The Entangled ImaginationA Fictive Dialogue
the improbable, 09/18/22
Originally published in The Improbable, No. 1: Time Indefinite, Siglio, 2020. All rights reserved. © 2020 Ann Lauterbach. Reproduced with permission.
—A form of resistance.
—To a world flattened into literalisms and binaries. I miss maybe and perhaps. I miss ambiguity, complexity and the undecidable. Improvisation and play. I miss gray.
—Gray is nice. Other colors look good against it, especially a certain red. But is gray entangled?
—Gray is not singular; there are countless grays, differing in both tone and hue, dark to light, blue to green to yellow to brown.
—Yes, a cornucopia of grays. But is that the same as entangled?
—Why do you insist on the logic of definition? Entangled is a nice word. It has a certain currency.
—So you want to be current?
—Yes, one fears the old hat.
—It looks nice on you, that hat.
—I imagine you would like digression, meandering away from a linear progression.
—I do, it’s true. I want to save imagination from the dust heap of history.
—Over there, with Keats and Coleridge, that heap? These are pretty tired references to the dead white male heap of history.
—But they had some interesting things to say, even so. I still like the idea of “negative capability.” These days, there are countless writers and artists who have a sense of an animated entanglement with the real world.
—Roberto Tejada, Renee Gladman, William Kentridge, Harryette Mullen, Raul Zurita, Fred Moten, Martha Tuttle, and Alexandro Segade.
—They are entangled?
—They are alive. The world flares out of its categories in their works but still remains recognizable, perceptible. We aren’t in the purely fantastical. This is what I want, a new knowledge of reality, as Stevens put it.
—Reality? Another of those nouns that has no fixed address.
—I like to think imagination is what binds the real to the true; it is one of the ways in which information becomes knowledge.
—These are big assertions. Maybe you could be more specific? Could you talk about your ideas in terms of, say, form?
—OK. I can try. I have been thinking about how the whole thinking-writing idea happens: does the writing go out in front of the thought? Sometimes I think this is the case; it runs ahead, leading the way for thought to follow, but the distance between them is almost non-existent. I was thinking about this after a conversation with a poet friend, about poems in which, for example, a child or children appear. Where did they come from? I did not think them before they appeared in the poem, so the poem, the writing itself, asked for them, or made room for them to appear.
—That’s mysterious. As if the poem called them up.
—It is indeed mysterious. This is one way we stretch the boundaries of subjectivity, what I take to be the work of the imagination: the conjuring of an image or figure or trope necessitated by the work. So then we begin, or I begin to understand what form is: it is how relation occurs to make meaning; all form, not only linguistic or poetic, although I think that Barthes may have been right about everything being readable, everything a “text.” We read the world in order to find the forms of meaning; we make art in order to instruct or show or demonstrate how meanings are made through assembling or relating of one part to another to another.
—Is this what you mean by entangled? I was thinking more of a mess of threads,
like in that painting by Vermeer, “The Lacemaker.” An inscrutable web.
—The Web is incapable of mess; it is always scrutable, a scrutable trap. Mess is important. You can’t begin with order. The word entanglement comes partly from quantum physics, which isn’t exactly messy.
—Yes, I agree. It is sexy because unknown to you, and so arouses your curiosity. Which is how messy sex works, in case you had forgotten.
—Don’t be rude. I am drawn. So what does it mean in the language of physics? Or are you faking it and just dressing up old arguments in newfangledness?
—Newfangled entanglement. It has a nice ring.
—You are evading.
—Is there an emoji for evasion? OK, I will give you a working definition of entanglement in physics but I am not sure it will make my notion any clearer and I fear we will run out of time.
—We will all run out of time eventually.
—But who knows where or when? Where lyrics meet physics. The term entanglement in physics is in fact about where and when. Here’s one definition written by a twelve-year-old kid named Christopher Gilbert, in his charming and informative book, Quantum Mechanics for Kids: “A physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even when the particles are separated by a long distance.”
—O. So, a kind of interdependent simultaneity across space? It is strange to try to fathom such a thing as it seems beyond ordinary perceptions.
