Printer Friendly

"Damballah is the first law of thermodynamics": modes of access to Toni Cade Bambara's 'The Salt Eaters.' (Women's Culture Issue)

Choices were being tossed into the street like dice, like shells, like kola nuts, like jackstones. (Salt Eaters 294)

We know how that societies are immensely complex systems involving a potentially enormous number of bifurcations exemplified by the variety of cultures that have evolved in the relatively short span of human history. We know that such systems are highly sensitive to fluctuations. This leads both to hope and a threat: hope, since even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance. On the other hand, this is also a threat, since in our universe the security of stable, permanent rules seems gone forever. (Prigogine and Stengers 312-13)

Gloria Hull begins her essay " 'What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow': A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters" by noting that this "daringly brilliant book" is so difficult that "students decide it is "over their heads" and wonder what made their teacher assign it in the first place" (218).(1) Having recently taught a senior seminar on African-American women's novels, I can confirm her claim: Of the ten novels we read, The Salt Eaters was the only one that all of the students found inaccessible. Despite Hull's warning I was surprised because, during our discussions of other novels, we had explored the role of jazz and blues aesthetics in African-American literature, ritual healing, voodoo, revisions of the "classic realist" narrative to accommodate various epistemologies and ontologies, and other topics that could provide the students with modes of access to Bambara's text--apparently, to little avail. But because this book of cosmic connections affords so many avenues of access, I decided to try a less conventional route--one suggested by Bambara via one of her characters. During the climax of 7he Salt Eaters, as the rain begins to fall, the writer/waiter Campbell is "about to make a connection; he'd been clutching at an idea and it was trying to come together, congeal, get structured into something speakable" (245). A lightening flash imprints the next moment on his memory, as he is

stunned still with no thought of movement that might jar the idea

taking shape, so simple a connection, he'd known it for years but had

failed to appreciate it. Of course everything was everything....

Damballah is similar to, he wrote, and scratched that out, Damballah

is the first law of thermodynamics and is the Biblical wisdom and is

the law of time and is, Campbell wrote, everything that is now and

has been before and will be again in a new way, in a changed form, in

a timeless time. (249)

I was similarly stunned when, after providing the class with a brief introduction to chemical dissipative systems (a topic that combines thermodynamics and the law of time), the students immediately, clearly, made numerous connections to the text that gave them access to Bambara's ideas. In the pages that follow, I share this overview and indicate some of the aspects of The Salt Eaters that are elucidated by the science. I conclude by speculating briefly about why English majors at a liberal arts college found this mode of access as helpful as they did. Their willingness to use science reflects not only the legitimating power that it holds in Western culture and its concomitant importance in texts that present "hybrid realities," but also students' reluctance to " appropriate" modes of access to which they did not feel they had an equally strong claim.

Chemical dissipative systems are a topic discussed within the rubric of "chaos studies," a new branch of science that is interdisciplinary both in its approach and its explanatory power. Made comprehensible to lay audiences through James Gleick's widely-sold Chaos: Making a New Science, chaos has also been made somewhat familiar through the mass-marketed images of fractals on posters, coffee mugs, T-shirts, calendars, and the like. While fractals offer an eye-catching introduction to chaos studies, the work of the Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine provides an especially thought-provoking dimension. Prigogine has contributed to establishing and advocating a view of this new science as one focused on becoming, as opposed to classical and quantum mechanics, which emphasize being. This shift in focus allows for a reinscription of time into science; and this change is one of the revolutionary aspects of chaos studies, one that allows us to bring Western physics and metaphysics into synchrony in a new way. In both From Being to Becoming and Order Out of Chaos, Prigogine advocates a reinterpretation of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy (the measure of a system's disorder) is always increasing in a closed system. As the entropy of a system increases, less and less energy can be put to useful purposes--so the system becomes more and more random. Starting with this basic principle, Prigogine explains both why time is irreversible and why highly ordered subsystems can exist within a larger system that is ostensibly running down.

To understand the irreversibility of time, imagine watching a film of a china plate that is dropped to the floor and shatters, then imagine seeing the film run backwards. In the forward version, the plate falls, hits the floor, shatters, and shards scatter in all directions. If we run the film backwards, then hundreds of shards converge on a central location, organize into a symmetric cluster, fuse into a whole, and ascend skyward. The film cannot be run in reverse and appear reasonable to us, for both our experiences of time and the second law of thermodynamics dictate that systems tend toward disorder rather than order. What Prigogine does in his redefinition of the second law of thermodynamics is offer a scientific counterpart to our common-sensical understanding of this situation.

Prigogine begins by asserting that the entropy of a system is linked to the "information" of that system. He then argues that the irreversibility of time is a consequence of an infinite "information barrier." Therefore, the second law of thermodynamics can be regarded as a selection principle, because

to each initial condition [in a system]

there corresponds an "information."

All initial conditions for which this

information is finite are permitted.

