opposite: for him, decoherence refers to a confidence in the necessity for a range of choices; it is a state of superposition, which offers multiple potentialities or realities. In the quantum world, in contrast, coherence means multiplicity – the coherent superposition of multiple possibilities – and decoherence is a kind of friction or dissipation which collapses this superposed multiplicity to a particular pattern.

While both objective reduction and decoherence are not induced by human observation or measurement, Fisher retains Heisenberg’s idea of the observer-dependent collapse. For Fisher, patterns of connectedness initiate a process of production in the reader. The wave function collapses as the reader collapses the multiple potential meanings of the text to a particular reading by making connections. Many texts try to limit the number of potential interpretations, but Fisher’s poetry seems to suspend it at the point of collapse, so that the reader becomes aware of their role in the process.

Unstable centres: SPUTTOR

Ideas of intrinsic, fixed properties and meanings are connected to notions of stable centres. In ‘Breaks Margin’, Fisher takes issue with an observation registered (but not endorsed by) Gayatri Spivak: ‘Humankind’s common desire for a stable centre, and for the assurance of mastery – through knowing or possessing’. Fisher says that this generalised aspiration for a stable centre misrepresents the asymmetry of the human form’s proprioceptors and organs. In Sputtor, he takes this stable centre as a space to disrupt through the breaking of margins. As Rudolph Arnheim says, ‘The boundary indicates what belongs and what does not…’ (The Power of the Centre). Frame and margin are elements that can be used to produce relational and gravitational force and dynamics.

In visual art, facturing margins and then breaking those margins is a method for creating tensions, lines of force, varying weights and dynamic geometries: objects are partially cut off by the frame, a head crosses an inner border, an arm leans over another.

In a poem, the page is a field framed by its edge. Stable centres and idealised margins can be employed in order to display their breakage. Various methods can be used to stabilise meaning and make it appear more or less fixed and intrinsic: punctuation, stanzas, line lengths, consistencies of font and presentation. These offer a potential for exactness, and opportunities to resist it.

In Sputtor, Fisher plays with ideas of centre and margin using techniques similar to those of visual artist Harry Thubron whose work is described in ‘Breaks Margin’. In fact, the layout of some of pages of Sputtor, particularly in the images of stacked housing and shed doors, remind me of Thubron paintings.

thubron fisher

Like Thubron’s paintings, Sputtor uses collage to investigate the gravitational forces of the page, heightening our proprioceptive sense of weight in the reading experience as lines leap across tears and gaps and launch across page edges. Like Thubron’s layering of various papers, cardboard, wood, fabric and other found materials to create an asymmetrical dynamic within the frame of the work, Sputtor juxtaposes and overlays strips and blocks of text and image, combining cut and torn edges, as textured planes that break and interrupt the margins of the page.

Fisher takes a found text, Andrew Wilson’s Space Shuttle Story (1986), and uses it as a scrapbook, physically pasting papers into the book. He works with the grid page layout of the shuttle book as a stable centre in which to improvise, while the ‘Human Poems’ that are pasted into the book make use of the sonnet form. There is no more stable centre in English poetry than the sonnet form and Fisher’s improvisations and transformations of the 14-line shape here are nothing less than a sonnet sequence for the human species at the end of the anthropocene.

Both page grid and sonnet form act as idealised margins which Fisher disrupts in a variety of ways to explore the gravitational forces of the page. Minimal punctuation (often none at all) and syntactical glitches encourage the reader to read across breaks, leaps across page tears, enjambments across stanza breaks. Phrases bleed into one another not bounded by punctuation. Lines break page margins encroaching onto next page. Font size squeezes and stretches to fit the page and sonnet shape. In ‘Human Conditions’, for example, the sonnet is interrupted by a strip of text from the Shuttle Story beneath. The page is cut on an enjambed line-break: ‘a long range reaction that acts / as personal enhancement in a long scream’. In the gap between stanzas we see a fragment of The Space Shuttle Story beneath: ‘black of space, and the pilot could see the curvature of the Earth and experience a few seconds of weightlessness’. This aptly evokes the proprioceptive effect for the reader as the leap across the gap induces a feeling of weightlessness. This is given ethical force later on by quotations from Mayer Hillman’s How We Can Save the Planet about ‘weightless’ forms of economic activity, which place no burden on the environment. It emphasises what Fisher says in ‘Breaks Margin’ about aesthetics being linked to emancipation and art being for survival, combating entropy through the initiation of patterning processes in the reader.

The sonnet form, such a recognisable structure, allows such breakages of the stable form to be more visible. We read the detached fragments of text as stanzas. We can see where a poem has been broken across pages, as in ‘Human Health’, where the octave discusses the evolution of perception in chreods (the sixth and seventh lines of the stanza printed on a separate strip of paper which cuts across the page) before leaping across to the opposite page for the sestet, which begins with a quatrain on the disposal of nuclear waste then jumps back in time in the couplet to prehistoric use of stone to scrape flesh from animals. On the subsequent double-page spread, elements of the same poem are repeated, but this time pushed to the margins at the bottom left and top right, with the majority of the rest of the page-spread taken up by a handwritten note on lined paper. This isomorphic transformation draws attention to the relational properties of the poem, the shifts in significance as centre becomes margin.

The leaps in context in ‘Human Health’ demonstrate how Sputtor takes place over vast stretches of time and enormous distances in space, from the cosmic to the subatomic over periods of millions of years. One text fragment clipped from Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men describes the approach: ‘Clearly we cannot walk at leisure through such a tract… We must fly… [but] we must also punctuate our flight with many descents.’ Fragments from this 1930s book throughout the text have the haunting effect of commenting on our present situation from an imagined future written in the past. The Stapledon quotation accurately captures the poetry’s disorientating zooms from an intricate pedestrian perspective to the wider horizons.

Fisher transforms dry textbook fragments into lyric moments. They are re-narrated as if the poet is observing and experiencing these things and use of first person plural and second person pronouns encourages an identification of perspective in the reader. Transposition of formal theoretical prose into the page-arrangements, stanza-shapes and line breaks associated with poetry is an isomorphism that reveals the relational variants and invariants of the text in the change of context. Reading these poems heightens the awareness of the body, the organs and proprioceptors, the environment, the cosmos and the subatomic, and the social and ethical issues in play – the complexity of living in the world – while the reading experience itself heightens awareness of gravitational pull of the page and at times jolts us to encourage proprioceptive orientation.

Further isomorphic transformations occur at times in the sonnet sequence when Fisher makes use of his system of rhyming transformations familiar from the Gravity as a consequence of shape project. For example, in ‘Human Anticipation’, the first three lines rhyme with lines 6-8 and lines 4-5 rhyme with 9-10. This also occurs between poems, as in the rhyming of the line ‘moulding into the hassle of a ham string Didley saffron’ in ‘Human Enterprise’ with the line ‘holding onto the tassel in an Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire’ in ‘Human Substance’. The rhyming phonemes are relational invariants in the poem’s flux of variables, criss-crossing connections between different sections of the book.

These textual isomorphisms are paralleled by correspondences of shape in the images used in the collages: on page 33 rocket tanks are placed next to images of insect larvae evoking similarities in shape, and on pages 26-7, rocket engines and thrusters are juxtaposed with images of bells, also echoed at another level in the text extract from Walter Benjamin quoting a passage of Baudelaire about bells. The horizontal lines of the poems rhyme with repeated images of venetian blinds. On page 14, above the found heading ‘The Shuttle Takes Shape’, the ideal shape of the shuttle is echoed in the rough folds of a crumpled page of memopad. The accompanying text on the subsequent page quotes Galileo seemingly describing the poetry’s horizontal motion compounded by accelerated vertical motion as the reading takes flight, lifting from the syntagmatic plane to the paradigmatic through a series of transformations.

Tears as paths: Hexerisk

Fisher’s aesthetic of breaking margins, exemplified in his practice in Sputtor, chimes for me with the energetic messiness of Rhys Trimble’s work, which I’ve been reading at the same time. In Trimble’s Hexerisk, six sheep tracks in a Bethesda field are isomorphic with the six sections of the book. Future polis overlaid on farm tracks: animal path and ley corridor autobahn.

In a blurb on his website, Trimble writes, ‘Hexerisk is about a six-point star-shaped intersection in the middle of the village I live in. The area is a filled-in slate mining quarry pit which is unsafe for building, and so allowed to remain a green area. Its criss-crossed crudely cut paths create a number of star-shaped intersections. One night I found myself looking up at the full moon standing directly on the point where six paths intersected. The sequences are based around a numerological topological concept of 3 major and 3 minor paths.’

The mystical relevance of the six paths (or three paths) recalls the sacred geometry of Alfred Watkins and Guy Underwood, drawn upon in Fisher’s early work, particularly Place. Situating himself at the centre of the star shape beneath the full moon, Trimble acts as a vertical conductor rod, tapping into a belief system, a lunar effect, invoking a connection with the natural world, as he did in Mynydd when he spent the night on the summit of Cadair Idris, an activity traditionally believed to induce either madness or a knack for poetry. The moon is also associated with madness, physical and psychological transformations.

