Great movies and not-so-great books // April summation

Watch the skies!

Sometimes it be like that.

I’ve been giving up on novels at an above-average rate lately, tho it could be that my threshold for putting down a work of fiction is lowering. 

It’s clear to me how well I’ve avoided writing about books here that I find unsatisfying. Talking about these experiences doesn’t come as easily.

But on the other side are two positive things on the movie-going front. Really, going from EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to MEMORIA by Apichatpong Weeresethekul was as hard a shift from maximalism to minimalism you could make within current narrative cinema.

It’s funny that a few posts back I had talked about quantum mechanics being surrealistic in its implications. Then in March mainstream audiences get nailed by a high-concept martial arts comedy whose conceit—fundamental it seems to a lot of Daniels’ work—is essentially a quasi-scientific rationalization for surrealism. Rather than subjective freedom of the imagination or the mysterious unconscious, this kind of goofiness is placed on an objective basis, with all matter being in a superposition of forms, and so on. However, the practical result is the same, for as Michelle Yeoh’s character says, you can imagine whatever nonsense you want and somewhere it is inevitably real. The absurdism may be too much for some audiences, and everyone will have a threshold at a different gag, but as someone who grew up on Stephen Chow I enjoyed this absurd hyperpop romp as produced by the Russo Bros. Stupid gags that are well thought out are the supreme form of comedy. The emotional core in the family drama was smartly written, especially at the beginning. The resolution was naive but one can appreciate the gesture against apathy and disappearing into the bagel/anus singularity, wrapped in a sci-fi concept that contains the noise of the multiverse as a reflection of the noise of the modern world. I can’t really think of anything else from the twenty-first century quite like it, except MINDGAME. And I have definitely never felt a crowd rocked so hard by a film in my life.

The fight scenes were fun to watch. There seemed to be a little bit of undercranking or a sped up quality to it, and there were things like the shot locked to the fanny pack rolling along the floor, reminiscent of Hong Kong movies. That’s the kind of over-the-top you want.

MEMORIA only sinks further beneath my skin with every passing day. On the one hand this was Weeresethekul’s epic breakout with international star Tilda Swinton in the lead, and dialog in English and Spanish. On the other hand, I found this to be the most starkly minimal film from the director yet. (I felt the length with this one, unlike with UNCLE BOONMEE or CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, though the running time is longer; the house was packed but the audience seemed to have a brutal time of it, unwilling to even shift in their seats, and when it ended we left in a pall of silence and existential dread.) UNCLE BOONMEE in comparison shares a lot about the characters’ subjectivities and their relationships to the setting. But we have to infer everything and anything about Swinton’s character Jessica, an expat living in Medellín, Colombia, visiting her sister in Bogotá who is recovering in the hospital at the national university. Of course the point is that Jessica is in a strange land, and with a sense of place denied, it’s as if her background and such becomes lost as well.

On a biographical note, I used to experience the same thing Jessica does in MEMORIA’s opening scene that kicks off her quest, namely exploding head syndrome, a sudden loud bang “heard” while falling asleep or waking up, not a real sound in the air but in the mind. This occurred to me semi-frequently when I was younger, up to the end of my teenage years. The “sound,” or the mental image of a sound, for me, was sometimes a dry thud similar to the sound effect in the movie, but it was more often a tinnitus-inducing schwing of a blade, or the pop of an electrical signal. Does Jessica’s bang really exist, as a memory or a premonition? Is it the same thing that’s setting off all the car alarms outside in the morning? 

The best point for restricting this film to the theatrical experience is the use of sound, the climax of the film is essentially a grand formal experiment where sounds from other worlds fill the present moment, and then the soundtrack to the reality of the world eerily drops away. In one scene Jessica walks into a music session, a sequence done in three shots: her approach in the hallway, her watching the performance, and a reverse shot of the musicians. There’s time to dwell on hearing without seeing, then seeing and hearing, and the interactions of the performers were great. I distinctly remember a moment between the pianist and guitarist. The piece itself was a cool and worldly jazz fusion tune, very well chosen, the driving 6/8 time echoing Jessica’s odyssey.