However, to reverse the direction of

time we would need infinite information;

we cannot produce situations that

would evolve into our past! (Prigogine

and Stengers 295) That is, for the backward version of the film to be plausible, we would need to be able to know not only where each shard of china was at the "outset," but also everything else about the situation which might affect the movement of the plate pieces--like the location of all the dust on the floor, the properties of the flooring material, the wear-and-tear that changed the surface of the floor, etc. We would need to account for so many variables to get the pieces to connect in precisely the right way that doing so is impossible, the "information barrier" is not simply high, it is infinite.

Prigogine speculates about the important metaphysical possibilities inherent to his views, noting that his irreversibility arguments form "the last stage of a progressive reinsertion of history into the natural and social sciences" (Prigogine and Stengers 208), thereby allowing us to reconsider the importance of the system's past in any consideration of the current state of a system. His view also allows for a renewed stress upon individual behavior and upon chance as positive agents for change:

A system far from equilibrium may be

described as organized not because it

realizes a plan alien to elementary activities,

or transcending them, but, on

the contrary, because the amplification

of a microscopic fluctuation occurring

at the "right moment" resulted in favoring

one reaction path over a number

of other equally possible paths. Under

certain circumstances, therefore, the

role played by individual behavior can

be decisive. More generally, the "over-all"

behavior cannot in general be taken

as dominating in any way the elementary

processes constituting it. Self-organizing

processes in far-from-equilibrium

conditions correspond to a

delicate interplay between chance and

necessity. (Prigogine and Stengers 176) Thus, Prigogine sees complex, self-organizing subsystems as a logical consequence when chance and necessity function complementarily, not antagonistically. One situation in which one can clearly see chance and necessity functioning in such a way is in systems that are "far from equilibrium." In these environments, "new types of structures may originate spontaneously ... new dynamic states ... that reflect the interactions of a given system with its surroundings" (Prigogine and Stengers 12).

Just as his revised understanding of the second law of thermodynamics demands a rethinking of our valuation of both history and chance, Prigogine's argument that these "dissipative structures"(2) are actually extremely ordered subsystems arising spontaneously in a chaotic moment of a system's evolution is yet another mandate to rethink the relations between order and disorder, chaos and complexity. Although the entropy of a closed system is always increasing within this tendency toward homogeneity, there are often pockets' of increased order. This increased order, or self-organization, does not usually occur when the system is close to equilibrium, but rather when it is quite far from it. Consequently, it appears that very highly ordered subsystems literary emerge from chaos.

One laboratory instance of this self-organization is a chemical clock, which Prigogine and Stengers describe by saying:

Suppose we have two kinds of

molecules, "red" and "blue." [If we

put them in a beaker, then] because of

the chaotic motion of the molecules,

we would expect that at a given moment

we would have more red molecules,

say, in the left part of a vessel. Then a

bit later more blue molecules would

appear, and so on. The vessel would

appear to us as " violet," with occasional

irregular flashes of red or blue. However,

this is not what happens with a

chemical clock, here the system is all

blue, then it abruptly changes in color

to red, then again to blue. Because all

of these changes occur at regular time

intervals, we have a coherent process.

(147-48) This simple dissipative structure displays three key aspects of self-organization: First, it has a pattern of organization that requires us to take into account all of the relationships in order to define the system as an integrated whole; second, its structure is the "physical realization of the pattern of organization in space and time"; and third, an organizing activity is essential to realizing this pattern of organization.(3) To understand dissipative systems, we must consider many interacting elements, the processes in which they are involved, and the "internal" time, or system time, that such processes highlight.

Prigogine and Stengers sketch out the philosophical presuppositions inherent to the revised view they espouse, asserting that the relationship among observing scientist, laws of dynamics, and systems under examination

does not correspond to a logical or

epistemological truth but refers to our

condition as macroscopic beings in a

world far from equilibrium. Moreover,

an essential characteristic of our

scheme is that it does not suppose any

fundamental mode of description; each

level of description is implied by

another and implies the other. We need

a multiplicity of levels that are all connected,

none of which may have a claim

to preeminence. (300) In eschewing hierarchy and externally imposed orders and logics, Prigogine and Stengers present an image of systemic interaction in accord with that endorsed by feminist philosophers of science, but contrary to many people's understanding of how science "is." Therefore, Prigogine and Stengers seem to feel they must assure the reader that chemical clocks are real:

Such a degree of order stemming from

the activity of billions of molecules

seems incredible and indeed,

if chemical clocks had not been

observed, no one would

believe that such a process is

possible. To change color all

at once, molecules must have

a way to "communicate." The

system has to act a8 a whole

.... Dissipative structures introduce

probably one of the

simplest physical mechanisms

for communication.


This anthropomorphizing is unsettling but is not unique to Prigogine and Stengers. Fritjof Capra also suggests a degree of currently inexplicable communicative ability among system components when he observes that, "for self-organizing systems, the pattern of organization is characterized by a mutual dependency of the system's parts ... [and] the pattern of self-organization has the additional property that gives the whole system an individual identity" (150). Thus, at the same time that self-organizing systems prompt us to regard whole systems and interactions rather than elementary units and static structures, they also force us to recognize that the logic of these interactions, mysterious as it may be, is inherent to the system. Even though dissipative structures arise within larger environments, their organizing principles are arrived at from within.

