Collapsing the Fuzzy Wave: Rian Johnson’s “Looper” (2012), Quantum Logics, and the Structures of Time Travel Films
(Wrote this in 2012, but I’m updating my website, and adding some new content that should have been here long ago. Enjoy.)
Hypermodernity and the Time-Travel Film
In today’s hypermodernity, the experience of everyday life can often make it feel as if one is travelling through time, or even existing in many times and places at once. We are continually meeting our many slightly divergent copies, each existing within alterante yet often partially overlapping temporal dimensions. For in today’s world, we see refractions of ourselves everywhere, from our profiles on social networking sites to our continually updated online fragments of images, narratives, chat-histories and self-descriptions, it can often be hard to keep track of our bits and pieces, and this tendency is only likely to increase. To quote Agent Smith fromThe Matrix (Wachowki Bros.,1999): “The best thing about being me…there are so many “me’s!”
While Smith’s reaction is euphoria, there are many other possible reactions to this radical change in our way of relating to the world and ourselves. And while these were probably always multiple in one sense or another, for there were always many selves and worlds in the eyes of others, today we encounter so many different types of others, digital and otherwise, and leave so many virtual traces of ourselves, from voice-message greetings to videos, that it seems like we are always running into shards of ourselves in ever more concrete forms. As artificial intelligence and biotech get ever more powerful, who’s to know whether our digital avatars might one day literally have a life of their own which branch off from ours like roots from a tree, only to allow us to re-encounter full versions of ourselves again at some later date, even if today we see the foreshadowing of this in the proliferation of our virtual avatars.
And so, it should hardly be surprising then that the time travel genre has only gotten more popular, mainstream, and complex. While most of these films make use of science fiction devices, however, travelling in time isn’t merely something which happens in the domain of speculative fiction, for in a sense, memory and fantasy are always a form of interior time travel. From such a perspective, films which explore the depths of interior time, such as David Lynch’s Muholland Drive (2001), or David Cronenberg’s Spider (1999) can be thought of as films which use psychosis as the method to present time in the form of a shattered crystal, in which it is possible for people to encounter copies of themselves, sometimes exact and sometimes divergent, so many virtual avatars walking around within our heads. While technology may oneday literalize this phenomenon, the human mind, and cinema itself, are already media of time travel, and such that films which use speculative fiction simply have found a convenient means to dramatize this.
Recent time-travel films, such as Sean Carruth’s Primer (2004) or Duncan Jones’ Moon (2010), show new possibilities for the genre. The first uses the notion that time travel can create multiple copies of persons, while the second employs cloning to do the same. While the mechanics are slightly different, in many senses, both can be seen as attempt to think through the challenges of our age in an allegorical manner.
“Looper”’s Quantum Memories and Fuzzy Futures
As time travel films get more complex, however, we need new models to think through their mechanics, and new ways to think about the ways they produce meanings. A recent and quite impressive addition to the genre is Rian Johnson’s 2012 film Looper. And as with many such films, soon after release, there were a panoply of explanations, diagrams, and attempts to explain its time-travel dynamics, many on the Internet. While most praised the film in one form or another, many argued that the presentation of time travel in the film is in some senses sloppy, because it mixes and matches various theories of time travel, and hence sacrifices structure for character development. This reading of the film has in some senses been supported by the director, who implied in at least one interview that he went with his gut rather than work out the details.[i]
Despite this, there’s actually some very strong reasons to see Johnson’s gut instinct as having a lot going for it. For when contextualized by aspects of contemporary quantum mechanics, the fuzzy logics of Looper are hardly inconsistent. In fact, this film can be seen as actually advances the time travel genre to a new level of complexity. In the process, the film introduces a series of new tools to add to the time-travel filmmaker’s toolbox.
Before getting to why I think Johnson’s film is actually much more of consistent approach to time travel than many have thought, it’s worth describing some of what makes this film so innovative if, that is, it can actually be made to work theoretically. One of Looper’s most unique innovations is the way it deals with memory and anticipation. In a powerful scene which recalls the avant-garde experiments of Japanese New Wave director Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral (1973), an older and younger version of the same character sit down to talk with each other in a diner. The older version of Joe, played by Bruce Willis, explains to his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how time travelling to visit his younger self nevertheless also impacts him as well:
“My memory’s cloudy. It’s a cloud. Cause my memories aren’t really memories. They’re just one possible eventuality now. And they grow clearer, or cloudier, as they become more or less likely. But then they get to the present moment, and they’re instantly clear again. I can remember what you do after you do it. It hurts … But this is a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism. It’s messy.”
