Quantum Field Poetics (CCafe 8/21)


Geoffrey Edwards and Heather Fester lead an experimental session about how quantum (and) field theories can inform a collective writing practice.


Quantum field poetics is an attempt to develop a practice of writing that is “collectively aware” even when a single person is writing, although we are also focussing on developing collective writing practices. The project involves exploring a number of writing practices that are loosely based on quantum physics principles adapted to the field of literature. Current efforts in this regard include the ways structure (poetic versification, sentences and paragraphs, etc.) can generate resonances in the “poetic field”, the exploration of the “cloud” of meaning around any one word and questioning its multiple uses, exploration of the idea of sentence/context pairs, “residual” field effects, for instance the way a sentence can strongly bind meaning within itself but also allow for resonances/connections to other sentences or phrases, and other ideas such as dimensionality in relation to text. Quantum field poetics is also based on the idea that there exists an intermediate layer between “reality” and “text” or “expression” which is experiential (e.g. felt, especially in embodied ways; spiritual; and/or ineffable). The idea is not to use the analogy as a kind of straightjacket to impose on literature, but to explore what kinds of new modes of writing and/or inquiry such an approach opens up.


This is a paper Geoffrey wrote on the subject in the late 1980’s that outlines the general idea in more detail.

QuantumPoetics1.docx (152.4 KB)


The session will be animated by Heather Fester (@hfester) and Geoffrey Edwards (@Geoffrey_Edwards).

Seed Questions

  • Is the idea useful, or does it feel overly artificial to you?
  • What kinds of new ideas/understandings do you find this way of viewing things raises?
  • What does it suggest about the practice of collective writing? How can attending to the collective field enhance our writing (thinking, feeling)?

Context and Backstory

Agenda items

  • The meeting will be structured, although we will leave lots of time for discussion.
  • We will begin by summarizing where these ideas came from and how Heather and I ended up working on this together.
  • Then we will open up the floor to a more general discussion.
  • We will, however, reserve the last 30 minutes for a structured writing/drawing exercise that aims to provide some hands-on experience to what we mean by Quantum Field Poetics as a writing or drawing practice, both personally and collectively.

Thanks the wonderful write-up, Geoffrey. I am looking forward to this event.


(Attempting to understand your paper and the ideas of Quantum Poetics outside of the paper; these are brief notes along with questions and observations):

The Classical Field

The classical field is most known for its global properties, and it is in relation to such properties that classical field theory, in a less than rigourous manner, has been applied to literary theory. Hayles (op.cit.) discusses the response of several prominent twentieth century prose writers to field theory: Pirsig, D.H. Lawrence, Borges and others. Thus the basic ideas of connectivity and self-referentiality have been explored before. Note, however, that self-referentiality at this level refers to looping at a narrative level. … To pick up this kind of self-referentiality, one has to read the entire body of the text, or some major part thereof. This is clearly an example of a field property, that it can loop back on itself in such a manner, but such an example by no means exploits the full richness self-referentiality can generate.
—p 2 of Quantum Poetics I (bold highlights mine)

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino is my favorite example. It is typically labeled as a postmodern novel but I feel it can be labeled as a representation of the classical field that Hayles is observing.

Questions that flied in my mind-field and filed for future use:

  • what is the poetics before interpretation by the other, another? Can it be considered quantum poetics before interpretation? After? Alone? With others?

  • can this be performed in expansive works outside of poetry?

The goal of field theories is to allow the exploration of the characteristics of such fields. In literary theory, our goal is similar … we wish to explore the characteristics of text in a more general sense, and then apply this knowledge to the study of individual texts in order to gain deeper insight. A "complete" analysis is, of course, beyond reach!

