In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Chaos and Literature
  • Carl Matheson and Evan Kirchhoff


Chaos theory was the intellectual darling of pop-science writers of the late 1980s. 1 In their eyes, it would provide a new paradigm by which to describe the world, one that liberated scientists from clockwork determinism—or, alternatively, from incomprehensible randomness. In an introductory textbook of the period, Robert Devaney called chaos theory “the third great scientific revolution of the 20th century, along with relativity and quantum mechanics.” Similar attitudes propagated into philosophy; for example, Stephen Kellert argued that an acceptance of chaos theory would involve a reconfiguration of scientific methodology. 2

It was in the domain of literary theory, however, that chaos found its most enthusiastic reception in the humanities, and the enthusiasm lives on. Many literary theorists display no hesitation in touting the supposedly revolutionary implications of chaos science. Katherine Hayles, the chief among them, argues that because the concept of order has undergone a “radical reevaluation” in recent decades, “textuality is conceived in new ways within critical theory and literature, and new kinds of phenomena are coming to the fore within an emerging field known as the science of chaos” (CO, p. 1). She infers that the new “paradigm of orderly disorder” (CB, p. xiii) represented by chaos theory signifies a conceptual revolution in modern culture as a whole. 3 She attempts to establish a parallel between chaos theory and various poststructuralist philosophical positions, including those of Derrida and Foucault, claiming that this new paradigm “may well prove to be as important to the second half of the century as the field concept was to [End Page 28] the first half” (CB, p. xiii), and that chaos may soon be “on a par with evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics in its impact on the culture” (CO, p. 4). Other theorists make claims for the interpretive power of chaos; according to William Demastes, “chaos theory can help in comprehending several paths that the theatre has followed since the inception of postmodernism” (p. 242). 4 By a conservative estimate, over fifty papers have been published which link chaos theory to literature or literary theory. Clearly, the idea that chaos theory has application outside of science is not restricted to one or two over-eager humanists.

In this essay, we wish to address some of the claims which concern the relationship between chaos science and the study of literature. Three such claims are:

  1. a. There are significant similarities between the science of chaos, contemporary literary theory, and/or philosophy.

  2. b. We can trace a common etiology for chaos theory and poststructuralist criticism. The two are so intimately related that they are really different formulations of a common claim, as filtered through two different fields.

  3. c. The science of chaos can help us interpret and understand specific literary works, and perhaps contemporary literature in general.

However, before assessing the relationship between chaos and literature, we will briefly introduce chaos theory itself and demonstrate that even a minimal understanding is sufficient to undercut the supposed revolutionary significance of chaos theory. 5


Chaotic systems are deterministic: an exact description of a system at any given time, together with the laws of nature that apply to it, will entail the entire future behavior of the system. In this sense, chaotic systems form a subclass of classical systems (and are to be distinguished from quantum systems, which are indeterministic). However, chaotic systems differ from the systems studied throughout most of the history of science in two major ways. First, the differential equations used to model them are nonlinear, while the history of mathematical physics is largely devoted to a treatment of linear differential equations. Technical issues aside, the ramifications of nonlinearity are: (i) equations which are impossible to solve using the general strategies designed for [End Page 29] linear equations; and consequently (ii) the need for solutions by methods of numerical approximation, generally performed on a computer. Second, chaotic systems exhibit a feature known as “sensitive dependence”—or, more colorfully, as “the butterfly effect,” a figure of speech intended to evoke the worry that our long-term forecasts of the weather can be hopelessly disrupted by the atmospheric fluctuations due to a single butterfly...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 28-45
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.