We see the memory issues described by “old” Joe [Willis] at work in the film, for example, when he has trouble remembering his wife’s face when they first met just as “young” Joe [Gordon-Levitt] meets Sara [Emily Blunt]. And it seems that both old and young Joe meet their respective love-interests with a blow to the face, for example, when the slap which Sara gives young Joe disrupts old Joe’s ability to remember the punch in the face immediately before he meets his future wife in his own past. It seems as if there’s cross-over or interference between the time lines of this cinematic world, even if these timelines aren’t strictly parallel, but rather, to one extent or another, also serial, which is to say, one after the other. The film goes out of its way to give us a sense that timelines interfere with each other, however, fast cross-cutting and aural-bridges between the scenes in question, such as the slap to young Joe and the punch to old Joe, to cement the link. While ultimately old Joe is able to recall his wife’s face, it is implied by these means that young Joe’s potential relationship with Sara could somehow erase that between old Joe and his wife. Time lines can not only interfere with each other, they can alter or even erase aspects of each other, and the potentials of each other as a whole. Or in terms of the plot of the film, young Joe’s short term future can alter his long-term future, which is ultimately, old Joe’s past, hence, the memory fuzziness described by old Joe in the diner.
All of which is quite resonant with the structure of quantum entities, whether or not Johnson did this intentionally, or, as he has indicated, by instinct. According to quantum physics, sub-atomic entities aren’t quite particles, and this is why, after at first depicting electrons as tiny sattelites in fixed orbits around the central atomic nucleus, physicists came increasingly to depict electrons as fuzzy “clouds” which hover around a nucleus.[ii] What’s particularly difficult to grasp about this, however, is that electrons aren’t spread out like a rain cloud, but rather, the electron and the space and time in the area of the so-called cloud are, to use a popular metaphor in the science literature, “smeared” within and through each other. That is, while a rain cloud is full of little drops of water, there is only one electron in the spacetime of the cloud, and it could show up anywhere in there, but its location within this is, in a sense, “fuzzy.” The reason for this is that quantum entities, which are only described as particles by scientists today as a short-hand, simply don’t follow the laws of time and space like large entities do, they’re able to be in more than one space and time at once, even if more intensely in some of those spaces and times than others. What’s more, they interfere with each other, in a manner not all that dissimilar to what is described in Looper.
This is why we can think of old and young Joe as being similar, in many ways, to quantum entities. As they get closer to each other, in space and time, their actions increasingly begin to interfere, not only with each other in the present, but in the past and future as well. This manifests in the way in which young Joe’s actions can rewrite old Joe’s memories, or to the extent that the memory of one character is the future of another, also impact their potential future paths.
All of which is quite similar to what happens when quantum entities approach each other. The only way we can tell that particles as small as electrons are where we expect them to be is by shooting another “test” particle in their general vicinity, and then looking to see how the test particle is deflected by its interaction with an electron. After repeated trials, scientists have come to realize that particles this small are never exactly where you expect them to be, but rather, they exist within a cloud of probabilities of being in one particular zone in spacetime or another. Similar to old Joe’s description of his memory, particles are only ever more or less likely to be where they are expected to be, and any attempt to fix a quantum particle in place will produce a “precise description of a fuzzy mechanism.” Ultimately, it’s about probabilities. And this is what has lead scientists to argue that the particles and/or spacetimes involved, depending on how you look at things, are “smeared” in relation to each other, according to the degree generally indicated by the intensity of shading of the cloud. That is, the density of the cloud indicates how likely it is the particle is to be there, and hence, the clearness or cloudiness gets more intense as the presence of the “particle” is more or less likely.
What’s more, quantum particles and their probabilities interfere with each other. One of the first things which quantum physicists realized, in the famous split diffraction grate experiments, was that quantum phenomenon “diffract.” That is, just like ripples in a pool of water, quantum “clouds” extend in waves from their most intense points, and when these begin to overlap, the result is a pattern very similar to the ways in which waves of water interfere with each other over a distance. This is one of the reasons why many working in this field argue that quantum phenomenon have both particle-like and wave-like characteristics. While a quantum entity only ever “actualizes” at one point when it hits another, thereby acting like a particle, its ability to interfere with the action of others, and vice-versa, extends around it in rippling clouds, similar to the ways in which young and old Joe seem to be able to impact each other from afar in the film.