Chemical clocks help us to understand the new focus in science upon systems, process, and communication within the self-organizing structure in far-from-equilibrium conditions, while the "china plate-system" reminds us to consider both the irreversibility of time and the mix of necessity and chance which constitute the history of a system. Crucially, the recognition that irreversibility is inherent to the system, and not simply a misperception based on technical or theoretical limitations to knowledge-gathering requires that we perceive this "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" as a powerful trigger for change. Systems are irreversible, and a small jolt to a system can have wide-ranging consequences; therefore, a new promise (or threat) of causing global transformations through local impingements seems virtually unavoidable.

Prigogine and Stengers note that, in complex systems, "each individual action or each local intervention has a collective aspect that can result in quite unanticipated global changes' (203). Prigogine acknowledges that we are only slowly assimilating these recognitions about systemic behavior into "new 'tools of thought'" (Prigogine and Stengers 203), although he believes doing so is imperative. Further, he notes that systemic models should be extended to involve the scientist in the processes under investigation, for |nature cannot be described 'from the outside,' as if by a spectator. Description is dialogue, communication, and this communication is subject to constraints that demonstrate that we are macroscopic beings embedded in the physical world" (Prigogine and Stengers 300). While Prigogine recognizes that we are part of the systems we are describing Henry Stapp (of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) adds a very explicit ethical dimension to the discussion of recent systemic revisions:

... man appears no longer as an isolated

automaton. He appears rather as

an integral part of the highly nonlocal

creative activity of the universe. This

revision of the conception of a person,

and of his perceived relation to the rest

of nature, cannot help but have an

immense impact on what is perceived

as valuable. It must inevitably lead us

away from the egocentric bias that was

the rational product of the ontology

of classical physics, to the values inherent

in the image of self, not as a

local isolated automaton but rather as

a nonlocalizable integrated aspect of

the creative impulse of the universe.

The critical question is whether this

offering of science in the realm of

human values can come to fruition

soon enough to avert the perils that

have arisen from the power of science

in other realms. (57) The question Stapp raises for the new science, like so many of the points that Prigogine makes about dissipative systems, has analogues in the fiction being written now by African-American women. While it is unlikely that the parallels contribute to readers' appreciation of these texts at a conscious level,(4) they very likely enable some readers who are not concertedly feminist or attuned to an African-American perspective to be receptive to these texts. Such readers have become acclimated to a metaphysic like that espoused within the texts through contact with a corresponding scientific view.

This confluence was crucial to my students' understanding of The Salt Eaters, for, after being provided with an introduction to some of the work being done on dissipative systems, they extracted key ideas that seemed likely to have metaphorical resonances for literary texts. These ideas included the following: From the china plate example, we concluded that the infinite information barrier means that, although time cannot go backward, we need to know the system history in order to understand the present and future of that system. Further, chance and sensitive dependence on initial conditions are important--both in their own right and in suggesting that individual action can have far-reaching consequences. Moving from this recognition about chance to the relations between order and chaos, we agreed that the two are complementary, and that if dissipative systems arise in far from equilibrium conditions in chemistry, then they might do so in society. We kept in mind the three key features of dissipative systems, for they seemed very likely to have counterparts in this text. (The system has a pattern of organization that takes all of the parts and their relationships to one another into account; the structure is the physical realization of the pattern of organization; and an organizing activity is essential to the system's "becoming.") Accepting that this meant that dissipative systems were governed by internal logics that seemed mysterious, and that the parts seemed able to communicate in inexplicable ways, we agreed that many levels of description would be necessary to understand the system, and that new relations between observer and system--relations that made the observer aware that she was actually involved in the system and not an outsider--were important. Lastly, we sensed that Stapp was correct, that the interconnection also introduced an ethical dimension into the relations. Perhaps that link between interconnectivity and a renewed commitment to the ethical dimension of inquiry is what Bambara is alluding to when she says that what she is "striving for," is "to work at the point of interface between the political/artistic/metaphysical, that meeting place where all contradictions and polarities melt, that bicameral mind membrane" ("Salvation" 43).

Working at the interface of scientific/ literary/metaphysical, we immediately noted that Bambara's novel redirects readers' attentions away from autonomy and individuated subjects, and toward wholes as significant units for inquiry. The Salt Eaters does this in very explicit and political terms, indicating that personal wholeness, political wholeness, and personal and social well-being are all of a piece. Beginning when the healer, Minnie Ransom, asks Velma Henry if she wants" 'to be well' (3), and adds" 'just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well" (10), we become aware that "wholeness" relates to balance, to a sense of all the parts working together. Nearly a hundred pages--but only five minutes--later, Minnie asks her again to be sure that she can" 'afford to be whole" (106). While Velma is certainly the central character in this novel, this emphasis upon her wholeness--or lack of wholeness--prompts us to realize that even the delineation of "persons" as "characters" suggests a boundedness and autonomy that is at least arbitrary, at most inappropriate.(5) While the characters are, of course, discrete in that they occupy individual bodies, we see that who they are is constituted relationally to a very high degree; therefore, we can't talk about one without linking that one character to many others. The novel allows us to see that Velma, as a person, is as much a conglomeration of parts, influences, and experiences as is any social group or event.