This is the challenging part for me (in anything quantum)…the (partial?) reliance on experience and hence, a “complete” analysis or a “complete” product is always just beyond our grasp. The “particularly rich laboratory” of poetry seems to be one of the few “fields” in which quantum poetics can be performed and still remain somewhat sensible. Poetry accounts for the “two aspects of modern quantum field theories,” probability and local gauge invariance (which you do not explore in this particular paper). Keeping in mind the structure of a novel, how could such a performance be accomplished at length?
In Poetry, a story can unfold from within the folded words, such as seen in Marco’s recent video posting of rap dynamics (raps wrapping around, scraping the sound from lines last go around. Stanzas about Danza and Danzig, zagging and lagging time rhythms. Drips dropping, mics popping, big mama, etc. etc.). The video contains an analysis of the structures of the deeper self-referential poetics at play within the more recent rap artists works, often employing similar techniques as you find in the Modern Québecois poetry. The more recent artists are also building off of years of past hip-hop/rap compositions, a form of collective field writing perhaps. Yet, to create a novel, a work with quantum poetics explored at novel lengths, seems to be a lifelong pursuit. Perhaps Finnegan’s Wake and its kin in style and content are the closest lengthy works related to your ideas, @Geoffreyjen_Edwards?

Looking forward to this conversation!


Since you asked, @Douggins, here is a second paper (literally “Paper 2”) in the Quantum Poetics sequence I wrote 30 years ago. I have modified this paper to provide a conclusion, a bit more on local gauge theory and also to correct some errors in the earlier part of the paper (take note, @hfester, this version replaces the earlier versions which did contain some errors). It explains how the ideas developed in Paper 1 could be extended to inform the writing/analysis of novels and other prose forms of writing.

QuantumPoetics2_v2.docx (150.2 KB)


I think one might reasonably argue that interpretation could be handled through a nested structure. What I mean to say is, since text is produced by applying a Language Operator to the experiential field, then interpretation of a text would consist of applying a new Operator to the experiential field that results from reading the text. Whether the new Operator would be another Language Operator or something else would depend on what you did with the interpretation. If you communicated it to someone else, then it would be a second tier Language Operator again. And so on, when someone tried to interpret what you said/wrote about your experience of the original text…

The idea of Quantum Field Poetics has to do with a way of looking at the process, rather than the nature of the process itself. By using the Quantum Field Poetics framework, you will naturally highlight certain elements of the poetic field that you might view differently within some other framework (a classical literary theoretical framework, or a psychological framework, etc.).


Please excuse the interruption, and even though I appreciate the very creative approach that’s being put forth here, I still need a bit of assistance.

As I understand the paper, classical field theory was driven by "effects". For example, we knew a field was present because of the effects that we observed: I place a bar magnet under a sheet of paper, sprinkle it with iron filings and the filings arrange themselves in a pattern that is more and different than the simple structure of the bar itself, so there is something more at work here than originally suspected but now it meets the eye.

Quantum field theory, by contrast, has to do with probabilities in relation to the “local” properties of what is being considered. Personally, I can’t get from “probabilities” to the iron-filings pattern (in the example above), but it’s even more difficult for me when the “magnet” is replaced by, in this case, “a text”. Some aspects of this phenomenon are continuous (wave, or wave-like, properties) others are discrete (quanta), but I’m not sure how I determine which are which when I read the text, and do I end up with anything that is even remotely analogous to the iron-filings pattern? I mean, somehow we have to recognize that we are talking about the same things, don’t we?

And then, in the course of reading, I stumbled over this:

"If we define the classical field in literature as a continuum of thematic and phonetic (F4) properties embedded in some linguistic space … ." (p3)

It would seem, as I suspect, that the classical and quantum fields are not so different as to constitue different phenomena, but still, I’m (unclear on what the “(F4)” means, but I’m even more unclear) on how “thematic” and “phonetic” build a continuum. I’m having trouble getting from mere sounds to a focused idea or topic or notion or something like, at least along some kind of line, which is what I imagine a “continuum” to be. One end of the continuum (the phonetics) has, for example, 0 (zero) meaning; the other end has partial, but certainly not absolute, meaning. Meaning’s apparently not the “line”. There must be a different parameter connecting them, but I’m not seeing it at the moment.

I’m probably just being “thick”, as is so often the case, but I must be missing something somewhere. In other words, I feel myself wrapped entirely around the axle, but I’m not sure what constitutes that axle, nor just how I got wrapped around it. Maybe someone can help me unravel myself? I’d greatly appreciate it.


You cannot imagine how great it is to share this stuff within a community of people that cares. When I published my first paper in this area, in 1989, it disappeared into the field of published texts without a single ripple. Even the paper I published ten years later, in 1999, likewise disappeared. No one was interested in 1989… in fact, one of the reasons I didn’t pursue the work was I needed a collaborator in the field of literature, and despite several attempts in that direction, I was unable to find anyone remotely interested. So the text you are reading is a draft text that never went through review and never had the kind of “wait a minute” reaction I am getting here. So your comments are really important, Ed!