I won’t spoil anything, for this is a decisively rare film to see, but there is a solution to the cause of the sound. After so many decades of art narratives sustaining ambiguity, perhaps explaining the mysteries of the world has become a bold step. With A.W. ‘s work in general, it seems that the story, in the moment of its experience, jerks suddenly into the realm of speculative fiction, but in retrospect you can see the atmosphere of science fiction enveloping all of his art.

E. H. Carr is a big name in my reading solely as the author of a monumental, multi-volume history of the Soviet Union up to 1930, with the initial trilogy of volumes on the Bolshevik Revolution being his headlining achievement. I’ve only gotten through a volume and a half—each book is around 600 pages of small print—but Carr’s excellence as a writer is certainly felt. 

But if you listen to the national security punditry, Carr is also important in the space of international relations theory, and his book THE TWENTY YEARS’ CRISIS is considered a founding text for the twentieth century realist school in bourgeois political science. In its immediate context, the book was an argument for appeasement as the realistic policy choice (this was in 1939). While this is early on in Carr’s intellectual career and his grasp of Marxism remains superficial, his strengths as a prose stylist are well established. He delivers his argument in punchy lines such as: “the fact that utopian dishes prepared during these years at Geneva proved unpalatable to most of the principal governments concerned was a symptom of the growing divorce between theory and practice.” But underneath the rational presentation is a rather eclectic approach to diplomacy and the relations of forces at play in geopolitics.

The book’s ultimate result is a general description of the imperialist struggle of the great powers over spheres of influence. And this rough picture is colored by a bourgeois liberal perspective that is rather platitudinous. The theory of international relations is a simple spectrum between the poles of Utopianism and Realism, between argumentation based on the “common feeling of rights” and argumentation based on the “mechanical adjustment to changes” in geopolitical relations of forces. This balance is expressed concretely in the policy choices of Force or Appeasement. The fundamental problem of handling political change in the international sphere is that of a “compromise between power and morality.” Utopianism ignores power, Realism ignores morality. It becomes clear we’re in the liberal space of politics, since the ideal is nonviolent change (revolution is just as “immoral” as repression in the name of the status quo) and harmonization of class interests within each nation as well as a harmony of nations. But Carr’s critique of utopianism underscores how some overarching world system, either juridical or legislative, will never get off the ground as an adequate solution to the violent wars that keep erupting between competing monopoly blocs. These schemes did not reflect the material reality of international relations so much as the depression-era interests of engineers and technocratic intellectuals.

I ended up liking Hamaguchi’s adaptation of DRIVE MY CAR a lot, especially the low-key feelings it left me with at the end. It was enough to get me to try a Murakami novel out for myself, and I had a very used paperback of 1Q84 sitting around. This is a trilogy of science fiction novels, but I doubt I’ll make it more than halfway through the first volume, where my reading is currently sputtering out before a likely death.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book cross-cuts between two narrative lines, one involving a young woman on a mission named Aomame, and the other centered on Tengo, an up and coming writer who gets involved in an odd literary scam with his friend and a precocious teenager. It would clearly be many many pages before these lines converged.

Something about this prose makes it unpleasant to read yet just adequately interesting enough to keep me going. It is not repellant yet nothing attracts me to continue except I guess for its own ease of reading. Tragically, I keep opening the book again to give it another chance only to put it down after a couple pages, repeat ad nauseum.

I don’t enjoy inhabiting the characters’ worlds. What Tengo thinks about and the way he thinks about it stultifies me. These meandering thoughts in cafes, train stations, and bars sound more attractive than they are, like Katherine Mansfield getting drinks with a medicated Dostoevsky in a stuffy bar. Aomame comes off a bit shallow, and a petulant weirdo. She’s an assassin, an ex-softball player, a fighter, but she doesn’t reflect on her own goals that much and her gifts are laboriously presented by the narrator.

The number of people who could deliver a kick to the balls with Aomame’s mastery must have been few indeed. She had studied kick patterns with great diligence and never missed her daily practice. In kicking the balls, the most important thing was never to hesitate. One had to deliver a lightning attack to the adversary’s weakest point and do so mercilessly and with the utmost ferocity—just as when Hitler easily brought down France by striking at the weak point of the Maginot Line. One must not hesitate. A moment of indecision could be fatal.

Is this what fanfic readers refer to when they complain about a character being a Mary Sue? And what’s up with the favorable comparison to Hitler?

