Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Quantum Criticism: A Poetics of Simultaneity for Global Literature

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Quantum Criticism: A Poetics of Simultaneity for Global Literature

Article excerpt

This article presents a different way of writing about literature, characterized by putting three tiers on a single page, each of which presents substantially different arguments on a topic. The author calls this Quantum Criticism because of its conceptual and metaphorical relationship to quantum mechanics. The possibility of presenting multiple arguments on a single page puts them into an inevitable conversation with one another, and generates a field of thinking in which new forms of thought will arise. The article is an example of how Quantum Criticism could be used to address methodological problems that are central to the fields of global literature and comparative studies.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

--Wallace Stevens

In the above stanza from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Collected Poems 92), Wallace Stevens presents us with a model of human consciousness that is different from the model to which we are accustomed. More often than not, we imagine that each of us has one mind. Here the speaker claims to be "of three minds"-which creates a paradoxical conception of the self in which one person is of three minds, and three minds are of one person. The speaker is expressing a feeling not of being torn about an important matter, or of having mixed feelings (as in "I'm of three minds about immigration reform"), but of literally being made up of separate, autonomous, cohabitating minds. Three separate conscious minds live together as the "I" of the speaker. These minds are not simply housed in the speaker's self; they are the speaker's self. The speaker's self is not subdivided; it is multiple. Both the tree and the speaker contain in them a greater amount of total thinking--more conscious and unconscious mindfulness about reality--than any one of them is aware of, though each mind is still an autonomously functioning entity.

In order to take the full measure of the speaker's thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions, we must perceive and appreciate this tableau of multiple consciousnesses, understanding each mind both individually and in relation to the other separate but conjoined minds. The movement is from a dualistic model of the self to a model in which the self has multiple minds--multiple lines of thinking, multiple emotional and psychological orientations, multiple ways of looking at, conceiving of, and being in the world, etc.--that, like blackbirds in a tree, live as sovereign creatures, but also interact, cluster, change places, and are affected by the other states of mind amongst which they live. No single mind or train of thought, no argument, no perspective is beholden to any other, and yet, of course, they will undoubtedly be understood in relation to one another, will occasionally brawl and be affected by one another, because they are a tableau visible in its entirety at a single glance, and because they are living creatures that make up a symbiotic system. (1)

This is an exceptional image because, as readers who think of ourselves as having only one mind not three, we initially have no way of imagining what it must be like to be the poem's speaker. The image is too much for any one person. It takes us beyond the model we use for thinking about human consciousness, and leaves us only able to think about the poem metaphorically, mistakenly presuming that the speaker is either uncertain or has a split personality. However, the poem itself introduces the form of consciousness required to read it. We must, Stevens suggests, be of three minds in order to understand this poem, just as in "The Snow Man" Stevens tells us that "One must have a mind of winter/To regard the frost and the boughs/Of the pine-trees crusted with snow" (Collected Poems 9). The poem presents us with a paradox that we at first balk at, but then invites us into a world in which such mindfulness will be rewarded with comprehension. …

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