One particularity of quantum physics, however, is that this smearing, clouding, and rippling doesn’t merely happen over space, but time as well. This can be seen demonstrated in the famous “quantum eraser” experiments,[iii] which indicate that quantum particles act as if they go out of their way to avoid paradoxes, in ways which would require they “knew” what happened in the past. There have been countless attempts to explain the strange consistency of quantum phenomenon in these strange examples, but basically, it is as if quantum particles “know” what we are going to do before hand, and take this into account to make sure they don’t do something which would violate the often already paradoxical seeming, yet nevertheless consistent, laws of quantum mechanics. In many senses, the paradoxes only arise if we view the quantum world with our everyday, more linearly temporal lenses, similar to the way in which Looper appears inconsistent from a more traditionally linear temporal point of view.
But is Looper Consistent? Alternate Temporal Dimensions and Relativity Theory
It is the issue of consistency, however, which has worried many critics of Looper, even if ultimately, the forms of consistency desired by these critics don’t take quantum issues into account. One of the best streamlinings of the argument critical of Looper is presented by blogger Liam Maguren here.[iv] Maguren starts by describing the four primary approaches to time travel depicted in contemporary film:
“Theory A – Fate: there is only ever one destined timeline in the entire universe. If you travel to the past, your actions will not change the timeline at all, for they were always meant to happen (e.g.Timecrimes).
Theory B – Alternate Universes: Travelling to the past causes the creation of an alternate universe/timeline (e.g. Star Trek).
Theory C – Success: Instead of creating another universe/timeline, it shifts the current one, for there is only one linear universe/timeline in this theory. Thus, the previous future ceases to exist (or be altered). This could lead to the non-existence of the person that travelled (e.g. Back to the Future).
Theory D – Observer Effect: Just like Success except the traveller is essentially ‘Out of time,’ meaning they will not be affected by change (e.g. Groundhog Day).”
He then continues to apply this to Looper:
“… Looper creates its own time travel theory by merging two conventional ones: Alternate Dimensions and Success. This means the following:
1) Travelling back to the past can alter the future, creating another dimension in the process.
2) Changing past events can affect the traveller (e.g. losing limbs) [as happens to the character Seth, played by Paul Dano].”
The initial problem people have with this theory-merger is the seemingly contradictory nature of those two propositions. If a traveller creates/goes to an alternate dimension, are they not immune to any consequences faced by their younger, alternate self? How can an altered dimension still affect the original dimension the traveller came from?
Marguren attempts to then solve this problem:
“The temporal nature of Looper’s world wants the alternate dimension to remain as true to the original dimension as possible in order to avoid unnatural paradoxes. However, if a paradox were to occur, it’s not going to mean the entire universe implodes* (as the ending proves). It simply means that it’s unnatural for paradoxes to occur in the universe.
It’s similar to how opposite poles from two different magnets attract each other. They do not want to separate; it’s natural. An attraction is still held between them even when they are being forced apart (just like the original and alternate dimensions). However, with enough force, the attraction will cease and the magnets will separate. This is by no means a precise science (as they quite clearly state in the film). But Looper remains consistent to the rules of its universe … This does not mean that the exact same events will happen in the exact same way. Rather, key events will remain fixated due to the universe’s “magnetic” desire to keep dimensions linear.”
It is this “magnetic” attraction between dimensions or timelines which lead another blogger, Kofi Outlaw[v] to conclude that the film’s logic ultimately fails:
“We could go on and on like this, but we would inevitably find ourselves arriving back at the same conumdrum: time travel theory: you just can’t have it both ways. Looper crafts a very good story out of a wild sci-fi premise, and while it dodges a lot of its own potholes scene-to-scene, when viewed from a distance its clear that Rian Johnson has not yet cracked the time travel movie conundrum.”
By wanting to have it “both ways,” Johnsons’s film is then perhaps consistent with its own logic, even if that logic is not coherent in regard to common notions of what time travel should be like. This leads one of the commentors on Marguren’s page to clear up, using Marguren’s proposal, one of the plot’s most central mysteries in the following way:
“… the rainmaker [the film’s erstwhile antagonist] never time-travelled. he kills his aunt [his foster mother], then is brought up by sarah [his biological mother]. initially he becomes the rainmaker who starts closing the loops, but because the Joes appeared in his childhood and changed his relation with Sarah to one where he accepts her as his mother, he will likely not become the rainmaker this time. that is the whole story about Cid [Peirce Gagnon][sic].”
