Quantum Writing

This article was originally posted at Writer Response Theory on the 8th March 2006. It was copied here on 10th March 2008.

Ambiguity by John Langdon

In quantum physics, there is the idea of alternate and contending realities. The famous hypothetical?of Schrodinger’s Cat (see also this wonderful animation by Adam Duncan of this problem being contemplated by robots) explores the idea : imagine a cat in a box. Is the cat alive or dead? Quantum physics says that both possiblities exist, because the movement of light-waves points to this fact. There is a particular kind of artistic expression that I enjoy practicing and experiencing, that I see as quantum in nature.


The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “ambiguity” as:

  1. a. a double meaning which is either deliberate or caused by inexactness of expression.
  2. an expression able to be interpreted in more than one way.(2002, 39)

Likewise, the adjective “ambiguous” is:

  1. having an obscure or double meaning
  2. difficult to classify (2002, 39)

Unfortunately,I have had friends edit my creative writing who circle words that are ambiguous. I have to explain to them that I intend the ambiguity, that if they reread it they will see that the sentence works with both meanings. It seems that although an ambiguity can be “deliberate”, it is more often presumed to be “caused by an inexactness of expression”. As if expression has only one possible meaning?! There are times when the ambiguity is considered intentional though: when it is a pun.



the humorous use of a word to suggest different meanings, or of words of the same sound and different meanings (2002, 1090).

The difference between an ambiguity and a pun? A pun is for humourous effect and it priviledges authorial construction over the subject. When I use ambiguous words I do so for cleverness, but also to communicate information about a character or moment in an efficient manner. It is a scalable text through meaning construction; a text that doesn’t need to expand or contract. It is not intended for a laugh, it is intended to provide further information and provoke the reader to discover or affirm this for themseves. It is not an equivocation, it intends to reveal rather than conceal truth. An example can be seen with an ambiguous statement about a character, the reader needs to reread (I think we reread as a physical activity to mimick the conceptual replay) and decide if both meanings are correct. They need to check their own understanding of the situation and make a decision about whether the two bits of information correlates with their construction of the character. Perhaps ambiguity doesn’t work because readers are reluctant to make these decisions?


Ambigrams are another example of multiple meanings being the point of the exercise, like a pun. They operate on the visual level, creating mirror images and other graphic techniques to give the eye and mind the experience of discovering a play with word and image. But once again, they are a work of art that has multiple paths as the primary purpose. See the works of John Langdon, which includes the “ambiguity” pic above and Punya Mishra). Here is an ambigram of “Writer Response Theory”, as generated by Word.Net’s Ambigram.Matic:

Ambigram of Writer Response Theory


An anagram presents a reader, then, with a word problem or system to be “unlocked” or decoded. It is a text/word game in which the initiating word is a call to action and requires a bit more intellectual effort than the uncovering of a graphic. An anagram is a game that has also been a device to conceal truths to be uncovered by ergodic effort. Wikipedia cites an example of an answer to Pilate’s question:

“Quid est veritas?” (What is truth?)

“Est vir qui adest” (It is the man who is here)??

It is efficient, because it can be the question and the answer in one textual space.


A form of quantum writing that once again is a textual game is palindromes. Words, sentences and chapters can be symmetrical. A word example is sagas, a chapter example is from Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel, Esher, Bach: Crab Canon.: Crab Canon.


Hyperlinks enable hypertext authors to create meanings in a word by linking to information that extends or subverts the meaning inferred by the link. The very presence of a hyperlink on a word gives it a deeper meaning, transforming the text, like the previous word plays, to be scalable and a game. Hypertext Rhetoric (see for instance Bernstein, Rosenberg, Moulthrop, Landow) explores the poetics of these choices. But, as with the majority of the quantum writing that I have explored here, in practice only a binary or two-pronged path of meanings is explored. Why? Ambiguities, puns, ambigrams, palindromes and hyperlinks acknowledge the polysemic nature of words. My query is this: why are these seen as games, diversions from story, as an activity that is the point in itself rather than an everyday mode of communication, a path to a destination? And too, if you have any great examples of ambiguities and the like in literature, let me know.

Check out the discussion after the post here.

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