Brookes in the Bronx: New York City Winter

Welcome to the Winter Installment of Brookes in the Bronx!

There have been a lot of changes in New York City since the trees became bare in late November, and winter started to creep across the city. Until the heating was finally turned on on the 1st December, we froze for a few days in our new apartment in the trendy epicenter (sic) of Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now I know why all these aspiring hipster artist-entrepreneurs have such large beards, I thought – but this was long before the winter proper began and the beards really started to come in handy…For an expat Brit more used to the drone of air conditioners and humming radiators than old-fashioned oil-and-gas boiler heating, the tap-tap-gurgle sound of pipes took some getting used to – but now, after weeks in the snow, the singular and peculiar sound of American heating  has comfortably blended into the relatively quiet background of bars, sirens, dogs barking, moustachioed bluegrass bands a-playing and Apple Macs whirring in the coffee shops across the East River from Manhattan.

December began with controversial rulings on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black men who both died at the hands of police earlier this year (see my previous post about this). There was a real sense of outrage in New York City, as mass demonstrations surged into the streets under the uniting assertion that Black Lives Matter. It was interesting to note that few students at Bronx High (my research site) seemed particularly phased by these developments – for them, these things happened far, far away (on Staten Island, in Garner’s case), and to ‘other’ people. But the ruling was also not particularly surprising to them – after all, one of the most profoundly disturbing issues with these cases is that they are just some of the more recent incidents where black men (and particularly young black men) have been killed by police in the United States. Joining the crowds that filled Washington Square Park and Broadway in December in demonstration against rulings, it was evocative to be surrounded by people for whom this was a very real issue. In the crowd were many of the black and hispanic young people of New York City for whom these issues could have fatal consequences, if their impending future actions were to be construed in the wrong way, at the wrong time, by law enforcement.

December also brought a gathering of a different kind – the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in DC. After visiting the White House and the Lincoln memorial on a dour, suitably atmospheric winter evening (think House of Cards), it was inspiring to join in with the thousands of anthropologists arrived in the capitol from all over the world to tout their wares. I gave a talk on the emerging findings from my research, including a first public airing of the concept of quantum personhood – which was mercifully received by those in the audience. Excellent contributions from Ray McDermott, Jean Lave, and Bruno Latour, among others, made for an incredibly thought-provoking and engaging few days of discussion. It’s also good fun to play ‘what to wear: or how to dress like an anthropologist‘…    

Christmas in New York City is, needless to say, something to behold (we took a stay-cation all the way to the illustrious Jersey City… 15 minutes across the Hudson). And as the festive season drew to a close, the real winter started to set in. Local American news, in its usual understated fashion, deemed that we would be struck with ‘Snowmageddon‘, featuring the end of the world, among other things. In the end it has just been a regular extremely cold winter with lots of snow and ice, and the occasional dip in temperature to -24C. For the first time in my life, I own a pair of longjohns, and it does not seem strange to see pugs and poodles walking around in Burberry jackets and little neoprene booties. New York in winter is a strange world indeed…

None of this weather made much of a dent in the school calendar, however, and the weekly routine of ethnographic fieldwork has continued in spite of the sleet and the snow. Students and staff alike at Bronx High have been incredibly welcoming during the winter months, and with their help I’m continuing to paint a complex picture of how futures are imagined as part of the normal everyday lives of seniors in this American high school. Imagined futures can be seen in all kinds of places – from articulations about imagined futures in discourse and policy at the national and regional levels (see Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address for an example, along with campaign claims from NY state governer Andrew Cuomo, NYC major Bill de Blasio, and the NYC Department of Education), to imagined futures at the level of the school, in the curriculum, in individual classrooms, and in the individual lives of teachers and students. They emerge in plays written by students, in college personal statements, in preparation for work experience – even in the banal filling out of applications for federal students loans. At times, multiple imaginings of the future vie for primacy as macro- and micro-scale imaginings come together, intersect, and collide. As seniors come closer to graduating high school, concerns about graduation, college acceptance, gathering credits, and about failing classes all speak to the many potential futures that must be negotiated at this juncture in their young lives. Many of these issues I have captured in an article that documents the emerging findings from the research, and which I hope will appear in a special edition of Anthropology of Education Quarterly later this year.