In a text message to me he writes, ‘there are sort of arguments running through those sequences. Resurrection men is welsh wales stuff and the anti tesco one vaguely marxian. The smaller cut-ups are meant to complement the open field bits! Also 6-star metaphor for the whole macro-sequence.’

I look at a Bethesda satellite map on Google and you can see the six tracks cutting across the field and intersecting in a star-shape.


The town stretches and splays eastward and northward of the A5 (High Street) the main road winding from the A470 at Betws-y-Coed to Bangor. In the middle of the town there is a filled-in slate mining quarry declared unfit for building and allowed to remain a green area. Follow the path east across the hillside from the top of Bryntirion towards Cefnfaes Street. You will find the hexerisk to the left of the path where three crudely cut tracks intersect in the shape of a six-sided asterisk.

The word ‘asterisk’ comes from the Greek word ‘asteriskos’, a diminutive of ‘aster’, meaning small star. The suffix ‘iskos’ relates to the English ‘-ish’ (from the Old English ‘-isc’). Hex means six, so hexerisk might meaning little six, or little sixer. Or maybe, hex deriving from the German for hag or witch, a little hexer is a spell caster. Join the asterisk’s opposing tips and you get a Seal of Solomon, the occult six-star, two intersecting triangles, used to symbolise the hermetic principle of correspondence, ‘as above so below’, as described in the grimoire of spells known as the Key of Solomon. These idealised geometries are stabilising structures, like the sonnet form in Sputtor, used to give the text form as six sections, but within these stable centres Trimble improvises to destabilise any sense of ideal margins.

The asterisk is one of the various soundless typographical symbols Trimble dots his pages with (even back in ‘afanc’ in his first published collection, Keinc). In Swansea Automatic, a book published, and perhaps written, roughly alongside Hexerisk, Trimble discusses the uses of the asterisk.

‘now I know what star is for…

*=not recording

*=not writing

*   *   *

=sexual encounter

(tastefully elided)’

Asterisks denote gaps, jumps, breaks. Hexerisk’s book cover illustrates this with an overhead image of Bethesda torn into six pieces along the lines of the six paths. The torn edges evoking the ragged margins of the poems: if the six-shape is a stabilising structure, it is a rough, ragged stability. The paths for Trimble are tears; as connections, they are also fissures. As well as denoting habitual activities, they are unofficial routes cut into the land: shortcuts across fields, making unsanctioned connections between Bryntirion and Gray Street, Pantdreinog Industrial Estate and Cefnfaes Street.

The tracks work as metaphors for the intersection of thought-processes in the poems. As in Skine, the notebook is used as a form and structure, a stabilising containing device in which words and phrases are gathered from various places and times, as Trimble’s journeying from place to place creates a set of paths, overlapping trains of thought. Field-tracks document durational performances – Richard Long walking back and forth in a straight line in a field in 1967 – recording a passage of time in space. Hexerisk scores a relational action for the reader in inviting us to trace these thought-tracks like tears through the map. In our patterning activity, we make tracks through the poem like feet wear paths into the field: walking as damage.

The prose cut-ups work as lenses through which to read the open field sections. They suggest routes, though there are no definite links. These lenses provide another stabilising structure, and they are supplemented, as in Sputtor, by a bibliography offering secondary reading as maps for the reader to use if they wish in their navigation of the text. The open field presentation of the poems leaves the reader to make patterns of connection and suspends the wave-function collapse in a diffuse word-cloud to allow for multiple interpretations. Each line is a miniature vocab-cluster, a cryptic notebook shorthand. You need a few good dictionaries, or a search engine, to navigate the text, with words such as protasis, roşie, albastro, perochiate, epitasis. A Welsh dictionary is also handy. And some words I couldn’t find anywhere – presumably Trimble’s own neologisms: radikalenerlass, dest, sussur, vrest-uh. Looking up the words sends the reader on a trail, a dérive of denotation.

Camilla Nelson comments that in these poems ‘You can’t find a language to stand up in steadily’. A proprioceptive, gravitational connection is felt here between language and standing. This feeling of being flattened by the planet’s gravity could equally be described as weightlessness. Relativity equates inertial motion with free-fall: staying still we are falling through the universe, an effect described in Fisher’s ‘Human Cosmos’ poem in Sputtor – what is stationary is relative to the observer. Nelson goes on to comment, ‘once words may have meant something simple, something more akin to the apparently smooth surface of the page, a table top or something that had some clear sense of direction like a flight of stairs.’ The page’s stable centre is the smooth surface of a table; the text’s is the linear syntactic directions of a staircase – but such stabilities are refused in Hexerisk. Asyntactic, paratactic juxtaposition of words highlights their relational potentials.

The opening poem, ‘Redizblue’, condemns Labour and Tory as the same thing (‘same old / blueprint redprint’), comparing them to the graphical displays (red-blue plots) used to study and measure population density – a perhaps homogenising mapping that is challenged in the heterogeneous spatial patterning of Trimble’s text. In the corresponding cut-up prose, ‘Tesco Ovipositor’, it is the red and blue of the Tesco logo, against which Trimble enacts an act of occult resistance by reversing it to the hex ‘ocset’, an echo of redrum/murder. Combining vocabularies of commerce and biology, Tesco becomes an ovipositor, an organ for laying eggs. In a surreal juxtapositional method akin to Fisher’s visual collaging of rocket tanks with insect larvae, the supermarket chain becomes a fused hybrid creature (‘we two … & we like parts’), itself composed of segments like the collage text. Through relational play between juxtaposed vocabularies, body and finance merge, progeneration and economic growth, natural forms with commerce, to create an insect capital, laying its red-blue homogenising clusters across the socio-political map.

‘Blacklittle taffBodies’ traces the etymological evolution of the surname Cumberbatch (cymru bach – little Wales), commenting on how a name attempts to maintain a stable sense of belonging at a time when boundaries are being redrawn. The identity rooted in placenames is juxtaposed with references to ‘Resurrection Men’: graverobbers and body-snatchers. Corpses stolen for medical experiments become analogous to the excavated etymologies of Trimble’s frankenstein neologisms. Words glitch and flicker as other words and fragments of words burst out of their middles: fAcialellow, signifWaicance, inhabzophitants, immediitionallately, redrawnyddon, demonstrablyaidd. The poem critiques the disproportionate use of illegally exhumed African-American bodies in nineteenth-century medical research, implicitly comparing it to the tracing of isomorphic invariants through etymological chains to regain some imagined original, stable form, yet finding only a relational flux of language particles, transitional forms, plurilingual mutations midway between English, Welsh and other languages.

Sputtor and Hexerisk demonstrate the varied ways in which poetry, where the aesthetic function dominates, transforms the arbitrary into the connected. Fisher’s and Trimble’s aesthetic propositions are not, as Steiner might suggest, arbitrary. Their aesthetic challenges to cultural norms are not an arbitrary choice. Their aesthetic practice challenges and counters the arbitrary by inciting the reader to make patterns and connections. Their decision to embrace this relativity is not arbitrary – it is not interchangeable with a non-relative approach – because it is a resistance to notions of intrinsic value and stable centre. They show that aesthetics and consciousness are patterns of connectedness, structures for ethical, moral and social understanding, which change and can be changed, through the renewing capacity of patterning.



Allen Fisher’s recent exhibition of a series of paintings dotted around a number of venues in Hereford provided the first showings of the project Engaged Embrace. Further work from this project will be shown in the Apple Store Gallery, Hereford in October.

It will be good to see a broader showing of this work, to allow it its own space, but having the paintings scattered about different venues and amidst the work of other painters, added to the viewing experience for me.

Two large oil paintings, ‘Landtrap’ and ‘Embrace’, were on show at the front of the Apple Store Gallery on Bridge Street; two watercolours, ‘Hinge Trap’ and ‘Thief Trap’ were lurking in the foyer and bar of the Castle Hotel on Castle Street; and three more oils, ‘Warrior Break 2’, ‘Frontal Lobe’ and ‘Hindbrain’ were displayed up in the creaky Hereford Museum & Gallery on Broad Street.

I used Google Maps and Street View to plot a route, which we ended up breaking anyway when we found ourselves physically in the streets, able to gauge the proximity of the venues and feel the pull of the path around Hereford cathedral.

This all seemed appropriate to Fisher’s attention to place and space in his work. The gallery space was experienced as part of the town, not an isolated realm, and that encouraged us to extend it into Diego’s Café on Bridge Street and Rocket Café on St Owen Street.

The invitation to the exhibition stated that ‘Traps and tools have been key themes in Allen Fisher’s work for two decades and their shapes provide the formal starting points in the paintings of Engaged Embrace.’ Fisher has often discussed traps in his writing, particularly in the essay ‘Traps and Tools or Damage’, presented as his inaugural professorial lecture.