Perhaps this style serves to obscure the edge marking the alternate world that Aomame finds herself in, an alternative Tokyo 1984, which seems comfortably identical save for a few key details. This questionable 1984 is designated 1Q84 by Aomame. 

Update: Murakami abandoned. Now reading violent American horror novels.

Once more to the cinema // March viewing wrap-up

Getting (re-)indoctrinated into cognitive and historical poetics as a way to think about reading and understanding literature has thrown up some questions about how we perceive, categorize and move about the objective world we find ourselves in, in terms of the definition and location of shapes. That is, books, paintings, and films use their respective media to present shapes distinguished from each other via edges, literal edges like in the composition of a shot, but also conceptual edges between different lines of dialog, or types of ground.

This fixation has fed back into movie-watching. People talk about binge watching as a problem but in fact I struggle to take a break from reading (professionally, vocationally, and non-productively) and do something else to relax. Some people just keep working to cope. It’s awful.

But at least I can leverage my privilege as a coastal elite to see analog 70 and 35mm prints of old movies in NYC.

Obviously movies are replete with edges, and it was nice to attend to them with a renewed interest. Moreover, analog film is excellent! Projected film improves every cinematic experience, even DEATH ON THE NILE.


The organization Subway Cinema has been collecting and exhibiting vintage prints of great Hong Kong action movies that used to play in movie houses throughout Chinatown and Times Square. I had the pleasure to see DYNAMITE FIGHTERS, the first leading role for Michelle Yeoh (whose victory lap performance in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE blew out my expectations), shot on location in Manchuria—and the film grain made the setting so alive!

Another treat was Jet Li starring in FIST OF LEGEND. This remake of FIST OF FURY is more lighthearted and more complicated in plot. Once again high level production design for a period piece. What a joy to see the Golden Harvest logo on the big screen, jittery, strobey, scratched to hell and with the optical soundtrack not yet working. The host noted we were watching an English dub of mysterious origin. It was different from the one you can find on YouTube, thankfully.


After viewings on a portable DVD player from the early aughts and on YouTube, a full scale analog screening of Eisenstein’s great film convinced me it was the best movie ever made.

Soon as it began the realization hit me that this was a nearly 100-year-old piece of film stock (maybe younger, it was a MoMA export print). The picture looked fantastic. There was no soundtrack whatsoever, and it wasn’t missed. I was looking forward to seeing the red flag raised on the battleship, but apparently the tint faded away over time.

Many shots were absolutely epic: the revolting sailors diving into the water to rescue their fallen leader trapped in the rigging; the massive crowd shots in Odessa, naturally. The editing goes without saying: the sailor dashing the plate to the floor like a discus thrower, the stone lions “awakening” along with the masses under the cannons of tsarism. And I remember a shot that “doesn’t really work” in terms of standard compositional practice: we see workers coming up a gangplank onto a jetty I think, but they’re thrown to the right edge of the frame while the camera is mainly looking at a wall, so that the main attraction is the shadows they cast on it.

Something the projectionists did at the Anthology theater that I had never really seen before was allowing the tail ends of each reel of the film to go on screen (I snapped a picture of the very last bit of the last reel above). This must be the avant-garde alternative to both the changeover system and platter towers.


I caught this Weerasethakul short from 2018 at the BAM. There was a woman struggling to sleep, lying in a bed outdoors, the bars of the bedframe lined in shadow above her head, her blue fleece blanket outlined against the dim backdrop. We also see two painted backdrops, of a path by the sea at sunset, to a view of perhaps the same path leading to a temple or pavilion. A scrolling mechanism transitions from one to the other. It seems to stall for a moment. Back to the insomniac woman, a dim orange flare grows in her chest, as if expressing a nightmare. The flare soon becomes a campfire, and its crackling comes onto the soundtrack along with the insect drone. The fire grows and starts throwing light on the ground—it’s clear that the fire is reflected in a glass pane, so that it superimposes itself on the sleeper. Then the film opens up to more varied and wider angles: there is a real fire, and a pane of glass between it and the backdrop. Is the scrolling automatic or human-operated? The stand of a tall overhead lamp lives conspicuously in the foreground along with some plant props. The woman’s bed is out in the open with a white outline drawn around it on the ground. Sometimes she is falling asleep, at other moments she gazes with her eyes wide open. These automated yet handycraftish optics and scenery, plus a spectator-sleeper, partly dreaming and partly perceiving, present for us the whole apparatus of cinema, but there’s another surprise: a shot through the glass pane to the scenery makes the flame appear over the ruby red sunset, a small but unexpected mix of the given elements, and the touch that deepens the whole thing beyond a pat allegory.