All of which seems consistent with what Johnson himself says of
“The approach that we take with it is a linear approach. That was an early decision that I made. Instead of stepping back to a mathematical, graph-like timeline of everything that’s happening, we’re going to experience this the way that the characters experience it. Which is dealing with it moment-to-moment. And so, the things that have happened have happened. Everything is kind of being created and fused in terms of the timeline in the present moment. So, the notion is, on this timeline, the way that old Joe is experiencing it, nothing has happened until it happens. Now, you could step back and say are there multiple timelines for each moment, and every decision you make creates a new timeline. That’s fine. You can step back and draw the charts and do all that. But in terms of what this character is actually seeing and experiencing, he’s living his life moment to moment-to-moment in the linear fashion and time is moving forward. And, as something happens, the effect then happens.[vi]“
While this might seem a bit naïve on the surface, it does harmonize with one of the fundamental principles of the theory of relativity, namely, the part which gives it the name of “relativity.” The concept which gives this theory its name is that for any “frame of reference” (often called an “inertial” frame”), the same laws of physics apply.[vii] And so, even if your time and space is actually getting warped by something (ie: coming near to a black hole), you will only ever experience this as the space and time around you as acting strangely. And this is why if two different observers start to argue about whose spacetime is warping, they can only ever do so in regard to an outside standard of reference (ie: a nearby star). Now if observers from these outside standards of reference start to disagree, there’s no way to tell who’s right, and in fact, all of these are right, it’s all relative to where you observe things. This is why the warping of spacetime in relativity theory means that sometimes things will appear in multiple place and times, depending on the spacetime and conditions from which observered.
All this is consistent with Johnson’s priotization of the frame of reference of the character at any given moment as that which organizes the film. And while scientists haven’t been able to quite get the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics to fully come together yet, they know they both work in their respective domains, even if the big picture gets fuzzy, similarly to Johnson’s film once again. Perhaps such fuzziness is all we will ever get.
Leibniz, Parallel Dimensions, and Sticky Timelines
While this can help clear up some aspects of the film, it doesn’t explain why there is the “magnetic” or “sticky” aspect whereby actions in a given dimensional timeline seem to pull, attract, or repel each other. That is, there’s more than just fuzziness at work, but forces which make things more or less fuzzy, and push and pull in the process.
For example, when Sara slaps young Joe’s face, this seems to repel the punch in the face which old Joe receives when he meets his wife in the future. Likewise, there seems to be a magnetism of sorts between Joe and Cid. Both were abandoned by their mothers. As we are shown in the “flash forward” which shows what could happen to Cid if his mother is killed, he ends up on a train, as young Joe is instructed to do by old Joe earlier in the film to get out of town. If this path in time continued, he would end up fending on his own, like young Joe. There’s even a moment in which Sara says to young Joe “he’s you…” and it seems like she is speaking of Cid, but after a lengthy pause, she clarifies she’s speaking about old Joe when she says “he’s your loop.” If it weren’t for the fact that young Joe seems to have none of Cid’s telekenetic powers, it almost seems as if Cid could be young Joe’s younger self. While it does seem clear that young Joe and Cid are different, they also seem at least semi-“magnetically” connected, perhaps, if nothing else, retroactively by means of old Joe’s interventions in the past of the child who could turn into the potential Rainmaker.
This magnetism or stickyness between temporal dimensions is what has made critics argue that the film wants to have things “both ways,” collapsing two of the primary time travel models. Before explaining this in terms of contemporary quantum physics, however, it will be helpful to get a sense of how this was modelled by a philosopher who had quantum intuitions centuries beforehand, namely, G.W. Leibniz, and in particular, Leibniz’s prescient discussions of multiple universes in his famous text Monadology (1715).[viii]
According to Leibniz, every possible universe that could ever be imagined always already exists, before the universe even began, in the mind of God. God is, as many have argued, like a cosmic accountant or giant brain who examines all the possible universes, and figures out the best way to bring them together to produce the “best possible” universe. The reason for this limitation is that the structure of the world just doesn’t permit what Leibniz calls “incompossible” events to occur in the same universe. And so, to use his example, while the existence of a Biblical Adam who eats the apple in the Garden of Eden and one who doesn’t are both possible, they are not possible together in the same universe. These two possibilities cancel each other out, they are “incompossible.” What God does is then look forwards in spacetime to see which paths through the possible universes end up with the universe being best without contradicting itself, and making that pathway happen. And so, while the world may be full of suffering, for Leibniz, any other pathway through the possible universes would ultimately be worse for the overall good of the universe, as seen from the perfect knowledge, outside time, which only God possesses.[ix]
While Leibniz wrote years before anyone had dreamed of quantum physics, there are many ways in which quantum events are each similar to Leibniz’s God in their own domain. While individual quantum phenomenon, such as electrons, don’t have the sentience to choose the “best possible” pathway, they do have the ability to filter out incompossible pathways, both forwards and backwards in time. This is what the famed spacetime “smearing” is all about. That is, the a quantum phenomenon sends out what can be thought of as “feelers,”[x] not only in space, but also forwards in time, within the fuzzy “cloud” that quantum phenomenon, to eliminate potential pathways in time which would lead to incompossibilities. This is another way of saying that quantum phenomenon act “as if” they “know” how to avoid contradictory events ahead of time (ie: the “quantum eraser” experiments).
