|Joan Retallack [cacophony]|
from Joan Retallack's The Poethical Wager:
Fractal models (with their scalar self-similarities and unpredictable variations) bring into the foreground of our attention the large patterns and erratic details, the dynamic equilibrium of order and disorder in complex life systems like weather and coastlines. This is a geometry of nature that has helped us attend more productively to the chaotic processes of complex turbulent phenomena that static and idealized Euclidean models cannot begin to accommodate. I have begun to think of certain forms of art (for example, the post-1940s music of John Cage) as having a fractal relation to the rest of life. They are complex constructions that, among other things, present their material presence as a dynamically indeterminate "coastline" for audiences to explore via their own complex cultural and psychological dispositions. If one acknowledges language itself as a complex life system, the linguistic tensions and instabilities, semantic ruptures, and self-similar variations in a work like [Gertrude Stein's] Blood [On The Dining Room Floor] invite comparison to fractal forms. Can one in fact view Blood as fractal model of small-town and family turbulence rather than confused detective novel?
The closer you look at fractal models, or the natural phenomena they describe, the more (self-similar) details you see, the more complex things become. (In Euclidean figures the closer you look, the simpler things get.) I wonder whether the kind of "positive feedback loop" that generates fractal self-similarities and variations — data reentering the system again and again, each time undergoing slight modifications — might be an illuminating way to think about Stein's writing process. Might in fact give some intuitions about how the mind (that is, the fractal neural networks of the brain) produces complex linguistic forms based on repetition and variation. We know that in the case of Blood, as with most of her other writing, the product and the process are almost identical. Stein wrote as words came to her and hardly ever made substantial revisions.
And then there's the particular way the form of any coastline structures an exploration of it. The reader can tramp up and down the shifting coastline of Stein's words looking for the lost object (the victim, the culprit) in vain, day after day not finding it, finding instead a strange constancy in the scene of the absent object, the coastline itself as a pattern-bounded indeterminacy in flux. Even if something as reassuring as a body were to turn up with an explanation tagged to its toe, it could hardly become the focal point of this tidal windblown beach or page. Ocean beach and Steinian page are equally contingent and dynamic zones whose life principle is change. The beach changes in its conversation with the vagaries and variabilities of meteorological elements; the page changes in its conversation with variable epistemologies, grammars, and genres, as well as with the associative elements of a reader's mind as that mind lives within multiple intersecting forms whose rules are neither simple nor readily apparent. All this occurs of course within another strange constancy — the changing cultural climate of the developing contemporary. Luckily, coincidentally, both beach and page are locations of aesthetic wonder. Aesthetic wonder is a source of energy even as one hesitates in the face of unforeseen difficulties.
But, you may be quite legitimately asking, this beach stuff — isn't this (metaphorically speaking) building sand castles on an extended conceit? Surely one knows that language is not really a coastline. Well I'm not so sure it's not. Or rather I sense that languages and coastlines operate with similar kinds of principles. If one thinks of a coastline as just one site of mutually transformative exchange between different kinds of complex dynamical systems, then language as it exists in the active mediation between neural network and world ecosystems is surely such a site. There are specific things one gains in thinking of language in this way, particularly when confronted by literature that won't resolve into simple mimesis or tidy containments and conclusions.
It saves a certain amount of frustration to remember that you will never solve a coastline. You can explore, analyze, describe it, visit it as often as you like for the pleasure of it, picnic on it, swim along it, embark from it. It is of course gloriously noncompressible. Its best description can only be conterminous with itself, with its horizons and skies and weather, with the complex, infinite series of possible encounters anyone might have with it. You cannot sum up or paraphrase a coastline, although you can experience topographical limits. Geographers call the point on a landscape where certainty about one's bearings begins to rapidly fall off an "edge." The fractal edges of Stein's art make up part of the active coastline — zone of shifting stabilities and instabilities — between culture and the rest of life — the zone of silence that will never be absorbed in culture but can be wondered at from the vantage points of its edges. Some dimensions of the scalar repetitions and variations within a work of art can be internally formulated, but others have to do with the relation of that work to the history of the language-culture, the history of the art itself (in this case to the novel), to other cultural forms, to forms of everyday life and the natural world.
As location of conventional murder mystery, where all must resolve into a single gory punctum — vanishing point of "the body" — Stein's coastal prose is entirely revelatory in its surprising variations. The more you can't find the object you're looking for, the more you're learning about the language coastline itself.