The short was a DCP projection, but the main attraction was in glorious 35mm. UNCLE BOONMEE is one of my very favorite films in the last decade, and watching it loud and big was genuinely refreshing. It’s a cliche but I felt I had seen it for the first time, probably because I’ve only ever watched it on Netflix.

For being only twelve years old, the film stock was absolutely scuffed, especially compared to the MoMA print of POTEMKIN. Giant green and white vertical scratch lines, the thickest of such artifacts I’d ever seen, cut into the frame every now and then, which looked terrific. The greenery of the jungle had a blue tint behind it that I’d never appreciated before. And the monkey ghosts with their red laser dot eyes oozed into the backdrop. Cuts that on home video seemed arbitrary or at least abrupt became shocks to the system, like a blue underwater frame full of bubbles and foam smash cutting to the pure photographic blackness of night at Boonmee’s country estate. The narrative is simple yet the filmmaking choices have the landscape enveloping the characters in these pastoral and transporting ways. BOONMEE has a few distinctive sequences, including a folk tale-like interlude with catfish cunnilingus and a vision of the future presented in still photographs. The film itself is part of a larger multi-media project called PRIMITIVE. Yet viewing it in a theater for the first time, the work felt wholly unitary and un-episodic.

Edgy enough for ya?

New publications, if you are interested~ My story “Blue Hour” in now live in Issue 18 of Scissors & Spackle, the experimental supplement to Emerge Literary Journal, and the ever-excellent Full Stop has published a review essay of WARNING TO THE CROCODILES by Lobo Antunes that I had mentioned working on back in my November 2021 post. Oof, those paragraphs looked shorter in the manuscript. Bah, paragraph breaks are overrated. Right?

And now for the blog

I do miss going to museums. I remember seeing Barnett Newman’s VIR HEROICUS SUBLIMIS in the flesh 12 years ago. Just your usual abstract expressionism, a big—massive color field. A simple composition, five lines before a pure red space, that might reach toward a hazy alien landscape, or a graph of the spectra of visible light.

However, being able to get up close to the painting, more things can be brought to your attention. There are subtleties in how these zips were applied to the picture.

The passage of one’s gaze over one of these lines brings out differences not just in color, but in the texture of the paint layers, and the nature of the edge, whether it is hard or rough. If you read cognitive linguistics and poetics, then at a conceptual level, you can talk about all of these definitional aspects of the painting as edges. It was convenient of Newman’s pictures to be concerned with the arrangement of edges as such. Edges and edgework (I wish they’d call it edging) are essential to the perceptual process. Edges bind the forms of objects in our vision, and distinguish these objects spatially through foreground and background. It’s in the processing of the edges that we process the imagined worlds presented by works of art. Changes in edge-processing reflect changes in artistic texture.

Any form of conceptual transition in any artistic medium, as well as our own physical experience, can be thought of as edges. Moving your hand over wood and glass and feeling the qualitative tactile change of the surfaces, seeing the grain of the wood become the smooth transparency, is an experience of edges. And so is moving your eyes over a line of normal text that suddenly becomes italics. Mr. Lanz would also have us know that switches in point of view, in the reference points for the grounding of figures, also qualify as edgework.

It’s interesting how fundamentally visual the concept is (based in part on gestalt psychology, with principles like in the above illustration), but that appears to be the orientation indicated by modern research into human consciousness. The “movie in your head” metaphor for reading fiction may be quite unavoidable. 


Edges abound even in literary texts. And it was edges I had in mind while reading my third Jo Nesbø thriller. PHANTOM is Harry Hole novel #9. It was hearing about this one that got me to check out the series starting with SNOWMAN, so that I could get here. I was told this one is a deeply sad, slow burn, that it even reaches the realm of Literature. It’s certainly an intimate and dark scenario: the detective returns to Norway to clear the name of his sort-of adopted son Oleg, who is accused of murdering a drug dealer. There are painful scenes of Harry facing Oleg’s addiction problems. It’s a slow burn, and not that suspenseful, mainly because of a dead man’s testimony that interrupts Harry’s detective work.