The reason why this can be described in terms of “feelers” which feel forwards in time, if within a given domain, is that this is in fact the way in which scientists themselves graph these things. Richard Feynman’s famous network-like diagrams plot out precisely the probabilities, in spacetime, which links states, and the stronger probabilities generally, though don’t always, win.[xi] While these feelers are virtual, for they indicate probabilities rather than anything real, they do result in what researchers call “consistent histories” between possible outcomes.[xii] All of which is to say, each particle, simpler yet nevertheless similar to Leibniz’s God, has some way, yet to be understood, which allows them to feel forwards in time, in a manner similar to these probability threads, to see which possibilities wouldn’t work. Scientists still aren’t sure how this “feeling” happens, but some, particularly those influenced by David Bohm,[xiii] have argued that particles literally “feel” ahead in this manner. While this would violate, in some cases, the prohibition from relativity theory that the fastest speed in the universe must be speed of light, the debate rages on to this day on how to solve this paradox.
Nevertheless, it certainly seems “as if” particles feel out possible pathways, eliminate the paradoxical ones, and then “decide” which ones they like best. This is why some theorists have argued that quantum phenomenon are like minds, because no-one can figure how they “decide” to be in one state or another such that, at least from the outside, it seems as if they are making decisions in the manner of animals and humans. That is, while quantum phenomenon are predictable in the long-term, in the short term, they seem as if they have minds of their own, or if they can somehow feel minute shifts in the microwinds of forces in the universe acting upon them in ways which are beyond our capability to detect.[xiv]
Collapsing the Rainmaker’s Wave: Quantum Entanglement and Splitting Timelines
To bring this back to Looper, it seems as if the depiction of time travel in this film is somewhere between Leibniz’s model of God, and some of what was just described in regard to quantum phenomenon, if in a way which is more fuzzy than Leibniz imagined, but more like that of quantum physics. For rather than a God which strives to produce the “best possible” universe, it seems like that Looper aims at something much more realistic, at least in terms of quantum physics, namely, a universe which aims to produce the most consistent possible version of itself, as manifested by a pull of sorts towards consistency.
We can see this by returning to the issue of Joe’s fuzzy memory. The closer young and old Joe get to incompossible events, the fuzzier old Joe’s memory becomes. Taken to its extreme, it is likely that at the end of the film, in the split second between when young Joe decides to pull the trigger on himself and the moment of doing this, that old Joe’s memory would lose all tie to the past he knew with his wife, because it ceases to be compossible with the reality in which he found himself. It seems likely that his memory would, at that moment, be much closer to that of young Joe at his age, which is to say, non-existent, and precisely because they are both becoming versions of young Joe. That is, old Joe is becoming less real, more virtual, more a fantasy projection of young Joe, which is to say, he becomes less of a potential real future for young Joe.
This helps explain why many critics have argued, along with commenter Pete Cooper in Magursen’s comment thread, that “Young Joe and the Rainmaker can never exist in the same reality.” And this is true, for if young Joe doesn’t kill himself, or do something similar, Cid will grows up to be the Rainmaker, and this will lead old Joe to go back in time to kill Cid as a child, making sure this will happen, and in the dialogue of the film, “closing the loop” in multiple senses of the term. If Cid doesn’t grow up to be the Rainmaker, however, this is because young Joe killed himself, thereby preventing old Joe from going back in time to try to kill him, thereby inadvertently producing the Rainmaker in the process. And so, a young Joe which kills himself and the Rainmaker cannot exist in the same universe, they are “incompossibles,” which is not the case with old Joe, and this helps explain why there’s interference between old and young Joe’s timelines.
