Science and Modern Literature Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

David J. Gordon

SOURCE: "The Dilemma of Literature in an Age of Science," in the Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 245-60.

[In the following essay, Gordon examines tensions between modern literature and science.]

The French scientist Jacques Monod, using the evidence of modern biology, has brought up to date the hypothesis formulated by Democritus—that all natural processes are governed by the impersonal forces of chance and necessity. Monod thus questions, as science, animistic or idealistic positions which sanction the projection of will, reason, or feeling onto nature in order to establish a humanly significant conception of natural power and destiny. But he respects an independent realm of values and the experience of freedom from which values are derived. Acknowledging a world of mind separate from a world of matter or brain, he aligns himself with a tradition of philosophic dualism extending from Descartes to Chomsky.

Where does his persuasive argument leave the arts, particularly the art of poetry, which is unimaginable without the license of animistic projection? Monod apparently seeks only to undermine certain philosophies with scientific pretensions rather than poetry itself, but readers of Chance & Necessity who are students of literature may be prompted to reconsider the difficulties faced by humanistic study in an era when the freedom and power of the mind are brought into question with each advance of science, especially the difficulties encountered by ambitious artists and critics who attempt to overcome the split between mind and matter, choice and chance, freedom and necessity.

Logically there is no split at all between scientific materialism and poetic idealism. What a scientist means by necessity is not the same thing as what a poet presents as such. The two ideas are not on the same scale. Poetic necessity—an experiential fact—is a synonym for compulsion, constraint, inexorability, fate. Its true opposite is freedom or choice. The true opposite of scientific necessity, on the other hand, is chance. These two senses of necessity, like the Yeatsian terms Choice and Chance, are incommensurable. Thus the familiar antithesis between free will and determinism is, logically, a confusion. For determinism, in science, is simply the assumption that all effects have causes, and it has nothing to do with the experience of freedom and unfreedom.

The basis of science is, to be sure, similar to that of art. We have known with increasing clearness since Kant made the point that the framing of theories and hypotheses is as imaginative an activity as the conceiving of poems, both of them grounded in undemonstrable assumption, in metaphysics or "myth." But an essential characteristic of scientific method, aimed practically at permitting a measure of control over the processes of nature, is the deliberate withdrawal of attention from metaphysical speculation. As Whitehead observed in Science and the Modern World, it is inaccurate to think of science as the triumph of rationalism. Instead the seventeenth-century founders of modern science turned away from the unbridled rationalism of medieval metaphysics, and they claimed an allegiance to the facts derived from observation and experimentation. And Monod asserts with some emphasis that the decision to restrict one's vision in this manner must be initially an ethical decision, for scientific work cannot be substituted for values.

One might say that the scientific view of things is partial, whereas the poetic view (in this respect like the religious view) is total. When Milton and Pope prescribe knowledge within bounds, they are not at all recommending the scientific partial view; they simply want to make clear the idea that a total view is to be identified with divine knowledge rather than human knowledge. But theirs is not a less modest view—simply a different way of looking at the world. Whatever the underlying similarities between scientific and literary knowing, the procedures of the two activities are quite different. Scientific "myths"—theories and hypotheses—must be reasoned out, refined, and corrected; whereas literary "myths"—fictions—seek their justification immediately by a direct appeal to the reader's empathetic sense, winning or failing to win his participation.

Clearly it would be naive to say that the relation between science and literature in the modern era has been innocent or that the suspicion apparent on either side is superficial. Any demonstration that chance and necessity rule in yet another area of the natural world is bound to vitiate some prevailing and supportive view, to loosen some binding ideal and create anxiety. Theories do not replace fictions—the scale being different—but a new theory is likely to make certain fictions seem less adequate to contemporary need.

Moreover new poets must make their poems out of currently available material, which since the seventeenth century has increasingly come to include the latest scientific or pseudoscientific theories. And here a particular problem arises. Theories are tentative, more or less useful constructs for organizing facts and connecting them to laws presumed to operate beyond our perceptions. Their poetic potentialities—which they have by virtue of the fact that all theories are fundamentally a species of mythology—must remain undeveloped. But a poet who attempts to absorb a theory will inevitably animize and humanize it, will seek to make it responsive in some way to human need. And this process involves a transference of scale which must result in some measure of logical confusion. For example the physicist's concept of entropy, when assimilated to literature by someone like Thomas Pynchon, no longer refers to a material loss of energy but to our experience of diminishment. Or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, sometimes invoked by literary critics with a semiological bias, is made to mean that the interpreter of texts lacks standards of reliability rather than that there is a margin of error in our perceptions. Again the psychoanalytic terms id-ego-superego, when we find them in criticism, refer seldom to chiefly unconscious processes but rather to preconscious ones or even to the pre-Freudian concepts of passion, reason, and conscience.

Wordsworth was quite right when he eloquently predicted that poetry will supplement rather than be replaced by science:

Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.

But he might have added that the poet who would "lend his divine spirit to this transfiguration" is compelled to change theory into fiction and that this change, particularly when it is rationalized, tends to create a logical (hence also an aesthetic) problem.

