Confronting Chaos

Confronting Chaos

Design & Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction
Joseph Conte
University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Joseph Tabbi reviews Joe Conte’s Design and Debris and gauges the argument for chaotics-as-aesthetics across media.

This essay-review first appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Contemporary Literature.

As conceptual frameworks for the study of postmodern literature, chaos and complexity have been on the table for some time. N. Katherine Hayles in Chaos Bound (1990), Alexander Argyros in A Blessed Rage for Order (1991), and Gordon Slethaug in Beautiful Chaos (2000) included chapters on 20th-century authors who worked self-consciously with chaotics before its key concepts were systematized as a science and (simultaneously) popularized by James Gleick. Joseph Conte’s contribution is to elaborate chaotics into a full-fledged aesthetic, prevalent in contemporary culture whether or not chaos is recognized as a paradigm shift on the order of relativity or the Copernican revolution. Design & Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction does more than fill out received concepts with detailed readings of an expanded range of texts. Conte reinvigorates a field that was always in danger of growing diffuse through its range and diversity of applications, and he does this by noting specific convergences and “shared convictions” arrived at independently between chaotics and contemporary poetics (3). Most comprehensively, Design and Debris demonstrates that chaos theory can help delineate the perennial, unfinished, but still productive transition from modernism, with its signature “ideas of order” rescued from chaos, to postmodern multiplicity, uncertainty, and risk. Within the postmodern field, Conte makes important literary distinctions, keyed to imposed and emergent designs out of chaos. In a series of chapters (each one a stand-alone introduction to an important author), Conte distinguishes “proceduralists” (John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Harry Mathews) from more “dynamic” postmodern practitioners (Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker). In a final chapter, Conte makes a strong case for understanding “[t]his disturbing transition between print and digital communication” in terms of chaotics (197).

The word “disturbing” in that last citation is worth pausing over because it indicates a way of conceptualizing fiction as an ongoing concern, placing it politically, and deciding which fictions are successful inventions within a chaotic environment. Politically, the language of disruption and disturbance is an advance on “subversive,” “dissenting,” “radical,” or “resisting” - characterizations that either give too much or too little agency to authors and their works. A disturbance is neither a direct intervention nor an aestheticization of politics. Rather than reify (and hence give credence to) the power being resisted, and rather than domesticate the intractable material world by reducing it to mere text, the writer “administers… disturbances, the painful rifts in context that may eventually bring better things” (to cite A.R. Ammons, Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues. Ed. Zofia Burr. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996: page 26. Ammons, incidentally, is treated in Conte’s first book, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Such change, however, is brought about neither through personal will, material manipulation, nor the conscious organization of human masses into collectivities. Established orders, because they remain tied to human consciousness, are “merely personal and contingent,” their fragility borne out by a century-long history of unfinished modernity and abortive, unruly, or simply unsatisfactory social transformations. Chaotics and complexity theory present themselves as alternatives to classic Modernist orders, whose concern for a centering control has tended to approach either fascism (in the poets W. B.Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, as read by Michael North); Marxism (in the depression-era novelists Edward Dahlberg, Nelson Algren, Henry Miller, Nathanael West, and John Dos Passos as reconsidered by William Solomon); or the neo-liberalism of large-scale culture-management, whose playful simulated orders could well prove to be the most materially destructive of all. A sign of a truly contemporary artist, says Conte, is a willingness to cultivate “an affinity for - rather than an aversion to - forms of disorder” (8). By no longer regarding disorder as “a solely destructive or irrational state,” the artist (in company with the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and others), seeks “to destabilize orderly institutions and revel in the unpredictability that results as a forum for unrestricted play and the possibilities of discovery” (8-9).

