Ambiguity by John LangdonIn 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 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.



14 Responses to “Quantum Writing”

  1. 1 Mark Marino

    Christy, this seems like the perfect opportunity to link to Something Awful’s Schrodinger’s Cat as a Choose Your Own Adventure. The title reads, “You’re the Star of the Story! Choose from 2 Possible Endings.” Also, remember that we had some Schrodinger references in the Benchmark Fiction adaptation of “The Lady, or The Tiger,” playing with the duality, or ambiguity, of the box/door.

  2. 2 Christy Dena

    That is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while! I want the book!

  3. 3 Patrick

    I love what the analogy here, I remember Jesus saying “I mean what I say” or something like that, but I say “I mean what I say in every possible way it could be interpreted”. I think this idea applies direclty to authoring interactive drama’s, where the encoded “text” means to apply to a whole range of causal “interpretaions”, “read” by the player.

  4. 4 Christy Dena

    Ah yes, I had interactive drama/interactive storytelling in mind too with the development of this idea. I like this description of a storyworld from Crawford’s book:

    “[A] universe of dramatic possibities, revolving around a central theme and exploring all the variations on that theme.” (56)

    In fact, I spent time with Chris whilst he was in Australia, and told him about this post I intended to do…He found it funny. :)

    And yes, the possible readings of the bible, indeed hermeneutics, relates to this idea too.

  5. 5 Dave
  6. 6 Jeremy Douglass

    Your Ambigram.matic example reminds me of another ambiguous font project that I’ve been fascinated by for a while:

    Matt Chisholm’s Alphabet Soup (2002), which uses rules to create “letter-like symbols.”

    a project which attempts to determine a number of things about the shapes of letters in several different writing systems. First, it hypothesizes a set of basic building blocks that all letters are built up from. Second, it hypothesizes a set of rules, a grammar or syntax, which defines how those pieces combine to make different letters.

    …It currently has the capability to generate 2,099,776 letter-like symbols, most of which are not in any alphabet, although they look quite plausible.

  7. 7 Mark Marino

    I’d like to offer the coutner term: disambiguate, then as the process of developing a reading of one of these ambiguous text (checking to see if the cat is alive or dead–fixing a meaning). Does each word in a sentence further disambiguate all that came before it?

    (Please take what follows in the ambiguous ambling spirit in which it was intended).

    My problem is I view literature as ambiguous (but maybe my definition is too broad here). Some works are ambiguous in the ergodic sense, such as Pale Fire. But other straight-forward left-right or right-left texts are equally ambiguous. Of course, our dear “Lady, or the Tiger” seems to fit the bill. I tend to presume that the literary is by definition the polysemous.

    Is the requirement that the text be somehow self-reflexive to be quantum in the sense you describe? Must it interrogate its own status as a text? Must it have some sort of built-in paratextual element that makes us reread it as a text (hyperlinks, palindromes)? Must it call attention to its ambiguity (as in a pun)?

    Not to be to hierachical, I’m also not sure that I see palindromes as quantum as puns or even metaphors.

    If links are ambiguous, are not search fields also? Or hotspots? Command lines?

  8. 8 Jeremy Douglass

    William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Mark? Still, what I take away from Christy using the label “quantum” and mentioning Schrdinger’s cat is not the idea of possibility or probability, but simultaneity, which is a much stronger proposition then variable resolutions. Like examining a visual illusion (e.g. the young lady / old lady figure) and attempting to hold both recognitions in the mind at the same time - are there forms of writing which don’t just resolve (hyperlink, CYOA) but, ambigram-like, hold both values in the moment of apprehension? I’m not sure - my feeling is that the mind doesn’t really work that way, although it wants too - but I like the direction the question takes us.

  9. 9 Mark Marino

    Ah, that the tale is both-and…

    Yes, so does Pale Fire hold up to such scrutiny? Could that be a both-and quantum tale in this context? Or does that compell you to make a decision about the poem, Shade, etc. It resolves if you interpret it, right?

    Dictionary of the Khazars would be Quantum following a similar logic, especially since there are both male and female editions of that book.

    Of course, it is not the only story that cannot resolve (or compile). “A Rose for Emily” does not add up in terms of its chronology (and so compells one to see it as both-and).

  10. 10 Christy Dena

    Yes, Jeremy, by quantum writing I do mean the co-existence of many variables/options/perspectives. I see them as being encapsulated in the same space, so the two editions of the Khazars you mention Mark, I wouldn’t see as strict quantum writing because the alternatives, the possible worlds are distributed over time and space and not bound in a single text. Quantum writing is about efficiency of time and space, where a minute word or phrase sets off an explosion of variables in the readers mind. And all of these variables are true, they are all correct in relation to the events and relationships set up in the text.

  11. 11 Mark Marino

    Ah, I see. I keep returning in my mind, then, to Pale Fire, but still suspect there are some non-ergodic, non-ludic, non-experimental texts that might also fill this description quite well. Anyone have any suggestions?

    The difference would be something like “My Last Duchess,” which seems to have a strongly suggested correct answer, and is more of a riddle than a quantum experience.

    WRT other examples?

  12. 12 Mark Marino

    Other likely additions:
    Melville: “Bartleby”: Exists in a quantum state.
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Is and is not an angel)
    Italo Calvino: If upon a winter???s night a traveler???(Trap novel/Truth novel)
    Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves (Fantasy about a physical house/Truth about the book called House…and more)

    What do you make of these?

  13. 13 Jeremy Douglass

    Ambigrams in the new-media news, lately: Love / Hate in English and Spanish.

    I first learned about ambigrams from a Scott Kim book, Inversions. After studying his visual inversions for a while, you realize that the double-reading of the text occurs by hiding the pattern-recognition of the second sense inside the “stylistics” of the first pattern. Consequential and supposedely inconsequentially variations form a tight dance, with the sense of one becoming the style of another….

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Super-Spectacular Day

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