Let’s begin with the physics realm before jumping to the literature realm. The iron-filings pattern is not the best example to understand the reason for the probability fields in quantum physics (although it could certainly be described that way). The prototypical example is the Young double slit experiment. You may remember it. You have two small slits in an opaque surface, and you shine a light through them onto a back screen. If you close up one of the slits, you get a (continuous) diffusion pattern on the back screen - bright at the centre, decreasing brightness as you move away from the centre. Same with the other slit. But if you uncover both at the same time, you do not get the two earlier patterns superimposed, you get something entirely different! You get a series of bands - eventually, these do fade off, but the result is, ah, (naively) unexpected. The explanation, of course, is that one is dealing with a wave phenomenon, and the two waves interfere with each other, leading to the characteristic interference pattern (the bands). The problem gets worse, however. Because light can be viewed either as waves or particles (photons), understanding the wave “picture” is pretty straightforward. But understanding this from the particle perspective is not. Scientist have decreased the intensity of light being used to illuminate the slits to the point that only one photon is going down the “beam” at a time. So, as a particle, it has to go through only one of the slits, does it not? But if it goes through only one slit, then it should simply accumulate on the back wall directly behind the slit. Why does it not? It’s like the photon knows the other slit is open when it goes through the first one, and hence modifies its trajectory to fit the interference pattern… Doesn’t make sense. This is where the probability theory comes in - in some sense, particles don’t act as particles, they act as kind of “wavicles” according to a probability field determined by the conditions of the experiment. The intermediate probability field cannot be avoided in coming up with a “particulate theory” for the double-slit experiment, whereas it can be avoided in an explanation of the iron-filings. However, that a probability field is also present for the iron-filings situation is implicit - it’s just that it predicts the exact same pattern as the old explanation does. Is that clear?

Okay, so this is where I jump off the deep end. I am assuming that words are discrete, like particles. Is that an unreasonable assumption? I think not, but I’m open to hearing counter arguments. Is meaning discrete? I am inclined to say no, but again, I recognize that something (a word, say) may have a very particular “meaning”, which would at least suggest that it clumps. For meaning, I prefer the idea of a semantic field, so the idea that meaning is continuous but has “intensities” in particular locations. A semantic field is typically represented as a vector of synonyms. In my appendix to the paper, I suggest a way of relating this vector to the whole of the language (which I call a “dictionary”) - location is not, then spatio-temporal, but simply a numerical index within the vector we call the dictionary or the semantic field. But this is a discrete approximation to the semantic field, I am assuming that in some sense one may treat these fields as more or less continuous (perhaps a stretch…). So a word (particle) is associated with a semantic field (field). The semantic field, in turn expresses something about the “underlying” or “generating” experience, which in our recent discussions we are calling either an (embodied) feeling, a spiritual sense or something which is ineffable (indescribable).

As an analogy to quantum theory, I am suggesting that the experiential field bears a similar relation to perceived reality as the relation of the “probability fields” in quantum physics to the measurable/observable reality, that is, the experiential field describes properties of the observable reality in ways that cannot be directly captured, they can only be inferred. I admit the argument may be forced… my idea is to accept it for the time being and see where it leads us. The analogy also suggests that the relationship between predictions of behaviour (i.e. solutions to the wave equations, the latter of which are expressed in terms of probability fields) and the probability fields themselves can be also associated with the relationship between text and the experiential field. In some sense, I am assuming that text acts like a “solution” to an attempt to extract something from the experiential field. In quantum theory, solutions are obtained by constraining the problems being addressed, for example, by applying what are called boundary conditions or, sometimes, initial conditions.

I am also playing with the idea that the textual “field” may be purely written (ie. semantic/syntactic etc) or that the oral field may be a different variation (hence involving phonemes) - this may have gotten confused in the text. I always try to cram too many ideas into one section!

Sorry about the “F4” and similar elements - this is an early draft of the paper and F# are references to myself to input a footnote here - footnote #4 as it happens lol.

