A Geometry of Uncertainty: 9/11 and Culture of the Contemporary in a Digital Age
In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg claimed that the more accurately the position of a particle can be determined, the less accurately its momentum can be known, and vice versa. By now it is known that this inherent limitation is endemic to all wave-like systems but for years the uncertainty was attributed to the limitations and the effects of the technology of observation on the object being observed. Studying the cultural products of the contemporary we may be guided critically by the assumptions of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as well as by the slight but significant misunderstanding in its reception.
Often thought of as the Digital Age, the turn of the century – its events and its technologies – has challenged many of the certainties that guided much of the twentieth century and before: the Nation, Knowledge, Citizenship, the Body, History, etc. these are all categories whose boundaries have become fundamentally unstable. In observing, analysing, and writing about these concepts, scholars of the contemporary are faced with the many paradoxes of uncertainty as the categories simultaneously both fulfil and defy their definitions. It is on this simultaneity that I wish to concentrate, as instead of the linearity of narrative which might determine the momentum of the humanistic endeavours, or even the spatially bound certainty of a concept’s position, we might need to devise a geometry, a system of measurement both dynamic and flexible which can make sense of the fragmented, coeval pulses of meaning (e.g. the graphic novel, the cyborg, reality TV, and alternate histories, are all examples wherein meaning can be said to be communicated in pulses, or simultaneously co-existing binaries).
The events of 9/11 offer a unique moment which crystalizes the questions of the Contemporary and allows for the possibility of the uncertainty principle as a viable paradigm for cultural analysis in the Digital Age. Through their spectacular visibility, their terrorising effects, and their ideological, economic, ethical and aesthetic impact, the attacks metonymically describe the culmination of key transformations. At a time when the Humanities, indeed the Human, are in deep crisis, we have an opportunity to expand our discursive and conceptual frameworks and thus to gain new perspectives on the contemporary.