Her physical and psychic wholeness is a necessary condition for wellness, both for Velma and for the people and causes with whom she is involved. Obie, her husband, recognizes this during the time that Velma is falling apart; the 7 Arts Academy where both of them work is suffering the same rifting and schisming that Velma is:

It was starting up again, [Obie noticed,]

the factions, the intrigue. A replay of

all the old ideological splits: the street

youth as vanguard, the workers as

vanguard; self-determination in the

Black Belt, Black rule of U.S.A.; strategic

coalitions, independent political action.

Camps were forming threatening

to tear the Academy apart... He

wanted wholeness in his life again.

(90) These events are not merely simultaneous, but are recapitulations of one another, for Obie notices that "things had seemed more pulled together when Velma had been there, in the house and in the Academy. Not that her talents ran in the peace-making vein. But ... it was all of a piece with Velma around" (92).

This systemic emphasis is further manifest in a fragmented conversation between Obie and his Arkansas-born Korean masseuse, Ahiro, a brief newage consideration of one interrelationship of parts and wholes. During a massage, Obie mumbles disjointedly about" 'pressure points of the human body . . . pressure points of the system ... the U.S.... pressure. Yeh ... Points of the body ... apply pressure to the system ... parallel ... interesting'" (162). Ahiro picks up the thread, telling Obie that " 'them Euro-Americans over at the Hurdy Farm . . . that new-age community ... say Claybourne's a major energy center, one of the chakras of this country.... Talk about some parallels?'" (162-63). The two men are noticing a recursion of sorts across levels in the system, an iteration of an image or pattern through the system.

Bambara indicates the importance of this kind of recursion by positioning Velma at the pivot-point of several concentric realms in which balance is being sought. Therefore, we regard her condition as characteristic of each of the realms in which she figures. Her individual and marital instability provides a very local, or personal, sphere in which negative pressures contribute to an imbalance; the renewed strain in the 7 Arts Academy after her departure illustrates a parallel but broader, institutional instance; the town of Claybourne, split between employees of Transchemical and activists who oppose its presence (Velma is employed by both camps), represents a still more general instance. Indeed, as Gloria Hull maintains, Velma and Minnie are positioned at the "literal-metaphoric center" and from the center, the threads web out, holding a place and weaving links between everything and everybody. At the same time, this center is a nexus which pulls the outside in--setting up the dialectic of connectedness which is both meaning and structure of the book" (217). This dialectic of connectedness will allow the healing that is occurring in the Southwest Community Infirmary to extend beyond Velma and into the many systems she inhabits.

One goal of the many activists in Claybourne is to heal in a wider sphere, to help restore an appropriate balance to community and country. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that most of the characters privilege relationships and relational ways of knowing. Sitting mutely on a stool during much of the novel, Bambara's protagonist is created for us relationally--through the images offered by other characters and through her own reveries, clairvoyant dreams, and presentiments. While we often learn a great deal about novel characters from other characters, Bambara allows us to learn about Velma predominantly from others--her husband, her godmother, her co-workers among the Women in Action, her sister, and many other people who add a detail here, an overheard reference there. We also learn about her from the Velma of the past--a being patently different from the Velma at the close of the novel.

Not only do we gain our understanding of Velma's self relationally, we learn that others regard her as a being who functions relationally. Sophie Heywood, Velma's godmother, makes this clear while she sits in Doc Serge's office during Velma's healing. Angry enough to follow her questions with an implied bop on her godchild's head, Sophie wonders aloud, "And did you [Velma] think your life is yours alone to do with as you please? That I, your folks, your family, and all who care for you have no say-so in the matter? Whop!" (148). Because she is part of a network of beings interconnected by close relationships, Velma would hurt many by committing suicide, moreover, Sophie points out her political connections in similar language, wondering, "What the hell, Vee, did you think you were doing, cutting on yourself and trying to die in an oven? And with so few seasoned workers left. Whop!" (152). The linguistic parallel reinforces the recursive connection between the personal and the political that is essential not only to this novel but to many 1960s' and 1970s' articulations of both feminist and black activisms. Thus Velma's identity here is constituted relationally in several ways: We see her as a node in a personal network that is also a political network, both because she is created for us by the other inhabitants of that network and because Sophie (one of those inhabitants) makes this sort of identity explicit; we also see her as a character who connects the political values being expressed in this novel to those of many activist groups in the world the readers inhabit.