Not sure if this helps. The mapping is a bit of a reach. Metaphorically it works quite well, but if one were to try to develop a kind of “quantitative metaphorics”, the mapping might break down.


Yes, I remember it, but I’m very glad you ran through it again, for I’m not sure that everyone reading this thread has read all of the other threads we’ve been involved in that have led up to this one. That, too, is a type of “field”, is it not, that has much impact on what we’re discussing here.

In a word, no. I have to assume that there is a way – probabilistically – to get from one to the other, but since I, and I’m assuming most of my fellow mere mortals don’t think in those categories, it is comforting to know that the connection is there, even if only implicit. That is, however, and I’m forced to note, a bit problematic because we are all trying to follow the flow of the argumentation that’s telling us that maybe we need to get smarter about (quantum) physics than most of us non-hard-science types may be willing to get. No offense, but if that’s what we need to do to think differently about texts or gain (otherwise unattainable?) insights about texts, well, I, for one, am going to think twice. Is the gain (of insight) worth the pain (of learning a whole new domain)? Sometimes things take on a very fundamentally profit-loss orientation.

Hear! Hear! (But, I will admit that it was at the wave/particle-as-related-to-text juncture that I felt myself losing my grip.)

And I don’t think they are as discrete as you would like them to be. For example, around 200 years ago, the word “awful” meant “to be full of awe (just like the word implies)”, and “awesome” meant “lacking in awe in many ways”. Over the course of time, these words swapped places. Just when it happened may not even be identifiable (at the quantum level?), but while they are then and now both discrete in a certain sense, along the way they were less so and I think it makes a difference when they cross over.

And I would agree, no … but for the reason of my example, not for the reason you are implying here.

Yes but there is, as my above example implies, temporal aspects as well (not to mention cultural, social, and psychological ones). It is not so simply as aligning the meanings along a vector of synonyms, for synonyms are themselves only approximations that are in flux. If all were as “cut and dried” (as physics appears to us mortals) there would be less of an issue, but dynamism – in any number of dimensions on a variety of hierarchical levels are always at work. Any “specification” can never be any more than a snapshot in time and that’s not exactly something I would like to sign up to.

But that may not be the case. Why do the Germans (and I’m purposely taking a non-English example to illustrate the point), say “jemandem den Stirn bieten” (lit. “offer s.o. your forehead”) when they mean you have to “stand up to someone else”. Where’s the fulcrum point? In the “forehead”, the “offering”, the … ? At the word level, we can understand everything, but the level of meaning is very much beyond the word level. It’s also not in the grammar, nor in the syntax. Semantics has, in many instances, little to do with anything that it should have to do with. Chomsky’s infamous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is another example of words that all make sense, an impeccable grammar, conforming to the rules of English syntax, but which makes zero sense. Meaning (or non-meaning) is apparently coming from somewhere else, and I have difficulty (most likely because I’m so small-brained) imagining which probability tables are going to either generate the sentence or clarifly why it shouldn’t have been in the first place, but was absolutely necessary in reality.

Don’t we all cram? I plead guilty.

But, in my defense. Having read this paragraph, it could be that in your paper you are confusing “phonetic” (sound) with “phoneme” (a sound that contributes to meaning). I think we’re in agreement that sound and meaning are absolutely unrelated. If not, different languages would not have different words for the same concepts. “Fire” (EN) and “Feuer” (DE) may look alike, but AySH (IL) doesn’t work at all. Phonemes, of course, vary significantly from language to language. We know the difference between a “bet” and a “pet” because in that position in a word, the sound of the first letter makes all the difference. But, phonemes themselves are language specific. In Hebrew, for example, the same letter, say, “B” (their Beth) may be pronounced /b/ as in “bet” or /v/ as in “vet”, depending on morphological context. The meaning, however, does not change for the root word involved.

At the textual level: while there may be stylistic differences between written and oral language, I would be very hesitant to invoke a difference. We may be more cautious and reflective when writing as opposed to speaking (in general), but there are so many instances where spoken language is actually written (corporate and scholarly presentations) and written language is actually spoken (that quickly dashed-off letter to your significant other who just dumped you by mail).

OK, you get a bye on this one … anyone who’s written any kind of serious paper has such things floating around in their early drafts. (I assumed as much, but as we both know what “ASS-U-ME” means, I was hesitant to just, well, assume as much.)