To go back to edgework: most everyone knows spontaneously how storytelling works. You set a sequence of events, then it’s just a matter of how detailed you want to get. Novels and short stories by professionals aren’t fundamentally different. But where mastery and command come in is the way good writers can establish a story world while directing your attention around and through it. The opening paragraph of PHANTOM is a good example. There’s a general hierarchy of figures that attract readerly attention, with active human agents at the top and abstractions at the bottom, and the narration can brighten these figures or dim them, make them large or small, loud or quiet, bring them near or far away—like a conceptual black box theater. What happens when a text opens without any humans strictly speaking? The main “attractor” in his passage will be an animal, and a human being won’t appear till the end:

Amid the noises of the night in downtown Oslo—the regular drone of cars outside the window, the distant siren that rose and fell and the church bells that had begun to chime nearby—a rat went on the hunt for food. She ran her nose over the filthy linoleum on the kitchen floor. The pungent smell of gray cigarette ash. The sugary-sweet aroma of blood on a piece of cotton gauze. The bitter odor of beer on the inside of a bottle cap, Ringnes lager. Molecules of sulfur, saltpeter and carbon dioxide filtered up from an empty metal cartridge case designed for a nine-by-eighteen millimeter lead bullet, also called a Makarov, after the gun to which the caliber was originally adapted. Smoke from a still-smoldering cigarette with a yellow filter and black paper, bearing the Russian imperial eagle. The tobacco was edible. And there: a stench of alcohol, leather, grease and asphalt. A shoe. She sniffed it. The obstacle lay on its side with its back to the wall blocking the entrance to the nest, and her eight newly born, blind, hairless babies were screaming ever louder for her milk. The mountain of flesh smelled of salt, sweat and blood. It was a human body. A living human being; her sensitive ears could detect the faint heartbeats between her babies’ hungry squeals.

As readers we’re fixed in a place but not necessarily with a point of view (it’s there but it’s delayed, put at the end of the sentence). It’s like a movie whose first shot opens on an empty set before a character enters the frame. In this place there is a regular tone in “the drone of cars,” a faint sound in the “distant sirens,” and a new sound in “the church bells,” that come through a window in a room, placed in an interruptive clause that delays the appearance of the rat, who must be perceiving these things. A familiar scene of urban squalor is established through a defamiliarized POV (to use a keyword from Russian formalism, now a post-“Marxist” term of art). Linguists talk about “impersonation,” which can boost the “attractor” status of a given figure by lending it human qualities. Anthropomorphism is only the most visible form of this strategy: give a bear clothes and he immediately becomes more human, as many English authors understood. In this case, this rat is not just a rat but a momma rat (a mother is a mother), whose way to her hungry babies (not “pups”) has been blocked, not by a human being, but the shoe being worn by one.

The writer could have let us follow the rat until she runs up against “the body,” or “the dead man,” as a kind of readerly jumpscare, but that would miss the point. It is by obscuring the human, the figure that “should” be the most attractive to us, behind the shoe and the smells of a fresh crime scene, by blending him into the setting, that the rat retains our POV alignment. It’s all capped off with the faint heartbeats of the dying man woven in with the cries of the rat’s pups. Guiding readerly attention in this way, amplifying animals and downgrading humans as per the needs of the story, is the novelist’s bread and butter.

Motherhood is not the only thing applied to this rat that contributes to the “impersonation.” This is one attuned rat, who can pick out the smells of “wet cigarette ash,” blood on cotton, the residue of beer on a bottle cap, and she even knows the brand name. And what about that sentence in the middle, beginning with “molecules,” which might lead back to the animal’s smell, good enough to perceive the molecules “filtering up” from the bullet casing, but goes into a full forensic register about gunpowder and Makarov bullets. Is it the rat or the third person narrator demonstrating this ballistics knowledge? Maybe it’s the still-dying man, whose first testimony is about to begin. Maybe it’s what Harry Hole would have observed, if he could have.

Actually, in fiction there’s always a narrator and a POV, even when the first person is employed, and both sides supply language to the text in tandem. 

