Polvinen Literature and CT

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READING THE TEXTURE OF REALITY: INTERPRETATIONS OF CHAOS THEORY IN LITERATURE AND LITERARY STUDIES Merja Polvinen During the past few decades, chaos theory, a collection of scientific ideas that explore the unpredictable, dynamic and complex systems in the universe, has entered the public imagination. It has also been used in literature as a theme or symbol, and in literary research as a topic or methodological aid. Since the 1980s, more than a dozen novels, plays and short stories have been pub
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  48 N EW F ORMATIONS R  EADING   THE T EXTURE   OF R  EALITY :I NTERPRETATIONS   OF C HAOS T HEORY   IN L ITERATURE    AND L ITERARY S TUDIES  Merja Polvinen During the past few decades, chaos theory, a collection of scientific ideasthat explore the unpredictable, dynamic and complex systems in theuniverse, has entered the public imagination. It has also been used inliterature as a theme or symbol, and in literary research as a topic ormethodological aid. Since the 1980s, more than a dozen novels, plays andshort stories have been published in English, explicitly discussing chaoticphenomena and using the specialist terminology of chaos theory. The MLA bibliography, during the same period, lists nearly 150 books, articles anddissertations discussing chaos either in relation to particular texts or as ageneral methodological topic.In literary works chaos is used to explore such themes as therelationship between humanity and nature, fate and free will, reductionand holism, and the trustworthiness of human perception. The criticsand theorists concentrate on how chaos relates to the nature of literarytexts and the issues of interpretation. They connect chaos to linguisticindeterminacy, the organisation of textual elements, critical methodologyand - like the authors of fiction - to the relationship between mind andreality. What has remained unclear is, firstly, why so many authors havechosen to explore such issues through chaos theory, and secondly, whythe theoretical texts in particular have interpreted the implications of chaos in two very different ways.During the twentieth century, two scientific theories have beenacknowledged as revolutionising the way we understand reality: the theoryof relativity and quantum mechanics. Many commentators have suggestedchaos theory to be a third such revolution. During the 1960s and 1970smany scientists from different fields were working on both naturalphenomena and mathematical abstractions which were relatively simplesystems, but yet did not behave as predicted in the calculations. Scientistseventually defined new mathematical formulas to deal with suchdiscrepancies, and collectively these methods became known as chaos theory.Examples of chaotic behaviour have now been found in weather patterns,stock-market price fluctuations, dripping taps, the motion of asteroids andthe erratic eye-movements of schizophrenics. In such systems discrepanciesdo not just appear briefly before settling down into an equilibrium, butinstead one minute change sparks another, and another, until the overall  R  EADING   THE T EXTURE   OF R  EALITY 49 behaviour of the system shows enormous variation in a remarkably shorttime. But it is also important to note that by embracing the unpredictabilityof natural phenomena, chaos theory by no means accepts completeindeterminacy. Chaos does not, despite the ordinary sense of the word,mean randomness, but non-linearity; it does not lack discernible form, onlythe predictability of that form. As a model, chaos is perhaps more intriguing for literary artists andscholars than many other theories presented by that other culture, the naturalsciences. First of all, it deals with phenomena on a scale that we recognisefrom our everyday lives. It describes clouds and coastlines, not quantumsingularities or the formation of galaxies. In its visual forms - strangeattractors and fractal pictures - it also manages to create something instantlyaesthetically pleasing. Chaos produces pretty pictures which carry deepmeaning about the nature of our existence; therefore its adoption intoliterature should come as no surprise. A more complex question is why chaos is most persistently used to explorethe nature of human perception and cognition. Why should a mathematicaltheory that describes the behaviour of turbulence be able to explain the way we experience and gather knowledge about the world? The answer lies inthe inherently ambiguous nature of both the laws of chaos and our experienceof the world. On the one hand, we see ourselves as coherent selves, livingour lives in a fairly straightforward linear fashion. On the other, we aresimultaneously aware of a bombardment of an infinite variety of senseimpressions, memories, feelings and concepts from which that coherentexperience is selected and formed. Similarly, chaos theory describes a reality which is too fragmented, too variable and too unpredictable to calculate,but which nevertheless displays startling coherence and harmony.Both of these aspects of chaos have been taken up in the literaryinterpretations of it. The themes presented in the fictions cover both thefragmentariness and the harmony in chaos, often within the same work.But if ambiguity is present in the literary interpretations of chaos, in thetheoretical texts it develops into a full-blown methodological debate. Someauthors use chaos as proof of the infinite regression and dissemination of linguistic meaning, whereas for others it provides a way of rejecting exactlysuch a regression and of situating meaning in the larger context of physicalreality.The two contrasting interpretations of chaos present in the theoreticaltexts can be connected to a debate between two very different approachesto literature. The first of these attitudes could broadly be calledpoststructuralist; it is based on the idea of the indeterminacy of linguisticmeaning and it sees the text as something created by the reader in theprocess of reading, rather than as a pre-existing artefact created by theauthor. Thus it assumes that no information can pass from the text to thereader. The second attitude is more difficult to label, since it is displayed byauthors and critics from many different backgrounds, and has not become  50 N EW F ORMATIONS a defined theoretical movement. But generally speaking it involves strongcriticism of poststructuralist theory, a renewed interest in shape, patternand harmony, and an emphasis on the context of cultural production - acontext more encompassing than that of language, class, or race. Thisattitude assumes that the physical context of humanity - including universalphysical laws and the effect of the immediate environment on the evolutionof human beings - is a major factor in understanding the conscious mindand, by extension, cultural products. In the interest of