In Fisher’s thinking, traps have positive as well as negative connotations. The first traps that come to mind when I think of them are the often violent ones used to capture or maim animals, but Fisher also points out that ‘Traps can be benign like a camera or a cider press capturing light or the juice from an apple’ (p. 1) Similarly, paintings are traps, or ‘machines of representation’ as Fisher put it in his comment to my last post.

Even our ability to perceive and understand things is a kind of trap, as Fisher explains: ‘Traps are what we are all inside of, traps constitute what is known, where to place what is known, between what boundaries’ (p. 1) An idea or concept is a trap, capturing and abstracting experience. Without these boundaries, we wouldn’t be able to know anything, because we wouldn’t be able to make distinctions between things. In a positive sense, traps are about making or finding patterns, connections, or to use Fisher’s term ‘patterns of connectedness’.

The negative side is that this can lead to idealisations of order, such as the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence:

‘They are ratios of planetary existence, which sit comfortably with human proposals for physical and spiritual health and beauty, but do not account for them and appear to ignore the poisonous organic forms also involved in the ratios.’ (p. 6)

If a particular trap or pattern, a certain way of looking at things, becomes an ideal, then forms that don’t fit the pattern might be discarded as aberrations. It becomes resistant to change.

Fisher says his work ‘challenges the conditions of being trapped by what we know’ (p. 1). He introduces damage, using procedures to break patterns that have become habitual. But he is aware that these procedures are themselves also traps: ‘I use traps or tools as processes for transformation of damage, processes that include development and healing’ (p. 2)

He attempts to replace the ideal forms of Euclidean geometry with the more random and indeterminate picture of the world provided by quantum mechanics, to show:

‘That is there is a tangible world of things and experiences and there are worlds beyond our experience, which can only be accessed remotely by tools and traps. These can provide evidence that both the Micro-sub-atomic and the macrocosmic levels exist and perform and are part of and thus affect our existence, but this evidence is not yet quite available to perception except as artefacts.’ (p. 7)

There are aspects of our existence that can only be appreciated through information provided by machines, traps. Fisher calls this ‘decoherence’, as an alternative to aspirations for coherence:

‘an understanding that part of our existence can not be realised, is beyond perception, has a proven actuality and is typically experienced indirectly through artefacts.’ (p. 7)


Embrace (oil on canvas 2012)

I bore this with me when we visited the exhibition. I was thinking about what Fisher said in response to my last post on this blog about quantum ideas as ‘a portal to the realm of the “natural”.’ The invitation to the exhibition said that ‘The paintings celebrate patterns of connectedness between the figurative and conceptual in art.’

The paintings are figurative in a sense and Fisher refers to them as ‘work derived from still life studies’. They are figurative in that they derive from carpenter’s tools and rural traps, but these are abstracted to coloured shapes and rearranged procedurally.

To me they would seem to explore the overlap of the figurative and the abstract, but Fisher doesn’t use the word abstract, instead referring to the conceptual. What seems to be abstract in the paintings is perhaps more appropriately considered as conceptual.

I can see Fisher’s painting as conceptual in that he sets up procedures or systems to transform the object. At the Apple Store Gallery there was an accompanying note alongside the paintings which referred to the ‘vibrant use of colour … which on the surface displaces the origination of the shapes into a new experience, defamiliarising the sense of recognition, giving the rigour of the work a fragility and freshness.’

As with his poetry, Fisher is interested in processes of transformation. For example, creek in the ceiling beam recorded the occurrences of a creak in a ceiling beam and used the graph to produce a poem, transforming the creak into words; similarly, The Art of Flight transposed the score of Bach’s The Art of Fugue into words. He works conceptually with different materials, whether textually with words or visually with paint.

Fisher uses the procedures to give ‘fragility and freshness’. He has used the terms vulnerability and frailty to similar effect. The paintings don’t come across as definitive or authoritative, unlike more conventional still lifes, which might attempt to provide a recognisable likeness of the object depicted. These still lifes are far from still. They are actually more like life in the way they remain constantly in motion. The eye keeps chasing the curves and lines across the canvas, the mind keeps trying to resolve the inkblot into a familiar pattern, but no still point is ever reached. Rather than a finished object, they leave a lot for the viewer to do.

Thief Trap

Thief Trap (watercolour 1996)

But what is the viewer to do? I couldn’t determine what tool or trap was being transformed in any of the pictures and I didn’t feel that was the point. Though they are derived from objects, Fisher doesn’t try to give a realistic illusion of them. I did sometimes find myself thinking things like ‘That looks like a bird looking at a banana’, but I didn’t feel that was an appropriate response either. It didn’t seem to be about finding what the pictures represent as if they are puzzles to work out. I don’t think it’s about decoding some hidden symbol or allegory. Or that’s not what appeals to me about them.

The main thing I got was that the paintings confront the viewer with the physical material of the work: in the oil paintings the paint is applied thickly and in the watercolours there is often a tearing effect to the paper. But they are not self-contained, stand-alone entities as abstract works often seem to strive to be. The paintings give a strong impression of being part of a wider process. The serial form gives a sense of an ongoing project, which is evident in the titles where there are recurring references to traps (‘Landtrap’, ‘Hinge trap’, ‘Thief Trap’) and parts of the brain (‘Frontal Lobe’, ‘Hindbrain’). This is why I missed the notes on the procedures in this exhibition. When we saw the ‘Meditation Traps’ at the Apple Store Gallery last year there was an accompanying note giving some brief suggestions of how the pieces had been composed. This seems important for conceptual work, which isn’t just the exhibited artefact – the object is a trace of a process.

The conceptual element does seem to make the paintings allegorical in a sense: in that traps are used as a metaphor for painting and perception. Just as a photograph is the result of the trapping of light by the camera, a painting or a poem can be considered as the result of a trap. It traps paint. It also traps time, recording in space the marks made upon it over time. This may be why Fisher uses the serial form: the paintings are slices of a process of using similar procedures with similar materials over a long period of time. And as well as being the results of traps, the paintings are also traps themselves. They are active. They are traps that are activated, or sprung, each time we view them. They provide a trap for the viewer’s perception. Like the machines used in quantum mechanics, they capture forces that are not empirically observable.

Warrior Break 2

Warrior Break 2 (oil on canvas, 2012)

In the previous post I wondered about the connection Fisher makes in ‘Confidence in Lack’ between experimental physicists’ use of machines to perceive the activity of quantum entities which we are unable to perceive directly and Plato’s dismissal of poetry because of the poets’ inability to explain what their poems mean. ‘Poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?’ I asked. Fisher responded that:

‘poems are removed from perception if they are transformations from that perception, transformed through language, through thinking and might involve speculation or supposition bereft of direct perception. I presume we can understand æsthetic reception as more than perception.’

In a similar way, these paintings are transformations from perception. The image encountered is not something that has been directly perceived by the artist, but is the result of activity carried out by a machine, a system or procedure. Realism is conventionally about showing the world as closely as possible to how we experience it. But the world also contains things that we cannot perceive except with the use of machines. So I ended up thinking of the paintings not as illusionistic depictions of reality but actual engagements with that reality and invitations to engagement with reality.

Confidence in Lack

In his comment on Cubist Geometries, Allen Fisher points out the difference in his position from Olson’s condition of uncertainty:

I think of ‘decoherence’ as referring to a condition where I am confident in the information I have been provided with, through the use of interlocutors and expertise, which contributes to my experience of truth or a multiplicity of truths, but contemporary with this, I am unable to empirically confirm the truths or the information…

Unlike Olson, he is not in a condition of doubt and uncertainty; he is confident in the information he has been provided with, though he cannot verify it.  To me, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics seems similar to the relativism of postmodernism.  My understanding of the uncertainty principle is that quantum measurement is dependent on the observer: if the observer measures for a particle, then a particle will be found, and if the observer measures for a wave, then a wave will be found.  Similarly, postmodernism is characterised, to paraphrase Lyotard, by incredulity towards grand narratives.  Our scepticism towards such totalising explanations of the world would seem to dissolve the notion of coherent truth into multiplicity.  What we believe to be true changes over time and in different contexts.  I found it interesting that in proposing a confidence in lack of coherence, Fisher seems to allow for the possibility of truth.

In Confidence in Lack, he points out that despite the fact that most recent modernist poetry uses methods of fragmentation and multiplicity, much public discussion of poetry involves an aspiration for coherence.  He suggests that poetry might be ‘at great variance’ to such expectations of logic and coherence.  This has led to ‘a confidence in lack – a confidence that poetry, when it is at its most efficacious, cannot propose logic, as it is variously perpetuated in paternal and public thinking, and cannot aspire to coherence, as this is also prescribed.’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 7)

He follows this with examples of attempts to measure quantum entities using circuit quantum electrodynamics, a complicated set-up which, like cavity quantum electrodynamics, is a way of perceiving quantum activity.  The point seems to be that human beings cannot perceive such activity except through such devices.  He adds:

Since ancient times, thought in the west has debated the difficulties between direct perception and information derived from machines, between demonstrations of truth and informed presumption or speculation. (p. 8)

Fisher refers to Plato for examples, though these are examples of the debate not between direct perception and information derived from machines, but between truth and poetry.  He quotes from Plato’s Apology:

So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant… Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could.  I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. (pp. 8-9)

I’m not sure exactly what connection Fisher is trying to suggest between experimental physicists’ use of machines to perceive the activity of the quantum world and poets’ inability to explain what their poems mean.  The truth of physicists’ descriptions of the quantum world might be dubious because it can never be verified with direct perception, only interpreted in informed speculation from data provided by machines.  But the poet’s poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?

