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.


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