THE HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE
Late one night in March 1929, the young German physicist Werner Heisenberg was taking a stroll behind the Neils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.
Something Albert Einstein had said had been humming in his mind all evening: "It is the theory which decides what we can observe." As Richard Rhodes relates in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Heisenberg suddenly reached "a stunning conclusion: that on the extremely small scale of the atom, there must be inherent limits to how precisely events could be known."
What this means in practice is that either the position or the momentum of a particle can be measured with precision, but not both at once. This because the measuring apparatus itself affects its referent. Following this insight, Heisenberg realized that we cannot ascertain anything about the subatomic world without changing it in the process.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle quickly became indispensable to the formation of quantum mechanics; its ramifications are however so philosophically attractive that applying it, in addition, to the macroscopic world has become an aesthetic endeavor. Like art does in exposing perceptional limitations while expounding coordinate frames, Heisenberg's insight is changing the world we see by changing the way we perceive.
Act I : "Gloria"
We look through the lens which light confirms with prisms of color; music, too, focuses the world, a chorus of crystalline voices, the Gloria in excelsis. It is as if angels are hidden in these refractions, singing sweetly behind a waterfall's diaphanous curtains within the spectrum of the human eye, compressing their brilliant hues into our pathologically narrow expectations. Hard diamondized light, stars floating on water like the flotsam of an abandoned galaxy, flowers and strands of a Goddess' long white mane...the whole world bubbling in its self-fulfilling chemistry, mere fantasy in the minds of suddenly indivisible invisible cities.
There is a certain oneiric trust: we cannot grasp our dreams, only turn them in awe. Cities blinking on and off, signal lights of our genius crumbling under the weight of the dark interpretations of the angels we deny. Thus members of Chicago's Lyric Opera Company joyfully intone the Gloria in excelsis, "Glory be to God in the highest"? existence is perfect, the Garden of Eden; only creation is flawed, a metropolis of ruins.
Building against the entropy of time giving way to the irony of decay in interludes, a computer chants mantras by processed Buddhist monks. Ancient Man clones himself, smooth and sexless, simulating the species in hard copy. Old sutras unroll new questions; such as: What does reproduction really mean?
Mannequins on a bleached russet landscape, with vibrant voices that make electrons "jump," alternating frequencies, and so our perception. Images, then, slot themselves into frames of willful matter. Metabiological are these technological fabrications. Although pragmatic, they respond to forces not completely under our control, but reside in the shadows of our nature. To survive, then, to focus must become a way of being.
Vajra-bells, twirling hand-drums, gongs, sonorous "voices of the wind in high places, the roar of mountain torrents and the crash of thunder," force the belly into the picture.
Act II : "for Plastic"
It is early afternoon. The song is a simple tale sung in the pearly voices of children; not articulate, only AM I? AM I?, a question even profounder than Who am I??is clearly heard.
Fists strike from immense frustration, boys whose blood acts out the presumed power of their fathers. Children as "eternal child" abandoned to the desert, deserted to the wilderness, playing among the civilization of their parent's failures, the crenellated structures built against their enemies, their broken toys wrenched from a unified latitude to this solitary topos, this temenos, this a sandbox in which girls clap hands, boys trade blows, and one boy leaves.
"His reverie," says Gaston Bachelard, "was not simply a reverie of escape. It was a reverie of flight." He "takes off," absconding through a natural arch, a doorway beyond which a wide field, and its horizon, waits. Racing toward the singular life that is his own vision, why does this boy, among all the other children, break away? Where does he hope to go?