Fisher relates Plato’s argument against poetry to Charles Olson.  Plato thought poetry was ‘the enemy of truth’ (Eric Havelock) and that it ‘obstructed the development of the abstract powers it was Plato’s concern to nurture’ (Charles Stein). (p. 9)  He banished poets from his utopia, The Republic, because in his desire for a more rational understanding of the world, the aesthetic experience of poetry was a ‘psychic poison’ (Havelock).  Olson, however, takes Plato’s rejection of poetry as a basis for his poetics.  His emphasis on the concretistic qualities of language and thought seeks to return poetry to the position which Plato’s emphasis on abstract thought displaced.

Olson’s poetics thus seems to promote empirical observation over abstract speculation.  Olson’s stance – ‘all that irritable reaching after fact and reason … I do better to stay in the condition of things’ – might suggest that there is no point in searching after truth, that it is better to reside in the concrete realm of empirical observation.  I don’t see how, in this sense, the poet can be compared to the physicist observing quantum activity via machines.  The very point there is that such observation is never directly empirical.

But poetry is not, for Olson, simply empirical, however, due to his insistence on the concrete qualities of language.  It’s not about naturalistic description of observed reality; the fact of the words themselves is the reality.  Olson considers description abstract, an instance of the abstract powers that Plato recommended.  So it might be said that language is the machine which, for Plato, obstructs direct perception.  Plato criticises the poet’s emphasis on the material aspects of language: ‘Strip what the poet has to say of its poetical colouring and I think you must see what it comes to in plain prose’ (The Republic, quoted in Confidence in Lack, p. 9).

Fisher might, then, be pointing out the difference between the direct perception sought by Plato in a purely rational thought stripped of the material qualities of poetry, and the information derived from machines in quantum physics (and from language in poetry).  Though the latter cannot be empirically verified, Fisher can still feel confident in its truth.



It’s useful to consider Roger Penrose’s discussion of truth in his quantum theory of consciousness:

What is truth?  How do we form our judgements as to what is true and what is untrue about the world?  Are we simply following some algorithm – no doubt favoured over other less effective possible algorithms by the powerful process of natural selection? Or might there be some other, possibly non-algorithmic route – perhaps intuition, instinct, or insight – to divining truth? (The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 129)

Penrose’s view is that there are aspects of conscious activity that are not able to be produced by a series of algorithms – things like ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’.  He demonstrates this with Gödel’s theorem.  The theorem shows that any formal mathematical system must contain statements that are not provable by the system itself (p. 133).  A system of rules can never be complete in the sense that the truth of any mathematical statement can be proved by the rules of the system. (p. 137)

Linguistic parallels might be found in the liar’s paradox: ‘This sentence is false’.  Inferring the truth or falsity of the statement involves stepping outside it.  This is experienced in the insight that reveals the paradox.  In a similar way, Gödel shows, mathematical statements also require us to use our understanding to validate them.  You do a calculation but then you ask ‘Is it correct?’  Not every calculation can be proved solely using the rules of its own system.

Penrose believes that Gödel’s theorem leads to a Platonic viewpoint.  Gödel himself was a Platonist, Penrose points out.  Plato believed that mathematical truths inhabited an ideal world of perfect forms, which is distinct from the physical world, but in terms of which the physical world must be understood.  This is not to suggest that mathematical truths lie beyond human understanding:

Gödel’s argument does not argue in favour of there being inaccessible mathematical truths.  What it does argue for, on the other hand, is that human insight lies beyond formal argument and beyond computable procedures. (Shadows of the Mind, p. 418)

It is this insight, this capacity for understanding or awareness, that Penrose says provides a link to the Platonic realm of ideal mathematical forms.  He claims it shows that consciousness involves processes that cannot be produced through algorithms of classical mathematics, so might be better explained using quantum mechanics.  The quantum world becomes a portal to some Platonic realm of ideal forms.

Fisher seems to agree with Penrose that thought cannot be reduced to a formal system and he does seem to believe that some truths, such as our understanding of the quantum world, cannot be empirically verified by direct perception.  Like Bernard Williams, however, he would seem to reject the Platonic notion that rationality consists of eternal, universal standards that can form the basis of a moral law.  Williams says that in Plato ‘the concept of truth is itself inflated into providing some metaphysical teleology of human existence’. While rejecting such assumptions, Williams, as Richard Rorty explains, ‘wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism – to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world’ (Rorty, ‘To the Sunlit Uplands’).

Williams tries to abandon the Platonic realm as an eternal world of universal forms, but retain the belief that truth is intrinsic.  This is what distances him from Rorty’s pragmatism: truthfulness escapes empirical observation.

In Truth and Truthfulness, he identifies ‘an intense commitment to truthfulness’ – or at least a ‘reflex against deceptiveness’ – in modern thought, which accompanies the ‘equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective’. (Truth and Truthfulness, p. 1)

He discusses the way that supposedly true accounts – of historical events, for example – have been revealed to be biased and ideological.  This has led to our suspicion of any claims to objective truth, or to truth at all.  But Williams makes an interesting point by suggesting that this position has come about through the desire for greater truthfulness.  Claims to objective truth are interrogated for ideological bias in the aim of removing deception and attaining greater truthfulness.  This leads to the current position where it is considered more truthful to reject truth.

Yet a rejection of any claim to truth, he says, depends on some other claim being taken to be true.  For example, to reject a historical account as ideological deception, we have to believe in the truth of the information that shows the historian to be biased.

This reveals a paradox similar to Gödel’s theorem or the liar’s paradox: ‘If you do not really believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for?’ ‘in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to?’ (p. 2)

I began to see these themes in Olson’s interpretation of Plato.  While Olson seems to reject the rationalist search for truth, his rejection of it is in fact motivated by a desire for greater truthfulness: the concrete use of language is seen as more truthful than the abstract.  He rejects Plato’s claim to truth, but this is based on belief in the truth of Eric Havelock’s interpretation of Plato and the concretistic linguistic theories of Edward Sapir.

It becomes more truthful to admit that you don’t know what the poem is about.  The pretence of logic is seen as deceitful.  Yet this allowance for multiple truths is driven by a need for truthfulness.  The admission of lack of truth becomes the new truth, and potentially a new coherence.


How does this notion of truth apply to poetry?  To think about this, it might be worth looking at the recent revival of utopianism in art.

In his essay Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud proposes that ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’. (Relational Aesthetics, p. 31)  He cites examples of art works from the 1990s that he sees as ‘to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts’. (p. 8)

This is exemplified in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose art works take the form of social situations, often involving the preparation and consumption of food.  He cooks soup in the gallery and serves it to visitors; he organises a dinner at the art collector’s home and provides the host with all the ingredients to make a Thai soup; he equips the gallery with a bowl of water on a gas burner and stacks of boxes of dehydrated Chinese soups which visitors are free to add the water to and eat; he turns the gallery into a replica of his flat, which visitors are able to use; he provides a relaxation area in the gallery, complete with table football and a fully stocked fridge.

We can see how these works have the qualities Bourriaud suggests: they are ‘interactive’ and ‘user-friendly’ because gallery visitors can actually use them, and they are ‘relational’ because they set up social situations that involve relationships between people and with the world.

The concept of microtopias interested me because of its connection to utopias and to Foucault’s concept of heterotopias (in ‘Of Other Spaces’).  I wondered what the difference was between the microtopia and the heterotopia?  And how did both differ from the utopia?

Utopias are ideal spaces, hypothetical perfect worlds.  Heterotopias differ from utopias, Foucault says, because they are real, not imaginary, spaces.  They are places that bring together different places and times in a single space, such as gardens, museums and libraries, and festivals.  A heterotopia is not a perfect world according to a single set of values, but a mixture of many different ones.

A microtopia, meanwhile, is a localised, temporary utopia.  It differs from the utopia in that doesn’t claim to hold for all times and places.  It sounds similar to the heterotopia and some of Foucault’s examples, such as the festival, might be considered microtopias.  Similarly, the microtopia might be said to create a heterotopian space.  For instance, when Bourriaud describes the microtopia as ‘a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns’ it recalls Foucault’s accounts of heterotopias as spaces removed from the rest of society.

The main difference seems to be the emphasis on how the space is used.  While the heterotopia has both positive and negative aspects, a microtopia is constructed with positive, utopian hopes.  The primary aim is to generate relationships with the world in a society ‘where human relations are no longer “directly experienced”,’ Bourriaud says, drawing on Guy Debord, ‘but start to become blurred in their “spectacular” representation.’ (p. 9)  Bourriaud puts direct experience in inverted commas, suggesting some distrust of the notion, but there is a sense here that more truthful experiences and relationships are a possibility.