The high value that Bambara and her characters place on relationships carries over into their approaches to experience. Rather than either limiting her characters to Western, scientific, rational ways of knowing, or eschewing those entirely in favor of "spiritual arts," Bambara presents characters who draw effectively upon many ways of understanding their world. The 7 Arts Academy teaches "the performing arts, the martial arts, the medical arts, the scientific arts, and the arts and humanities" (120), but Jan and other teachers at the Academy supplement this "general curriculum" with Tarot reading, palm reading, numerology, and other ways of knowing. In fact, Gloria Hull has inventoried the "avenues of knowing/being" to which the different characters appeal in making sense of experience. They include:

telepathy and other psychic

phenomena; astrology; dream

analysis; numerology; colorimetry; the

Tarot; past life glances and reincarnation;

the Ouija board, reading auras,

palms, tea leaves, cards, and energy

maps; throwing cowrie shells; herbal

and folk medicines; voices, visions,

and signs; witches, loas, swamphags;

saints, djinns, and divas; the "ancient

wisdoms"; the power of prayer;" "root

men ... conjure women ... obeah

folks"; divination; demons; and so on.

(220) And while the characters employ these diverse "spiritual" methods, Hull notes that Bambara's text also draws extensively upon

ancient and modem history, world

literature, anthropology, mythology,

music, astronomy, physics, biology,

mathematics, medicine, political

theory, chemistry, philosophy, and engineering.

Allusions to everything

from space-age technology through

Persian folklore to black American

blues comfortably jostle each other.

(226) Bambara presents these various spiritual and analytic approaches, so often considered antithetical to one another, as not only complementary, but as radically related. In "Salvation Is the Issue," Bambara explains that musicians, painters, potters, computer folk, et al. have been introducing me to all sorts of work materials, just as mystics, linguists, physicists, and cinematographers have been steering me toward new language possibilities" (45). Connected for Bambara in ways that help her to improve her writing these various disciplines are interconnected in the text as well.

To ensure that we recognize that one subsystem is not being privileged at the expense of the other, she has Campbell realize their interconnection. A self-proclaimed "child prodigy" who has gone on to demonstrate "persistent genius" (208), Campbell is working in the cafe where Jan and Ruby are eating when the thunder rumbles. As the thunder is beginning signifying the start of the transformation, Campbell recalls that he "knew in a glowing moment that all the systems were the same at base--voodoo, thermodynamics, I Ching, astrology, numerology, alchemy, metaphysics, everybody's ancient myths--they were all interchangeable, not at all separate much less conflicting." (210). By being able to see that the borders between these disciplines are constructed rather than essential, Campbell is able to make propitious border transgressions; his ability "to discuss fission in terms of billiards, to couch principles of thermonuclear dynamics in the language of down-home Bible-quoting folks" (210) helps him achieve both personal growth and career advancement.

As the thunder crashes reached crescendo, "sounding the knell of the authoritarian age, the thunderous beginning of the new humanism" (248), Campbell "stunned" himself with a connection, realizing that "of course everything was everything." Damballah is the first law of thermodynamics and is the Biblical wisdom and is the law of time" (249). Making such extensive connections, seeing fundamental interrelatedness, Bambara seems to argue, is essential to reconceiving cause and effect for the new age. On this point, she is quite close to Prigogine, when he contends that sensitive dependence requires a reconceptualization of causality.

These new patterns for knowing translate into new patterns for being; and while The Salt Eaters is true to contemporary experiences of teenage single parents (like Nadeen), couples troubled by marital affairs (like Obie and Velma), and others entangled in unsatisfying personal relationships (like Fred Holt and Margie), it also presents some non-hierarchical non-dominating relationships that demonstrate the alternatives possible with a revised worldview. The most striking example is the Seven Sisters, a group of women who perform at various political and cultural events.(6) Called either by obviously ethnic personal names (Nilda, Chezia, Mai, Inez, for example) or by subsistence food-linked cultural designations (the sisters of the yam, plantain, rice, corn, etc.), these women work and play together all over the country. They devise murals, songs, plays, and the like which reflect both their multi-cultural heritage and the fundamental similarities among the problems various cultures face. And while a sister may leave to pursue another aspect of her life, as Inez does, the family' continues because she selects, or the troupe finds, a replacement. Their collective suggests an alternative to the nuclear family and to obligatory heterosexuality, one which avoids risks of domination due to age or gender.

Such collectives come into being of necessity, arise because "far-from-equilibrium conditions" make apparent an acute need to reorganize many levels of existence. And circumstances in Claybourne are certainly metaphorically very far from equilibrium. In addition to the personal strife in which Velma is embroiled and the tensions at the 7 Arts Academy, the computer records at Transchemical have all been erased (and Velma is the first suspect)--leading to still further, and potentially quite dangerous, unrest. On top of these problems is the unrest endemic to carnival, for the book occurs on the afternoon that Spring Festival begins. Out on a walk to calm himself, staid Dr. Meadows discovers the characteristic chaos of carnival: He meets three young black men in drag who invite him to join them and urge him to "have a carnal carnival dearie!'" (179). This encounter unnerves Meadows, spurs him to decide that 'carnival did strange things to people evidently. No Black man he had ever known goofed on himself like that" (180). Carnival provides the community with the kind of outrageous "fun" and "welcome madness" that "Miss Geula Khufu, formerly Tina Mason, the seamstress' daughter" musters for the few women in her dancing class (166-67). Indeed, carnival and laughter here function as M. M. Bakhtin maintains they did for medieval folk, serving as the

social consciousness of all the people.

