Chaos Theory Applied to the Literary Arts
By Angel Dionne
The study of chaos is the study of systems which exhibit sensitivity to initial conditions (initial conditions being any set of starting-point values). That is, small differences in a system’s initial conditions may yield unpredictable consequences. For instance the smallest change in the behavior of atmospheric molecules may cause a meteorologist’s weather predictions to become inaccurate. The general ideas behind chaos theory are easy enough to comprehend. This is perhaps why the theory has been utilized across multiple disciplines. Chaos theory itself has an attractive-sounding name and, many argue, may have philosophical attributes. No matter what the reasons behind its popularity it remains a fact that chaos has gone from being considered a solely scientific theory to one which has implications in a variety of fields ranging from business and economics to cultural studies and philosophy. The theory itself has been mentioned and featured in a variety of films, novels, and pop-science documents. Perhaps the most well-known of these pop-science texts is James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science. Published in 1984, this book sought to introduce the principles and basic concepts of chaos theory to a broader audience. That is, an audience which may not have any formal education and training in the fields of science and mathematics. Not only did the text provide a detailed history concerning the discovery of the theory we now refer to as chaos as well as the individuals involved in its inception, it also sought to explain the theory in a manner which could be easily grasped by the general population. This text was the first mainstream attempt to explain chaos theory in such a manner.
So, what is chaos theory?
Although it was previously stated that chaos is the study of systems which are sensitive to initial conditions, there are many other components to the theory of chaos. To understand its impact upon society it is important to first understand how it came to be, and why. The study of chaos itself rose to prominence mainly in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, when it was still an extremely controversial idea. Despite the controversy surrounding the theory and those who wished to study it, it was not an entirely new concept. The groundwork for the discovery of chaos theory had been established prior to the actual coining of the term. Henry Poincaré discovered the basis for chaos theory when he sought to solve the three-body problem. In general terms, the three-body problem is the problem of taking a set of data specifying the masses, velocities, and positions of the three bodies at a certain point in time and attempting to determine the motions of these three bodies using the initial set of data. In this case, the three bodies were the earth, moon, and sun. It was in 1887 that Poincaré deduced that the three-body problem had no solution and that the motions of the three-bodies could not be accurately predicted, “Poincaré showed that there is no solution which can be given in a finite number of integrations…” (Hargatti, 51). This is due to the fact that the motions of the three-bodies are sensitive to initial conditions (that is, a lot of a components were at play, thus rendering the idea that one could predict movements based on initial data unsound). Poincare’s discovery allowed for future development in the study of non-linear systems as well as the study of complexity.
The actual theory of chaos as we know it today was developed through the work of Edward Lorenz. In 1963, Lorenz formulated what is now known as the Lorenz System. The Lorenz System demonstrated the idea that the smallest change in initial conditions or parameters could cause drastic and unpredictable changes within said system. Having built what he called an attractor, a machine built to help predict weather patterns, Lorenz was surprised when a slight and accidental error in initial data (to the tenth of a decimal point) caused his reactor to behave unpredictably. This unpredictability became referred to as the Uncertainty Principle, which prohibits accuracy, “Roughly speaking, the uncertainty principle (for position and momentum) states that one cannot assign exact simultaneous values to the position and momentum of a physical system. Rather, these quantities can only be determined with some characteristic ‘uncertainties’ that cannot become arbitrarily small simultaneously” (Hilgevoord, 1).
Until authors of pop-culture and business literature began appropriating chaos theory, the general population lacked interest. Of course academics and researchers in the fields of mathematics and science showed interest in this budding theory. However, it seemed out of reach for the general population, especially those individuals who may not have had formal training (or perhaps much interest) in science and mathematics. The sudden boom of literature concerning chaos theory following Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science resulted in individuals outside of the scientific community expressing interest in not only learning about chaos but also in applying it to other areas of inquiry. For instance the ideas behind chaos theory were found to be wildly applicable to our economic system which is incredibly complex and unpredictable. In addition, researchers in the fields of literary theory, such as Katherine Hayles, began expressing the idea that chaos could be applied to the arts. Gleick’s novel presented the concepts of chaos theory in an understandable format which appealed to the general population. In addition researchers began appropriating the theory to their respective areas of study, allowing for academics of different fields to study it.