—Albert Einstein, suspicious, called it spooky action at a distance. No seeing is believing here; the senses are left to conjure by analogy.
—Is this what you mean in relation to the imagination? Analogy? That seems quite ordinary.
—OK. I think I want to ask our imaginations to allow for a generative leap across boundaries and borders, so that we begin to escape from the singularity of our identities and move toward a plural or open understanding of how entangled we are with each other and the natural world we inhabit. How did we sever our sense of human life from Life? By the invention of history.
—The old argument about nature versus culture?
—I don’t think history is the same as culture although obviously they are, um, entangled. Clearly, we need a more complex, dynamic understanding of narrative itself, beyond the known experiments of late modernisms. We need to reconsider how we think self and world in relation to assumed goals or aspirations, and thus to language itself. Maybe, here in the West, we need to reframe what we imagine the good life to be.
—More big words for a little dialogue.
—Let’s say that whatever I do affects others in ways I cannot know. Let’s say that my desires impinge on the desires of others. Let’s say that power itself needs to be interrogated as an aspiration, and lack of power needs to be understood in relation, say, to humility and compassion; we need to take seriously the difference between being good and being great. This might in turn allow us each to turn away from the violent emphasis on individual accomplishment toward inclusivity, community, relation. To choose to be powerless is not the same as being oppressed by the powerful. To choose not to have a child is not the same as “being childless.” Let’s see if we can allow for plurality and an entangled relation to dictate our actions and our quest for meaning. Let’s say that as long as we think history is separate from nature we will never save the living planet. We need to understand—to deeply imagine—that nature and history are entangled, an interdependent simultaneity.
—Well, now you seem to have gone off the deep end onto some kind of platform.
—Can we talk about that? About platforms? Zoom? Where one cannot look in the eyes of the other, one cannot be spontaneous without fear of rupture, one cannot pause, look away, dwell elsewhere; one had best not raise questions. Where the peripheral world is exiled so that the only way through time is an agonizing literalism, tick tock, where the spatial dimension is omitted, thus canceling everything we understand about the physical—quantum—universe. A form of distorted isolation worse than a cell because pretending to be a gathering.
—Sorry I mentioned it.
—It’s OK. I am somewhat wounded in this sphere.
—You were saying? Something about nature and history being entangled?
—Well, part of my present grief is a sense that there doesn’t seem to be much imagination, entangled or not, in our political discourse, if political discourse can stand in for history here. Why is the past not more deeply understood as a place of possibility as well as a place of error?
—Well, you know, we are addicted to something called the new.
—When I think about art, for example, I want also to be thinking about a politics, and not to keep them severed from each other. But that doesn’t necessarily mean art needs to be more overtly political. This isn’t about subject-matter, although subjects matter. I want the ways in which artists think to be applied to our political thought, which means I want more imagination to happen between means and ends; an inquiry about materials in relation to real needs; we need to think like artists and act in alignment with nature. The political world, and the academic world and the journalistic world, for that matter, appear to have given into a quantifying rationalistic instrumentalism on the one hand, and a kind of preening humorless self-righteous smug opining on the other; these domains seem fearful of the kind of experimentation and critical testing that belongs to art-making, and to physics, where the impossible is viewed as a splendid opportunity to find the possible. Or, as William James, that beautiful old hat, put it, “truth is what happens to an idea.”
about the author
Ann Lauterbach is author of eleven books of poetry and three books of essays, including The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience, The Given & The Chosen, and Door, forthcoming from Penguin in 2022. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, she is Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, where she was co-Chair of Writing in Bard’s MFA (1992–2020).
✼ natalie’s upstate weather report:
september 22, 2023 — Every day blue skies, 71 degrees, and a slight, saltine breeze. Away from the ocean, into the city: heat that melts tar and soaks the concrete while waiting for a bus that seems to have evaporated. And then the ascension up the hill above the slow ooze of traffic on I-405 to the Getty Research Center where—shoed, socked and sweatered—our publisher delves into the Jean Brown Archive, a wholly other climate.[...]