The language here is too general. The fascists in Germany, at their rise, were not averse to destabilizing institutions and reveling in “unrestricted play.” But even within Conte’s postmodern context, “play” as a word and concept needs qualification. One finds in the form of Conte’s chosen fictions very little that resembles, for example, the play of toddlers, which is usefully aimless while bringing into “play” muscles and physical positions that will be needed later, for more directed activity. There are no amateur babies, as DeLillo says somewhere. Play in postmodern fiction (and in the “language games” so often invoked by contemporary theory) more often resembles the highly restricted, directed, and rule-based play of The Universal Baseball Association, Henry Waugh, Prop. Coover’s fictional league, created using detailed skill charts (for invented players) and a set of three dice, becomes, in Conte’s reading, a “dynamical system whose survival and collapse depends upon complex equilibria between error and perfection, power and control, chance and design” (141). What makes such a description possible, even plausible, is the fact that each event in every baseball game, whether actual or simulated, played out on a board or only narrated in fiction, can be reduced to the terms of credits and debits. (Not for nothing is Coover’s character, Henry Waugh, an accountant). A strike is a credit to the pitcher and a debit to the batter; an error is a debit to the fielder but a null entry, neither a credit nor a debit, to the hitter, and so forth; all contingencies can be tallied in the end, as in any system of accounting. The extent and exactitude of the capitalist analogy is what makes such systems appear “universal.” Outside of any one individual’s financial or athletic performance, games and markets are equally subject to mathematical rule, although once the play has reached a certain complexity, both are equally subject to turbulence, indeterminacy, and potential collapse. Such is the generalizing power of chaotics.

But the generalization ends when natural events and processes, not fully accountable numerically, come under discussion. The toddler’s play, for example, is a chaos capable of producing an order, a natural order that arises unconsciously and without any rules other than those formulated from within the play itself. This is what I understand as a properly immanent order, not the order imposed by games and markets, or by authors who work under a preconceived set of rules. Conte eloquently defends the imposition of design at the level of composition as a way of bringing authors outside themselves, producing surprising results, even a “creative autonomy” in “a generative text that far exceeds the enumeration of its preordained structure” (84). But the unfolding design in an arabesque, a procedural narrative, or a computer-generated attractor, though subject to the same mathematical formalism as the `strange attractor’ in, for example, an approaching storm, is not responding to the same inputs. Design, even if unpredictable, capable of producing surprise after several iterations and multiple feedback loops, is set in motion by a human consciousness working with certain ideal forms such as numbers. Immanence is larger than consciousness, a product of nature; it has no ideals, only a range of deviations from the numerical norm. (In eliding the natural and the cultural, Conte is no different from most constructivist critics of his generation, born after the introduction of Strat-O-MaticTM board games in 1960).

Proof of the emergence of chaotics as a cultural dominant, however, is not in the superiority of a priori arguments, but in the the range of narrative concerns and techniques that can be newly articulated in terms of chaotics and freshly applied to a range of authors (whether or not they are consciously informed by science). Particularly welcome in Conte is the expansion of a near-defunct narratological language, one that has, unfortunately, made reflexivity in fiction seem far more involuted and text-obsessed than it is in practice. By contrast, Conte finds that “reflexive references” amount to “more than rampant intertextuality” in Sorrentino (90); “disrupted codes” (of gender especially) in Acker are not like most feminist rewritings of classic and contemporary fiction: rather than isolate a single channel of causality in male dominance (which traditional feminists can then coopt or resist), Acker elaborates “competing principles of discipline and anarchy, intentionality and impulse, control and freedom” (54). “Similarities across scale” reveal, in Hawkes, “pattern underlying chaos” (45); “design,” writes Hawkes, “inevitably surrenders to debris, debris inevitably reveals its innate design” (qtd in Conte 40). Rather than remain within debilitating systems of paranoid opposition in Thomas Pynchon, Conte speaks of an “ungovernable middle ground,” a space of disruption and material production, not a compromise (174). The dissipating conceit of white noise in DeLillo is less of a “mystery” (DeLillo’s preferred term) than a condition of communication, figuring an environment of noise out of which all meaning emerges - not least the finely tooled, resonant, but finally, sometimes frustratingly, indeterminate sentences that characterize DeLillo’s work. Conte does a service by revealing, in science, a language no less flexible and conceptually more robust than any of the literary languages developed independently. Such an integrated science-and-literature approach, rather than attacking literary autonomy or dismissing attempts at precision as mere jargon, is capable of defining what is specifically literary in our encounter with works of fiction.