Certainly scientists themselves, or those who appeal to their authority, are not an innocent party in this relationship. Because their subject is esteemed highly in the modern era, spokesmen for science have, however unwittingly, condescended to the arts. Even so generous a man as J. Bronowski, who would never have scorned art directly, can say, in his very popular Ascent of Man: "The intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists. .. . It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination." And this human error (and error it is if Bronowski means science itself rather than simply the scientist as one man among others) is greatly compounded by the fear and intellectual laziness of the general public. Every person of adult years has seen a number of medical theories come and go, for example, the newest one embraced as if no one will ever learn either how limited is our knowledge or how unlimited our need to rely blindly on authority. Furthermore we confer a quasi-mystical authority on technical vocabularies, and school ourselves thereby in a habit of literalism that makes it more difficult for us to experience the charms of plastic language and more difficult, of course, for artists to create such language.

One of the first literary works to register this dilemma was Paradise Lost. Milton did not, it is true, respond directly to the new scientific spirit of his day (his allusion to Galileo in a poem whose conception is based on a pre-Copernican cosmology is only casual), but his strenuous effort to justify the ways of God by discursive as well as poetic logic may reflect that spirit. There were comparable earlier attempts by philosophers—most notably by St. Augustine in book 5 of The City of God—but there is nothing in the theism of Shakespeare or Dante that suggests, as Milton's does, underlying doubts being suppressed. If we do not share Hamlet's belief in "a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will," we can readily believe in his believing, and however remote we may be from Dante's world view we can, as T. S. Eliot observed, respond to his showing us what it feels like to believe it. Of course Milton's poem works in similar ways. The poet's evocations of God's creative power or even His severity usually win our imaginative assent. But His speeches sometimes solicit also the approval of the critical intelligence, and they give the impression of overriding resistance by the mere force of sonorous assertion.

The most questionable element of these speeches—which cannot be ignored because it bears directly on a central theme of Paradise Lost, human responsibility for the fall—is the Augustinian argument that God's omniscient will contains no tincture of necessity that in the least compromises Adam's freedom of choice: "Necessity and Chance / Approach not me, and what I will is Fate." Milton categorically excludes from divine will the principles underlying scientific knowledge, but the exclusion creates a certain awkwardness. The poet wants us to imagine God's will as identified with Fate, which, if it is not to mean a blindly impersonal necessity, is bound to associate itself in our minds with experiential necessity, with compulsion, a connection not intended. He cannot escape a logical dilemma.

The problem is more evident, though less disruptive, in the eighteenth-century didactic poem "Essay on Man," in which Pope attempted directly to reconcile a belief in a providential deity with the achievement of Newton. The poet's attitude toward the scientist is positive, even enthusiastic; but Newton is transformed into an ironic instance enabling Pope to make a moral point—the chastening of pride—with wit and force:

Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature's law,
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And showed a NEWTON as we show an ape.

Pope still thinks of nature as the creation of God, a moral order responsive to human need (though not, of course, to human pride), and so Newton's achievement, which must have required a withdrawal of attention from that order, is not very precisely appreciated. (It is not to the point that Newton himself believed in God since he evidently could put aside theology while doing physics.) The "Essay on Man" asserts man's limitations and the wisdom of not presuming to examine God, but it must itself examine God in order to provide a rationale for human limitation. Overtly, however, Pope seems as untroubled by this difficulty as by the general difficulty of reconciling physics and theology.

With the rise of romanticism and a new sensibility disposed toward revolution, the problem takes on another aspect. Shelley's wrestlings with the concept of Necessity are illustrative. The great charm for Shelley of this idea as he found it in Godwin was that it effectively replaced the orthodox belief in an anthropomorphic deity or supernatural intelligence without surrendering the solace contained in that belief, for it conceived a moral force (a force not ourselves yet making for righteousness) at work as an inexorable pressure within the human creation of civilization. Shelley admitted a passion for reforming the world, yet he loathed brute power and assertions of dictatorial will. His poems suggest an elusive compromise between an inclination to adopt a scientifically credible view of nature (we know that he was attracted to the experimental science of his day) and the need of a poet for a myth of human freedom or enslavement. Fascinated by a hidden power, Shelley sometimes writes of it as virtually unrelated to human will, for example in "Mont Blanc": "Power dwells apart in its tranquillity, / Remote, serene, and inaccessible." But he is a poet, and cannot imagine the power inhumanly. In "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" it is pictured supportively as "a grace dearer for its mystery," a presence to whom he can dedicate his powers, a force he can hope will free the world from its "dark slavery," and, in the Wordsworthian manner, a power which can "to my onward life supply / Its calm." The inconsistency here is apparent in much visionary politics, certainly in Marx's where, on the one hand, capitalism is shown to be necessarily doomed and, on the other, the workers of the world are enjoined to active rebellion.