Bourriaud sees the relational art of the 1990s as continuing the utopian aims of the Enlightenment project to ‘emancipate individuals and people’, ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (pp. 11-12).

‘It is evident,’ he writes, ‘that today’s art is carrying on this fight, by coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models, veering in the direction indicated by Enlightenment philosophers, Proudhon, Marx, the Dadaists and Mondrian.’ (p. 12)

The Artintelligence article on Bourriaud’s aesthetics makes an important distinction between these suggested utopian precursors and contemporary microtopians:

…the fundamental difference lies in the concept of totality.  The notion of totality is evident in all of the precursors Bourriaud mentions…  In short their utopian project was to change the world whereas the strategy as outlined by Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari is to proceed micropolitically. (

The utopian project of modernity is continued in these art works, but without the aim for totality.  ‘It is not modernity that is dead,’ Bourriaud says, ‘but its idealistic and teleological version.’  Microtopias are utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work is ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’. (p. 13)

Bourriaud points out that the work of these artists is located ‘within the slipstream of historical modernity’ – there are clear echoes of Dada, Situationism and Fluxus – but they don’t repeat the same functions as their predecessors.  He quotes Jean-François Lyotard’s description of postmodern culture as ‘condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and abandon the overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.’ (p. 13)  The totalising utopian goals of modernism have been abandoned and artists are left to make minor modifications to the forms the modernist project produced in the service of those goals.  Bourriaud, however, doesn’t see it as ‘condemnation’ but as an opportunity: the artist today inhabits a culture with a broader conception of art forms and no longer worries about constructing a total or final world, but instead ‘dwells in the circumstances the present offers him, … catches the world on the move: he is a tenant of culture, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s expression.’ (pp. 13-14)

At the end of Confidence in Lack, Fisher quotes Williams’ question, ‘Can the notions of truth and truthfulness be intellectually stabilized, in such a way that what we understand about truth and our chances of arriving at it can be made to fit with our need for truthfulness?’ (Confidence in Lack, p. 17)

Artists and poets seem to be currently trying to find ways to stabilise their desire for truthfulness with what has been learned from poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophy about truth’s problems, its tendency to reflect ideological biases, its pretence to eternal and universal standards.

The rhetoric of postmodernism has at times conveyed a sense that there is no possibility of utopian thought, no vantage point from which to criticise the hegemony, because all truths can be shown to be relative, and the neoliberal capitalist system has, by Fukuyama at least, been heralded as the end point of history.

What Fisher describes is a condition where, as totality is no longer sought, we can take confidence in a lack of coherence that is necessary, to keep the discussion open, while a microtopian sense of truth or truthfulness tackles the disillusionment of an insistent relativism, pointing towards a way of being ethical in a postmodern world.

Cubist Geometries

In Patterns of Connectedness, Allen Fisher writes, In the second half of the nineteenth century Riemann, Bolyai, Lobachevsky, Gauss, and others had demonstrated alternatives to the linear geometry of Euclid’s Elements.’  These names also appear in Olson’s ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’:

Within five years [of Keats’ negative capability letter], Bolyai and Lobachewsky, weren’t any longer satisfied with Euclid’s picture of the world, and they each made a new one, independently of each other, and remarkably alike.  It took thirty-one years … for the German mathematician Riemann to define the real as men since have exploited it: he distinguished two kinds of manifold, the discrete … and, what he took to be more true, the continuous. (Olson, p. 46)

Reading Marvin Jay Greenberg’s Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries, I found out that János Bolyai’s description of a non-Euclidean geometry was published as an appendix to his father Wolfgang’s Tentamen in 1831.  When Wolfgang Bolyai sent a copy of the book to Carl Friedrich Gauss, Gauss replied that he also had been working on a similar geometry.  In 1817, the year of Keats’ negative capability letter, Gauss had written to W. Olbers:

I am becoming more and more convinced that the necessity of our [Euclidean] geometry cannot be proved, at least not by human reason nor for human reason.  Perhaps in another life we will be able to obtain insight into the nature of space, which is now inattainable.  (Greenberg, p. 145)

Meanwhile, Nicolai Lobatschevsky had already independently published an account of non-Euclidean geometry in 1829.  In 1854, Bernhard Riemann, a student of Gauss, went on to develop the geometry of n-dimensional space known as the Riemannian manifold, which would form the basis for the spacetime of Minkowski and Einstein.

I came across references to non-Euclidean geometry in the theories of Cubism.  Albert Gliezes and Jean Metzinger wrote in Cubism (1912): ‘If we wished to refer the space of the [Cubist] painters to geometry, we should have to refer it to the non-Euclidean scientists; we should have to study, at some length, certain theories of Rieman’s [sic].’ (Chipp, p. 212)  While in The Cubist Painters (1913), Guillaume Apollinaire wrote:

Today, scientists no longer limit themselves to the three dimensions of Euclid.  The painters have been led quite naturally, one might say by intuition, to preoccupy themselves with the new possibilities of spatial measurement which, in the language of the modern studios, are designated by the term: the fourth dimension.  Regarded from the plastic point of view, the fourth dimension appears to spring from the three known dimensions: it represents the immensity of space eternalizing itself in all directions at any given moment.  It is space itself, the dimension of the infinite… (Chipp, pp. 223-4)

The concept of a fourth dimension had been elaborated from Riemann’s non-Euclidean geometry of higher dimensions.  In 1880 Charles Howard Hinton had popularised the idea in an article entitled ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’.  Edwin A. Abbott fictionalized the contemporary discussion of dimensions in his 1884 parable, Flatland.  One frequent visitor to Cubist gatherings was the mathematician Maurice Princet who contributed to the conversations by his speculations on the possible relations of Non-Euclidian geometry, and even of the Fourth Dimension, with the new concept of space in Cubist painting.’ (Chipp, p. 223n)  It’s often claimed that Princet showed Picasso Esprit Jouffret’s Elementary Treatise on the Geometry of Four Dimensions (1903), which described and depicted hypercubes and other four dimensional shapes, and that this led to the discovery of Cubism.  Metzinger, however, reported it the other way around, writing in 1910 that Picasso ‘defines a free, mobile perspective, from which that ingenious mathematician Maurice Princet has deduced a whole geometry.’ (Chipp, p. 223n)

Whichever came first, clearly such ideas were in the air.  What interested me was why the Cubists were attracted to ideas of non-Euclidean geometry and the fourth dimension.  In The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Linda Dalrymple Henderson says that ‘non-Euclidean geometry signified a new freedom from the tyranny of established laws’ and that ‘this recognition of the relativity of knowledge was a powerful influence on early twentieth-century thought’ (Leonardo, Vol 17, No 3, 1984, p. 205).  Henderson goes on to suggest that ‘belief in a fourth dimension encouraged artists to depart from visual reality and to reject completely the one-point perspective system that for centuries had portrayed the world as three-dimensional’ (p. 205).

It was a realisation that the established laws of Euclidean geometry are not the only way of understanding the world.  Non-Euclidean geometry gave artists license to depart from the three-dimensional illusion of perspective, which had been a convention in Western art since the Renaissance.  Three-dimensionality is also characterised as repressive, with non-Euclidean geometry as offering liberation from this ‘tyranny’.

Georges Braque, ‘Still-life with Metronome’ (1909-10)

But the Cubist painters don’t apply non-Euclidean geometry in the way that, for example, M.C. Escher does – systematically.  It’s not the purpose of Cubist painting to illustrate or approximate four-dimensional space.  It was against the tradition of representing depth that the painters got rid of perspective in the first place.  Instead, Cubist painting seems to remove depth, emphasising the fact of the two-dimensional canvas.  Pictorial space is reduced by a dimension rather than increased.  The world we are used to seeing in three dimensions is flattened.  Everything crowds the surface.  There are no gaps.  Space becomes solid.

I wanted to see how these ideas impacted on poetry so I looked at some books about Pierre Reverdy.  Reverdy lived in Paris from 1910-1926, where he knew many of the Cubist painters and wrote about their work.  In Six French Poets of Our Time, Robert W. Greene suggests some ways in which Reverdy’s poetry parallels the non-Euclidean effects of Cubist painting:

In former times one-point perspective had provided the painting with a mode of transition between foreground and background, between subject and setting, while discursive logic, traditional syntax and neatly modulated thematic development had provided comparable links or transitions in poetry.  Now we are to see instead fragments on a canvas or on a page. (Greene, p. 32-3)

Here Greene is connecting the removal of perspective in art to the break-up of syntax in poetry.  Reverdy’s poems are composed of fragments of images and thoughts and these isolated line-units with the abrupt transitions between them might well be compared to the angular planes of Cubist paintings.

For example, Reverdy’s ‘The Same Number’.