All mappings are. Metaphors have their limits as well.

I imagine it is hideously difficult to map such diverse domains onto one another. I am reminded of our CCafés on the Meru work. The evidence in the text appears to map to a completely different domain. The results are, at least to my small mind, well, mind-boggling. What you are trying to do, it would seem, is take a completely different domain and map it onto any given text, not a particular or special or in any way otherwise distinguishable text. This is inestimably more difficult. I guess that’s my pain-gain conundrum.


Again, Ed, you are looking at early texts I wrote years ago. I have been working with Heather (@hfester) and she has been helping me “clean up” the language so we can present the writing/poetic aspects without all the “messy physics”. Some people (like me) like the physics, but other people don’t and clearly writers and poets won’t want to wade through all the technicalities. What I have in mind is a multi-layered approach - a top level where the main issues are presented without delving too much into the physics and an “in-the-know” lower layer for those that like such things.

I don’t disagree with this, Ed, but the point is to start simple and introduce something a bit more complex later on if this is warranted. But even the changes you are talking about are somehow “discrete”, they are just discrete at a finer level of granularity than I was talking about.

Again, yes, of course, but as a first go this is still interesting. At least I believe it is, and others seem to think so too…

But that is precisely my point. Meaning at the word level is fraught with uncertainty. Meaning really only starts to take on significance at the sentence level, and above that. And yes, it is more than just grammar, or syntax, but I am also arguing along similar lines. And your example from Chomsky may not make sense in many contexts, but I’m pretty sure one could come up with some contexts where it might make perfect sense. The point about semantics, is that it depends on context … which is part of my argument as well.

You are right about confusing “phonemes” and “phonetics” - I think that has been pointed out to me before and obviously I wasn’t paying enough attention!

Well, I’m not sure I agree. I find the mappings compelling. I think the issue is knowing well enough both domains to be able to make (an) intelligent mapping. I am not the only one to do this. My survey of the literature unearthed at least 40 other papers on “quantum poetics”, and there are many others referring to “field poetics”, many of them by artists, and so the correspondences do seem to be worthwhile to a growing number of people. It may never interest most, but as a niche area of interest, there is some kind of draw. I do believe that if we can simplify the conclusions enough, the whole subject could also be broadened to contribute to some kind of a “theory” of text as field, both individual texts and also collective texts, but clearly more work needs to be done to make these ideas more accessible and operational.


I don’t know if I’d say that I’m helping you “clean up” the physics language. :slight_smile: But, I am asking what “writing” wants, and if it’s the same thing that a scientific description offers. And, I think that is a question that doesn’t require revision to the original project–just an on-going dialogue.

Sorry to not be more involved in this deep conversation. I started my semester today, buried in 4 separate deadlines right away. So, I’ll be back here to elaborate more later in the week.


Here are a few things I’ll be referencing during the call today:

My own prose piece, “A Quantum Glimpse,” (A Quantum Glimpse_prose.pdf (21.0 KB)) which I also translated into poem form (A Quantum Glimpse_poem.pdf (17.5 KB) ). I would invite you to imagine the play of “fourth person perspective” (as Susanne Cook-Greuter discusses it) here.


I love all of these sources, Heather. Can you direct me to the fourth person discussion? Is there a link that I missed? Thanks again for the wonderful cafe today!


Thank you, Heather, for sharing both your prose and poetic versions of Quantum Glimpse here. I’m enjoying swimming in those spaces. And looking forward, all, to the full video of this convo once it’s posted. Hi, all, I’ve met some of you before, (hi, Ed!), and look forward to meeting more of you soon. whether on once of these calls, or in the ongoing discussions here.


Great to see you made it into the Conversations, Brian! Small world, eh? It was a bit of different session yesterday, but both informing and inspiring. Hope to see/read/hear more from you as we move on.


Hi Ed, thanks! And yes, small world indeed! I’m curious about this conversation and will check it out and also about some of the previous ones I’ve seen. Look forward to being part of the discussions, too.