After Darwin the efforts of speculative fictionists "to follow the steps of the man of science" led inevitably to a moralizing of the theory of natural selection. In English literature we could trace this tendency in Tennyson (in whom, however, the sense of having lost a cherished myth is compensated by a reaffirmation of that myth rather than by any bolder, more interesting strategy), in Butler, in Shaw (who absorbed Butler), or even in Yeats and Lawrence. Shaw's Back to Methuselah, Yeats's A Vision, and Lawrence's Fantasia of the Unconscious are similar documents in this new phase of literary response to science. What is essentially alike in the three works (written within a few years of one another) is their fundamental ambiguity as to how literally they are intended. They represent, compared to our earlier examples, a distinct shift from poetic toward discursive logic, yet all retain in one way or another a protective diffidence about their scientific pretensions. All three assert, for example, that man has created death, but how are we to read this? Surely not as we read Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which an inquiry into the possible nonexistence of natural death is frankly speculative yet not mythic, Freud making a point of saying that such speculation need not correspond to any emotional disposition on our part. Nor, just as surely, as we read a doctrinal tract on man's fall asserting that it was disobedience that brought death into the world. The literary artists are now grappling with scientific theory at close range and by a similar, more discursive use of language.

Back to Methuselah, usually dismissed as a bore, takes on a special fascination in this context. The premise of the play is that a life expectancy of only seventy years does not enable us to develop moral maturity. The Brothers Barnabas, a clergyman and a biologist, formulate a "gospel" that presumes to be at the same time a scientific prediction based on a clue offered by the story of Adam and Eve. Natural death, it occurs to them, did not exist in the beginning but was chosen by man in order to escape the burden of immortality. And if this is true, then with sufficient courage the choice can be remade; and immortality or an approximation thereof (they would begin with a life expectancy of three hundred years) is possible. The play concedes to science—i.e. to the impersonal operation of chance and necessity—that the characters in whom this crucial biological variation occurs are not those who have consciously willed or imagined it, and it even alludes to the Darwinian idea that accidental variations do sometimes occur and are thereafter replicated consistently by genetic necessity except for subsequent variations. But the concession is hedged. The play does not really surrender the idea that mind governs matter. It denies the effectiveness of conscious will only to enforce a deeper idea of will. And the two characters whose life expectancies are first actually extended had exhibited distinct signs of repudiating the moral conditions of their lives. What Shaw is seeking is a kind of heroic fusion of mechanistic and vital theory, as when Franklyn Barnabas speaks of "the tremendous, miracle-working force of will nerved to creation by a conviction of Necessity." The whole action of the play, moreover, is eventually shown to be an emanation of the life force embodied in Lilith, who pronounces final judgment on the human experiment.

In the preface Shaw mixes intelligent appreciation of the scientific point of view with a defiant distortion of it that would simply be perverse if it were not, on its face, counteracting popular extensions of Darwinian theory to the moral sphere. He understands that Darwin's distinctive contribution was the discovery not of evolution itself but of one particular mode of it—circumstantial selection—and that Darwin himself, as a good scientist, had no intention of extending this idea into the realm of values. Nevertheless he resents hearing the theory called natural selection. For him accidents are unnatural: natural selection must mean something more humanly assuring, like creative evolution. And this becomes more than an argument against misunderstandings of Darwin, for Shaw insists that creative evolution itself is scientific: "it is deductive biology if there is such a thing as biology" (italics mine).

During the last sixty years the unresolvable tension between scientific and literary ways of seeing has been most observable in connection with Freud's contribution to psychological science. For what psychoanalysis investigates are the phenomena of consciousness itself, and its demonstrations of chance and necessity operating within the mind have shaken our confidence in those old heroes of our myths of freedom, who were sung from Milton to Shaw: will, reason, and conscience.

Therefore it must be emphasized that psychoanalysis, like any other science, may only prompt us to discard or revise certain myths: it cannot threaten the grounds of belief. Indeed, as a therapy, it cooperates with our beliefs in a unique way, enabling the patient to extend his moral freedom, although morality itself is independent of science as such. But it is not surprising that the psychological novel or play—by which I mean the novel which roots the motives of its characters in individual and social history—enjoyed a richer life before Freud's work came to be known than it has since. Although there have been some more or less successful efforts in contemporary literature to dramatize insights associated with Freud (e.g. Bellow's Seize the Day, Miller's A View from the Bridge), a number of fictionists have turned away from the conventions of the psychological novel or play and have attempted to present the irrational philosophically, in the spirit of Ionesco's injunction: "Avoid psychology, or rather, give it a metaphysical dimension." But the more they deemphasize unconscious motives—that is to say, the inner experience of chance and necessity—the more they are obliged at the same time to deemphasize the mind's freedom to guide them in thought and conduct. They will therefore be drawn to the idea of presenting human experience in terms of blind chance and blind necessity, of accident and repetition.

Blind chance and necessity are indeed conspicuous thematic emphases in the fictions of our day. And the writers who handle them most successfully are those who least suggest that they are competing for credence with scientific hypotheses, either, like Pynchon, by robustly assimilating hypotheses into their own myths or, like Beckett, by cunningly obscuring from the backgrounds of their characters whatever might prompt us to think of their natures and destinies deterministically.