At a time when centralized authority is lacking and reference is under erasure, fiction - if it is not to collapse into informatics or entertainment - nonetheless needs to adhere in its forms to cultural systems, events, and conceptual paradigms - “the on-goingness of the world,” in Coover’s words (qtd. in Conte 143). Even experimental writing that works self-consciously with language has to find resonance in a world whose sources of understanding, in both long-term evolution and short-term technical complexification, remain outside language. The disconnect between word and world, and the postmodern emphasis on (a largely imposed, highly orchestrated) play and invention, are often taken as a licence for free play within language. But the continued production of difference could just as easily be given as something else: rather than exhaust energies in wholly literary reflexings, why not instead coordinate the literary with the scientific, test one’s critical concepts against the precision within scientific language, and explore the still large areas of freedom and uncertainty afforded by science in its most imaginative and least instrumental forms? Conte is of course not the first critic to notice complexity in his selected authors, but by linking complexity with the scientific field, Conte lets us see more clearly the intrinsic importance of these authors - although that argument is left implicit in this mostly unpolemical book. (See “The Medial Turn” for an account of earlier attempts by John Johnston and Susan Strehle to introduce complexity and technology into the field of critical writing on American fiction.)

Conte does not, for example, use his governing distinction (imposed/emergent) as a way of distinguishing inherent value in postmodern texts. There is no choice or preference between the creation of chaotic systems out of imposed (what Conte misleadingly calls “immanent”) orders and the emergence of order out of chaos: both approaches are equally useful in breaking down Western distinctions that separate order from chaos. Still, either approach seems to me to hold risks that Conte does not address. The danger of an imposed order, for example in the constrained writing articulated by Mathews and the Oulipo (Workshop for Potential Literature), is that rules and procedures (even self-imposed rules and procedures) can become boring compensations for a lack of native energy. In a book as remarkable as The Journalist, however, energy re-asserts itself with a vengeance, as the careful, proliferating categories imposed by Mathews’ note-taking protagonist - the “journalist” of the title - are overwhelmed by the authorial life they are meant to articulate and control. I’m not so sure, however, that Barth or Sorrentino (two other “proceduralists” discussed by Conte) open their own, highly literary, procedures to the same level of worldly energy. Both writers, Barth more than Sorrentino, to some extent deal with the language of science and Barth, in his story “Click,” cleverly transfers hypertext signifiers to the page - in the pages of no less of an American institution than the Atlantic Monthly (December 1997: 81-96). But such technical language is included mainly for its momentary strangeness, and then quickly recuperated into longstanding significations familiar to modernist and postmodern literature. The non-literary effects and broad-based transformations that science and hypertext actually introduce into the culture thus tend to be domesticated rather than invoked. We are consoled, not confronted by complexity.

A reliance on emergent design, by contrast, with its more thoroughgoing commitment to disruption, too often and for too long can remain at the level of formlessness and subversion or, in Kathy Acker, frozen between “responses of submission (desire) and revolt (hatred)” (57). A world in constant suspension is no alternative to a Western tradition of controlled opposition. Given the choice, most readers, feminists and post-colonialists included, would prefer inhabiting the old Western world, managing opposition, deconstructing power, and “including” the excluded rather than letting others be other. Among the postmodern “disruptors,” Pynchon seems best to understand the ongoing fascism of forcing Western values on formerly colonized populations - whether or not the people are willing, and regardless of the ways that altruism abolishes non-western, pre-technological social forms. Among the outcomes of such imposed order are: (in Gravity’s Rainbow) the mass suicides that accompany the introduction of contraception into Herero culture; (in Vineland) the real-time filming by participant-reporters in anti-war demonstrations, who ultimately betray the cause; and (in Mason & Dixon) the imposition of rational grids and two-dimensional maps on native American topologies. In each case energies capable of producing a change are controlled by instrumental technology; whole nations are not so much occupied as obviated, while individuals are “embedded” (to use current jargon) rather than being allowed to do their own research and find their own news. In the face of such universal co-optation, literature’s main purpose - to become itself, a thing in itself, a discrete formation - seems to me all the more urgent. Immersion in the materials and media of modern culture is essential - and Conte, following Tom LeClair, is right to demand that his writers become “masterly” (198). But for emergence in fiction really to work, a perspective longer than the one given by technoculture is needed. Forms of cognition need to be larger than consciousness if the disruption is ever to do more than reply in the negative to the explanations, rational systems, and proliferating discursiveness of the past century - what to Ammons has seemed a “century of explanation” (Set in Motion 49).

