Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory and Literary Criticism

Chaos theory and complexity theory challenge some of our most deeply held beliefs about the nature of reality. The former claims that natural systems (for example, the weather) are controlled by mysterious forces, called ‘strange attractors‘, such that they are simultaneously random and determined -a conclusion which undermines the laws of logic on which so much of our discourse depends. If chaos theorists are correct, then identity is an even more complex phenomenon than we have supposed it. Given that identity is one of the most pressing concerns of recent criticism and cultural theory (see feminism, deconstruction and postmodernism as cases in point), there are important implications here for literary critical practice which deserve to be explored. This is particularly the case in narratives where the nature of identity is foregrounded –Laurence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy and Jeanette Winterson‘s Gut Symmetries constituting outstanding examples which will be examined later in the essay. Jean-Francois Lyotard‘s observation that `All that exist are “islands of determinism”. Catastrophic antagonism is literally the rule’, indicates just how fundamental an adjustment to our world-view is being asked for by the new physics (1984, 59). A key question that arises at such junctures is how much control over our destiny, or environment, we can be said to have as individuals: neither islands of determinism nor catastrophic antagonism constitute particularly congenial locations for the exercise of free will. Another interesting line of inquiry in this context is to consider what the implications of chaos and complexity are for Marxist criticism, given that chaos and complexity problematize classical Marxist conceptions of the nature of the dialectic and materialism.

Complexity takes chaos further, to argue that systems feature a high degree of self-organization: indeed, to claim that at a certain point in the development of a system self-organization spontaneously occurs, projecting the system in question to a more advanced level. When systems – including civilizations and species – are located at the ‘edge of chaos’ such leaps are more likely to happen. It has even been theorized that the universe itself is such a system, continually in the process of self-organization (the ‘strong anthropic principle’). As a component part of the universe, human consciousness, too, is subject to the same laws – although that raises the vexed question, yet again, of control, or lack of it, at the level of the individual. At issue is whether we are independent agents or mere channels. Do we control our consciousness? Or is it simply obeying the dictates of a much larger force, the objectives of which are hidden from us?

When we turn to a text like Tristram Shandy, dealing as it does with an earlier version of such problems (also found in the work of the empiricist philosophers David Hume and John Locke), then we find an individual caught up in a world where chance and determinism seem locked in perpetual conflict with each other. Walter Shandy’s complaint about the negative impact of `some retrograde planet’ on the Shandy household captures this situation particularly neatly (Sterne, 1983, 164). At any one point in his career Tristram seems to be subject to the operations of both chance and determinism. What is abundantly clear is that he is not in control of his own destiny, or, come to that, the operations of his own consciousness either, which obeys the law of association of ideas instead. In Gut Symmetries, on the other hand, we find a character who takes advantage of this state of affairs -as in the operation of the `wave function’ -to overcome human limitations as regards time and space in order to save her lover from death. Whereas Tristram feels severely disadvantaged by the impossibility of a fixed personal identity or self that endures over time, Winterson‘s female characters are liberated. A complex metaphysical argument about free will is being presented in each case, and any narrative in which free will is a central concern would be a candidate for analysis through the concepts of chaos and complexity.

This post will outline the major features of chaos and complexity (strange attractors, the butterfly effect, self-organization, the wave function, the anthropic principle, the edge of chaos, etc.), and tease out the philosophical and cultural implications of theories which problematize our standard world-view – a world-view which is still largely based on notions of continuity and stability. When commentators claim that the realm of matter is structured on the principle of `deterministic chaos’, we are made aware just how much that standard world-view, with its assumption of the uniformity of nature, is now under threat (Coveney and Highfield, 1996, 174). We might reasonably expect to have to deal with one or the other of these phenomena at various points in our lives, but not both simultaneously. There is no very logical response to such a paradox, which leaves us feeling very vulnerable as individuals. Tristram Shandy and Gut Symmetries, both narratives which self-consciously engage  with the problem of identity in terms of the scientific theories of their time, will then be analysed. Chaos and complexity will be seen, therefore, to inform both narrative and critical practice.


