the quantum mechanics of culture

July 18, 2013 Global Heritage, History, Sustainability, Technology Comments (2) 1534

– written in magic marker across the top of my windscreen in 1984 –

When I studied history in college I reasoned that historical events were “overdetermined,” that is to say that they could not be explained by simple cause-and-effect. The causes of World War I, for example, are a big mushy stew of militarism, a rising capitalist industrialism, a Byzantine network of alliances and treaties, and a global economy still shedding the creaky structure of mercantilism. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the “event” at a point in time and space which purportedly set these multiple causes into motion.

In quantum mechanics you can’t have a point in time and space, especially if there is movement.

stein siegel

Everyone who hates history class knows it is about memorizing dates. I like memorizing dates but I remember having a big argument (before a big history test) with my college roommate about the nature of dates in history. He felt that historical events had a discrete beginning and end. The Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. I disagreed, saying you could always push the boundaries of an event forward and back. The Civil War really began with the 1860 election, or the Dred Scott case, or the Compromise of 1850 or the Missouri Compromise 30 years earlier or the three-fifths rule in the Constitution or the African slave trade or…. the point is it just goes on. You could argue it ended in 1865 or with Reconstruction or the Voting Rights Act or you could argue that it is still going on in Sanford and Austin and Raleigh.

In string theory the attributes of subatomic one-dimensional elementals resonate over time, causing matter and its opposite.

arch bldg brise tamu

You start pulling the threads of history and you get more and more entangled. I like the messiness of history, as I note on my website and over the years in this blog. Overdetermined in cause and effect, indeterminate in time, rich in detail. In the post-Enlightenment world we have also seen history in a positivist trajectory, something most human cultures (and religions) in time have rejected. See my post on 2012 and the End of Linear Time.

Liongrv gdn cool door cS

Historians are always playing catch-up with science and medicine, those disciplines which can legitimately claim some crazy-ass accomplishments over the last couple of hundred years. We’ve doubled lifespans, cured diseases, gone from a 90-second powered flight to the moon in 66 years, and the latest plane crash had a 99 percent survival rate. But in history we still fall back on great leaders and military tactics, even though these approaches have been challenged for the entirety of my life. Humans, by nature, gravitate to singular explanations. But science and medicine have made their advances by rejecting simple agency, so should we all. Yeah, it’s harder. You have to think and work and stuff.

M-theory posits a universe with 11 dimensions, which is 7 past Time.

adalaj stpvwS

My doctoral work began as an investigation into the role of Modernism in historic preservation: how had a movement defined by forward-looking optimism that technology could solve societal ills also give birth to a retrospective nostalgia for more primitive urban and architectural forms? This research takes you of course to Sigfried Giedion, who wrote “Space, Time and Architecture” in 1941, an expansive and historical take that saw (a certain strand of) contemporary architectural practice as not only the culmination of centuries of slouching toward perfection, but also an expression of the radical new scientific understanding of the 20th century, namely Einsteinian space-time. Technology had made a quantum leap (haha) and architects were giving form to a new understanding of the world.

great interior2s

Exactly 20 years later Jane Jacobs totally dismantled Giedion as a faux-Einsteinian, treating cities as two-variable or statistical (disorganized complexity) problems when in fact they were biological (organized complexity) problems.

Here, kitty kitty. Schrödinger suggested a quantum biology when he introduced quantum physics.

embarcadero swirlS

My actual dissertation investigated the multiple motivations behind the creation of historic districts in the United States over the last century or so. It was a crude attempt at defining how some things were “overdetermined” and looking for strings across time and place that might provide insight not only into the creation and disposition of historic districts, but the nature and trajectory of the preservation movement itself. I found historic districts served a variety of motives, often focused on development and often expressive of a desire for a local democracy of the built environment (or partial secession, depending on your perspective)

Sf Ital rowhousS

In quantum entanglement, the measurement of a value in one element of a pair causes the other to take on a correlated value – with little regard for time, space or separation of the pair.

“Entanglement” seems like a better word that “overdetermined,” not only because it resonates more neatly with the social and political, but also because it challenges the idea of agency itself. Maybe historic preservation is the correlated pair of modernism, each spinning in the opposite direction.

ruins III 2011s

Heritage preservation has graduated from its Euclidean approach of looking at individual monuments in space to embrace cultural landscapes combining tangible and intangible heritage, like some sort of quantum field theory.

stein above3

The deeper you dig into quantum mechanics, which is an attempt to understand the basics underlying everything (matter, gravity, etc.), the more fugitive your goal becomes and the more weird the particles (or waves) become. But that fugitive state is what attracts me to this perturbative analogy.

flute columns

What are we trying to preserve? A window into the past? An archive of information or potential information? A masque of earlier culture? A design, and if so, the intention or the result? A ruin as a palimpsest that reveals time by its decrepitude? Beauty? An object? A practice? The practice of making a kind of object? It is always fugitive, though, because as soon as you preserve whatever it is, you have re-enacted it in a different time. The more correctly you measure its historical spin, the more impossible you make its contemporary correlation.

st basils day82

To preserve heritage sites we need to engage the local community, find an economically viable use – in short, construct a future for the past. This is way beyond particles or particulars and well beyond waves and trends and it seems to me quite entangled and every attempt to define or measure it causes another spin and the meaning slides and the matter resolves….

st basilz nite b

photos: airstream show, Palm Springs, 2011. Stein (town in Austria) history plaque designed 1977, photographed 2005. Texas A & M, 2007. Suzhou, 2012. Adalaj stepwell, Gujarat, 2008. Palo Alto Methodist Church, 2012. Embarcadero paving, 2011. San Francisco Italianates, 2013. Ruins III sculpture, Chicago, 2012. Stein, 2005. Columns at Sabratha, Libya, 2013. St. Basil’s Moscow, 2013, day and night.

2 Responses to :
the quantum mechanics of culture

  1. Nika says:

    I like to envision resurrection rather than preservation. Giving old places a new, vibrant life is a worthy goal. I like to think like Faulkner that the past isn’t dead. It is part of us. And, I like the reference to Schrödinger’s cat.

  2. Truly brilliant and illuminating juxtapositions. I have never seen this put so succinctly: “In string theory the attributes of subatomic one-dimensional elementals resonate over time, causing matter and its opposite.” Right ON!

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