Convincing as a description of colliding orders, and useful as a way of distinguishing tendencies within an increasingly diffuse aesthetic, chaotics seems to me less readily borne out by the collision of print and electronic paradigms. Conte rightly contrasts the World Wide Web, with its rhizomatic structures “unlimited in any direction and self-similar in every dimension” and the “hierarchical systems” associated with central control models of information (199-200). But this shift at the level of material technology does not necessarily produce a shift in how we read - except, perhaps, to discourage sustained reading or writing of any kind, with constant interruptions, embedded interfaces requiring attention, requests for response, codes to remember, and the constant need to back up and track versions of the document being read, composed, or read-as-composed. The electronic disturbance is creatively disruptive, to be sure, but not in the way that literature is disruptive. Writers seeking to break from established forms and hierarchies have always, it is true, worked against the “line” of print. In postmodern fiction nonlinearity (of plot, design, and sentence construction) has been the rule rather than the exception, as Conte points out (following George P. Landow in Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). And in contemporary poetry, the prevalence of free verse has already shifted to more dynamic forms that emerge within the line, toward caesurae, internal rhymes, enjambed sentences, and hyphenated words carried over line breaks that, taken together, create a meandering motion down the page more often than the box-like structure of traditional rhymed verse. Long before hypertext, surfictionists and concrete poets in print have gone so far as to experiment with punctuation and to bring forward the physical placement of words on the page. Such material invention is possible, however, only when the page itself is stable and the symbols on it are inert. A period, comma, or colon, whether or not it is used in accordance with established rules of punctuation, can direct readers mentally to stop, pause, or conjoin words or concepts on either side of the mark, creating nonlinearities from moment to moment within the reading of a print text. The material marks themselves, however, do not actually stop, pause, or link together thoughts going on at the site of reading, the way that programmable syntax directs what’s going on at the level of code, a kind of automatized collectivist thinking that is mostly hidden from the text on a computer screen. Print punctuation works toward a nonlinear reading experience precisely because the page is fixed and arbitrary. A system that is itself nonlinear, that takes readers literally from text to text, from one reading trajectory to another, can actively prevent the experience of nonlinearity in language (whether or not the texts or trajectories are linked arbitrarily or made to cohere conceptually; whether or not coherences are produced by the author or by the reader).

In the print fiction Conte considers, nonlinearities are all produced within the two-dimensional space of a conventional page; in hypertext, the page itself is multidimensional and nonlinear, so our attention is made to shift from nonlinearities of written language to nonlinearities of technology itself - that is, from cognitive to performative nonlinearity. The question arises, unwelcome in its breadth but at least capable now of being clearly formulated - as to whether you can go on having literature when its signature thought structures, developed more or less in tandem with the creation of the codex book and the print page, have become literalized on a screen or electronic writing space that itself changes. A virtue of chaotics-as-poetics is that it allows us, again, to address the perennial question, What is Literature, in terms that resituate the literary in its own materiality. Larger than consciousness and irreduceable to discursive meaning, chaotics embraces modes of cognition that are multiply embodied and continually mediated through neural networks, informational pathways, and modules in the brain. The same language of pathways, nodes, modules, and rhizomes has been applied, more or less accurately, to communications networks and media. Print is now one among many media, each of which holds different constraints on what can be said, written, and thought. And even though books continue to be produced, in volumes hitherto unthinkable for audiences only a generation or two away from illiteracy, the book-objects are now different texts capable of being read differently; they have become hybrid, “participating in the overall hybridity of the data ensemble around [them]” - as the critic Hanjo Berressem writes of his own print essay accompanying a recent cd-rom of conference proceedings, “Chaos/Control: Complexity.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 45.1 (2000): 5-21. Chaos Theory and Cultural Production. CD-ROM (Hamburg: Lit, 2002).