Pynchon is remarkable for the degree to which he has knowledgeably and unselfconsciously coopted scientific hypotheses for an artistic purpose: to render the experience of total cognitive entrapment. As Richard Poirier has astutely commented, he goes beyond "the dream of Wordsworth that poetry or a radical esthetics derived from poetry provides a basis for understanding and resisting any of the other systematic exertions of power over human consciousness." He makes us believe that "science, the analytical method, technology—all of these are not merely impositions upon consciousness. They are also a corporate expression of consciousness: they express us all as much as do the lyrical ballads. They express us more than does our late and befuddled resistance to them." Hence the term paranoia, regularly associated with Pynchon and used even by his own characters, takes on a special nonpsychoanalytic meaning: it is not a delusion of unconscious origins that is in question in the novels but an extensively, though ambiguously, authenticated picture of reality. One might fairly object to the excess of detail in Gravity's Rainbow or to the narrowness of the sensibility that it reflects, but it largely avoids the logical difficulty which greater writers have encountered when they tried to adapt scientific ideas to artistic ends.

Beckett and his disciple Pinter, employing an alternative strategy, have proven wonderfully adept at conveying pathos and menace, even sexual pathos and sexual menace, without letting their characters assume the shape of individual histories. Their wit and irony either obscure motivation or deflect any inference of irrationality from a psychological and social to a logical and philosophical plane. Tom Stoppard, who has learned some of their tricks, plays them with less certain success, partly because he competes with psychological explanations of irrationality by ridiculing them. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example, one of his title characters simply mocks the Freudian explanation of Hamlet's melancholy as absurd; and the effect, though superficially witty, is unsatisfying, for Stoppard is not subduing a propositional statement to an artistic vision so much as challenging it on its own terms, and thus provoking us, whether we accept the statement or not, to resolve the matter on our ground rather than on his.

French modernist fiction seems to me especially problematic in this regard because it is characteristically theoretical and seems to argue against psychological explanations. Camus's The Stranger is certainly a dazzling performance, but the notion of a gratuitous crime presented so literally (without the humor we find in Gide) takes on a contrapsychological rather than simply a metapsychological aspect. Compare Beckett's elliptical glimpse of the past life of Vladimir and Estragon ("a million years ago, in the nineties") with the sober if sketchy picture of Meursault's earlier life when he used to care, when he was someone like ourselves—a picture that makes us want to know more, or less, about how his consciousness came to be estranged. And in the novels of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, where accident and repetition dominate, the chief interest lies in the thoroughness with which reference is avoided and hence moral and psychological implications are nullified. These writers are more interesting, because more candid, in theory than in practice. Or, one can say, the interest of their fiction is primarily a theoretical interest.

Modern lyrical poetry too, having drawn nearer to the form of discursive argument, illustrates this general difficulty. I would say, for example, that W. H. Auden's poetic use of psychoanalysis, because it is a frank exploitation of colloquial tags without pretense of strictly accurate reference, works better than do those few poems of Wallace Stevens in which Freud is soberly discountenanced as an unsound moralist.

In view of the diffusion of this theoretic sensibility, it is not surprising that the literary reaction to psychoanalysis is markedly evident in criticism itself. The conceptual defense of art against science (and I am concerned only with this tendency in criticism, not with the objections to inferior criticism's making use of psychoanalysis) goes back to the time of Wordsworth and Hegel, if not to the time of Vico: but today, under the strong influence of structuralism, it is directed against one particular kind of hypothesis with astonishing intensity.

Starting with a denial of the premise that Freud considered basic—that consciousness was not the whole of mind—these revisionists (and Freudian revisionist is a better linking term than structuralist for critics as diverse as those I will refer to) have reinvigorated the romantic rejection of Cartesian dualism, distrust of the meddling analytic intellect, and fondness for imaginative metaphysics. But there is a new twist to the modern argument. The key word now is not consciousness but language. "All that I know (& that you know)," writes Harold Bloom, "is rhetoric. Poetry is rhetoric, and criticism is the rhetoric of rhetoric."

Perhaps the key figure in this revisionist enterprise is the psychologist Jacques Lacan, who dismisses the Freudian idea of repressed sexuality because, after all, sexuality has been a major literary subject throughout the ages; and then, with this triumphant naiveté, he asserts that the unconscious itself is linguistic in structure: "It is neither primordial or instinctual; what it knows about the elementary is no more than the elements of the signifier." On the basis of this premise Lacan translates those unconscious processes named by Freud condensation and displacement into the rhetorical terms metaphor and metonymy. Without this very questionable premise, however, these substitutions are only analogies, striking and suggestive, but no more persuasive as argument than analogy can be.

It seems essential to the revisionist enterprise that all of the key psychoanalytic terms be modified to accord with a concept of the repressed unconscious that does not denote any reality beyond language, writing, poetry. Thus, for Jacques Derrida, "writing is unthinkable without repression." A Freudian would find the survival of childhood (let alone writing) unthinkable without repression, though by repression Derrida apparently means something as un-Freudian as the secondariness of writing to speech and the implicit protest within texts against this secondariness. Bloom alters Freud in a peculiarly clever way. Exploiting the important axiom of criticism that we should not judge art as we judge states of mind, he takes Freudian concepts designed to be applied to the operation of the mind—anxiety, repression, oedipal relationship—and restricts their use to the relations of artists as artists. Roland Barthes, in the opening pages of The Pleasure of the Text, frostily disparages "neurosis," "inconsistency," "self-contradiction," and then, having, as it were, disarmed any would-be mundane sexualist, launches into a highly erotic yet absolutely complacent meditation on the act of reading. Geoffrey Hartman, in a way the subtlest of revisionists because he attempts to draw an improved theory out of undeveloped implications in Freud himself, postulates a compulsion to communicate of equal importance to libido, although libido was for Freud the whole of our instinctual inheritance.