Other highlights of the last short while have included giving a talk and receiving great feedback on the emerging research from colleagues and students at Columbia University’s Teachers College, as well as a conference there at which Jean Lave gave an excellent Gramsci-inspired keynote. I was also proud to represent Brookes at the UN along with other Fulbright colleagues, where we discussed how the values of the United Nations can be fostered through education (we also had fun pretending we were in The Interpreter). Breaking with the ‘tough it out through the winter’ NYC narrative, I also snuck off to California for a few days of sun in February, which was rather nice. Back in NYC, this week I had the pleasure of attending another evening of discussion about New York City schools at the NYC Google HQ, which provided more food for thought about how imagined futures are shaped by education in particular ways within cityscapes as vast, challenging and inspiring as this one.

Today marks a slight break in the weather; and with thawing of the city I’m also made aware that time is ticking by, and soon enough the research year will be over. Time to refresh the batteries in the dictaphone and get back to it…


Brookes in the Bronx: On Quantum Personhood

The winter months in NYC have been packed with moments for reflection on new ideas emerging in my research about aspiration and imagined futures. The next entry will be more about the details of what’s been happening recently – but for now I thought I’d share some thoughts about a nascent concept that I’ve been developing – the notion of quantum personhood. At the risk of being accused of quackery for invoking quantum physics in the realm of social science (see Brian Cox on the subject here:, I’ve been thinking about how to employ the imagery and metaphor of quantum science in my work about imagining the future. Here’s a bit of it:

Life Is Straight Improv’: Quantum Personhood at Bronx High

The Concept of Quantum Personhood
The above sentiment was articulated by Antoine, a senior in the academically-gifted small learning community of the school who has recently been accepted to a private college, with a full scholarship. When talking about whether he had imagined college and a scholarship as part of his future, he told me:

‘You know, life is straight improv: you just make it up as you go along. You never know what’s going to happen or what kind of person you’re gonna be. And I wouldn’t want a roadmap for what my life is going to be like – that would be boring. Even when you do have a plan, you never know how you’re going to like it until you’re in it. Life is straight improv!’

This kind of perspective on present and future imaginings of self is part of what I hope to capture with the concept of quantum personhood. Recognising the multiple and sometimes incongruous ways in which people are capable of imagining  personhood is of course not a particularly new idea (Strathern 1988; Geertz 1972), but the idea of quantum personhood intends to complicate the picture further, in relation to temporality and young people, and in the context of formal schooling. On the subject of personhood and age, Meyer Fortes remarked of the Tallensi that birth represented the ‘minimum quantum of personhood’ necessary for a Tallensi child to begin the long process of acculumating full personhood (something often not ascertained until after one is dead) (1987:261; Carsten 2004:89). This example is one among many from the literature on personhood that stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western notion of personhood as a complete and unchanging status achieved by all humans (see also Strathern 1988). As with the Tallensi, of course, it is possible to see how personhood in Western societies is also in fact on one level as a matter of process, even though we maintain a processural view of personhood alongside the more discrete understanding of all human being as persons. One only need consider debates around abortion and ‘personhood’ to see this confluence of contradictory but concurrent imaginings of personhood in action in Western contexts.

Building on Fortes’ wording, then, quantum personhood seeks to capture the complexity of how personhood is constructed in dynamic ways in the everyday lives of young people at school, alongside an enduring sense of stable personhood as traditionally perceived in Western society. As with quantum physics, the intention here is to complicate existing ideas about personhood by focusing on complexity, uncertainty and paradoxy, particualrly in the temporal figuring of personhod. Quantum personhood accounts for the ways in which the many potential versions of persons impact on how they construct a coherent sense of self both in the present, and in representations of the person projected backwards into the past and forward into the future. As in Strathern’s reckoning of relational, dividual personhood (1988), it also emphasises the ways in which personhood is shaped by relational entanglement between individuals, meaning that personhood exists beyond individual psychology or the boundaries of individual selves or individual human beings, and instead is a matter of collective interaction. Personhood exists in the co-constructed, shifting narratives that we tell to ourselves and to others, and the stories that others tell about us (Strathern 1988). Sometimes these narratives are complimentary: others may imagine our future action – whether distant or impending – in the same way that we imagine it.  This may lead to a co-construction of personhood that is positively alligned with aspirations or dreams for the future – a collaborative, quantum complication of the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jackobson 1968). When these narratives do not match up, this discord can have profound consequences for the future of either actor.

