Out of Place: Space/Time and Quantum (In)security

A demon lives behind my left eye. As a migraine sufferer, I have developed a very personal relationship with my pain and its perceived causes. On a bad day, with a crippling sensitivity to light, nausea, and the feeling that the blood flowing to my brain has slowed to a crawl and is the poisoned consistency of pancake batter, I feel the presence of this demon keenly.

On the first day of the Q2 Symposium, however, which I was delighted to attend recently, the demon was in a tricksy mood, rather than out for blood: this was a vestibular migraine. The symptoms of this particular neurological condition are dizziness, loss of balance, and sensitivity to motion. Basically, when the demon manifests in this way, I feel constantly as though I am falling: falling over, falling out of place. The Q Symposium, hosted by James Der Derian and the marvellous team at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies,  was intended, over the course of two days and a series of presentations, interventions, and media engagements,  to unsettle, to make participants think differently about space/time and security, thinking through quantum rather than classical theory, but I do not think that this is what the organisers had in mind.

photo of cabins and corridors at Q Station, SydneyAt the Q Station, located in Sydney where the Q Symposium was held, my pain and my present aligned: I felt out of place, I felt I was falling out of place. I did not expect to like the Q Station. It is the former quarantine station used by the colonial administration to isolate immigrants they suspected of carrying infectious diseases. Its location, on the North Head of Sydney and now within the Sydney Harbour National Park, was chosen for strategic reasons – it is secluded, easy to manage, a passageway point on the journey through to the inner harbour – but it has a much longer historical relationship with healing and disease. The North Head is a site of Aboriginal cultural significance; the space was used by the spiritual leaders (koradgee) of the Guringai peoples for healing and burial ceremonies.

So I did not expect to like it, as such an overt symbol of the colonisation of Aboriginal lands, but it disarmed me. It is a place of great natural beauty, and it has been revived with respect, I felt, for the rich spiritual heritage of the space that extended long prior to the establishment of the Quarantine Station in 1835. When we Q2 Symposium participants were welcomed to country by and invited to participate in a smoking ceremony to protect us as we passed through the space, we were reminded of this history and thus reminded – gently, respectfully (perhaps more respectfully than we deserved) – that this is not ‘our’ place. We were out of place.

We were all out of place at the Q2 Symposium. That is the point. Positioning us thus was deliberate; we were to see whether voluntary quarantine would produce new interactions and new insights, guided by the Q Vision, to see how quantum theory ‘responds to global events like natural and unnatural disasters, regime change and diplomatic negotiations that phase-shift with media interventions from states to sub-states, local to global, public to private, organised to chaotic, virtual to real and back again, often in a single news cycle’. It was two days of rich intellectual exploration and conversation, and – as is the case when these experiments work – beautiful connections began to develop between those conversations and the people conversing, conversations about peace, security, and innovation, big conversations about space, and time.

I felt out of place. Mine is not the language of quantum theory. I learned so much from listening to my fellow participants, but I was insecure; as the migraine took hold on the first day, I was not only physically but intellectually feeling as though I was continually falling out of the moment, struggling to maintain the connections between what I was hearing and what I thought I knew.

Quantum theory departs from classical theory in the proposition of entanglement and the uncertainty principle:

This principle states the impossibility of simultaneously specifying the precise position and momentum of any particle. In other words, physicists cannot measure the position of a particle, for example, without causing a disturbance in the velocity of that particle. Knowledge about position and velocity are said to be complementary, that is, they cannot be precise at the same time.

I do not know anything about quantum theory – I found it hard to follow even the beginner’s guides provided by the eloquent speakers at the Symposium – but I know a lot about uncertainty. I also feel that I know something about entanglement, perhaps not as it is conceived of within quantum physics, but perhaps that is the point of events such as the Q Symposium: to encourage us to allow the unfamiliar to flow through and around us until the stream snags, to produce an idea or at least a moment of alternative cognition.