Chaos theory was devised to deal with the dynamics of non-linear systems. Systems such as these are found to be highly sensitive to even very small fluctuations in their initial conditions: the famous `butterfly effect‘, whereby the beating of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world could, theoretically, be responsible for the formation of a hurricane thousands of miles away. The weather is an excellent example of just such a critically sensitive system where prediction is notoriously difficult, and can often be spectacularly wrong. It has been noted that:

Only if an observer knew with infinite accuracy what the starting conditions were in an experimental study of such a chaotic system would he or she be able to make a cast-iron prediction. But the slightest uncertainty – always the case in the real world – denies this, since no matter how small the imprecision, it will be amplified exponentially as time passes. (Coveney and Highfield, 1996, 174)

Schrodingers_cat.svg.pngIn chaotic systems randomness and determinism are simultaneously present, which leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that they are simultaneously predictable and unpredictable in their operation. The same kind of troubling paradox arises in thought experiments in quantum mechanics (the background to chaos and complexity) such as ‘Schrodinger’s cat‘, which has been described as follows:

Schrodinger envisaged a cat incarcerated in a box with a flask of cyanide gas. The box also contains a radioactive source and a geiger counter that can trigger a hammer to smash the flask if a nucleus decays. It is then possible to imagine the quantum state of a nucleus to be such that after, say, one minute, it is in a superposition corresponding to a probability of one-half that decay has occurred and one-half that it has not. If the entire box contents, including the cat, are treated as a single quantum system, we are forced to conclude that the cat is also in a superposition of two states: dead and alive. In other words, the cat is apparently hung up in a hybrid state of unreality in which it is somehow both dead and alive! (Davies, 1995, 169)

Prediction falls apart in such cases, which confound not just our experience of reality but also all our systems of logic (and most particularly the law of identity on which the entire edifice of logic rests). Alive and dead is a condition we just cannot comprehend.

Lyotard made a similar point about systems (drawing in this instance on the forerunner to chaos theory, catastrophe theory) when he commented that, `it is not true that uncertainty (lack of control) decreases as accuracy goes up; it goes up as well’ (Lyotard, 1984, 59). In other words, more control equals less control -another conspicuously counter-intuitive conclusion to reach. At every turn our preconceptions about the way systems work in the everyday world are subverted by the new physics. What is also called into question is our ability to know our world in any depth. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has informed us that we cannot even measure a section of the coastline accurately, the reason being that as we go down to greater and greater levels of magnification we find self-similar patterns being repeated endlessly in fractal form:

Mandelbrot found that as the scale of measurement becomes smaller, the measured length of a coastline rises without limit, bays and peninsulas revealing ever-smaller subbays and subpeninsulas – at least down to atomic scales, where the process does finally come to an end. Perhaps. (Gleick, 1988, 96)

Yet again a total understanding of the system eludes us: at best all we can ever have is a rough approximation of natural systems. We gain this rough approximation by the unreliable art of measuring, but a further problem arises than the one identified by Mandelbrot -that the very act of measurement alters the system we are dealing with, leading to what has been called the `collapse’ of the wave function:

Although the microworld is inherently nebulous, and only probabilities rather than certainties can be predicted from the wave function, nevertheless when an actual measurement of some dynamical variable is made a concrete result is obtained. The act of measurement thus transforms probability into certainty by projecting out or selecting a specific result from among a range of possibilities. Now this projection brings about an abrupt alteration in the form of the wave function, often referred to as its `collapse’, which drastically affects its subsequent evolution . . . The system is therefore capable of changing with time in two completelyd ifferent ways; one when nobody is looking and one when it is being observed. (Davies, 1995, 168)

Once again we face the paradox of systems having an indeterminable, or multiple, identity that runs counter to our normal understanding of the concept. Collapsing the wave function on Schrodinger’s cat does resolve its `unreal’ state of being, but at the considerable risk of killing it.