It is simple to see how chaos theory could be applied to areas such as business and economics. These are graspable systems. We can easily embrace the idea that they are both complex and unpredictable and that they are sensitive to small changes in initial conditions. However, can some elements of chaos theory be applied to works of literature? Can certain elements of chaos theory such as unpredictability and non-linear cause-and-effect be applied? Looking at non-linear cause-and-effect may be especially useful when dealing with novels which employ non-linear narratives as it would give the reader more insight into the various elements which ultimately give way to the climax and resolution. Scholars such as Elinor Shaffer would perhaps answer that such applications of various elements of chaos theory are pointless. It is maintained by scholars such as Shaffer that any attempt to apply chaos theory as a means of literary analysis is not only fruitless but may have negative consequences. These researchers proclaim that appropriating chaos to literature does not result in any new understandings and ideas concerning the literature in question. Furthermore, it is argued that the way in which chaos is applied to literature is flawed and does not lend itself well to a genuine understanding of the theory. In her work entitled The Third Culture: Literature and Science, Shaffer states that “any talk of chaos theory in literary studies is nothing but idle dreams,” (Shaffer, 47). In a sense, it could be deduced that Shaffer believes applying chaos theory to literary studies does not grant a deeper understanding of the literature in question and also does not grant a deep understanding of the scientific theory being utilized. Shaffer then goes on to make assertions that the application of chaos to works of literature may not be entirely impossible, but that it has not been successfully attempted as of yet. Despite the opposition of scholars like Shaffer, other scholars such as Hayles proclaim that chaos can not only be applied to literary works but that its application may indeed enhance our ability to analyze and comprehend pieces of literature in new ways. By viewing literary works as complex and unpredictable systems we can see how such applications would be useful. Hayles is one such scholar who has studied not only literature but also the sciences. Much of her work attempts to marry chaos theory to literary theory. In her book entitled Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, Hayles explains the merits of applying scientific theory such as chaos to the humanities, “if I practice interdisciplinarity by importing terms and concepts such as those of information theory and self-organization, violating conventional borders by identifying textual ambiguity and rhetoricity with noise, I do so not to produce a Grand Synthesis but to disturb, enrich, and perhaps displace the study of literature by injecting into it some information sufficiently foreign as to function initially as noise, the only possible source of new patterns,” (Hayles, 49). Furthermore some literary theorists, such as Kirchoff, have argued that applying chaos theory to works of literature may “help us to interpret and understand specific literary works, and perhaps contemporary literature in general,” (Kirchoff, 1). That is to say that appropriating chaos theory as a means of literary analysis may allow scholars to view literary works from a different angle and may result in new understandings which may not have come about should chaos have not been applied to the work. Polvinen, another scholar, states that this deeper understanding of literature through chaos is an endeavor which many scholars have embarked on. Polvinen states that despite controversy and objections there “are also literary scholars who have explicitly states that the application of chaos theory in literary studies is not an example of cultural contextualization, but a true correspondence between the systems being studied.“ Peter Stoicheff, for example, argues that meta-fiction is a dynamical system which happens to exist not in physical reality, but in language and culture,” (Polvinen 274). If meta-fiction can be regarded as a dynamical system then it must be sensitive to initial conditions. In her book entitled The Encyclopedia of Literature and Science, Pamela Gossin describes her belief that appropriating chaos theory and applying it to literature is beneficial. Gossin states that “one model of metaphoric connection between chaos science and literature is to use chaos theory to define and analyze fictional texts. Here the claim that literary texts are chaotic systems appears in several guises. The chaos science model of self-organization or “order out of chaos” may be used as a basis to understand how the ambiguities of literature nonetheless give rise to a sense and order at a ‘higher’ level of interpretation,” (Gossin, 74). If this is true then chaos can be successfully applied to literary texts. Kirchoff, along with Hayles and Gossin, believes that applying scientific theory to the literary arts may aid us in the identification of patterns and insights which may not have been otherwise gleaned.