There is a flatness, a two-dimensionality about this poem which is typical of Reverdy.  The lack of transition between phrases keeps the attention at the surface.  There are phrases that are not full sentences – ‘the hardly open eyes / the hand on the other shore’ – a sentence begins and breaks off.  At other times the syntax remains intact but the sentences are extremely short and direct: ‘It gets warmer,’ ‘We were happy’.  The language is plain and literal.  Reverdy is not interested in metaphor or simile, but works by a process of paratactic juxtaposition which he calls the image: ‘…the image for Reverdy is the bringing together of two equally important objects of attention not normally associated with each other…’ (Greene, p. 33)  Phrases might be placed together on the page, but one does not take precedence over the other as in a metaphor or simile where one phrase is the main subject and the other only functions as a comparison.  The image works on the tension between the lines, as Reverdy explained:

The image is a pure creation of the spirit.  It cannot be born of a comparison but of the bringing together of two realities which are more or less remote.  The more distant and just the relationship of these two realities, the stronger the image – the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have.’ – Reverdy, Nord-Sud, March 1918 (quoted in Waldberg, Surrealism)

Reverdy’s poems are thus made up of fragmentary notations of observations and thoughts.  As he stated in the epigraph to Le Gant de crin: I do not think, I note. (Greene, p. 33)  Emphasising the materiality of writing over thought, Reverdy’s notations lack any organizing narrative voice or consciousness.  In ‘The Same Number’ there’s a ‘you’ and an ‘us/we’, as well as the unnamed ‘somebody’ and the ‘passersby’ who look up.  There are eyes, a hand and a head without any specified owners.  Many objects are named though it is difficult to get a secure sense of where we are, whether we are inside or outside, whether it’s night or day.  Greene delineates the similarity of this effect to Cubist painting:

The viewpoint of the Cubist painter breaks up into many viewpoints, while the subject of his painting sinks back or melts, as in a mosaic, into its setting.  Similarly, the speaker in a Reverdy poem seems fractured, both multiple by reasons of the ever-changing personal pronouns and splintered into shards of incomplete, enigmatic utterances. (Greene, p. 34).

It does seem to me very similar to the way in which a figure or an object can merge with their surroundings in a Cubist painting.  This has clear implications for the philosophy of consciousness and that was also an important issue for the discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry.  Gauss never published his work on non-Euclidean geometry for fear of the controversy it would draw him into.  In 1824, he wrote to F.A. Taurinus:

… it seems to me that we know, despite the say-nothing word-wisdom of the metaphysicians, too little, or too nearly nothing at all, about the true nature of space, to consider as absolutely impossible that which appears to us unnatural. (Greenberg, pp. 145-6)

Greenberg says that the metaphysicians Gauss was worried about were the followers of Immanuel Kant because Gauss’ discovery of non-Euclidean geometry refuted Kant’s position that Euclidean space is inherent in the structure of the mind.’ (Greenberg, p. 146)

Greene, meanwhile, goes on to explain that the Cubist painter and poet ‘creates by externalizing the content of his world-filled consciousness’, and asks:

How far are we here from Heidegger’s idea of man as Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, or from Husserl’s notion of intentionality, in which consciousness never exists as an independent cogito but always as consciousness of something, forever “out there”? (Greene, p. 34)

Non-Euclidean geometry showed that Euclidean space is not innate.  This had previously been used as evidence for the a priori existence of consciousness.  In Cubism consciousness is only ever of external things and doesn’t exist on its own.  Whenever we try to pin consciousness down, it slips away because we can only experience consciousness of something else.  The subject only exists through fragmentary observations of things.  Consciousness is these jottings.

Cubist painting or poetry is not simply two-dimensional.  One perspective, one reality, does not dominate over another.  The space is not static.  Why present a scene or an event from a single perspective when there are many spacetimes active in any situation?  In the Cubist poem or painting, the observing consciousness is allowed to move and change.  In constructing his poems from fleeting instants of consciousness of things, Reverdy points the way to the four- and n-dimensional poetic spaces that poets like Olson and Fisher would go on to explore.

Decoherent Capability

In his comment on the post, Eurostar ramblings, Allen Fisher pointed out, ‘the significant difference between John Keats and his note in a letter about Negative Capability; Werner Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle and the term decoherence’. I hadn’t thought of Keats’ concept of negative capability, and I didn’t know what decoherence meant. Helpfully, Allen sent me a copy of an extract from a chapter of his book Patterns of Connectedness: Aesthetic function, facture and perception in art and writing after 1950, which includes thought about such things.

Negative capability

In the extract he sent me, Fisher says of negative capability:

In 1817 John Keats articulated ‘Negative Capability’ as being ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Charles Olson was to paste this against Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 ‘Uncertainty Principle’ to clarify his poetics in 1950 and 1956. (Fisher, Chapter 1, Patterns of Connectedness: Aesthetic function, facture and perception in art and writing after 1950)

I hadn’t realised that Olson made a connection between negative capability and quantum uncertainty. I had a Selected Writings of Olson out of the library so skimmed through that for references and came across the essay ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’.

Here Olson restates Keats’ thinking as:

…all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, it won’t do. I don’t believe in it. I do better to stay in the condition of things. No matter what it amounts to, mystery confusion doubt, it has power, it is what I mean by Negative Capability. (Olson, ‘Equal, That Is, To The Real Itself’, in Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 46)

Olson’s phrase about staying ‘in the condition of things’ suggests that negative capability is about being as things are in the world. Like Fisher, he goes on to connect this to the non-Euclidean mathematics elaborated by Bolyai, Lobatschewsky and Riemann in the years following Keats’ negative capability letter. The references to mathematical developments come in response to a naturalistic interpretation of Herman Melville made by Milton R. Stern. Olson argues that Melville’s statement ‘By visibile truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things’ is not a statement of naturalism:

It is rather quantum physics than relativity which will supply a proper evidence here, as against naturalism, of what Melville was grabbing on to when he declared it was visible truth he was after. For example, that light is not only a wave but a corpuscle. Or that the electron is not only a corpuscle but a wave. Melville couldn’t abuse object as symbol does by depreciating it in favor of subject. Or let image lose its relational force by transferring its occurence as allegory does. (Selected Writings, p. 50)

The point seems to be that naturalism describes reality from a distance. It makes the world its subject. Treating language as symbol makes it ‘about’ something, stand for something else. Olson sees it as outmoded by the work of mathematicians such as Riemann which showed that ‘no part is discrete from another part’, man is also an object, ‘a thing among things’, part of that world.  For Olson, Melville’s writing is to be taken as not a realistic representation of the world but a real thing in the world, like a stone or some other natural formation.

This helped me see what I’ve overemphasised or haven’t been able to get away from in these posts. My attempts to articulate a quantum theory of poetry present the observer as somehow separate from the object and rely on a realm of ‘meaning’ somehow distinct from physical reality.

So the poem and the art work might exist without the conscious observer, but only physically and materially, as canvas and paint or marks on page, or the particles that compose these. What doesn’t seem to exist without the conscious observer is meaning. (Eurostar ramblings)

This idea of the observer bestowing meaning on objects maintains a transcendent world of ideal forms where meaning exists removed from the objects of the world. Furthermore, my initial image of the wavefunction as a superposition of multiple meanings misses the concrete literalism that Olson points out in negative capability.

This is the literalism of Rimbaud that Marjorie Perloff refers to in The Poetics of Indeterminacy. The Olson-Rimbaud connection was emphasised to me in the introduction to the Selected Writings where Robert Creeley highlights Olson’s quotation from Rimbaud in The Kingfishers: ‘If I have any taste, it is only for earth and stones.’ (Creeley, Introduction, Selected Writings of Charles Olson, p. 3)  Perloff points out that Rimbaud’s poetry differs from other Symbolists because Symbolism is about multiple meaning, whereas in Rimbaud ‘fragmented images appear one by one … without coalescing into a symbolic network’ (Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, p.10). She quotes Rimbaud, apparently asked by his mother what his poem A Season in Hell meant, replying ‘I meant what I said, literally and in every sense’.

My quantum analogy – ‘the poem is a cloud of potentialities which the reader collapses into meaning‘ (Kinghorn Quantum) – retains the illusory transcendence of symbolic meaning, of the poem standing for something other that what it is. But indeterminacy resists the symbolic, takes language as concrete material. This is quite a difficult thing to imagine: if I think of a word as made up of a written shape, a spoken sound and a concept or idea, then the written and verbal forms of a word are more easily imaginable as physical things, but it’s like the meaning seems to exist on some other plane – of consciousness, thought. How can we think of this as physical?

Jacques Derrida might say a word only refers to other words; meaning is made out of words. Look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary and you get directed to lots of other words. You never arrive at that seemingly ‘beyond’ level of meaning, concept, idea, but remain within the play of words referring to other words.

How does this relate to Roger Penrose’s theory of quantum consciousness? Is consciousness made out of language, like meaning is made out of words? Should we visualise it as a flat plane, concrete and physical, without any symbolic level? We need to know why the wavefunction breaks down when we try to measure for it, why when we look for it meaning disappears into words, why fact and reason collapse as we reach for them.