Linguistics is the science that the structuralists consider most congenial, but in their hands it can hardly be said to remain a science at all—that is, a branch of cognitive psychology, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly said it is. They would combine the arts and sciences and call them all myths or les sciences humaines, fulfilling Nietzsche's vision of a total aestheticization of knowledge. Superficially, of course, the structuralists are not hostile to science at all, but they have changed its meaning. For them science entails no dualism of subject and object, no distinction between instrumental and aesthetic uses of language. The underlying hostility in this seemingly benign accommodation comes out sharply in an essay by Barthes called "Science versus Literature," in which we read: "The destruction of the instrumental use of language must be at the center of the structuralist program."

There is, as I have earlier indicated, some truth—and not unimportant truth—in the idea that theories and myths are alike. They are created alike, and philosophers of science as well as aestheticians have, in our century, not been at all reluctant to stress this common denominator, the underlying similarity of structure uniting all products of mind and language. (Freud himself acknowledged this in a letter to Einstein: "It may perhaps seem to you as though our theories are a kind of mythology . . . but does not every science come in the end to a kind of mythology?") But it is not only the common basis that the structuralists want to remind us of. They want to erase all trace of the distinction Monod put forth between scientific materialism and poetic idealism and to establish, in the words of their sympathetic student Robert Scholes, "a methodology which seeks nothing less than the unification of all the sciences into a new system of belief." A new system of belief might well provoke some question, for it would certainly destroy the nature if not the name of science. There is an important difference, I think, between such a view and the purely analytic thrust of Wittgenstein's claim that psychoanalysis is only a powerful mythology; Wittgenstein is inquiring into the radical limits of our thinking on any subject, without a desire to make psychoanalysis over into a system of belief.

For all my distrust of the covert imperialism of structuralist aesthetics—its fondness for the idea of plurisignificance in texts but fundamental distaste for pluralism in intellectual viewpoints—it is unquestionably a serious response to the dilemma of literature in an age of science. It is difficult to compose fictions without becoming theoretical or to write about literature without getting embroiled in theory.

One of the most honorable attempts to erect an aesthetic theory that would distinguish fiction both from hypothesis and from myth was carried out by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending, and the difficulty of his exemplary effort is worth notice. Fictions are distinct from hypotheses, writes Kermode, because "they are not subject .. . to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect." So far so good. Yet "we have to distinguish between myths and fictions. Fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive." Therefore "my suggestion is that literary fictions belong to Vaihinger's category of 'the consciously false.'" This is an attractive distinction, since, as Kermode points out, myths understood as unconscious fictions would have to include all kinds of deplorable political ideologies. But it is hard to accept as a general rule the idea that the artist conceives his vision as "the consciously false," that as a rule he lives up to the severe ideal of Wallace Stevens's dictum: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else." Surely the artist, as he composes, is likely to be thinking also in the spirit of Beckett's title Comment c'est. I daresay that Stevens himself, an exceptionally theoretical poet, must have often, in his earnest desire to set down his vision of how it is, lost sight of this distinction. But my point is sufficiently taken if we simply note that Stevens is a highly theoretical poet and that his example, in our day, is perceived by critics and poets alike as paradigmatic.

In the strong opening paragraph of Mr. Sammler's Planet Saul Bellow laments that "intellectual man has become an explaining creature." I think that this statement is true and that it helps to explain why critics to such an extent have taken over the job that Wordsworth thought of as a poet's and why artists themselves find it more difficult to create compelling untheoretic fictions. Much of the materia poetica today is explanation.

I do not think, however, that we need be depressed about this situation. Human happiness depends fundamentally on the existence of creative opportunities, and these are as abundant as ever, whether or not, by comparative estimate, the modern achievement in a certain genre ranks below the achievement of a past age. The imaginative activity that we call the conceiving of scientific theories shifts the ground of the imaginative activity that we call the conceiving of works of art. But this leads to changes of form, and does not signify an attenuation of intellectual vitality.

Criticism by its nature contains elements of both the arts and the sciences. It has always been required to mediate l'esprit de finesse and l'esprit de géometrie, intuitive recreation and methodical analysis. Today, when the difficulties of this mediation have become explicit and stimulate controversy, the work of criticism has become particularly complex and interesting. This may explain the paradoxical fact that, since the time of Spengler, many pronouncements of the decline of the West based on the perception of art's increasing self-consciousness are charged with a current of energy that belies their thesis, and they are not nearly so lugubrious as we might expect them to be.

N. Katherine Hayles

SOURCE: "Chaos as Orderly Disorder: Shifting Ground in Contemporary Literature and Science," in New Literary History, Vol. 20, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 305-22.