The general idea is that chaos theory may be used as a means of analyzing literary works by viewing these texts from a specific perspective, one which allows analysis through the lens of non-linearity and uncertainty. Chaos theory is usually presented in literary works in two ways. Either the author of the piece alludes to or speaks of chaos theory directly, as is the case with Crichton’s Jurassic Park, or chaos theory may be utilized as a metaphor for the unpredictability and complexity within a novel, short story, or poem. Using chaos theory as a metaphor may also allow for analysis of the sequences and consequences of events presented within the literary text. In Crichton’s Jurassic Park, one of the main characters is presented as a mathematician who specializes in the study of chaos theory. Although this may seem to be an unimportant detail in the grand scheme of things, Ian Malcolm’s explanation of chaos theory early in the novel foreshadows the unpredictable events that follow. Malcolm explains that scientists “believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been the cherished scientific belief since Newton. Chaos theory throws it right out the window,” (Crichton, 158). The conditions created by the scientists within the park would have resulted in an orderly and predictable outcome if they had been the only conditions at play. However, small deviations in initial conditions (they employment of Dennis Nedry, the fact that Nedry is killed while trying to exit the park during a storm and thus cannot reactivate the security system, etc) ultimately lead to unpredictable and, in this case, disastrous consequences. Because the park itself is a complex system the scientists and employees are unable to control every single aspect, especially those which may have been overlooked as insignificant and without importance. In addition, the fact that the dinosaurs themselves were created in a controlled laboratory does not negate the fact that they are creatures which had not been previously observed in a living state. As such it is impossible for the scientists to be able to determine and predict their behaviors and intelligence levels, not to mention the manner in which they would adapt to the environment they had been placed in. When attempting to understand Crichton’s novel through the lens of chaos theory we can understand the events within the novel in a manner we may not have been capable of before. We can see how the events within the novel are not disorderly and random but are a result of small changes in initial conditions within what can only be described as an incredibly complex system.
Prior to applying the ideas of chaos theory to Crichton’s novel we may have been inclined to say that the events within the novel are random and disorderly. However we now know that chaos does not denote disorder, entropy, and negativity. Chaos simply refers to the multitude of factors which are at play in a complex system, and can potentially create unpredictable outcomes. Although the results are indeed unpredictable they are not without cause and/or order. Culturally, the term chaos is plagued with negative connotation. It is often used to describe aspects of life which are messy, upsetting, and dangerous. This is perhaps due to our society’s tendency to think in binaries of good vs. evil and order vs. disorder. We tend to think in intrinsics (if order denotes goodness then disorder must denote evil). When referring to chaos theory however, it is imperative to keep in mind that within a complex system there still remains a type of order. Hayles mentions this in her work, stating that the “world as chaotics envisions it, then, is rich in unpredictable evolutions, full of complex forms and turbulent flows, characterized by non-linear relations between causes and effects, and fractured into multiple-length scales…” (Hayles 8). Applying this to Jurassic Park allows us to see how although the events which took place in the park were horrifying for the characters involved they were not random and without reason. Each small action on the part of the scientists, employees, visitors, and the dinosaurs themselves gave way to the events in question. There is some sort of order and reason apparent within the complexity and unpredictability.
Scholar Swanepoel, author of Irregular Regularity: A Chaos-Theory Reading of the Ecology Presented in Coleridge’s, “Frost at Midnight” argues that chaos can also be used as a metaphor in order to better understand literary texts. He believes that it can be applied in such a manner to Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Swanepoel proposes the idea that small changes within the piece itself have an effect upon the events and character development within the poem. It is also asserted that Coleridge himself sought to highlight how “a fairly small change, namely a change in environment, can alter a child’s future,” (Swanepoel, 448). In this sense Coleridge’s poem would be regarded as a dynamic system itself, one which is sensitive to initial conditions. The change in environment mentioned by Swanepoel has an eventual effect on the outcome of the poem and on the outcome of character development. Although these interpretations of chaos theory may not be entirely scientific (making no use of differential and non-linear equations, etc) they nonetheless remain useful when it comes to the understanding and analysis of certain literary texts, as is made evident when using components of chaos theory to analyze Coleridge’s work.