Googling ‘decoherence’ I found out that the term describes how a coherent superposition of states might be maintained at the quantum level but on interaction with the environment collapses into an incoherent mixture of these states. The quantum world is described here as ‘coherent’ and the so-called classical world as ‘incoherent’. I had been thinking of the quantum world as simultaneity and multiplicity, seeing it in this way as allied to the poetry of indeterminacy. But re-reading Penrose, I found that he explains how the evolution of the wavefunction remains determinstic and continuous at the quantum level and only becomes probabilistic and discontinuous at the macroscopic. Indeterminacies only appear when we try to magnify the quantum to the classical level.

Decoherence explains this collapse of the wavefunction through its interaction and entanglement with its environment. This is how Fisher applies it:

In a mobile situation, coherence is made vulnerable by the physics of the situation where participants are in danger of lost confidence and are subject to manipulation and exploitation. This situation has been named decoherence… (Patterns of Connection)

What does decoherence mean for Fisher? How does he use it? And how does he view ‘coherence’? In Patterns of Connection, he says he’s looking for ‘alternatives to coherence’. He talks of ‘precedents that have for too long encumbered poetry. Expectations of centring, coherence and geometric prediction…’ Following developments in mathematics and physics since the nineteenth century, ‘There is no requirement to be sure or coherent in the Western sense of logic and certainty’.

Coherences in geometry and philosophy are equated to coherent superpositions in the quantum world. As I understand it, quantum superpositions can be calculated but not observed. It’s impossible to isolate them in an ideal realm. It’s what Fisher referred to in The Aesthetics of the Imperfect Fit seminar as ‘confidence in lack’:

In figurative terms, we are in a state of decoherence when we realise with confidence that some aspects of our knowledge are reliant on an interlocutor, a black box between us and the information. In descriptions of the cosmos or of sub-atomic particles, we are unable to use our perception, but must rely the information reaching us through machines that transform the data into a form we can then interpret. We can be confident in the truth of that data, but we are in a state of confidence in lack… (Patterns of Connectedness)

Decoherence is about being ‘in the condition of things’, ‘in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. Beyond its figurative uses, we might even see this literally as a quantum effect: the collapse of the wavefunction gives rise to a situation where there can be no ideal, isolated meaning, only the indeterminacies that result through the interaction of physical things, words, in the situation, entangled with their situation, as Fisher says, ‘damaged by their own realisation and expression – damaged by understanding and communication.’

Eurostar ramblings

I’ve been wondering how a quantum theory of poetry might apply to the Aesthetics of the Imperfect Fit discussed by Allen Fisher at the Glasfryn Seminars.  Though the seminar didn’t use quantum theories directly, it seemed to elaborate on Fisher’s notion that ‘the reader is not simply an observer but a participator and thus affects what is read’ (Necessary Business, p. 235).

In a previous post (Kinghorn Quantum), I discussed Roger Penrose’s suggestion that quantum processes might be taking place in the brain.  But what might be the effect of such processes?

Penrose’s search for a quantum theory of mind is motivated by the question of how consciousness and free will are possible in the world explained by the deterministic mechanics of classical physics.  If we understand the world as deterministic, consciousness doesn’t seem to fit.

In The Emperor’s New Mind, Penrose points out that ‘Euclidean geometry is not entirely accurate as a description of the physical space that we actually inhabit’ as demonstrated by Einstein’s curved space-time under gravity (p. 197); and that the physics of Galileo and Newton only calculates reasonably accurate approximations because ‘…the accuracy with which the initial data can be known is always limited…’ (p. 224).  The deterministic model itself is an imperfect fit.

Yet we still tend to imagine objects as existing without us in a static space that we just pass through.  And the same tendency carries over into our understanding of how art and poetry works.  We tend to think of an art work, like Girtin’s The White House at Chelsea, for example, as containing meaning within it, as if it is there without us.

Could a poem or an art work exist if it was not observed by some consciousness?  One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that a particle can be ‘observed’ by its environment – when there are enough other particles in contact with it, the wave function will collapse.  So the poem and the art work might exist without the conscious observer, but only physically and materially, as canvas and paint or marks on page, or the particles that compose these.  What doesn’t seem to exist without the conscious observer is meaning.

But modern art and poetry repeatedly emphasise surface – the irreducible image – rather than depth and meaning.  As the works of Braque, Duchamp and Rivers show, the art work is an object in the world.  We can never quite say what these works mean, but instead remain suspended at the surface of the work.  They are indeterminate: no explanation can entirely clear up their inscrutability.  Though they emphasise the surface and materiality of the work as an object, then, they don’t necessarily deny the possibility of meaning but rather play on the impossibility of arriving at a single meaning.

What the quantum processes in the brain might do then is enable many possible meanings simultaneously.  The wave function only collapses when a particular meaning is settled on.  Indeterminate objects seem to keep the wave function from collapsing by holding the mind of the observer on the brink of understanding.  They reveal the quantum functioning at work.

As objects in the world, such art works remind us that objects don’t have meaning in themselves.  So the quantum effect that takes place when we experience art and poetry would also extend to how we interpret the world around us, the space we are in.

Imperfect Fits

‘The Aesthetics of the Imperfect Fit’, Glasfryn seminars, 25/2/12

Allen Fisher’s all-day seminar on ‘The Aesthetic of the Imperfect Fit’, as part of the Glasfryn Seminars organised by Lyndon Davies and Graham Hartill in Llangattock, seemed like a good place to follow up the case of an observer-dependent art.

Like his poetry, Fisher’s art often makes use of systems or procedures.  For each series of works, he seems to devise a process, like a sort of mechanism, which he can set in motion.  For example, his series of paintings Meditation Traps, which we saw recently in the exhibition at the Apple Store Gallery, Hereford.

Allen Fisher, Meditation Trap #3 no. 1 (2003)

Each work in this series is derived from shaped pieces of paper hung from a loose rope surrounding an Ainu figure in meditation.

What is the need for such bizarre and intricate systems?  Are they necessary for the construction of art?  Why not just get rid of them and paint whatever you want?

Leaning forwards in his chair, ankles hooked around the chairlegs, as if restraining himself from diving into us, Fisher guided us into a slideshow that began to reveal systems and procedures seemingly at work in all art.  There were Golden Sections and Fibonacci series everywhere.

Let’s look at the Golden Section first.  It is a ratio that was first described in Euclid’s Elements.  The line below is divided into two sections according to the ratio of the Golden Section:


The ratio of the whole line (a+b) to the larger section (a) is equal to the ratio of the larger section (a) to the smaller one (b).

The same ratio can be used to construct a Golden Rectangle, where the ratio of the whole rectangle (a+b) to the square (a) is equal to the ratio of the square (a) to the small rectangle (b):

It has been suggested that the ratio of this rectangle can be found frequently in art because its proportions are aesthetically pleasing.  Many landscape paintings appear to divide the canvas according the Golden Ratio, positioning an object of interest at the point where the larger section meets the smaller.  Fisher showed us Thomas Girtin’s The White House at Chelsea:

Thomas Girtin, The White House at Chelsea (1800)

At first, this looks like the sort of thing we might do if we got rid of those intricate systems that Fisher uses.  There doesn’t seem to be any adherence to an abstract system here.  The artist has just looked at a landscape and painted it.

But then we see that the white house is situated around about where the two sections of the Golden Rectangle meet.  There’s nothing ‘natural’ about this seemingly realistic representation.  Decisions have been made about framing – what bits to include within the rectangle, what bits will be nearer the edges and what will be nearer the centre – and a mathematical system has been used to do this.

The Golden Section is closely related to the Fibonacci series.  Introduced into Western mathematics by Leonardo of Pisa, the Fibonacci series is formed by repeated addition of the previous two numbers:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 45, 79, 124 …

If these are drawn as squares, with each square growing proportionally according to the sequence, you get a tiling of Fibonacci squares:


Draw a curve from one corner to the opposing corner of each square and it creates a Fibonacci spiral:


Fisher showed us examples of this pattern in nature: in fir-cones, the nautilus shell and certain glacial formations.  He then showed us a photograph of C.A. Muses’ ARK 40, ‘Divination, Higher Consciousness and Mathematics’.  I can’t find a picture of this on the internet, but it’s an enormous sculpture of a spiral according to the Fibonacci proportions.  The danger here, Fisher seemed to suggest, is that art becomes an idealisation of order.

Instances of the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section in nature are often cited as evidence of a perfectly ordered universe, proof of an intelligent design behind things, the hand of a creator.  The creator-centred view is opposed by Fisher with an observer-centred view.  If you look for Fibonacci spirals or Golden proportions in nature you will probably find them.  But the universe also contains things that don’t fit the Euclidean system.

He talked about a ‘vulnerability’, and ‘confidence in lack’, which comes with the realisation that there are things that cannot be perceived on very large and very small scales.  He showed a slide of stereocilia on hair-cells in the ear, which we can’t perceive without microscopes; another slide showed the star cluster, Pleiades, which only with the aid of telescopes do we know contains over a thousand stars.