Behind systems lie mysterious entities known as strange attractors, which dictate what happens within each system. Strange attractors are `the trajectory toward which all other trajectories converge’, and they are inexorable in their operation (Gleick, 1988, 150). We experience their effect in such ordinary natural phenomena as the weather, which is assumed to have its own strange attractor shaping its behaviour – much to the dismay of weather forecasters worldwide, with no access to the underlying programme. An extreme example of a strange attractor would be a black hole, which sucks in all matter that crosses its event horizon. Nothing can escape from a black hole, not even light, and in theory whole galaxies could disappear within such phenomena. Black holes are described as `singularities’, meaning that the laws of physics are suspended inside them. And if, unlike the weather, this all seems very far removed from our everyday experience, we might reflect on the, somewhat alarming, speculation that the universe we live in itself could be a black hole:

our universe is almost certainly closed . . . The notion that the entire Universe is a black hole may seem bizarre at first sight, especially if you are still thinking of black holes only as superdense, compact objects. But remember that the kind of supermassive black hole that is thought to lurk at the heart of a quasar can be made out of material scarcely more dense than ordinary water. The bigger the black hole, the lower the density you need to close off spacetime around a collection of matter. (Gribbin, 1995, 238)

It is a moot point whether this sould make us feel more or less insecure as regards our sense of identity.



Complexity carries chaos theory to a new pitch of sophistication, and emphasizes the process of self-organization within systems. Systems are seen to have the ability, at critical points in their development (the edge of chaos), quite spontaneously to self-organize themselves to a higher level of operational complexity. There is `order for free’, as one enthusiast has described the process (Stuart Kauffman, cit. Lewin, 1993, 25). At the extreme end of this theory we find the strong anthropic principle, which treats the universe – including all the life within it – as a system in a constant process of evolution. Forget the forecast heat-death of the universe in around four billion years, argues physicist Paul Davies, `the universe is as yet “unfinished” . . . From what can be deduced about astronomical processes, the universe could remain fit for habitation for trillions of years, possibly for ever’ (Davies, 1995, 196). Crucially for Davies, human consciousness is part of that universal process: `there is still a sense in which human mind and society may represent only an intermediate stage on the ladder of organizational progress in the cosmos’ (Davies, 1995, 196). Whether being a mere intermediate stage in an amorphous larger process squares with our self-image of ourselves as free-willed independent beings is another question, and at the very least complexity asks for a reassessment of our concept of personal identity – a topic to which we shall return in due course.

The edge of chaos is where systems are at their most creative as well as most unpredictable. It has been described as the state where information gets its foot in the door in the physical world, where it gets the upper hand over energy. Being at the transition point between order and chaos not only buys you exquisite control -small input/big change – but it also buys you the possibility that information processing can become an important part of the dynamics of the system (Chris Langton, quoted in Lewin, 1993, 51).

Systems which allow themselves to become stuck at one stage of development simply ossify, therefore the edge of chaos is the recommended place to be in evolutionary terms. It is certainly the most exciting place to be, although it is also a highly insecure state since it involves a delicate balancing act. Sometimes the balancing act between order and chaos fails, precipitating systems into chaos: `some perturbations provoke small cascades of change, others trigger complete avalanches, equivalent to mass extinctions’ (Lewin, 1993, 62). Critically, we can never know ahead of time whether a small perturbation or a complete avalanche is to be our fate: sometimes, as complexity theorists have noted, civilizations, empires, and species die out quite suddenly, as if overwhelmed by an unexpected turn of events. The edge of chaos can be exciting,  but it can also be quite pitiless.



The area where chaos and complexity pose most interesting questions for cultural theorists is undoubtedly that of personal identity and its attendant problem of free will. On the one hand, given the coexistence of opposed states (random plus determined) within systems, it suggests that this is even less of a unity than we might have thought, while on the other it raises the spectre of spontaneous self-organization cutting across human endeavour, rendering free will more than somewhat notional. Given the prominent place that free will has in western culture this is a matter of some importance, and certainly one that is of interest to theorists.

Personal identity has become something of a battleground in recent theoretical debate, particularly in continental philosophy circles. From structuralism onwards there has been a tendency in that tradition to view the self as a fragmented entity lacking the unity that western thought generally ascribes to it. Personal identity is a much more fluid concept to structuralists, poststructuralists and postmodernists – and to many feminists, too. What the recent continental tradition seems to be celebrating is the death of man, or as it is sometimes put, the death of the subject: that is, the demise of the particular conception of the individual that has been fostered by the Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment individual is an entity with a unique essence to express and realize in his or her activities, and, at least in theory, western culture is set up to facilitate that self-expression and self-realization. The reality is far more complicated than that (there is not equal access to resources, for a start), but it remains the ideal nonetheless, with totalitarian societies being frowned upon because officially they inhibit the quest for self-realization.