Of course, this raises the condunrum of how the incompossibility of old Joe and Cid in the same universe could occur in the first place. And this is because time is currently flowing in two dimensions at once, one in which Cid becomes the Rainmaker, and one in which he doesn’t. This is in fact similar to another quantum phenomenon, known as “decoherence” or “the collapse of the wave function.”[xv] As quantum phenomenon approach each another, and their probability clouds and “smeared spacetime” begin to overlap, it becomes more and more likely that there will be an interaction, a quantum event, in which they slam into each other and fly off in their respective directions. While some physicists argue this is because the particles are always there in solid form, and that they teleport around their clouds of probability, others argue that they are smeared through spacetime, and solidify when something comes into this zone and disturbs it with great enough intensity. Either way, the result is ultimately the same, namely, that what seems to us as as a possible interaction of particles becomes one in reality. We can’t really know what it’s like before the particles interact, and so, whether or not there’s a cloud, a set of feelers, or a single particle able to teleport around in a particular zone of spacetime instantaneously, or something different completely. All human observers seem to be able to tell is that there is an interaction which follows along with the equations of quantum physics, even down to the degree and domain of unpredictability in involved.
This can help explain why old Joe and Cid can exist in the same universe, but not young Joe and the Rainmaker. The child we know as Cid in the film hasn’t yet passed the point of no-return after which he becomes the Rainmaker, just as young Joe hasn’t passed the point of no-return after which he can’t stop old Joe from producing the Rainmaker. These are two sides, in a sense, of the same fuzzy event seen from multiple perspectives. And each of these perspectives is fuzzy in a temporal sense as well, for we don’t know we have passed a critical point until after the fact, except perhaps in the ways in which old Joe’s memory-anticipations start getting fuzzier when he approaches potential branching points which could produce an incompossibility which could impact the ability of these timelines to flow together. Such a crucial turning point is seen when young Joe shoots himself, and the “entanglement,”[xvi] or coherence, between old Joe and Cid collapses, decoheres, and the Rainmaker, and both Joes, vanish. Only Cid and his mother remain.
All of which can help us finally understand the cause of the “magnetism” between dimensions in Looper, in that even when time travel creates the existence of multiple dimensions, there seems to be a force which pulls everything back together, trying to collapse dimensions back into a completely consistent state of one dimension. Like the manner in which gravity pulls heavenly bodies towards each other, so it is that time travel dimensions in Looper seem to pull towards the greatest possible consistency, at least in light of the multiple dimensions which have opened up.
While this may seem odd to our everyday sense of reality, none of this is bizarre to the strange world of quantum physics. While quantum particles cancel out direct incompossibilities, we have no way of knowing if they open up alternate dimensions to play out other scenarios in which these events wouldn’t be incompossible. Such is the interpretation of the data of quantum physics by those who take a “multiverse” or multiple universes perspective on the date of quantum experiments.[xvii] And it’s worth noting that all these theories of quantum physics are different perspectives on the same very consistent facts of experimental evidence, just as much as old and young Joe have multiple perspectives on the Rainmaker. In fact, it is possible that all the interpretations of quantum physics are right, from their perspective.
According to the multiple universes perspective on quantum physics, all possible pathways which a quantum phenomenon could take actually is taken in a possible universe. If this were the case, then there would be a nearly infinite set of possible universes. What then makes the universe we are in so special? Perhaps simply the fact that we are in it. But if quantum particles seem to cancel out incompossibilities in spacetime at their own level, there’s no reason to not think that our universe as a whole does this as well. Certainly some quantum physicists have argued that the same wave equations which can be applied to quantum particles can be applied to larger objects, up to and including the entire universe, such that perhaps our entire universe is like one giant entangled quantum state. [xviii] This has lead some to speculate that our universe is in fact potentially not what it seems, an illusion, projection, simulation, or holograph of some sort. Whether or not this is the case, it does seem that quantum particles prioritize consistency within their local domain, and from such a perspective it doesn’t seem unlikely that, were there multiple universes, through time travel or the multi-verse interpretation, that these would prioritize consistency as well. Perhaps we live in the “most consistent” possible universe, and the reason why this is the case is because this level of consistency is needed to support life. Perhaps less consistent universes, in which things just vanish and appear at random, just produces too many paradoxes.
