Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Chapter 9: Chaos Theory and Literature: I. Strange Attractors

Chaos and complex systems theory have been discussed at length in this work, and have been applied to understanding everything from the human down. If chaos and complexity theory are relevant for everything in the universe up to and including humans, it does not seem like much of a leap to apply these theories to understanding the arts and literature. Of course, I am not the first by far to delve into the use of chaos theory to understand literature. I have many predecessors: Alexander Argyros, Harriet Hawkins, C. Katherine Hayles, Frederick Turner, et al. My goal has been to show in considerable detail why these theories, in conjunction with game theory, information theory, Fraser’s theory of time, etc., are applicable to understanding the creation and appreciation of art and literature.

In Strange Attractors, Harriett Hawkins points out that chaos theory is an excellent way to analyze literature, since “deterministic chaos is the context, the medium we inhabit in everyday life, ubiquitously allowing for, and indeed mandating individuality too as unpredictability within a physically determined order” (2). We can immediately see how chaos theory

helps to explain why, after centuries, certain works maintain their operational fangs and claws and terrible beauty. They are the artistic equivalents of deterministic chaos, and as such evoke chaotic responses, contradictory interpretations, altogether different generic adaptations. Therefore, as in the artistic tradition itself, their complex metaphorical signifiers keep on floating around in the minds of individual readers (and generations) long after the text was first read. (8)

Chaos theory can explain why certain works have long-term value within and among cultures. More complex works create more ways of seeing the text, breed different interpretations, have people arguing about the text for centuries (sometimes millennia). Any work that creates a large number of interpretations is, according to this theory, a great work with lasting value.

Hawkins further shows how complex works generate new works as new artists attempt to emulate the work they are influenced by – usually in the creation of less complex works. An example she gives is Milton’s Paradise Lost, of which Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was a less complex emulation – which itself had a less complex emulation in the movie version. She points out that another way of knowing a work is a great work of art is to see how many times people try to replicate it. Most of the replicants will be less complex than the original, and will therefore likely be forgotten. But occasionally, works of art will come along which go beyond mere emulation to create another highly complex work of art that will inspire future emulation.

The above works for older works, but how can we determine if a new work is sufficiently complex to fit her definition of a lasting work of value? “When a fractal is viewed on any scale, comparably complex details emerge. And comparably complex details likewise emerge in individual lines, books, actions, and characterizations, as well as on the mythic, narrative and temporal scales of a complex nonlinear work” (18). One way of seeing if a work meets this level of complexity is to ask yourself what it would take to write up a set of instructions to have a writer write any given work. A work is complex if the “instructions” on how to write it (as romance publishers give their writers) would be longer than the work produced (13). This brings us back to what I said earlier about theory, as one could, in a sense, see literary analysis as an attempt (actually, various attempts by various people) to write parts of the instructions of how to write any given work of literature. Using psychological analysis, for example, one could learn various elements of the psychologies of the characters in the work (let us say, a novel). Marxist analysis could point out the various class concerns the author had in mind. Formalism and structuralism could show on a formal and structural level how the novel was constructed. Poststructuralism could point out what the author left out and suggest why. And one could go back to older theories and see what they have to say about works of literature, since “even as chaos theory calls into question comparatively exclusive critical paradigms, it also allows for a retroactive, retrospective understanding of earlier artistic and critical insights commonly brushed aside as outmoded or as too obvious to need further thought” (19). Using chaos theory to understand literature reintroduces the idea of unity within diversity.

Chaos theory shows how these approaches can all work together to create a set of instructions for the reader to both enter the text and to better understand various elements of it, and for potential writers to understand how and why an author did what they did in a given work. It also provides its own contributions to the instructions. Hawkins points out that the butterfly effect helps explain how “an inadvertent dropping of a handkerchief, or someone else’s otherwise insignificant incapacity to tolerate alcohol (as in Othello) – can exponentially compound with other effects and give rise to disproportionate impacts” (16). She proposes this in opposition to “linear-minded moralists [who] have sought to charge tragic heroes and heroines with correspondingly great (quid pro quo) crimes, vices, sins and fatal flaws,” pointing out that “as chaos theory demonstrates, and as had long been obvious in ordinary life (as in comic as well as tragic art) very small, morally neutral, individual effects” (16) can, result in huge, tragic effects.

The themes and conflicts of a potentially great work of literature must themselves be complex, while “it simultaneously establishes what chaos theorists term nonlinear replications, iterations, self-similarities – that is, regular irregularities, structural correspondences (symmetries) and (asymmetrical) contrasts – between characters and actions” (61). Such a work would also seem to never have satisfactory interpretations, because “In complex works of art, as in the fractal formations of nature, there are interactive effects within interactive effects, and the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The holistic interaction between components cannot be analytically dissected precisely because analysis requires segregation” (77). One cannot consider a single chapter of the lengthy instructions of a work to be the complete instructions. This in particular puts deconstruction in a delicate position, since it does not acknowledge emergent properties in its analysis of a work’s smallest parts.

A great work of art is great because it replicates the complexities found in nature. That is the why it satisfies: the various arts “are not literal representations, but [are] metaphorically satisfying because they ‘work like nature’” (83) – they are scalar. All the elements found in a work of great art, “iterations, recursions, self-similarities, symmetries and asymmetries [are] operative in the nonlinear systems of nature, in contrast to the regularities and predictabilities of comparatively linear (generically determined) systems and fictions such as formulaic romance novels” (88). The instructions for such formulaic novels can be written up in an area smaller than the novels that are created. The instructions for the creation of a relatively small work, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, would take up volumes. This is perhaps why it takes so many people longer to enjoy and appreciate great works of literature – but when they do, that is also why

in the long run, the survival of a complex literary “fractal” . . . continuously resonates, on multiple scales – imaginative, aesthetic, intellectual, orderly and disorderly – in the minds and memories of individual readers of successive generations, in very much the same way it continues to resonate in the artistic tradition. (103)

The same can work with looking at the complete literary tradition, as Ngg Wa Thiong’o wants us to do. Many postcolonial theorists have viewed him as promoting pluralism only – but what he actually supports is unity with plurality, as he suggests that

each department of literature while maintaining its identity in the language and country of its foundation should reflect other streams, using translations as legitimate texts of study. An English or French or Spanish or Swahili student should at the same time be exposed to all the streams of human imagination flowing from all centres of the world while retaining his or her identity as a student of English, French, Spanish, or Kiswahili literature. Only in this way can we build a proper foundation for a true commonwealth of cultures and literature. (Moving the Centre, 11)

This allows us the possibility of a more complex cultural tradition, with multiple centers (as a fractal with multiple strange attractors is more complex and beautiful than one with but one strange attractor). He explained this as realizing that
knowing oneself and one’s environment was the correct basis of absorbing the world; that there could never be only one centre from which to view the world but that different people in the world had their culture and environment as the centre. The relevant question was therefore one of how one centre related to other centres. A pluralism of cultures and literatures. (9)
He is not asking people to give up their own traditions – or to lose focus on their own traditions. He is asking instead that we also consider other perspectives, to have beautiful cultures.

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