The theories that made possible the understanding of subatomic relationships are also relevant to electronic technologies such as video. When it comes to video as art, "the conversion of technological knowledge to vision is the central problem...since the video artist's medium is light itself, not sunlight, but pure electrons." (Howard Klein)
The videographer is somewhat of an alchemist, appropriating science
to create a further truth; but we are only at the threshold. As Mircea Eliade says, "Man has not yet been spiritually enriched by the latest technical discoveries in the way he was by the discovery of metalworking or alchemy." First there is video's puerile parent, television, with whom a relationship must be soldered. Then Art History, and all its commensal issues, orders further elaboration. There are practical problems, such as the use of tools that are not presently only expensive but have a bent towards obsolescence, the distribution of work (presently tapes, and/or disks), and catching the critical eye. Because video is not just another furcation of art, but an entirely new circuitry, there are also metanoiac concerns.
Video artists must challenge artists working in other genres to expand their codes, rather than reasserting old formats into seemingly new statements. Further, they must not only enlighten their unique presentation of reality, but work on perceiving the world differently themselves. As it's been with all the arts, video's development will be more biological then technological, more psychological than political. "Perhaps," said Heisenberg,
The chanting returns: seed mantras, unaccounted for visualizations, reality doubled into a perfection of duplicity. The One and the Two, uncertainty being the androgyny blind to its other side. Or, the spagyric figure of Mercurius "as shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine." (C.G. Jung)
With computer graphics we again approach the mind in which dreams and wakefulness form a single motivation, "the mind made to believe things that do not exist in reality...and the person thinks he is observing these things fully awake, whereas in fact he is not yet quite fully conscious." (E.B. Tylor)
Faceless men, with hollow bodies smooth as molded plastic. Just a rag thrown over the genitals for modesty's sake, while the computer's busy cloning? electronic palingensis on a desiccated desert bed.
"For the first time in the course of history," wrote Heisenberg, "man on earth faces only himself....In such a confrontation the extension of technology need no longer be an indication of progress." To which physicist John Wheeler adds, "Not machinery but magic may be the better description of the treasure that is waiting."
Magic and technology have always been stored in the same brain. Shamans as "technicians of the sacred." Thus the most complex and interesting techne is still the human mind. When the artist forgets this, seduced by the power of cybernetic tools, the work loses ground, its genetic intent, becoming merely a demonstration of machine capabilities. Moreover, as images, even "live" events, may be computer-generated, nothing should be taken for granted as having occurred independently. So, too, our hypnopompic state, the site that wavers mockingly between illusion and delusion.
Act III : "Greetings and Salutations"
It is late afternoon. Think of the film 10, the scene in which a man and a woman are running toward each other in slow motion. The cliché here becomes a parody of itself, an "ironic inversion." The woman removes her wide-brimmed hat, so that her long hair flows behind her; the man, in turn, loosens his necktie, letting it fall. Their faces radiate the anticipation that "only the beloved, so it seems to the lover...can in the world bring about what our limitations deny, a total blending of two beings, a continuity between two discontinuous creatures." (Georges Bataille)
In reality we can never fully embrace. Souls circle around a deceptively blue flame, that is a cloudless azure sky. Music wafts over the meadow, laving voices collect into words. The lovers, striding toward each other, are hallucinating atrocities caused by their inability to irrevocably mate...suddenly they halt. A bevy of men and women join the quest, meeting and winding between each other, not touching, but sensing, reacting as in a dance of DNA; then, as if folded in a dream in which motion require tremendous effort, all slowly run away.
We are conditioned to holding onto one moment at a time; instead of experiencing life through time, not having consciousness hindered by any object, but flowing, floating, rising, bending "things in motion, motion in things." We speak of a series of images, and the artist, too, constructs her work this way. Yet it is the isomorph we retain, the overall impression obtained only in retrospect, held like ghost lingering on the retina, more haptic than optic.
So the eskers reappear, along with drums pelting us like meteor shadows, singing like blowing sand. On this theurgic landscape everything we believe in is recursive. As with video, "the present has become an immediately returning past, and the past a potential present which can be made actual at any moment." (Mario Perniola)
The Neolithic began with the development of storage, and already the so-called Age of Information, with its ability to re-store in strategies of substitution, was on its way. "The unconscious is housed," wrote Bachelard, suggesting a "systematic psychological" study of "the sites of our intimate lives," where we couple memories that germinate as dreams.