Man experiences this ... in the carnival

crowd, as he comes into contact

with other bodies of varying age and

social caste. He is aware of being a

member of a continually growing and

renewed people. This is why festive

folk laughter presents an element of

victory not only over supernatural awe,

over the sacred, over death; it also

means the defeat of power, of earthly

kings, of the earthly upper classes, of

all that oppresses and restricts. (92) In this realm of carnival, a far-from-equilibrium, out-of-the-ordinary environment, the Seven Sisters and the 7 Arts both offer models of people coming together to effect change, constructing a new order in the midst of chaos, "waking up hypnons" (Prigogine's phrase for triggering inactive elements) like the bus driver Fred Holt, and positing alternatives to the dominating modes of all those who oppress and restrict.

Bambara's narrative techniques reflect the dynamics she establishes within the text, reinforcing our awareness that new ontologies and epistemologies are being suggested as viable rescriptings of the old arrangement. The new society's emphasis upon wholes, relational identity and understanding collective action, establishing order out of chaos, and revising our understanding of causality find analogues in Bambara's literary methods. In addition to some of the techniques mentioned in the preceding pages, Bambara achieves part of her refocusing by apportioning narrative attention among characters: The main focus jumps from Velma (chapter 1) to Minnie and Old Wife (chapter 2) to Fred Holt and the occupants of his bus (chapter 3) to Obie (chapter 4) to the occupants of the infirmary (chapter 5) to Palma and Marcus, Sophie and Fred chapter 6) and so on for another six chapters. As a consequence of this sharing time in these chapters contracts and dilates to maintain an overall sense of simultaneity among the events described. In fact, the nearly three hundred-page text "occurs" in only about an hour.

For Velma, who is not talking or acting in the present moment, this overall contemporaneity is secured because her chapters are composed primarily of recollections and reveries. These and other "absent" events--like Fred's memories of Porter and Obie's thoughts of Roland and the woman he has raped--have the same ontological status as the events in the present of the narrative. Spatial and temporal proximity, we sense, are not necessary conditions for authenticity. This attitude is especially evident in the first chapter, for the scenes Velma conjures up are obviously critical to understanding her present condition--but are spatially and temporally remote events. Bambara is here redefining what counts as part of the description of an event (in short, what counts). Her focus leads to a non-linear, revised causality: In the first chapter, Velma's memories are very loosely "nested," like framed tales-within-tales, so that four levels of action and recollection are presented as relatively simultaneous. The effect of non-symmetric nesting,like that found in Velma's recollections, is what Douglas Hofstadter calls a "tangled hetarchy" 134)--"tangled" because we do not move from

A[arrow right]B[arrow right]C[arrow right]D[arrow right]C[arrow right]B[arrow right]A (that is, each recollection is not neatly nested, but jumps back and forth, seemingly at random) and "hetarchy" because events are presented not in a hierarchy of varying importance, but as equally significant.

Tangled hetarchies seem confusing when encountered for the first time, but they offer a useful and politically charged alternative to the orderly hierarchy of linear narrative. Through Bambara's, for example, we develop a sense of the injustices and frustrations that Velma recalls as being of comparable consequence, each contributing to her present state, not through an event-A-triggered-event-B logic, but because the accretion pushed her from one system-state (relatively in control) to another (out of control).

Which state a system will settle into remains up in the air, Prigogine has taught us, until a critical nudge pushes it out of one mode and into another. In Prigogine's formulation, the system can take alternative routes: "When we reach the bifurcation point" he remarks, "we have ... a "choice" between two possibilities" (Prigogine and Stengers 161). Such choice is built into the worldview that Bambara presents in The Salt Eaters. Many episodes in the novel offer subjunctive options, representing a character's consideration of "what if I had done X instead?" Having decided not to crash the bus into the swamp, for example, Fred Holt announces "five minutes" to Claybourne, and all of the occupants of the bus become still--as if having heard something momentous. The narrator offers a long series of 'they might have been X" (where X is mimes, children playing red light/green light, etc.) to convey the sense of their appearance. This series of statement-counter-to-fact concludes with an event-counter-to-fact: In "another time," the narrator records that Fred "did ram the bus through the railing and rode it into the marshes' (86). The narrative then elaborately traces the course of events that would have occurred if he had. Similarly, as Velma is deciding that she wants to be well she recounts each of the moments she could have died, the moments when the trajectory of the system might have taken another route.

Minnie Ransom is one of the characters consistently aware that she can make choices, that she can change the trajectory of the system--and she wants to convey this power to her patients, as we hear quite early in the narrative. Telling Old Wife about a woman who thought the song There's a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza" was a sign that she should "go after her husband with a hammer,' " Minnie grumbles," 'Full-grown women talking about a song told her to hit her husband in the head. Like she don't have options. Hmph.... But like I say, she got options. Just like Liza in the song.... Always got options.... Options. Affirmation and denial'" (44). Like Minnie, M'Dear Sophie realizes that we have options, and regards the situation at the novel's close as one with "new possibilities in formation, a new configuration to move with" (293), the "configuration" which has been heralded by the deafening thunder, on the one hand, and by Velma's recovery, on the other.