[In the following essay, Hayles explores contemporary chaos theory as it relates to postmodern literary analysis.]

Imagine that you are in the bowels of a computer, and a sequence of ones and zeros floats by. Without knowing anything about the program, you have no way of knowing whether you have just seen a portion of the Manhattan telephone directory, the number 1,456, or "To be or not to be." At this level all information, whether Gödel's Theorem or Hamlet's soliloquy, exists in the same form. Carry the fantasy a step further and imagine that the computer itself, along with you, could also be specified by sequences of ones and zeros. We are now close to the world of Edward Fredkin, who asserts "the basic stuff that everything is made of is information."1 A professor at MIT who works at the intersection of physics and computer science, Fredkin believes that the fundamental structure of both matter and energy can be reduced to flows of information. To Fredkin the world is quite literally a text, a physical embodiment of informational markers. There was a time when Fredkin's views would have seemed extreme. But no longer. Across a wide spectrum of disciplines, information is emerging as a synthesizing concept that changes how we see the world.

Technological developments have undoubtedly played crucial roles in bringing an information perspective into being, as have the social and economic interdependencies that have made instantaneous communication around the globe a necessity.2 In keeping with my focus on chaos, I should like to concentrate on a transformation within the information perspective itself. It occurred when information ceased to be thought of as inherently structured and became associated with randomness. Given the forces already at work within the culture that privileged information, this shift authorized a reevaluation of chaos. From this revisioning of chaos derive implications not yet fully understood, although it is already clear that they will be important in literary study and in many other fields.

The identification of information with randomness can be dated precisely. It occurred in 1948, when Claude Shannon published a theory of information in two articles that have since become classics. Shannon defined information through an equation that looked very much like Boltzmann's equation for entropy.3 In contrast to Leon Brillouin, who used Maxwell's Demon to argue that information and entropy are opposites, Shannon used information and entropy as interchangeable terms. As early as 1877, Boltzmann had interpreted entropy as a statistical measure of disorder. By equating information with entropy, Shannon intimated that disorder could be seen in positive terms as the presence of information, rather than simply as the absence of order.

Ironically, having raised this possibility, Shannon refused to explore its implications. He regarded such larger philosophical concerns as a waste of time. In fact, when other scientists began to see in his work possibilities for applications to other disciplines, he went into print to caution them that information theory properly applied only to a very restricted, technical domain.4 With thirty years' hindsight it is possible to see that Shannon's view of information was revolutionary, because it enabled a new view of chaos to emerge. Shannon's theory was appropriated by chaos theorists to redefine chaos as maximum information. From this appropriation has emerged a perspective that sees chaos not as an absence or a lack, but as the source of all that is new in the world.

As with many ideas that seem new, this one is very old. In Paradise Lost, for example, God creates the world not from nothing but from primordial chaos. For Milton as for Shannon, chaos is not order's opposite but its precursor. What is new is the idea's rigorous quantitative expression and its centrality to research programs in nonlinear dynamics, irreversible thermodynamics, meteorology, epidemiology, and fractal geometry, among others. Known as the science of chaos, this interdisciplinary research has revealed a terrain between order and disorder. Chaos in the sense it is used in this research denotes complex systems that operate according to deterministic laws, and yet that behave unpredictably. Complex systems are configured so as to bring minute uncertainties in initial conditions quickly up to macroscopic expression: in the parlance of chaos theory, this is known as "extreme sensitivity to initial conditions." Although their behavior quickly becomes unpredictable, complex systems nevertheless become chaotic in predictable ways. Combining qualities that classical mechanics considered antithetical, chaos can be assimilated neither into order nor disorder. It names a new territory, designates previously unrecognized interactions, and relies upon different assumptions.

Conditioned by classical modes of thought, we may wonder if any but the rarest of systems fulfills these criteria. In fact the orderly disorder of chaos is all around us, from cream swirling in coffee to the rise and fall of the Nile River, from global weather patterns to outbreaks of measles epidemics. In fact, so extensive are chaotic systems that they dwarf the ordered systems which science has traditionally regarded as norms for the universe. James Gleick, in his recent book on chaos, recalls Stanislaw Ulam's comment that to characterize chaos theory as "nonlinear science" is like calling zoology "the study of nonelephant animals."


To see how chaos theory embodies new kinds of assumptions about complex systems, consider the work of Mitchell Feigenbaum, a physicist at Cornell University. In a review article in Los Alamos Science, Feigenbaum approaches chaos through the closely-related concept of randomness.6 He asks us to consider in what way a number generated by a computer can be random. He points out that a computer-based random number generator can easily be constructed by creating a program that does "nothing more than shift the decimal point in a rational number whose repeating block is suitably long"(4). Numbers generated by this method are so lacking in pattern that they satisfy the most rigorous tests for randomness, yet the method that produces them is perfectly simple and deterministic. Technically, these numbers are called pseudorandom to indicate that they have been generated by a deterministic computer program. Feigenbaum's inspiration was to wonder whether other phenomena considered to be chaotic might also be pseudorandom, obeying deterministic programs just as pseudorandom numbers do. This astonishing premise amounts to saying that chaos possesses a deep structure of order.