And what would happen in case of a paradox? We don’t really know, but the characters in the film definitely seem to have some ideas. Time traveller Abe [Jeff Bridges] seems quite concerned to avoid massive time paradoxes, and old Joe certainly notices that the closer he approaches an incompossibility with young Joe, the more his memories are erased. If quantum phenomenon seem to “erase” the possibility, beforehand, of incompossible actions, then it seems very possible that a true paradox would lead to precisely what we see with old and young Joe: when they hit a true incompossibility, they cancel each other out, like matter and anti-matter.
In this sense, it seems to read both the film and the evidence of quantum physics as demonstrating not only not only a force or pull towards consistency, but an inverse force whereby inconsistency splits spacetime into dimensions. In this sense, it’s not unreasonable to say that the universe “desires,” whether this is called magnetism or force or anything else, something like consistency, because without it, it would shatter, and taken far enough, potentially even cease to exist, similar to the manner of Joe in the film. Just as quantum particles “seem” to “decide” on some states rather than others, it is as if the universe “wants” to keep existing, and the pull towards consistency is how this manifests within it, as in the film. Maybe Leibniz’s God wasn’t so far fetched in the first place.
Of course, this is only a film. But in light of quantum physics, Looper’s time travel mechanics seem to be much more realistic to the way in which time-travel would likely happen were it possible. Then again, quantum physicists have argued that quantum particles travel through time all the time, or at least, that is one possible way of reading the evidence, that favored by Richard Feynman.[xix] Either way, in all these formations, whether in quantum physics or the time travel of the film, there is not only interference between dimensions or channels, but also a sort of instability and readiness to collapse as soon as an incompossibility arises to disturb an entangled, “sticky,” “magnetized” state. Perhaps coherent and incoherent phenomenon are simply islands of stability within this dance of forces.
Ramifications via Deleuze and Lacan: Our Fractal Technoverse
Gilles Deleuze famously argued in his books on cinema that the feeling that time, and the world with it, was ‘out of joint’ began in the aftermath of World War II, and clearly Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1949) stands out as a film which uses flashbacks to present multiple possible versions of the past which don’t align, which couldn’t all be possible, and without providing resolution. Since the film’s attempt to place guilt in relation to a horrible act of violence can be read as an allegory of the attempt to deal with the guilt and horror of memory in relation to the atrocities of the war, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the form of the film is an attempt to deal with the trauma of its contents, allegorical and otherwise. And as psychoanalytic critics have long argued, fragmentation is one of the primary responses to a trauma which remains difficult to process and integrate. Deleuze nevertheless aims to get beyond the limitations of psychoanalysis, and his argument about time and film is wide-ranging and goes beyond trauma, unless the trauma is seen as more than the war, but the generalized condition of living in our postmodern age. And so, in his cinema books, he traces the shift in the depiction of time in avant-garde films in the post-war period, by means of cinematic authors such as Fellini, Resnais, Tarkovsky, and beyond.
Nevertheless, at least for psychoanalysis, and in particular, in regard to the way in which time travel films have been analyzed by Slavoj Zizek, time-travel films are about the attempt to think what it would mean to change who you are.[xx] We often find it hard to believe we were the people we once were, and we try to imagine the people we will become, even if we will never turn out to be quite as we imagine. The process of changing our habits by means of reframing our memories and expectations is what happens in any good therapy, or in any self-aware life outside the consulting room. Time travel films, for all their often sci-fi plot devices, are really, for Zizek, about the attempt to intervene in our present moments. But they do so in a language which speaks to our times, namely, temporal dislocation and hi-tech gadgets.
This is why Deleuze traces the lineage of films in which time is “out of joint” to those which have no sci-fi premise, but which have mechanics similar to time travel films. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) is an excellent case in point. While the whole film has nothing sci-fi about it, the play of memories and fantasies leave viewers with multiple possible interpretations, all layered on top of each other as possibilities, like so many quantum threads of possibility which are entangled until something forces it to decohere into one state over another.
While film seems to be particular suited to, as Deleuze argues, function as a “time machine,”[xxi] it is not the only medium which can do this. Literature can imagine multiple time lines as well, for example, but it only began to truly do this at around the same time as film began to do this, with perhaps Jorge Luis Borges “Garden of Forked Paths” (1941) as one of the earliest examples. Of course, language and images of all sorts were always virtual realities of sorts, but only after World War II did time seem to truly “go out of joint.” While the fissures can be seen as early as experiments with painting, such as that of Picasso or the Italian Futurists, it is only retroactively that the true potential import of these devices become clear.
