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  • The Aesthetics of Chaos: Nonlinear Thinking and Contemporary Literary Criticism
  • Danielle Follett
Michael Patrick Gillespie, The Aesthetics of Chaos: Nonlinear Thinking and Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gainsville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 2003. 140 pages.

One of the fundamental ideas of chaos theory is the "butterfly effect," first proposed by Edward Lorenz in the 1960s: a single, small event may yield exponentially enlarged effects, just as the single flap of a butterfly's wings may produce vast, unpredictable ramifications in weather patterns far away. Theorists of literature and culture who derive their conceptual framework from chaos theory are now performing the butterfly effect: a few suggestions on the part of certain physicists and biologists have inspired an exponentially growing literature of metaphorical applications in faraway fields. The Aesthetics of Chaos makes the salutory attempt to restrain, summarize, and unify the multivarious aesthetic theories of chaos. What is offered is not only a series of readings of disparate texts analyzed through the concepts provided by chaos theory, as is the case with most "chaotics" or poetics of chaos, but a generalized theory of reading and textual meaning that hails an ongoing "paradigmatic shift" (110) from linear to nonlinear thinking, from "cause-and-effect logic" to unpredictability and the logic of catastrophes, from a "Cartesian" and "Newtonian" paradigm to one based in Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, from restrictive univalence to "multiple interpretive potential" [End Page 1106] (18), and from interpretive exclusiveness to inclusiveness. Without limiting his material to postmodern narrative, which has been the most fertile ground for studies in "chaotics"—his analysis encompasses readings of Joyce, fairy tales, Beowulf, Job, and Wilde—and without falling into the trap of elaborating exact correspondences between scientific concepts and their literary applications, Gillespie uses the scientific framework to provide a broad and ambitious theorization of reading and of the nature of the literary text.

It is a merit of The Aesthetics of Chaos to make explicit its own lineage through the history of literary theory and not only its derivation from nonlinear dynamics. In the first chapter, entitled "How Do We Talk About What We Read?", Gillespie simultaneously traces his descendence from Pater, Wilde, Barthes, and reader-response theorists, and indicts a wide range of twentieth-century critics for their "exclusionary linearity" (9) and general critical "determinism." Even Deconstruction, in presupposing the center it proposes to smash, succumbs to (traditional) binary thinking and employs the second law of thermodynamics "with a vengeance, pursu[ing] a relentlessly entropic approach to the nature of meaning" (11). According to Gillespie, "Deconstruction has never reconciled the clash between its impulse to read subjectively while speaking objectively. My study rests on the assertion that speaking subjectively is just as valid as perceiving subjectively" (11-12). Essentially a radical reader-response theory, this poetics of chaos criticizes all theories that "give primacy to a single perspective" (13) and finds even the ideas of Iser, Jauss, and Fish to be "too static, too bound to linearity, to acknowledge the freedom inherent in an individual's experience with literature" (12). Rather, "[v]iewing a literary work as a chaotic system disrupts the prescriptive, narrowing impulse of the conventional interpretive approach that continually tightens its focus as it moves toward a specific conclusion" (19). What makes Gillespie's reader-response theory radical is that he explicitly follows its logic to its necessary conclusion: "every interpretive effort changes the text under consideration so that every reading is literally of a different text" (108). Central to this line of thinking is a certain interpretation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Schrödinger's thought experiment about the fate of the cat, whose state as living or dead is objectively indeterminate until an observer looks in its box—that is, that the act of perception or subjective determination is solely responsible for the objective determination or identity of an object. Schrödinger devised his thought experiment to demonstrate the absurdity of this claim, which was subsequently rehabilitated positively by other scientists such as Niels Bohr; by applying this logic in broad strokes to textual studies, Gillespie returns a sense of absurdity both to the claim and to reader-response theory.

In chaos theory, however, the...


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