Act IV : "He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins"
We see a man in the twilight of his life, living alone in a plush home.
The hand-held camera swings through the murky room (a patriarchal painting; a mirror too, "that he might die but live on eternally young in the person of his image." [Robert Eisner]). Voices, porous as if floating on "the frigid River Styx," surround the man with the purchased jetsam his soul tossed overboard.
Outside, the sun glows. Inside, light bulbs bloom like hothouse flowers. The boy who ran toward his future above is the man who now sits waiting for his imminent death: the gulf between holds our history in its motionless depths. "Something in man," wrote Jung, "is profoundly disinclined to give up his beginnings, and something else believes it has long since got beyond all that;" although the videotape winds past the head (the viewer's and the machine's), images passed remain present in the aggregate of the work.
Now he's sitting in a chair by a staircase rising like Jacob's Ladder (it seems to him), recalling the child he was sliding down the banister into his mother's anxiously opened arms. She admonishes him again, and he buries his head in the swell of her lap, satin dress pressing the smoothness of his fallow skin, the scent of her perfume drowning his nostrils again.
At the top of the staircase is another doorway, a window transmitting a theophany of light, another threshold. But the chair he occupies is the throne of his Being, from which there is no getting up. Instead, these steps, he knows, must rise through him.
The unconscious makes up 75.001% of the mind. The measurement taken is the orbit of one's soul. Not the speed of light as datum, but the depth of enlightenment. Not the death of a star as it collapses into insatiable darkness, but death as the notable abyss. Of the underworld, the underbelly of the universe, astronomers have temporally lost sight.
The power of the mantra "resides not in the actual sound produced but in the archetypal sounds it represents" (John Blofeld). Inside a black hole's "event horizon"?which grows to fill the screen?we are limited by the gravity of who we are not, and from this there is no escape. It is here we begin again; for, as Heisenberg explains, "limit itself may furnish the first firm hold by which we can orient ourselves anew."
Act V "Hope Extraordinaire"
Children spy from behind the empty eye sockets of architecture's friable mask; or climb up a clay obelisk in order to see further into the world. AN ADMIRABLE AMBITION!, the chorus shouts. A CHEAP GAUDY PACKAGE WOULD ARRIVE!
Adults enchanted, zombies asleep while awake, staring at what? "Memory is a field of psychological ruins." (Bachelard) That "cheap gaudy package" may be Pandora's Box, from which all the Evils escaped but one. Hope, that is, still lurked in a corner, "for we are saved by Hope: but the hope that is seen is not Hope." (St. Paul) The treadmill of hope is the hopelessness of our illusions; and on what greater hope does humanity depend than that which we conjure in a newborn child? ENERGY!, the chorus continues, as pictures in black & white, symbolic of clear delineation, of miraculous separation: child from mother, mother from a growing part of herself.
But it is not so clear. "It is though we are adjusting a moving picture that is slightly out of focus," writes Gary Zukov, explaining Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle?
The origin of the Uncertainty Principle is implicit in such diverse and ancient texts as the Fragments of Heraclitus and the Vedantic Upanishads, it cloaked also in alchemical tropes. "The world," said Heisenberg, "appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole."
Diadem of water. The fertile land again. Sun diamond-fractured into a fantasy of untenable symbols. The boy stands again in the temple of ruins, where the Gods, "eternal because they are gone in a second," dwell again in the blink of an eye.
There is no point at which fiction doesn't subsume event: the boy, and the old man; the woman and the man each yearning to unite; the old man and his mother existing for the first and last time simultaneously and continuously; the city and the virgin land...all imbricated by the solitude that separates them; each image framed, isolated, yet mediated.
Which is why the poet Rilke wrote, "empty distances transmit."
G. The Poetics of Space. Boston, 1969.
© New American Writing 1990.