As cool as the above passage was, I dunno, this entry in the HH series isn’t doing it for me (I’m 75% done). It feels slower than previous books even though it’s shorter. The crosscut structure with the dead man’s testimony dampened things down. The writing style is beginning to annoy me (Don Bartlett also translates Knausgaard’s books). I don’t know what writers and readers see in these clipped sentences that leave out verbs or agents. “Alex set his americano on the table next to his laptop. Took a small sip. Opened the laptop and got to writing.” It brings to mind a very narrow open door frame, and only one thing can ever come through it at a time. Perhaps it’s the intensively monotrack mentality of a detective. 

One example is this passage where Harry Hole falls off his horse into the water. Because Harry’s been knocked out of his senses, this disintegrated experience from his POV gives us essentially a walkthrough on how edgework works in literature:

Harry swam toward the light, toward the surface. The light became stronger and stronger. Then he broke through. Opened his eyes. And stared straight up at the sky. He was lying on his back. Something came into his field of vision. A horse’s head. And another.

The edges mark the transitions from water to air (a literal edge of surface tension), darkness to light (and the light brightens). How much more basic can it get? An undefined shape, a “something,” resolves into a horse’s head, joined by an additional identical shape.

If you count the full stops, there are nine sentences. But I prefer to think that there are four sentences, and that two of them have four and three full stops, respectively.

And I may prefer to read about a rat detective than the next Harry Hole.

In touch with the wave function // philosophical musings on quantum mechanics

To begin with, I’m not a physicist or natural scientist. Math was a struggle for most of my education. But I have been fascinated by theoretical physics since I watched some documentaries on public TV. It was the education I was missing in middle school. I loved the marvels it described, proliferating dopplegangers, objects phasing through walls. I thought science was justifying surrealism. –At least, quantum mechanics could be surrealistic in its implications, with the infinite degrees of freedom in a finite quantum field.

The lockdown in 2020 reawakened this fixation, with the help of the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel and in particular the work of Sean Carroll, who has quickly become my science communicator of choice.

In the decades since I watched those documentaries, I’ve received a decent amount of philosophical training. And looking back on my (superficial, popularized) learning in physics, so much of the ideological and theoretical commitments I hold to are corroborated by this very scientific field that has left so many professionals baffled and in need of positivism, pragmatism, and straight up metaphysics to cope with what quantum mechanics is telling us about the universe, namely that it’s a single, smoothly evolving wave function.

I listened to these professional physicists talk about the history of their own field, and it got me thinking about revolutionary history. It’s popular to believe that rigorous science can only be applied to the natural sciences specifically, while a science of society is impossible. The name of that science of society traditionally is Marxism. Marxism has no business calling itself a science, people say. But the history of the Communist movement has been and is a history of line struggles within Communist Parties, and of social revolutions, in which various state systems were torn down and new ones organized, and class modes of production were consciously surpassed. What about physics? There too is a history of revolutions, of one paradigm overthrowing another, of line struggles over fundamental questions about quantum mechanics, entropy, the arrow of time, the origins of spacetime, and so on.

In this video for the Sixty Symbols channel Carroll talks about how there is no winning majority framework theory of quantum mechanics. The plurality goes to the Copenhagen interpretation, but against the yardstick of philosophical materialism, this is actually an agnostic position: the physical reality of particles only exists when we are looking at them?? This is a pragmatist orientation to science, an orientation that says that the math in quantum physics (the Schrödinger equation) is only a practical recipe to help our endeavors in approximating a “ghostly” matter, rather than taking mathematics to be the theoretical reflection of reality’s basic fabric. 

The interpretation that Carroll puts forward is the Everettian or “many worlds” framework, which, I learn in his book SOMETHING DEEPLY HIDDEN, is simply the “austere” form of quantum mechanics, the one that takes up the math as it is without any more tweaking (he quips that it’s the other interpretations that should be considered “disappearing worlds” theories). Not only is Carroll’s position in my mind the most consistently materialist, but there is also contradiction (i.e., dialectical reasoning) at work in his very prose:

You know who didn’t like the probability interpretation of the Schrödinger equation? Schrödinger himself. His goal, like Einstein’s, was to provide a definite mechanistic underpinning for quantum phenomena, not just to create a tool that could be used to calculate probabilities [emphasis mine]. “I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it,” he later groused. The point of the famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, in which the wave function of a cat evolves (via the Schrödinger equation) into a superposition of “alive” and “dead,” was not to make people say, “Wow, quantum mechanics is really mysterious.” It was to make people say, “Wow, this can’t possibly be correct.” But to the best of our current knowledge, it is. (66)