This understanding of texts themselves as elements in a medial ecology makes an ecological concept such as chaos all the more appropriate as a preferred term for contemporary literary study. “The discovery,” or rather rediscovery by literary theorists, “of the nonlinearity of textual space arrives at much the same cultural moment as the investigation of nonlinear dynamics in the physical world,” as Conte puts it (197). Opportunities for integration abound. The Web with its multiplex connections is doubtless a better site than print for creating aesthetic design within informational debris. The humanities, absent during most of the generic book’s material development (first by monks and later by scientific, commercial, and political publishers), would do well not to be left out this time around. Integration, however, does not mean absorption into the sciences. Natural and medial ecologies, while describable similarly in terms of chaos, complexity, and interdependence rather than opposition, should not be regarded as identical. As with performative hypertexts and conceptual works of literature, what’s decisive are the differences in materiality, since literature’s power rests, like the power of consciousness itself, on its not being capable of direct, immediate, effective action in or on the world.

What is literary cannot be too literal, lest particular meanings collapse into the same instrumental, informatic, and operational meanings that characterize faster communications criss-crossing the Web at every moment. Conte writes, “If we accept that language - though artificial - is a dynamical system, then predetermined rules will produce unpredictable results” (84-85). But language cannot be a system; “though artificial,” language is also, like “us,” a product of nature, the result of millions of minds over millions of years bumping against the constraints and contingencies of the natural world. Syntax, formal structures, and rules of grammar can to an extent be systematized; and the use of language can produce other language in other minds (sometimes, as in love and aesthetics, a coordinated language). But language as such cannot be made materially to effect changes in minds or in actual, worldly operations. This is the crucial difference, the source of nonlinearities and differences that writers explore on the page, producing differences that are unusual in that they materially change nothing. Yet such conceptual production is the only way that literature, as such, can help effect a cultural transition from one order to another order.

About one thing Conte is absolutely correct: no literary hypertext has yet matched “for sheer fictive power and inventive genius such authors as John Barth, Italo Calvino, Julio Cortázar, B.S. Johnson, Milorad Pavic, Georges Perec, or Christine Brook-Rose - all of whom anticipate hypertextual linking and nonlinear narrative in their fiction” (198). Conte, however, goes on to suggest that a continuation and extension of the postmodern narrative tradition will resume “Only when the imaginative verve - which has little to do with computer savvy - that our most important writers possess has been brought intrinsically to the hypertext environment.” Yet the question remains: if the importance of Conte’s chosen writers is based on their capacity for disruption, if they are themselves products of a transitional moment, might not their aesthetic, so well recognized and so well formulated by Conte, be impossible to reproduce or even to recognize in the event of its emergence in the new digital environments? Verve alone may not be enough to extend a progressive literary practice that, despite its largely unconscious anticipations of hypertext, grew out of the medium that nourished it and constrained it - the same print medium that makes possible Conte’s own highly evolved, and increasingly rare, critical practice. Conte gives a nice survey of authorial testimony - DeLillo needing the clack of a typewriter, Barth writing longhand (“Black Montblanc Meisterstûck 146 fountain,” as the author/narrator writes in a pseudo-hypertextual scene in “Click”). Gaddis used to laboriously, and literally, cut and paste lines of typed text into his slow-developing, legal-sized manuscript pages. And Pynchon, one likes to think, is still drafting novels on the same graph paper he used for solving problem sets as an undergraduate engineering major. While composing their fictions, the last generation of postmodern writers (whether `last’ in the sense of previous or final, is for the next generation to decide) were still in the enviable position of being able to forget the medium, print, that nourished their vision and also constrained their thought. In restrospect, their immanent, imposed, and emergent designs may turn out to have mostly to do with a forgotten medium, print, which of course after e-media is now no longer forgettable.