brevity, I shall belabelling this attitude externalism. Since the term is already in use in thefields of epistemology and cognitive theory, this definition will be anextension of the term into a field it has not previously covered, but it doesfollow the grain of such previous uses. 1 Unlike poststructuralism, externalismsees literature and language first and foremost as tools of communication,and thus believes that the cognitive value of literature - what it can tell usabout the world and ourselves - can be very high indeed.In analysing the various interpretations of chaos theory in literarystudies, the influence of these two attitudes can be seen clearly. Thoseadhering to the poststructuralist view emphasise the fragmentation,unpredictability and marginality of chaotic systems. These authors oftenbase their view of chaos on previous philosophical commentators such as Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Serres, and Gilles Deleuze and FélixGuattari, all of whom see chaos more or less in the light of virtuality,undefinability and infinite regression. 2 These interpretations also drawattention to the way both fractal mathematics and deconstruction examinemargins, infinite regression and limitless variability, and suggest that fractalmathematics, like poststructuralist theories of language and textuality,shows that the universe is ultimately unknowable.The authors representing the externalist view, on the other hand,reject such implications and, instead, draw attention to the presence of pattern, harmony and underlying determinism in chaotic systems. Theseauthors argue that scientific chaos offers, firstly, an explanation of howhuman consciousness can be seen as a part of the physical universe butnot reducible to it. Secondly, they see in it ways of describing some of the dynamic patterns that appear in human imaginative products. Forthe externalists, therefore, the value of chaos lies in its ability to explainthe basic workings of the mind and to provide metaphors that help inthe understanding of some general characteristics of literature. Thisposition, though a speculative extension of the scientific theories intothe field of literature, is at least faithful to the known details of chaoticcalculations. On the other hand, in equating chaos with the overthrowof rational inquiry and with dissemination of meaning, thepoststructuralists are ignoring many elements in the scientific theories which explicitly speak about pattern, organisation and harmony, andthus they draw from chaos unsupportable implications of cognitivepessimism. 1. See SimonBlackburn, TheOxford Dictionary of  Philosophy , Oxford,Oxford UniversityPress, 1996, p113;Mark Rowlands, The Body in Mind:UnderstandingCognitive Processes ,Cambridge,CambridgeUniversity Press,1999; MichaelLuntley, Contemporary Philosophy of Thought:Truth, World, Content ,Oxford, Blackwell,1999, pp9-11.2. Jean-FrançoisLyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge , Geoff Bennington andBrian Massumi(trans), Theory and History of Literature 10, Manchester,ManchesterUniversity Press,1984; Michel Serres,  Hermes: Literature,Science, Philosophy , Josué Harari andDavid F. Bell (edsand trans),Baltimore, JohnsHopkins UP, 1982;Gilles Deleuze andFélix Guattari, What is Philosophy? , HughTomlinson andGraham Burchill(trans), London, Verso, 1994.  R  EADING   THE T EXTURE   OF R  EALITY 51 CHAOS IN LITERATURESince I am interested in the interpretations of chaos theory  in literary works,rather than interpreting all literary works through chaos theory, the fictionsincluded in this study all include obvious use of the specialist terminologyof chaos. They also incorporate chaos as a thematic element, rather thanan incidental cultural detail or plot device. In these texts chaos is usedmainly to highlight the complex and unpredictable, yet structured realitythat humanity interacts with. The behaviour of chaotic systems is equated with the ebb and flow of popular culture, the organisation of societies oreven the search for God. Roughly, the themes discussed can be divided intofive main groups. The first, the relationship between humanity and nature,is examined through the self-similarity and interconnectedness displayedin chaotic systems. In  Bellwether , Connie Willis uses the idea of self-similarityto suggest that we can use our knowledge of natural systems to help usunderstand both the processes of individual human minds and the forms of human culture. In the novel the behaviour of sheep is graphed and plottedto explain both the accidental circumstances of falling in love and the spreadof fads through popular culture. 3 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling also,in their alternative history of a computerised Victorian era in The Difference Engine , have chaotic behaviour occurring not just in mathematicalcalculations but in various real-life systems, including biological evolution,the development and organisation of societies, and the events in the life of their protagonist. 4 In a very similar way Lewis Shiner presents chaoticdynamics as the reason for the fall of South-American high cultures in  DesertedCities of the Heart . 5 In such texts there is clearly a will to see the human beingnot as a mind separate from the world, but as part and parcel with the restof reality. Robert Littell presents in The Visiting Professor a slightly differentpoint of view to the issue of underlying order. Rather than using chaos tolink humanity to nature, he sends his protagonist on a search for God inthe form of true randomness. In this novel all that seems random is only sobecause it has been designed to be so by somebody. Thus chaos, the deeporder within seeming randomness which exists on a scale larger than it would be possible for a human to contrive, must srcinate from a consciousact of God. 6 These texts share a view that chaos theory offers tools fordescribing universal laws that apply at various levels of reality, and that byexamining those laws one can achieve a deep understanding of the placeand purpose of human life.If chaos makes it possible to see the underlying rules behind the behaviourof complex systems, it also raises the issue of control. In Michael Crichton’s  Jurassic Park the question about the possibility or impossibility of controllingan island full of dinosaurs becomes an adventure-story - peppered withexplanations of chaos theory by the fictional mathematician Ian Malcolm.Basing his calculations on the infinite sensitivity to initial conditionsdisplayed by chaotic systems, Malcolm predicts the park to be a dangerous 3. Connie Willis,  Bellwether , New York,Bantam, 1997.4. William Gibsonand Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine ,London, VictorGollancz, 1996.5. Lewis Shiner,  Deserted Cities of the Heart , London, Abacus, 1988.6. Robert Littell, TheVisiting Professor ,London, Faber andFaber, 1993.
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