My moment of alternative cognition was caused by foetal microchimerism, a connection that flashed for me while I was listening to a physicist talk about entanglement. Scientists have shown that during gestation, foetal cells migrate into the body of the mother and can be found in the brain, spleen, liver, and elsewhere decades later. There are (possibly) parts of my son in my brain, literally as well as simply metaphorically (as the latter was already clear). I am entangled with him in ways that I cannot comprehend. Listening to the speakers discuss entanglement, all I could think was, This is what entanglement means to me, it is in my body.

Perhaps I am not proposing entanglement as Schrödinger does, as ‘the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought’. Perhaps I am just using the concept of entanglement to denote the inextricable, inexplicable, relationality that I have with my son, my family, my community, humanity. It is this entanglement that undoes me, to use Judith Butler’s most eloquent phrase, in the face of grief, violence, and injustice. Perhaps this is the value of the quantum: to make connections that are not possible within the confines of classical thought.

I am not a scientist. I am a messy body out of place, my ‘self’ apparently composed of bodies out of place. My world is not reducible. My uncertainty is vast. All of these things make me insecure, challenge how I move through professional time and space as I navigate the academy. But when I return home from my time in quarantine and joyfully reconnect with my family, I am grounded by how I perceive my entanglement. It is love, not science, that makes me a better scholar.

photo of sign that says 'laboratory and mortuary' from Q station, sydney.

Signage at Q Station. Photo by LJS.

I was inspired by what I heard, witnessed, discussed at the Q2 Symposium. I was – and remain – inspired by the vision of the organisers, the refusal to be bound by classical logics in any field that turns into a drive, a desire to push our exploration of security, peace, and war in new directions. We need new directions; our classical ideas have failed us, and failed humanity, a point made by Colin Wight during his remarks on the final panel at the Symposium. Too often we continue to act as though the world is our laboratory; we have ‘all these theories yet the bodies keep piling up…‘.

But if this is the case, I must ask: do we need a quantum turn to get us to a space within which we can admit entanglement, admit uncertainty, admit that we are out of place? We are never (only) our ‘selves’: we are always both wave and particle and all that is in between and it is our being entangled that renders us human. We know this from philosophy, from art and the humanities. Can we not learn this from art? Must we turn to science (again)? I felt diminished by the asking of these questions, insecure, but I did not feel that these questions were out of place.

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4 thoughts on “Out of Place: Space/Time and Quantum (In)security

  1. Laura; hi. Your posts are always interesting and well-crafted.

    The questions you pose at the end are practically timeless. Early quantum physicists like Schroedinger and Heisenberg (THAT Heisenberg!) were asking them, too, and their answers fell not just on those other (Other?) knowledges but also on religion, broadly defined. This is why I found Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics profoundly destabilizing when I read it. Something similar happened with David Bohm and BJ Hiley’s Undivided Universe. But neither experience even remotely compares to my first RA-ship for Alexander Wendt, who, after offering only minimal prep, tasked me with producing an “annotated bibliography on the newer work on vitalism.” At that point, I learned to appreciate the potential benefits of deep instability. For one thing, once you get passed the chuckle factor, you realize that all those “hard problems” of philosophy one encounter in social scientific fields can be rather tame. This, it seems to me, was precisely the mission of this Q2 thing: to challenge us IR-ists to think much, MUCH harder about the philosophical first principles and essential conjectures upon which our collective inquiry rests. And this kind of reflection is likely to gain space this year since, as it turns out, Wendt’s “vitalism” book just came out: https://books.google.ca/books?id=H1m3BwAAQBAJ&pg=PR2&dq=wendt+quantum+mind&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ZyU3VZriEoi8yQTM_YGACQ&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=wendt%20quantum%20mind&f=false

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    • Thanks for the comment, Srdjan. I’ve never read either of the books you mention; I will track them down. I admire your willingness to be destabilised. The destabilised space/moment is where/when the most interesting possibilities emerge.

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  2. Pingback: Out of Place: Space/Time and Quantum (In)security (The Disorder of Things) | Uma (in)certa antropologia

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