Chaos, Knowledge, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in Dictionary of the Khazars

By Longinovic, Tomislav Z. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Chaos, Knowledge, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in Dictionary of the Khazars


Longinovic, Tomislav Z., The Review of Contemporary Fiction


People think reality is another word for chaos. But in reality it is more complex. Legend embodies it in a sound that enables it to spread all over the world.

--Laibach, "Death in Conversation," in Kapital

(Mute Records, 1992)

Prigogine's theory of chaos stresses the ability of systems to act in nonlinear and self-organizing fashions. The systemic vision of "ordered chaos" has been applied to a variety of phenomena, from predicting traffic flows to understanding variations in the weather patterns. Predictably enough, the narrative patterns which try to articulate nonlinearity and self-organization have begun to surpass the metaphors of coordinate systems and statistical tables. The rise of fractal geometry and the search for "strange attractors" remind one of narrative constructions of writers like Cortazar, Calvino, or Pynchon. The emergence of the novel-puzzle, which holds a central, unreachable secret and offers a multitude of reading paths toward the ultimate knowledge whose realization is displaced and postponed, testifies to similar epistemological positions of the subject. My main focus will move along the lines set by N. Katherine Hayles in her examination of discourses of literature and science:(1) the question of influences between literary and scientific discourses will not be examined in any particular direction. Instead, my focus will be on the cultural context of postmodernity as a condition for the emergence of epistemological hypotheses of chaos theory and the narrative organization of Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars.

The apparent convergence of the narratives developed by chaos theory in mathematical sciences with those of textual postmodernity is symptomatic of the cognitive paradigm which has been resurrecting discourses simultaneously positioned as the very limit of modernity and its cultural opponent. Indeed, the problematic nature of human truth and knowledge has already come under scrutiny by modernity; but postmodernity goes beyond this epistemological anxiety by foregrounding its axiom of the truth as a construction rooted in the language which articulates it. Modernity's anxiety is accepted and turned into the object of epistemological contemplation. Therefore, the notion of postmodern culture necessarily functions as a theoretical umbrella which encompasses different events and practices affected by the chronic uncertainty of the subject. This emergent condition recognizes the irreducible play of contingencies which structure the subject-that-wants-to-know as it produces "truth" and "knowledge" about the world. For example, the concept of self-organization in nonlinear patterns characteristic of Prigogine's chaos theory counters the narrative model of a reachable certainty about the desire posited by scientific rationalism which seeks to know and describe a limited and abstracted number of phenomena. Instead, these new models reject the limitation of scientific models and begin to project a desire for the knowledge of the ever elusive "total reality." This quest for totality comes after the limits of representation have been surpassed by the awareness that "reality" is a process of constant and necessary invention.

The realization that knowledge may itself consist of tools that are utilized in its acquisition has entered both science and literature with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Borges's labyrinth. Both the scientist and the writer became aware that they are tracing the effects and limits of their languages and their instruments, which in turn gave impetus to the theories that stress self, reflexivity, irreversibility, nonlinearity and self-organization. The problem encountered by the exact sciences in the inevitable reduction of the totality of phenomena to the set of observable and measurable variables is mirrored in literary theory and criticism through the problem of interpretation. Some aspects of the text are necessarily suppressed at the expense of others for the critical text to gain coherence and manufacture intelligibility inherent in the old definition of the critic. …

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