Capturing the temporal dimensions of personhood 
In addition to its relational quality, quantum personhood illuminates how the person is shaped in spatial as well as temporal conditions, meaning that personhood can be percieved to linger in and to alter once-inhabited spaces (like schools) or anticipated spaces and times (like going to college in the future) even if the person is not physically there. Similarly, our personhood may extend to virtual spaces (as in positive or alternative representations of self online through social media such as Facebook or Instagram) and material culture (the items, like cars, or shoes, or watches, or houses, that we consume in order to represent to others and ourselves something of our person) (Latour 1999). In attempting to capture more of the temporal dimensions of habitus, it also focuses on how multiple potential futures are played out in the habitual, ritual performances of everyday life in the present. As the repetition of daily routines turns present into past, with habitual behaviour we re-work familiar but always slightly different imaginings of the impending future. In the present, our imaginings of the future are in turn sculpted in response to the choices presented to us, and to our reckoning of those potential choices and decisions. The regular and repetitive scheduling of the ‘daily grind’ at Bronx High can be seen in this way as the performance of idiosyncratic versions of the same scene, at once similar but also different (and sometimes incongruent), played out over and over again in the pursuit of an imagined future that will also be made up of repetitive, future-gazing actions, as in the routines of employment or college. Personhood is perpetually articulated and enacted in the present, but its quantum qualities relate to multiple versions of the same personhood, located in the past and the future, always present, as it were, in the present, but not always in neat agreement or concordance.
This may require further exposition in relation to quantum theory. Without going into too much detail, for the purposes of this article quantum physics can be defined as dealing with the peculiarities of how matter and light behaves at the atomic level. The ability of light to act both like a wave and a particle leads to strange occurrences and inconsistencies that do not conform to the laws of classical physics, including the capacity of particles to exist in more than one location at one time, to ‘teleport’ without travelling between points, and for the measurement of the position of a quantum object to influence its momentum, and vice versa. Quantum physicists also discuss the ‘entanglement’of atomic objects, irrespective of their distance in space from one another – the way in which objects lose their independence and become relationally connected, not unlike individual persons, after they have come into contact with one another and have influenced one another’s trajectories (what Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’). In this respect, quantum physics involves reimagining time in a non-linear way: while some societies reckon time as progressing forward towards the future, via the present and the past, in fact some quantum theorists would argue that time does not objectively exist in this way. Instead, while we perceive ‘time’s arrow’ sailing forward, we actually exist in single present that is defined by the entanglement of particles and by the potential of other simultaneous entanglements. Humans are capable of rendering sensible the past and the present because we become correlated with our immediate surroundings and record this as experience as memory. While the future also exists as potential in the present, we lack the capacity to picture it beyond imaginings and aspirations because the infinite possibile potential entanglements of particles around us makes ‘the future’ perpetually uncertain. At the more radical end of thinking within quantum theory and string theory, the unusual activity of quantum objects may be explained by the existence of multiple universes – by the fact that while we only perceive one universe in which objects exist, there may be others that are slightly or very different to our own. This accounts for the existence of multiple, concurrent realities in which all potential actions and occurrences may exist, and exert influence on the shaping of the more coherent, linear view of reality that we maintain. In this way, the so-called ‘multiverse’ captures the conditional: it not only accounts for determined actions (and thoughts, social interactions, and choices about trajectories across the life course), but also for all the potential actions – for all the decisions unchosen (and the way that choices influence our decisions) in order that our lives can carry forward in the way that they do.

Each of these aspects of quantum phyisics can be applied to better understanding the temporal dimensions of personhood in relation to schooling. The idea of quantum personhood provides a way to think about how personhood is not simply inscribed in an individual’s physical, psychological and social being in the present, but also asks how we develop multiple narratives of personhood, both past, present and future, through schooling. We may therefore have multiple, quantum narratives of self, but these are collapsed and made sensible to dominant, unilinear taxonomies of how personhood is organised.