In fact, the final line of the novel-"...Velma, rising on steady legs, throws off the shawl that drops down on the stool a burst cocoon" (295)--indicates that Velma has at last become whole, that the "vestigial wings" Sophie noticed on her as a child have unfurled. She would remember the moment of thunder as "the moment she started back toward life .... And years hence she would laugh remembering she'd thought that was an ordeal. She didn't know the half of it. Of what waited in the years to come" (278). Her future memories suggest that Velma uses her new-found wholeness to become a more effective "agent of change," capable of greater success because she has united her rational, computer-jockey side with her spiritual gift' (293), re-establishing internally the balance that the 7 Arts Academy, with its combined attention to body, spirit, and mind, tries to help the members of the community maintain.

Perhaps because Bambara herself has an interest in the ways of knowing manifest in contemporary scientific inquiry, as well as because the contemporary black aesthetic shares many of the same ontological assumptions (albeit arriving at them from different directions),The Salt Eaters enacts reformulations of the novel that highlight relational qualities, the significance of "minor characters' to the identity of major ones, and the sensitive dependence that systems have to even small events--literary analogues to the reformulations enacted within chaos studies. While Bambara is not unique among African-American writers in furthering these ideas and this aesthetic, her method of presentation is especially challenging to new readers. The difficulty of her text is likely one reason that students who also regard science as "hard" were willing to make connections between the two. This similarity, though, is less important than two complementary concerns about knowledge systems: First, that science is a legitimating discourse in American culture and, second, that students are reluctant to "co-opt" knowledge systems to which they do not feel a claim.

Striking a reasonable balance between critically employing what we might (with great self-consciousness) call First World and Third World knowledge is a challenge akin to that experienced by the authors whom Kumkum Sangari, in "The Politics of the Possible," labels" hybrid writers"--individuals who work in a postcolonial context.(7) Sangari argues that readers can quite readily find apparent conjunctions between narrative modes in postcolonial literature and in Western postmodern literature, similarities which seem to indicate that poststructuralist modes of inquiry can clarify the projects of those hybrid writers. He goes on, however, to say that such analyses often produces misreadings: Taken out of context, "various formal affinities can easily be abstracted from a different mode of cognition, the non-mimetic can be read as anti-mimetic, difference can easily be made the excuse for sameness" (181). That is, while the postcolonial and postmodern narratives might look similar, the epistemological assumptions that led the two writers to employ a certain narrative strategy are so different that they ought not to be equated. Given this, one needs to ask whether chaos studies and contemporary African-American women's fiction can really be mutually illuminating? I suspect Sangari would say "probably not," for he evinces an especially critical attitude toward science in relation to Third World texts, contending that " the development of science and technology within the structures of neocolonialism may guarantee continuous dependence" of the colonized upon the colonizer (172). Science and technology are often important in postcolonial texts, in which they stand, alternatively, as counterpoints to the magical or indigenous elements, or are themselves recoded as magical by those characters who do not understand them. In both cases, the scientific elements become emblematic of First World incursions. Because of their totemic quality, scientific elements are especially prominent in texts by writers who consciously represent their "hybrid reality" like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or Leslie Marmon Silko).(8) When reading such texts, then, one would do well to be aware of the function of science (and its implications), just as one benefits from recognizing elements drawn from indigenous traditions.

When teaching postcolonial of us assume that students bring with them an awareness of contemporary concerns and Western philosophical traditions; consequently, we spend more time introducing elements from other traditions that they are less likely to know in order to round out the "hybrid perspective" we wish to simulate. In fact, though, most students need coaching in order to think about the metaphysical assumptions implicit to Western science--largely because American students frequently accept science as simply true. All of the students in my African-American women's fiction seminar had completed college science courses as part of their core curriculum, and all acknowledged that they assumed science offered unmediated access to Truth. Their faith in science certainly did not begin in their college science classes; rather, as citizens of the post-industrial United States, they share this belief with most of their country-people. Consequently, when I offered them tools derived from science--from the dominant legitimating discourse of modem Western culture--to help them gain access to a literary text, they presumed that these tools could give them "the right answer."(9) Their faith in the tools gave them back a faith in themselves, one that (as I will explain) had been lost for a time. With continued reading and discussion, they were able to see more clearly the role that science actually played in the text, and to realize that it was one of many knowledge systems being presented. It provided an initial "mode of access" an entry when other routes seemed barred, and therefore occupied a privileged position in our subsequent interpretation of the text.