If most time travel films thematize single loops through time, the more baroque manifestations of recent times, such as Twelve Monkeys, Donnie Darko, Primer, The Prestige, Moon, and Looper show that relatively mainstream film, if towards the more difficult end of things of the mainstream, is now approaching the experiments of the avant-garde. These films, which take what Deleuze would call a “crystalline” structure, are increasingly becoming similar to the complexities of films like Terayama’s Pastoral (Japan, 1973) or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (France, 1961).
Ours is increasingly a world in which spacetime between individuals is generally measured in how long it takes for a message to fly between mobile devices, short-circuiting the 3D spacetime of the mere physical world. As such, linear time seems to be fading out, increasingly replaced by virtual sites on the Internet which update and mutate in webs in relation to each other. And while the web does seem to tend towards something like consistency, it still allows quite a few paradoxes to exist in powerfully entangled states.
Either way, this new spatiotemporal reality is increasingly moving from the realm of fantasy to everyday. And so, a film like Looper then is likely to resonate with a wide many who’ve never encountered quantum physics, but simply feel what it’s like to live everyday in our hypermodernity. And as our everyday life increasingly begins to take on quantum aspects, with micro and macro levels of our worlds echoing each other as in fractal images, perhaps films like this can help us intuit some new ways to navigate the challenges of our age.
[ii] Several excellent general introduction to quantum mechanics and relativity theory exist which explain the many approaches to interpreting the findings of quantum mechanics. My preferred introduction for beginners remains Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu-Li Masters: An Introduction to the New Physics (HarperOne, New York: 1979), which, even though nearly twenty years old, still remains one of the most accessible and philosophically friendly explanations of the basic issues at stake, and in ways which recent developments complement rather than displace. For those seeking a more recent source, see the slightly more technical Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes by Vincent Stenger (Prometheus Books, New York: 2000).
[iii] An extensive discussion of quantum eraser experiments can be found in Katerhine Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke Univ. Press, Durham: 2007), pp. 247-352. It should be kept in mind, however, that Barad’s description, while excellent, privileges the Copenhagen model of interpretation proposed by Niels Bohr. For a more balanced interpretation of issues related to spacetime symmetry, see Stenger (op.cit.), pp.26-151.
[vii] For more on intertial frames in relation to relativity theory, see Paul Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (Touchstone, New York: 1995), pp. 44-77.
[viii] See “The Monadology” in G.W. Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics and the Monadology (Dover Books, Dover: 2005, reprint).
[ix] For more Deleuze’s film theory in relation to Leibnizian incompossibility, see Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image (Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 1989), pp. 130-131 .
[x] For more on virtual particles and Feynman networks, as well as how these can be thought of as “feelers” in spacetime, beyond models of quantum events which reduce them to simple particles, see Zukav (op.cit.), pp. 237-282.
[xi] For more on the networked structure of Feynman diagrams, see ibid.
[xii] Consisten histories are at least in part what Feynman diagrams are used to determine. For more, see Zukav (ibid.), or Stenger (op.cit.), pp. 147-8.
[xiii] David Bohm’s highly influential notion of the implicate order, and its use in interpreting quantum mechanical phenomenon, is explained at length in Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Routledge, London: 2002, reprint).
[xiv] For more on the notion of hidden variables, and the deconstruction of the reductive argument used in relation to these to devalue the non-local arguments proposed by Bohm and others, see Bohm (ibid.), pp. 83-139.
[xv] More on the “collapse of the wave-function” can be found in Zukav (op.cit), pp. 83-96, while more on decoherence can be found in Stenger (op.cit.), pp. 148-151.
[xvi] For a book length treatment of the notion of quantum entanglement, see The God Effect: Quanum Entanglement, or Science’s Strangest Phenomenon (St. Martin’s Press, New York: 2006).
[xvii] For more on the multiverse model of the cosmos, see John Gribben, In Search of the Multiverse: Parallel Worlds, Hidden Dimensions, and the Ultimate Quest for the Fronteirs of Reality (Wiley, Hoboken: 2009).
[xviii] For more on the notion of the entire universe as something like a wave-function, and hence, potentially existing in an entangled state, see Gribben (ibid.), pp. 23-33.
[xix] For Feynman’s account of how particles travel backwards in time, see Zukav (op.cit.), pp. 242-3.
[xx] For Zizek on time-travel in relation to the “temporality of the symptom” in psychoanalysis, and its relation to film, see, for example, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, London: 1990), p. 161.
[xxi] See D.N. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Duke University Press, Durham: 1997).