One of the first indications that such a deep structure might in fact exist was Feigenbaum's discovery that systems which go from ordered to chaotic states follow a characteristic pattern of period doubling. Let us say, for example, that we are looking for a pattern in the behavior of an electrical oscillator. We notice the oscillator repeats its behavior after some time interval T. When the temperature is raised, the behavior of the oscillator becomes more erratic, and we now have to extend the time period to 2T to have a repeating pattern. When the temperature is raised yet again, the time required to observe a repeating pattern jumps to 4T, and so on. Eventually the time period will become so great that the oscillator has no repetitions in the time scale available for observation. At this point it is said to be chaotic. Period doubling is now recognized as a powerful generalization, describing the onset of chaos in everything from dripping faucets to Niagara Falls.7 At the time of his discovery, however, Feigenbaum was not thinking about physical systems. He was looking at the behavior of mathematical functions when they are iterated.

To iterate a function means to use the output of one calculation as input for the next, each time performing the operation called for by the function. It is analogous to beginning at a certain place and doing a dance step; then starting from the new location each time, doing the dance step again and again. Iterating strongly nonlinear functions produces paths that have folds in them. So intricate are these folds that although the trajectories remain within a defined area, no two paths intersect or coincide. "This general mechanism," Feigenbaum comments, "gives a system highly sensitive upon its initial conditions and a truly statistical character: since very small differences in initial conditions are magnified quickly, unless the initial conditions are known to infinite precision, all known knowledge is eroded rapidly to future ignorance" (21).

The startling aspect of Feigenbaum's work was his discovery that despite the different operations performed by different nonlinear functions—despite the different dance steps they used—their iterated paths approached chaos at the same rate and showed the same characteristic patterns of period doubling. All that mattered was that the paths had folds of sufficient steepness. It may be hard for a nonscientist to appreciate the enormity of this discovery, but to a mathematician, sine waves are as different from quadratic equations as pirouettes are from bows to a ballet dancer. To find out that there is a way of looking at these functions that makes their operations seem not just similar but identical is analogous to discovering that there is a way of looking at Nureyev dancing and Donald Duck waddling that makes their performances into a universal constant applicable to anyone moving on that stage.

What was this new way of looking? At the same time that the iterative process had the effect of overwhelming individual differences between functions, it also revealed a universality in how large-scale features related to small details. The shift in focus is from the particularities of a given function to the relation between different recursive levels in the iterative process. Imagine two paintings, each showing an open door through which is revealed another open door, through which is revealed another and another. . . . One way to think about the doors in these two paintings is to focus on the particularities of the repeated forms. Suppose the doors of the first painting are ornately carved rectangles, whereas the second painting shows doors that are unadorned arches. If we attend only to these shapes, the paintings might seem very different. But suppose we focus instead on the recursive repetition of doors in each painting and discover that in both paintings, the doors become smaller at a constant rate. Through this shift in focus, we have found a way of looking at the paintings that reveals their similarity to each other and to any other painting constructed in this way. The key is recursive symmetry.

In physical systems, recursive symmetries permit fluctuations at the smallest level to be rapidly transmitted through the system. The symmetrical relationships between levels act like coupling mechanisms that allow tiny uncertainties to ripple through the system until they become macroscopic disturbances. Say, for example, that we are standing on a river bank, watching the water flow by. Most of the time small disturbances in the fluid path cancel each other out, so that the river flows smoothly between its banks. But when the right kind of symmetries are present, small disturbances are amplified until eddies and backwaters form. At these points turbulence sets in, and the flow patterns become extremely complex. Nevertheless, these complexities very often express themselves through recursive symmetries; large swirls of water have small swirls inside them, within which are smaller swirls. . . . The complex symmetries that are repeated across different levels of a complex system are crucial in understanding how the onset of chaos occurs. Chaos theory recognizes the importance of scale in a way that classical paradigms do not. In sharp contrast to the scale independence of Newtonian and Euclidean paradigms, chaos models are intrinsically and inevitably scale dependent.

Fractal geometry is closely related to chaos theory, and it too emphasizes scaling symmetries across different levels. Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of this new geometry, coined the word fractal from the Latin adjective fractus (meaning "breakable") and fractional; it connotes both fractional dimensions and extreme complexity of form.8 The mathematics of fractional dimensions is complex, but the general idea is not hard to grasp. Whereas the familiar integer dimensions of Cartesian space are entirely adequate to represent Euclidean shapes such as circles, triangles, and squares, they do not do justice to highly complex and irregular forms. The corrugations that mark the surfaces of these forms give them, in effect, an added fraction of a dimension.

To show the importance of scale for fractal figures, Mandelbrot asks a question that looks as if it should have a straightforward, factual answer: How long is the coastline of Britain? (25-33). The question is more devious than it appears, because the answer is scale dependent. If we measure the coastline using a mile-long rule, we get a shorter answer than if we use a yardstick, for the mile rule cuts across irregularities that the yardstick measures around. If we use an inch rule the answer is still longer, because small pebbles are measured around; and if a micrometer is used, even irregularities within a single pebble count. In fact, Britain's coastline continues to grow without limit as the ruler scale decreases, at least down to molecular scales. Without specifying a ruler length, the question cannot be accurately answered.