The appropriation of chaos theory lends itself particularly well to other contemporary works of literature, especially those containing surrealist components. One such literary work is Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, a small novel written by a Japanese author who has quickly become a popular figure in the literary world. The main characters of the novel; Miu, Sumire, and the narrator known only as “K” exist within a system where everything is at first predictable and stable. However it is soon apparent that this seemingly stable system is swinging into unpredictability due to a few minor changes in initial conditions. Like the scientists who wished to create a stable system and control its outcome in Crichton’s novel, Murakami sets up a novel in which each individual character wishes to create a stable system for themselves so that they may control the outcome of their lives.
Miu hopes to assert control in her life by following a daily regimen and a strict adherence centered on her piano practice. Sumire attempts to predict and control the events within her life by refusing to become romantically involved with K, and by also regimenting her everyday actions. Like the scientists in Crichton’s novel, the ones in Murakami’s novel do not take into account the fact that their lives are actually complex systems with a multitude of factors at play. Any small deviation in these seemingly insignificant factors will result in unpredictable outcomes. Miu’s past actions (including temporarily relocating to Switzerland, choosing to take a ride aboard a Ferris Wheel, taking on a casual lover,) set into motion a set of cause-and-effect relationships which are entirely unpredictable. Ultimately a single change in initial conditions when she was younger allowed for Miu to eventually meet Sumire. At this point it is safe to say that Miu’s actions had a profound effect upon Sumire’s life due to the fact that Sumire becomes romantically infatuated with Miu upon meeting her. This infatuation, coupled with the fact that both characters’ lives have now gone from predictable to unpredictable ultimately leads to Sumire’s disappearance off the small, unnamed Greek island. At one point Sumire questions, “don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?” alluding to the idea that even the most insignificant of actions can have drastic consequences within a complex system. But what defines insignificant? One possibility is that insignificant actions are actions which do not make up the bigger picture. Choices like seemingly inconsequential deviations from daily habits, mistakes made to the tenth of a decimal point, or decisions made on a whim. Miu may never have believed that her decision to ride a Ferris Wheel one night would impact her life in such a profound manner and would eventually lead her to meeting Sumire. Likewise Sumire may not have thought that attempting intimacy with Miu would eventually lead her to disappear entirely. Like the scientists in Jurassic Park, that characters in Sputnik Sweetheart are unable to predict and control the events surrounding them because they reside within complex systems which are sensitive to initial conditions.
A brief analysis of various literary texts through the lens of chaos and complexity demonstrates that there is much merit in the exchange between sciences and the humanities. Such an interdisciplinary application may bring about revelations and may enrich our current understandings. As a society we tend to enjoy separating different pursuits and areas of study into their own categories. The hard sciences and humanities are often seen as polar opposites; areas of study which cannot and perhaps should not be reconciled. However, it is only by recognizing the similarities between the two fields and how they are complementary to each other that we can truly begin to perceive the unpredictability and complexity which governs our everyday lives. Understanding chaos and its implications across fields allows us to not only grasp chaos in terms of its scientific applications but also in terms of its applications in the study of economics, business, literature, philosophy, and cultural studies.
Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park: A Novel. New York: Knopf: 1990. Web.
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. [20th Anniversary Ed. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Gossin, Pamela. Encyclopedia of Literature and Science. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002. 74. Web.
Hargittai, Istva. ‘Symmetry, Groupoids, and Higher-dimensional Analogues’ Symmetry 2:Unifying Human Understanding. Oxford: Pergamon, 1989. 51. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: U Of Chicago, 1991. 8. Print.
Hilgevoord, J. (2001, October 8). The Uncertainty Principle. Retrieved April 12, 2015.
Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Print.
Polvenin, Merja. “THE ENDS OF METAPHOR Literary Analysis and Chaos Theory.” European Journal of English Studies (2007): 274.Shapiro Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.
Shaffer, E. S. The Third Culture. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998. 47. Web.
Swanepoel, A.C. ‘Irregular Regularity: A Chaos-Theory Reading of the Ecology Presented in Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight”. Journal of Literary Studies 23.4 (2007): 448. Taylor & Francis
Angel Dionne is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Her work has appeared in multiple publications including The Aroostook Review, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Penman Review, The Penman Review Anthology, Apocrypha & Abstractions, and Sein Und Werden. Her areas of expertise include surrealism and automatism.