The apparent strangeness of what quantum mechanics describes about reality’s fundamentals has been an occasion for many to disregard the materialist outlook and keep the door open for New Age and metaphysical explanations for reality, with a whole subset of literature applying “entanglement” and other concepts in kooky ways, usually just a fancy way to talk about “Karma.” It is similar to the situation in the nineteenth century, when the mysteries of electromagnetism led some positivistic circles in Europe’s scientific community to abandon “naive” realism and claim reality was made of mathematical approximations. A certain author known in the indie circles has made much of the fact that the quantum theory of gravity is incomplete, and voices skepticism against Einstein’s general relativity. Are these people right? Does the framework of quantum mechanics justify idealism, subjectivism, and agnosticism? Is it the intervention of the observing consciousness that brings the variables of particles into existence?

So, is the weirdness of the quantum measurement process sufficiently intractable that we should discard physicalism itself, in favor of an idealistic philosophy that takes mind as the primary ground of reality? Does quantum mechanics necessarily imply the centrality of the mental?

No. We don’t need to invoke any special role for consciousness in order to address the quantum measurement problem. We’ve seen several counterexamples. Many-Worlds is an explicit example, accounting for the apparent collapse of the wave function using the purely mechanistic process of decoherence and branching. We’re allowed to contemplate the possibility that consciousness is somehow involved, but it’s just as certainly not forced on us by anything we currently understand. (224)

The only reason why our minds have anything to do with these processes is because we implicate our conscious experiences when we “map the quantum formalism” onto the world as we experience it. Science is indeed a subjective activity in this sense, in explaining conscious experience to ourselves, and reflecting the natural world and its structures in our minds, in the form of logical concepts and mathematics. The universe is physical and exists independently of our consciousness.

As with electromagnetism and biological evolution, successes in science have historically been grounds for reactionary ideologies to gain traction. But we should not pass over the knowledge science has accumulated because general relativity hasn’t yet been reconciled with the quantum field theory of gravity, any more than the successes in physics and chemistry in the late nineteenth century justified passing over physical matter entirely.

Carroll is not merely a brilliant working scientist but a great writer and communicator. His instinct for narrative served well (and his openness to storytelling technique as well as other humanities topics on his podcast is refreshing). SOMETHING DEEPLY HIDDEN is organized like a good quest plot of the Michael Moorcock type, where every new discovery promises to be the key to solving the next, greater riddle, like how a quantum theory of gravity becomes the key to unlocking the entropy of black holes.

So how is it that a mainstream branch of natural science is not necessarily naturalistic, or more precisely consistently materialist in the way other branches of natural science spontaneously are? Sean Carroll makes many polemical points, to the effect that bourgeois science is wilfully disinterested in the fundamental questions. The slogan, he says, is “Shut up and calculate.” But why should this be the case? 

I think Sean Carroll answers the question in the YouTube video when he says the Copenhagen interpretation is “good enough for government work.” 

In a word, it’s a matter of bourgeois society’s rampant utilitarianism. As advanced as technology has become, the capitalist mode of production can’t actually use science in the most complete way that is possible. I think with the global warming problem this issue has become transparent for a great deal of people in the last few years. Even more acute, perhaps, is the COVID situation where we see scientific expertise subsumed under the bourgeoisie’s “political expertise” at every turn.

Quantum mechanics, special relativity and general relativity, electromagnetism, theory of atoms—these are success stories of science that nevertheless, because they put a question mark over the structure of reality as it was then understood, prompted backward steps in philosophy and theory, birthing positivism (which tries to end philosophy altogether) and putting a question mark over matter itself. At this point who hasn’t seen a wise Twitter user “discover” for the zillionth time the “metaphysics” of dialectical materialism, because it posits a world independent of our first person experience of consciousness? Such a worldview allows me and I imagine the majority of the masses to move through the world just fine; it’s only the “progressive”philosophical postmodernists who take issue with such “naive” intuitions.

Actually, materialism is corroborated by the progress made in theoretical physics. Reality is much more contradictory and alive than the drab world of dead matter that the anti-materialist camp of Bataille and Deleuze and company (fashionable heroes for certain writers these days) are so fond of decrying. And a good thing, too.