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Marianna Keisalo: An Anthropologist Gets Inspired by Quantum Physics, Entangled Thoughts Ensue

I found the lecture by Sabrina Maniscalco, Professor at the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics at the University of Turku, in the Annual Rite Days 2015 extremely inspiring, despite (or possibly because of) the fact that I know so little about quantum (or any) physics. If I got it all wrong, I apologize and certainly take full responsibility for any misunderstandings propagated in this post, but I also think we do not need to understand each other perfectly to get inspired. “A working misunderstanding”* can take many forms and may lead to new ideas.

In this blogpost I want to focus on two concepts that tickled my imagination: Interaction as Observation (and vice versa) and Choreographing Interference. I will first explain where I’m coming from: I am an anthropologist. My research is focused on the semiotics of comedic performance, looking at the details of how these performances reveal, question, shape, and sustain social and cultural contexts. These cultural contexts include ideas about personhood and humanity that seem so fundamental as to seem “natural” or otherwise eternal truths – but anthropological research has demonstrated the wide variation of these “eternal truths” in different times and places. One widely researched example is gender – many different things have been considered natural, and a perpetually underestimated thing is the amount of cultural work put into shaping and supporting gendered bodies and behaviors. Studies show how infants are systematically treated in ways thought appropriate to gender, and how these ways are unconscious and embodied, passed on in countless tiny ways. Studied done in Finnish nurseries have shown how boys and girls are systematically spoken to in different ways, something that the caretakers were themselves not consciously aware of before the study.

As thoroughly cultural beings we learn to see ourselves and our worlds in certain ways. I subscribe to the school of thought that human life is fundamentally semiotic; there is no special class of things that are “symbolic” and in need of interpretation, in contrast to things that are “real” and observable as they are. Humans understand and perceive the world as meaning and through meaning. There is no pure, immediate perception, no real world to be discovered “out there”. Rather, as anthropologist Roy Wagner says, we invent the world even as we perceive it. This does not mean that the world is purely a result of human imagination happening in some sort of isolation. As another anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, says, “the world is under no obligation to conform to the logic by which some people conceive of it”. As all events and perceptions are mediated by our cultural ideas and visions, these ideas and visions are, in turn, mediated by events and perceptions. Thus this view also goes beyond a material/ideal distinction: material things such as landscapes, houses, and even people are just as thoroughly semiotic as words on paper, a vial of holy water, or a ballet performance – and in turn, every communicated meaning has a material form, a sensible existence.

Comedic performance (I have conducted research on Ritual clowns of the Yaquis, an indigenous group in Northern Mexico, and Stand-up comedians in Helsinki) provides interesting sites to
study these “semiotics of being human”, as humor and comedy tend to engage the most sacred or tabooed topics, and play upon and subvert all rules from linguistic grammars to the expectations of social conduct.

The idea that human life is fundamentally semiotic (and the view of meaning/perception/material-being-in-the-world as forming an interconnected, self-organizing whole) works very well with the ideas of observation as interaction and the idea of choreographed interference: whether the ideas that interaction is inevitable and every action has repercussions are part of any consciously articulated ideologies, what humans tend to do is to try to affect things, to make a difference.
”Choreographed interference” would actually be an excellent definition for ritual. Ritual interferes with and forms the lives, bodies, and actions of groups and individuals in a variety of ways. It proposes new worlds and orders known ones, shapes perceptions, trains bodies, and creates social consequences. Ritual is a notoriously difficult concept to define, and the ideas, concepts, and methodologies developed in studies of rituals have also been applied to courts of law or scientific laboratories. In this wider sense, choreographed interferences in the form of rituals are what sustain our worlds as we know them.

The interconnectedness, entanglement, the point that since interaction counts as observation, observation does not require a conscious subject as discussed by Sabrina, is the dialectical counterpart of these interferences. The interference works because things are connected, but these connections and observations also motivate the interference; they are part of why there are never any guarantees that the world will conform to our logics – choreography is not control. As Roy Wagner writes in his book An Anthropology of the Subject (2001), about his view of meaning(fulness) as a “net of perceptions that catches us” using the metaphor of “Indra’s net” from Buddhist philosophy: “to know the net as a net, see it as a net, grasp or perceive it in anyway as a net, is to get caught in it. To not know it as a net… and go by the counsel of perception alone is to get positively entangled”.

Works cited/links:

Fausto-Sterling, A., Crews, D., Sung, J., García-Coll, C., & Seifer, R. (2015, August 10). Multimodal Sex-Related Differences in Infant and in Infant-Directed Maternal Behaviors During Months Three Through Twelve of Development. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. Link: PsycNET
Bruno Latour. 2004. Scientific Objects and Legal Objectivity. Translated by Alain Pottage, revised by the author). In: Making Persons and Things. Cambridge University Press edited by Alain Pottage.
Michael Lynch: 1988. Sacrifice and the Transformation of the Animal Body into a Scientific Object: Laboratory Culture and Ritual Practice in the Neurosciences. Social Studies of Science. vol. 18 no. 2.

Marshall Sahlins 1985: Islands of History. University of Chicago Press. (quote from p. 138)
Tiina Teräs 2010. Tasa-arvoinen varhaiskasvatus? tapaustutkimus sukupuolesta ja tasa-arvosta päiväkodin arjessa. Pro Gradu, Helsingin yliopisto, opettajankoulutus laitos, link: Tasa-avoinen varhaiskasvatus? Tapaustutkimus sukupuolesta ja tasa-arvosta päiväkodin arjessa 
Roy Wagner 2001. An Anthropology of the Subject. University of Claifornia Press. (quote from p. 17). *“A Working misunderstanding” is discussed in Wagner’s Coyote Anthropology (2010) University of Nebraska Press.

Indra’s net as explained on Wikipedia:


Marianna Keisalon (in finnish/suomeksi)  sekä Sabrina Maniscalcon  (in english) luentotaltioinnit Riittipäiviltä 2015 löytyvät  sivuiltamme osiosta TALLENTAA


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