Hi, @johnnydavis54, Here’s the Cook-Greuter link. She addresses perspectives (and aligns them with dimensions here, which is something I’m working with for the Gebser conference in relationship to EPO. :-)) (Thanks also for fixing the Hester. <3) Glad you were there yesterday–not quite used to you being quieter on the calls, so I was worried. But, I enjoyed the comments you made and your feedback at the end too! (There more of SCG’s work on her website if you’re interested. I love her model. Terri is a student of it in a very deep way, as I understand it.)

Cook-Greuter 9 levels paper new 1.1’14 97p[1].pdf (1.0 MB)


Thanks, Heather, and I am getting more silent because I feel other very skilled and competent folks are taking over some of the challenge of bringing experiments to the cafe. I like this trend very much and so dont want to clutter it up with too much of my own theories about everything. As the experiential efforts start to unfold I would expect our theories to get more refined and that is starting to happen. Once I review the video I will watch out for some of the spacing out stuff that sometimes happens when I go too deep, too fast. When it is safe to do so I can get very immersed in the affective zone and not know how to follow the instructions. And I felt quite safe with you and Mr. G. I think it is such a pleasure to enter the weave of the field that is hard to come back and make an adequate verbal report. I did sense some important re-arrangements were happening.Thanks again for rehearsing your presentation with us and I look following the Gebser event.


Some thoughts (after a 2nd look, which reinforced my real time thoughts).
First: I like the creativeness of playing with the desperate Fields of Physics and Creative Writing (spf. poetry) looking for overlap/concordance/congruence; and I thought, ‘ah, calls for a hypothesis and a controlled experiment’, a closed study. And then later, the exercise was a quick, sort of, pop quiz. But one which didn’t support the ‘theory’. My words and sentence (poem) were ‘far afield’ so to speak, and would have taken the discussion in a completely different direction. Which, I think, is often the case. We folks, coming from such different Fields of knowledge, tend to bring our own experiences into any such (open) thought experiment, leading us into Marco’s “metempsychosis” - the padded room, perhaps, or individual therapy.
Second: Poetry. I am, again, in disagreement with the consensus here. I agree with David James Duncan who said, “poetry is disintegrated prose”. And, I thought @hfester 's prose to poetry reading, upon workshopping it, was confirmation. Though, to be fair, sometimes a poem makes more sense. My own teaching is/was, that “Writing is thinking”. It’s a way to clarify our thoughts, the “messiness” of what’s happening inside our body and mind, but distinct from others, unique to one’s self - open, of course, to different interpretations, none of which are right or wrong. So there is no “best” word. Words have different associations/triggers for each individual. Maybe that’s what the Language Poets were getting at. Nonsense that maybe made sense, if that makes sense.
Third: Collective writing. I think the best example of that would be the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, written together by some 40 very smart people some 240 years ago. But, it’s still subject to interpretation, based in part on the shifting nature of knowledge (science/study/writing etc.); as well as different group’s (and individual’s) beliefs and values - which leads the whole mess of humanity into all sorts of trouble and conflict. It’s common knowledge, now, in the Field of Psychology, that “all Men are not created equal” nor “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, (but I do love this next part) that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness–” What a great work! Yes?


Not common knowledge, but perhaps common opinion. Till we agree on what was/is meant by “equal”, and what, even before that constitutes “Men” (just a quick look at that 3/5 thing they came up with makes my modern mind wonder), we don’t have common anything. There is, further, no doubt contention regarding what the “Creator” means, and it is not clear at all from the document (nor the associated texts reflecting upon it) what “inalienable Rights” might be. In other words, ambiguity abounds; it’s easy to make the text say whatever someone wants it to, and for that reason, it’s maybe not as great as many would like to make it. No?


Exactly my point, @achronon, even with the smartest of people/minds - there is no agreement. Which I think you were saying to @Geoffreyjen_Edwards w/r/t words not being discreet. Yes? So we infer/interpret what really smart people meant with their words, based upon, what? In other words, there is no “super mind”; nor “superman” for that matter, nor “Noosphere”. There is much confusion among smart people (smart, stupid people, I call them) w/r/t what is and what ought to be. The natural world is amoral.
I lean in the direction of a “naturalist”; or, an approach that favors Deep Ecology, Behavioral Ecology, reciprocal determinism (my word), or “The Perfect Storm”. … and 3rd Wave Behaviorism psychodynamic therapy.
Just saying …

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