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  • Reading on the Edge of Chaos: Finnegans Wake and the Burden of Linearity
  • Michael Patrick Gillespie (bio)

We are suspended in language.—Niels Bohr

If one wishes to speak about the atomic particles themselves one must either use the mathematical scheme as the only supplement to natural language or one must combine it with a language that makes use of a modified logic or of no well-defined logic at all. —Werner Heisenberg

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mathematicians and physicists have struggled to understand the circumscribable infinities—forms such as Cantor dust, Sierpi_ski carpets, and Mandelbrot sets—that trace an unlimited amount of space yet exist within clearly fixed boundaries. 1 Although situated within Euclidean systems, these figures defy conventional geometric assumptions for measuring their limits. 2 Efforts to address such questions as Mandelbrot’s “How long is the coast of Britain?” went well beyond revisions of Newtonian mechanics and inevitably led to larger concerns about viewing the physical world. Only in the last few years, however, have scientists begun to exploit the implications of this work by employing a vocabulary that recognizes and describes the pluralistic, multi-layered aspects of perception. 3

As one consequence of this approach, the linear, cause-and-effect predictability that [End Page 359] habitually conditions assumptions about what we see has lost its efficacy. Field theory, for example, invites us to re-think the dependability of our perceptions by challenging the presumption of non-intrusive measurements. This view asserts that we cannot observe something without our presence influencing that observation. An equally striking premise, “the edge of chaos” concept, disputes the belief in a movement by steady, regular increments from order to chaos. Instead, it posits repeated abrupt changes from one system to another. Questioning assumptions of periodic entropy, it raises doubts about conventional approaches to understanding changes in the world around us (the Ice Age, ozone depletion, the extinction of a species). As work in this area continues, it is becoming apparent to some that such views do not simply redefine experimental protocols in physics, chemistry, and biology; they suggest new ways of thinking about the world that we inhabit.

These ideas have a very direct application to critiques of epistemologies employed by the humanities. For centuries, literary critics—like their counterparts in the sciences—have conformed to the expectations of a culture that has privileged linear, Cartesian logic as the most effective form of analysis. In the 1960s and 1970s, Deconstruction seemed to promise an alternative approach. Unfortunately, although its practioners proved adept at undermining existing systems of linearity, they could not provide a methodology that would not succumb to their own critiques. 4 In consequence, an exegesis often does not present a critic’s full aesthetic experience with a work—a reading—but instead offers an abridged and adapted version emphasizing the validity of one or two impressions—an interpretation. A significant difference obtains between these two conditions. Interpretations follow an exclusionary impulse which domesticates responses, highlighting only a few ideas and constructing linear arguments from only portions of the material under consideration relevant to the support of that argument. This gesture parallels the reductivist thinking of Classical science. 5 Readings, on the other hand, encompass the multiple responses that grow out of a creative engagement with words on the printed page. These impressions function like a series of directed explosions—imaginative bursts generated by the same source but with repercussions independent of that source and of one another. The nonlinear thinking that enhances comprehension of the physical world can also facilitate a far more sophisticated understanding of the multiplicity and pluralism of this aesthetic. 6

Scholars have already begun to address this potential by commenting on the relationship between complexity theories and literary criticism. Katharine Hayles and Harriet Hawkins in particular have directed attention to patterns of nonlinear dynamics that one finds imbedded [End Page 360] in literature from the Renaissance to the present. 7 I seek to build in two ways upon the work done by these critics and by the scientists whose ideas influenced them. I wish to shift attention from the writer to the reader, taking up the way that nonlinear dynamics...

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pp. 359-371
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