The idea of confidence in lack suggests an acceptance that the artist’s representation is always imperfect and incomplete.  Fisher drew our attention to artists who allow for this vulnerability through disruptions of order.

Cubists like Georges Braque would paint an object from many different perspectives simultaneously, the same object viewed at different times presented in a single space.

Georges Braque, ‘Still-life with Metronome’ (1909-10)

The Cubists accepted that the object did not exist in any absolute form in some objective reality; that it changes according to the observer that experiences it.  As the Cubist artists Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger wrote in Cubism:

“An object has not one absolute form: it has many: it has as many as there are planes in the region of perception…. We seek the essential, but we seek it in our personality and not in a sort of eternity, laboriously divided by mathematicians and philosophers…. If so many eyes contemplate an object, there are so many images of that object; if so many minds comprehend it, there are so many essential images.”

in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art p. 214

This can be seen in a painting such as ‘Still-life with Metronome’, above, where different perceptions of the object are presented as separate planes, which crowd the surface of the painting.  The Cubists soon began to heighten the disparity of the planes by pasting cut-out materials to the canvas: wallpaper, newspaper, sheet music.  The art work began to be seen as an object in the world, not just a representation of an object in the world.

This was taken to its logical extreme by Marcel Duchamp.  Where the Cubists had introduced found materials into the art work, Duchamp took found objects and presented them as the art work.  He pointed out that the artist’s intentions have no control over what the observer finds expressed in the art work:

“This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realise and did realise, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work.  In other words, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.”

Duchamp, ‘The Creative Act’


Duchamp’s bicycle wheel and urinal showed that objects don’t have any value or meaning in themselves but are given it by the observer.  This can change depending on context: for example, when placed in a gallery.

And a painting is also an object, its value and meaning also dependent on observer and context.  Fisher went on to show us Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware:


Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)

This is based on a work of the same title by nineteenth-century painter, Emmanuel Leutze, as Rivers explained in an interview with Frank O’Hara:

“The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging in the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose…. What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn’t picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics.”

‘On “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware”’,

on Modern American Poetry


The vulnerability Fisher mentioned is clearly apparent here, as Rivers undercuts the heroic image of Washington and makes it human.  Similarly, the artist reveals his own fallibility with the tentative, unsure figures and patches of unpainted canvas.

Fisher’s notion of the imperfect fit suggests that a painting can never be a perfect representation of the thing it depicts.  It is always incomplete and requires the observer to complete it by viewing it and giving it meaning.  Though not literally unfinished in the way Rivers’ painting is, a painting such as Girtin’s The White House at Chelsea is still an imperfect fit, an incomplete expression.


Thomas Girtin, The White House at Chelsea (1800)

The white pigment near the middle of the canvas is not a house, but when we see it, we make it a house.  Only when encountered by the observer does the inert matter of paint translate into a landscape.  Even though it’s arranged in line with ideal proportions, then, the painting is not a perfect, complete object.

This realisation leads to confidence in lack, in the lack of possibility of completion, perfection, of ever arriving at the finished work.  If the art work is dependent on the observer, alternative ways of ordering the art work are needed, such as those bizarre, intricate systems at work in Fisher’s Meditation Traps, ways of letting the art work escape the artist’s control, to allow for what escapes the artist’s perception.

Kinghorn Quantum

We visited our friends Cathy and Simon in Kinghorn, Fife recently and while Hannah and Cathy went to look at Cathy’s wedding dress, me and Simon went to the pub to knock out a quantum theory of poetry over a pint of Tennent’s.  Simon’s a professional mathematician and quantum madman so I knew he’d be interested in my attempts to cobble together some sort of connection between poetry and quantum mechanics from popular science books.

It went like this.  Allen Fisher wrote in Necessary Business (Spanner 25) on the poetry of Eric Mottram, J.H. Prynne and Cris Cheek: ‘They are unstable arrays also, as physicists like Born and Heisenberg made clear, because the reader is not simply an observer but a participator and thus affects what is read.’ (p. 235)

As far as I understand it, Max Born and Werner Heisenberg worked with Niels Bohr in the 1930s to produce the Copenhagen Interpretation.  This offers an explanation for the quantum phenomenon where small entities such as atoms, electrons and photons seem to behave as both particles and waves.  This is based on the idea of the ‘collapse of the wave function’.


According to Bohr, Born and Heisenberg, it is the act of observing and measuring that causes the wave function to collapse.  Until it is observed, an electron or photon does not exist as a particle at any one point, but as a wave of probabilities that the observer might find it here or there.  Quantum entities don’t have properties such as position or momentum except when these are being measured.  These properties are not of the entities themselves but of the whole measuring system.

John Gribbin’s Schrödinger’s Kittens helped me with that and Simon seemed to affirm it.

Then I tried to relate it to poetry.  Fisher seemed to be saying that meaning is not contained in the poem but is given to it by the observer (i.e. the reader).  It’s like when we talk to each other, each word can have lots of different meanings and we can’t be certain that the words will have the same meaning for the other person.  In my quantum analogy, then, the poem is a cloud of potentialities which the reader collapses into meaning.  This meaning is ‘unstable’, unpredictable like the behaviour of quantum entities, because it will differ from reader to reader.

It might have been easier to just have done with it and call what we’re talking about ‘indeterminacy’.  Then we wouldn’t have needed to bring in quantum mechanics to make such observations.  Indeterminacy is found in all kinds of language use, but in The Poetics of Indeterminacy Marjorie Perloff says that it has been emphasised in certain kinds of poetry of this particular historical period (e.g. Rimbaud, Cage, Ashbery).  These writers, like Fisher, Prynne, Mottram and Cheek, use various methods of collage and juxtaposition to leave the connections and associations between words suspended, so that the meaning of the text is constantly uncertain.  It might be that the scientific discoveries of this historical period have led to changes in our awareness of indeterminacy and uncertainty and offered a different way of approaching language.  In this sense, quantum mechanics might be seen as a useful model for poetry.

But I wanted to go further.  Could there be an actual connection between poetry and quantum processes?

A poem is made out of language, which is a function of the brain, and the brain is made out of neurons, synapses and axons, and these must be made out of atoms, electrons, quantum entities.  So the words might pass from neuron to neuron by processes that could actually involve quantum activity.

Simon recommended Roger Penrose and leant me his Shadows of the Mind for the flight home.

Penrose seemed to confirm my suspicions:

‘The chemical forces that control the interactions of atoms and molecules are indeed quantum mechanical in origin, and it is largely chemical action that governs the behaviour of the neurotransmitter substances that transfer signals from one neuron to another – across tiny gaps that are called synaptic clefts.  Likewise, the action potentials that physically control nerve-signal transmission itself have an admittedly quantum-mechanical origin.’ (p. 348)

However, the stumbling block came shortly after:

‘Even if synaptic connections are controlled in some way by coherent quantum-mechanical effects, it is difficult to see that there can be anything essentially quantum-mechanical about nerve-signal activity.  That is to say, it is hard to see how one could usefully consider a quantum superposition consisting of one neuron firing and simultaneously not firing.‘ (p. 355)

This had something to do with the wave function collapsing as soon as it is initiated due to the environment of the brain’s material.  Quantum effects would have to take place at a much smaller level than the neurons and synapses.  But neurons and synapses are composed of ‘microtubules’ and these might well be capable of exploiting quantum effects.

So quantum activity is likely to be taking place at some level in the brain.  But what sort of role would these quantum effects play?

Penrose says that the classical model of the brain is a circuit, with one neuron passing signals to another across the connecting synapses, but that this model of the brain as computer does not seem to account for things like understanding and awareness.  He claims that these are essential to whatever it is that we call ‘consciousness’ and this must therefore involve some sort of non-computational process:

‘This non-computational process lies in whatever it is that allows us to become directly aware of something … It also allows us to have some kind of direct route to another person’s experiences, so that we can “know” what the other person must mean by a word like “happiness”, “fighting”, and “tomorrow”, even though explanations are likely to have been inadequate.  The “meanings” of words can be actually passed from one person to another, not because adequate explanations are given, but because the other person already has some direct perception – or “awareness” – of what possible meanings there could be, so very inadequate explanatins can suffice to enable that person to “latch on” to the correct one.” (p. 53)

This seemed to defy the laws of my quantum indeterminacy theorem.  ‘No, Roger,’ I cry from my easyJet windowseat, ‘it’s really hard to communicate what you mean and for me to “know” what you mean.’

Penrose seemed to want to attribute to quantum processes our ability to understand, while I was trying to connect them to poetries that seem to deliberately suspend understanding.

But perhaps we’re getting at the same point: that quantum processes in the brain are connected to the production of meaning; that meaning is not computable in the way the classical model of the brain might suggest; that it is not as simple as one person ‘means’ something and the other person ‘understands’.  A properly quantum theory of poetry would be a new way of thinking about meaning and understanding, what goes on between the writer and the words and the reader.

‘Sometimes I dream in symbols,’ Simon says.  ‘And I think I’ve solved it.  Then I wake up and realise it was just something like, “November is half of summer”.’