Niemands Frau, and ‘Sie’ as a Quantum Pronoun

Originally given as a talk at Ti Pi Tin bookshop in Stoke Newington and subsequently published in ‘VERFREUNDUNGSEFFEKT‘ magazine, 2015, edited by Jen Calleja.

To be spoken out loud

Sie ist viele. Sie sind eins.
Er sagt : Ich bin der ich bin.

German is different to English. Its pronouns do not work in the same way. ‘He’ is a man and ‘she’, is woman – no confusion there. The referent, or body, that the lexeme ‘he’ refers to must be the conservative culturally historically defined male, and the lexeme ‘she’, his crucially equivalent female.

Not so in German.

In current usage, ‘Er’ is he. But ‘Sie’ is… ? When heard and without a verb attached, ‘Sie’ could be a you, (most respectfully), or they (all female) or they (all male) or they (mixed) or, it could ‘she’.

What does this do?

Sie is not necessarily hers but it could be; Sie is not necessarily theirs, but it might be, Sie it not necessarily yours – but perhaps, it is.

Sie is a locus of potential ambiguity. It carries with it the possibility for confusion – and for escape from being pinned down, semantically. Within ‘Sie’ there is latent movement between potential different embodied referents – that is to say, people.

As the ‘she’ Sie is more specific than the ‘they’ Sie or the ‘you’ Sie, because it puts its cards on the table and refers to a gender – it gets to set the agenda. The plural, the plural pronoun ‘Sie’ (when that’s what it is, albeit it, for now) is therefore associated semantically with the feminine. Likewise, the feminine is associated with plurality, and with multiple latent possibilities.

If you see ‘SIE’, and nothing else, your mind must oscillate between these different options.

‘Sie’ must therefore be more connected to material reality than ‘er’, or he.


Because ‘er’ needs no context to tell us what he means. Sie must have context. Sie must be ‘in the world’ – at least semantically, or on paper, or in a sentence.

‘Sie’ cannot have the distanced Platonic–Cartesian¬¬–Newtonian position, extracted from the material world that ‘er’ can. ‘Sie’ is not universally true, Sie is not a fact. ‘Sie’ is different today, than it will be tomorrow. For Sie to mean something, for a while, it must get involved, it must mix and mingle with others – other words, other things, other people. To have temporary identity, Sie must be in relation. In a relationship with others. Sie is friendly, Sie is sociable, Sie does not presume to stand alone.

And what about when ‘Sie’ and ‘Er’, third person, become ‘ich’, or I?

The “ICH” of Er is definitely ONE. One man. But the “ICH” that is ‘sie’’ is not definitely ONE. It could be. You’ll have to look and see, where ‘sie’ is and who ‘sie’ is with to know for sure, temporarily.

When I say ‘Sie’, You say “who?” What springs to mind?

Imagine now that Er and Sie are particles.

What kind of particles do you think they are?
Which is Newtonian, and which is Quantum?

In Newtonian physics, there are consistent rules about the movement of particles, so that the movement of, for example, a bouncing ball can be accurately calculated. A Newtonian particle can be pinned-down and is in only one place at one time.

In quantum physics in contrast, in principle it is impossible to measure certain pairs of properties, including position/momentum, simultaneously. There is no absolute truth at quantum level. You cannot objectively know the position and momentum of a particle – there is instead, a field of coexistent possibilities.

And so:

Er is a Newtonian particle, sie as a quantum particle.

Sie is a cat. Sie is a cat in a very hackneyed non–existent box (you know the one, Schrödginer’s). Sie is in the box and the lid is closed. Sie knows what she/they/you are. But no one else does yet. You will have to look, one will have to open the box, and meet her /their /your eyes.

But the next time you look, ‘Sie’ could be different, or not.

But the potential plurality of ‘Sie’ is not chaotic or random, it is a calculable, measured uncertainty.

This interests the German poet Barbara Köhler. ‘Sie’ is at the core of her poetics.
And why not begin with the Odyssey, the founding text of Western culture?

Niemands Frau is a text that I consider as a ‘minor translation’ of the Odyssey into a form that flows linguistically, philosophically and politically from a treatment of the pronoun ‘sie’, in contrast to what she associates with the pronoun ‘er’.

The shift from ‘Er’ to ‘Eie’ is expressed metaphorically by Köhler in terms of the emergence of quantum physics from Newtonian physics – from an understanding of reality in which objective fact can exist and predictions made, to an understanding which produces plural probability, and where finite, single truth is not possible.

These contrasting systems have an ethical dimension for Köhler: she positions the ‘major’ form of (patriarchal) language with ‘Er’ at its core as a site where hegemonic power is exercised and difference is repressed. Sie in opposition is the ‘minor’ form which has a disruptive transgressive effect of undermining the assertion of objectivity on the part of the major, and expanding the possibilities for lived reality, by articulating difference.

Now I am going to do a bit of textual analysis:

Köhler almost never uses capitalisation in her poetry.

bindet sie sind eine bewegung

The pronoun ‘sie’ here refers to ‘she’, ‘they’ and ‘you’, as it has a relation to two verbs, ‘bindet’ and ‘sind’; and ‘bindet’ is also conjugated to relate to ‘er’.

This line also expresses ‘Sie’ as nominative and accusative – acting and acted upon – because with ‘er bindet sie’, ‘he binds her’, ‘sie’ is accusative.

Semantically too here, ‘Sie’ is restricted in movement, tied up and cannot therefore be active. With ‘sie sind eine bewegung’, the same printed lexeme becomes nominative, therefore active, and can both refer to a plural subject ‘they’ and also, given the irregular use of capitals, ‘you’, formal. Semantically ‘Sie’ is freed from her bindings, and becomes pure movement and a plurality.

These six words create a dialogue between the semantic level of language and what is occurring on a grammatical level.

In Niemands Frau Köhler has created a language that is always ‘minor’ because, like ‘Sie’, it is always shifting to a different meaning, deterritorialising itself from conveying a single under¬standing that could be situated as ‘final’, and which could become dominant. The movement of meaning both has a serious philosophical-ethical emphasis, not allowing one (patriarchal) ‘reading’ of reality to dominate, making space for difference, and also has the effect of invigorating language as a site of play for those who encounter it, making it responsive and plastic, rather than an edifice to be observed and obeyed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s