Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction

Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction

Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction

Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction


Reading eight major contemporary authors through the lens of chaos theory, Conte offers new and original interpretations of works that have been the subject of much critical debate.

Design and Debris discusses the relationship between order and disorder in the works of John Hawkes, Harry Mathews, John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and Don DeLillo. In analyzing their work, Joseph Conte brings to bear a unique approach adapted from scientific thought: chaos theory. His chief concern is illuminating those works whose narrative structures locate order hidden in disorder (whose authors Conte terms "proceduralists"), and those whose structures reflect the opposite, disorder emerging from states of order (whose authors Conte calls "disruptors").

Documenting the paradigm shift from modernism, in which artists attempted to impose order on a disordered world, to postmodernism, in which the artist portrays the process of "orderly disorder," Conte shows how the shift has led to postmodern artists' embrace of science in their treatment of complex ideas. Detailing how chaos theory interpenetrates disciplines as varied as economics, politics, biology, and cognitive science, he suggests a second paradigm shift: from modernist specialization to postmodern pluralism. In such a pluralistic world, the novel is freed from the purely literary and engages in a greater degree of interactivity-between literature and science, and between author and reader. Thus, Conte concludes, contemporary literature is a literature of flux and flexibility.


Yet so blind are we to the true nature of reality at any given moment
that this chaos—bathed, it is true, in the iridescent hues of the rainbow
and clothed in an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms which
did their best to stifle any burgeoning notions of the formlessness of
the whole, the muddle really as ugly as sin, which at every moment
shone through the colored masses, bringing a telltale finger squarely
down on the addition line, beneath which these self-important and self
convoluted shapes added disconcertingly up to zero—this chaos began
to seem like the normal way of being, so that some time later even very
sensitive and perceptive souls had been taken in: it was for them life’s
rolling river, with its calm eddies and shallows as well as its more swiftly
moving parts and ahead of these the rapids, with an awful roar some
where in the distance; and yet, or so it seemed to these more sensible
than average folk, a certain amount of hardship has to be accepted if we
want the river-journey to continue; life cannot be a series of totally pleas
ant events, and we must accept the bad if we also wish the good; indeed
a certain amount of evil is necessary to set it in proper relief: how could
we know the good without some experience of its opposite?

—John Ashbery, “The System”

Each discipline in its own terms, each with its own methodology, has sought to explain the emergence of order in a world in which entropy dictates an inexorable tendency towards disorder. the astronomer charting the contraction of a protostar from interstellar gas, the theologian in pursuit of the first mover, the biologist parsing the evolution of a species, and the novelist in search of a unitary and previously unspoken idea: each asks, Why are there orderly structures and complex living beings when inchoate shapes and disorderly activity should prevail? No work of fiction could provide a satisfactory . . .

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