The example demonstrates why questions of scale are foregrounded in the new paradigms. In Euclidean geometry and Newtonian mechanics, the idea that one could get different answers when using different scales does not appear. It is not quite correct to say these older paradigms make global statements which are considered true for every level, because their globalizing approaches are so complete that the system is not conceived as having levels in any meaningful sense. In Euclidean geometry it does not matter whether an isoceles triangle is twice as large or two hundred times as large as another triangle of the same shape; whatever the scale, Euclidean geometry states that the three sides of similar triangles will be in the same proportion to each other. Fractal geometry does not challenge this assertion as such. Rather, it shifts the focus to complex irregular forms, for which scale appears as an important consideration, and movement between length scales becomes highly nontrivial.

Similarly, Newtonian mechanics applies the same partial differential equations whether the object is a golf ball or a planet; in either case the masses move through time according to uniform laws of motion. But when the object has a complex internal structure consisting of distinct local levels, as is the case for a fluid in turbulent flow, length scale is critical because different portions of the fluid move at different speeds and with different kinds of motions. Under these conditions, Newtonian-based calculations are unmanageable for even a few points, and unthinkable for the thousands or millions it would take to model the system.

The movement from scale-invariant models to scale-dependent paradigms has an obvious correspondence to the movement in critical theory away from totalizing theories. We must, however, be cautious in drawing inferences about what this correspondence means. What the new scientific paradigms cannot do, I think, is give us a transcendent perspective from which we can say other cultural developments are good or bad, true or false. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard argues that "paralogy" (an umbrella term under which he groups such diverse theories as fractal geometry, quantum mechanics, and Gödel's Theorem) provides corroborating evidence from within the physical sciences that will let us "wage a war on totality."9 This interpretation of the new scientific paradigms ignores the fact that they have not renounced globalization. Chaos theory, for example, simply achieves totalization in a different way, by focusing on recursive symmetries between levels rather than by following the motions of individual molecules. Chaos theory would not have attracted the attention it has if it had simply confirmed what everyone already knew, that chaotic systems are disordered. No, what makes it noteworthy is the discovery that despite this disorder, universal structures can still be discerned. The thrust toward globalization is apparent in the name Feigenbaum chose for his discovery that chaotic systems can be described through universal constants: he calls it "Universality Theory." The belief that the science of chaos opposes globalizing theories is, then, a misapprehension about how these theories work.

More fundamentally, Lyotard's claim that these paradigms can be used to wage a war against totality is wrongheaded because it confuses scientific theories with social programs. His apparent conviction that fractal geometry can combat totalitarianism is a modern version of social Darwinism. Such a belief ignores the ways in which scientific theories, like literary and cultural theories, are themselves social constructions.10 Scientific paradigms do not exist in some ideal space above or beyond culture. They are part of their culture, which they both replicate and reinforce. In my view, the more productive ways to think about the relation of these paradigms to literary theory and literature start with the premise that they are social constructions and ask how their assumptions reinforce other assumptions in the culture.

To begin probing these correspondences, consider how the new paradigms treat time.11 In Newtonian mechanics, objects moving through time are modeled as trajectories that can be broken into arbitrarily small intervals (this is essentially the basis for calculus). As the intervals approach zero, they are added together to get the trajectory as a whole. Underlying this method is the commonsense perception that movement through time can be equated with an object moving along some predictable path—for example, the parabolic arc of a baseball as it comes off the bat. However, if the moving shape is complex in the sense of being composed of multiple levels acting in different ways, the calculations very quickly become unmanageable because they involve many coupled degrees of freedom.

In the new paradigms, a shape is no longer conceived as a mass of points, but as the formulae used to generate and randomize the self-similar forms that compose it. The new paradigms do not attempt to describe how each point within a shape moves. Rather, they focus on the transformation rules that govern the evolution of the shape's recursive symmetries through time. The advantage of this approach derives from the fact that in complex systems, very small changes in the initial conditions lead to very large changes in the final forms. By changing the iterative formulae only a little, complex forms can be made to move in very different ways.12 Hence large-scale changes can be encoded with many fewer bits of information than would be required if each point within a complex form had to be advanced through time individually.

Now consider how these views of time correlate with other kinds of cultural and social theories. Newton's conception of objects as masses of points is matched by Hobbes's conception of society as a group of autonomous individuals and by Adam Smith's conception of the economy as a collection of competing customers. Different as these theories are, they each assume that systems are constituted as groups of individual units which act in accord with general laws. They make the transition from the local site to the global system by applying general laws to masses of individual units. To make the system move through time, they add together the motions of individual units to arrive at a resultant.

In contrast to these classical assumptions are those Foucault uses in his archaeologies. Foucault considers the individual not as an autonomous actor, but rather as a microcosm constituted by the tropes and organizing figures characteristic of the episteme. For Foucault, individuals do not constitute culture; culture constitutes individuals. Moreover, at least in his early work, Foucault sees different cultural sites as manifesting the same principles of organization. Thus he...

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