As far as structuralists are concerned, however, individuals are little more than channels through which systems, such as language, operate: `it is language which speaks, not the author’, as Roland Barthes puts it (1977, 143). For poststructuralists, individuals are sites where various drives come into conflict with social norms, and where desire seeks to find means of expression. In Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for example, we are pictured as `desiring-machines’ confronted by an array of social pressures (`Oedipus’ as they collectively refer to these in their book Anti-Oedipus (1984)) dedicated to our repression. Schizophrenia becomes for Deleuze and Guattari a way of confounding this repressive regime, since the move into multiple identities renders us more difficult to control (hence their championship of ‘schizoanalysis’). One repressed personality is far easier for the authorities to deal with than an unpredictable desiring machine refusing to conform to social conventions. Postmodernists, too, celebrate our plurality; our ability, as Lyotard perceives it, to make our politics up as we go along, rather than be dictated to by the `grand narratives’ (that is, ideologies) of our time, with their generally reactionary agendas. Politics is for Lyotard a matter of `little narratives’ with delimited objectives rather than authoritarian pretensions. Lyotard‘s goal is `svelteness‘, a condition of being where we can shift from role to role as circumstances demand, instead of having a fixed personality or social role that constrains us to act in a predictable, and thus institutionally controllable, way. Svelte individuals, by implication, cultivate plural identities.

Feminist theorists have also recognized the political advantages of plural identity. Luce Irigaray, for example, uses this model of the individual in This Sex Which Is Not One to claim that women can escape from a history of male domination: So woman does not have a sex organ? She has at least two of them, but they are not identifiable as ones. Indeed, she has many more. Her sexuality, always at least double, goes even further:

it is plural . . . the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined – in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness. (1985, 29)

What Irigaray emphasizes is difference, in this case the difference between male and female sexual identity (just as we shall observe Winterson doing to similar effect in Gut Symmetries). Difference becomes a means of evading the designs of patriarchy, which traditionally has constrained women into narrowly defined social roles that make them easier to monitor and control.

Irigaray is deploying deconstructive theory in her concept of female identity. Deconstruction sees difference everywhere, a pervasive aspect of all systems and all discourse (Jacques Derrida’s concept of differance, where difference combines with deferment, signalling this ubiquity). Its claim to political radicalism is founded on this commitment to difference/differance, which works to subvert all attempts to exert authoritarian control over us. According to Derrida, by continually drawing attention to difference/differance we take a stance against the incipient totalitarianism of systems, which always seek to eliminate difference from their sphere of operation. Michel Foucault is another thinker to argue that the most characteristic act of authoritarian systems is to set about effacing  difference, since this represents a threat to their desire for social conformity as a mechanism of ideological subjection. His various ‘archaeologies’ are designed to show where and when such effacement has been practised, to the detriment of vulnerable minority groups in Western society (the mentally ill and homosexuals being outstanding examples).

Chaos and complexity provide a scientific background to such theorization, and have infiltrated the discourse of continental philosophers eager to press the cause of difference. Not all commentators agree with this appropriation of recent science, however, as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont‘s celebrated attack on the continental school in Intellectual Impostures proves. For the latter, the analogies made between recent science – particularly chaos theory -and cultural politics are highly questionable, and all too often based on a misunderstanding of the scientific concepts involved. Chaos, as Sokal and Bricmont point out, does not have the emotive overtones to a scientist that it does to either a philosopher or political theorist, and they are extremely critical of practically the entire recent continental philosophical tradition for what they regard as a systematic abuse of scientific theory on its part. Nevertheless, the philosophical implications of chaos and complexity are so dramatic that they continue to appeal to cultural theorists concerned to undermine the totalizing imperative of the dominant ideology. The problem remains determining the extent to which events in the micro-world of subatomic particle physics correspond to events in the macro-world in which we conduct our daily lives, but at the very least the analogies being drawn by poststructuralist and postmodernist theorists are thought-provoking and deserve some consideration.



Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.



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