This privileged status of science seems less problematic when we are discussing texts produced in the United States than those produced (as in Sangari's examples) in Latin America or India, even when these U.S. texts are by members of groups whose works can be read well using postcolonial approaches. However, when we move from thinking about critical interpretations to classroom situations, we again become aware of the need to strive for a delicately balanced "hybrid perspective." In the course I taught, eighty percent of the students were self-identified as white" and twenty percent were African-American; and I believe that the dynamics surrounding race in this group further contributed to the students' eagerness to find answers via science. Given the increasing interest in multicultural literature nationwide, I anticipate that other classrooms are and will continue to be similarly populated.

Because students at this small liberal arts college have choices about what senior seminar they take, nearly all of the students who took this class did so due to a genuine interest in the topic. I believe such an interest is usually accompanied by a sensitivity to issues of race and gender, that students who would take this class would probably not be (consciously) particularly racist or sexist. However, even when the individuals are fairly sensitive, tensions that are directly linked to race or gender conflict can arise. For example, on the first day, a student suggested that a white woman was not well-suited to teach a course on African-American women's fiction; this objection, in turn, led to a lengthy, multi-participant discussion about why one reads and discusses literature written by members of groups other than one's own.(10) Little mention was made, inside the classroom, of this discussion during the rest of the semester; however, it triggered numerous discussions outside the classroom. Many of these talks involved one African-American student's telling her Caucasian classmates that their interest in African-American women's fiction was a form of cultural appropriation that she resented. Unable to discuss these issues comfortably, many of the Caucasian students simply opted not to talk voluntarily in class, except on the days their peer was absent. Because they assumed that their classmate was correct when she told them that their interest in "her" culture was inappropriate and offensive, students who did not want to be rude were in a quandary. They were learning that texts exist within cultural contexts, but felt uncomfortable about employing the new information being provided about African-American culture and traditions to access the texts. However, when provided with additional tools to talk about Bambara's text that were not drawn from African-American culture, but from a realm that they felt was somehow their own, these students were comfortable and able to participate well. The assurance that they (re)gained in that claw session carried over into subsequent meetings, in which they were able to meld knowledge from various sources more effectively. The students who were temporarily silenced and who regained their voices "&" to modern science!) had been having difficulty achieving a "hybrid perspective"; however, their difficulty was due not to lack of ability, but to a desire not to offend.

As we revise the curriculum to include literature that represents diverse cultural experiences, we implicitly raise vexing questions about cultural appropriation. Although it might seem at first to be the most culturally dominating option available, incorporating scientific ideas into the discussion helped these students to regard texts from a more genuinely hybrid perspective. They were able to read Bambara's text, and to see that African-American fiction is not a closed system. Seeing that the texts were part of an open system, created in and reflecting a hybrid reality, allowed students to see that interpretation is also hybrid--incorporating many forms of explanation and influenced by many sources. This realization helped quite a few of the students to feel that they had both the ability and the right to discuss the texts. And while most of the students continued trying not to offend their classmate, many were able to incorporate more knowledge of African-American culture into their explanations, to interpret from a hybrid--but still polite--perspective. (1.) Susan Willis makes a similar point in Specifying, when she notes that the book can occasion a "confusion" that is apt to "overwhelm even the most skilled and persistent readers of modernist novels' (130). (2.) Dissipative systems are thus named to emphasize their link between higher degrees of order and higher energy demands; establishing the new level of order requires a great deal of energy (3.) Fritjof Capra enumerates these basic traits (150) in a discussion of Prigogine's effort to shif focus of contemporary studies in chemistry from being to becoming. (4.) Except in a classroom situation! (5.) In a lecture entitled "The Theory in the Figure: Feminist Figurations for Unmanly Worlds," Donna Haraway laughingly observed that human being are 90 percent "junk," that our genome indicates we are "cobbled together congeries" of parts that have been incorporated into the body over time rather than well-delimited, inviolate members of a species that has, historically, been "uninva I think Bambara would like this version of human genetics. (6.) Hull points out that The Seven Sisters was one of three working titles for this book (231). (7.) Many critics have discussed the appropriateness of postcolonial theory to African-American literature in the last few years. See Kelley, regarding the appropriateness of this approach for dis both African-American and Native American texts. See Ashcroft Griffiths, and Tiffin, for an argument that all American literature can be regarded as postcolonial. (8.) For a useful discussion of "hybrid realities," see Gomez-Pena. (9.) Getting students to entertain the idea that science might not be true is an important related issue, but one that I cannot develop here. (10.) An entire (and extremely well-attended) panel entitled "What Business Is It of Ours?" at the Second Annual Women Writers of Color Conference (Maryland, May 1992) was devoted to questions surrounding the appropriateness of white faculty members' teaching literature of peoples of color. Therefore, it seems safe to say that, while the issues we raise are different from those rais by this students, they are are linked to a concern with cultural appropriations. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiff in. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in

Post-colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989. Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Bambara, Toni Cade. The Salt Eaters. New York: Random, 1981. "Salvation Is the Issue." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari

Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 41 A7. Capra, Fritjof. "The Role of Physics in the Current Change of Paradigms." Kitchener 144-55. Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking, 1987. Gomez-Pena, Guillermo. "Documented/Undocumented." The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural

Literacy. Ed. Rick Simonson and Scott Walker. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1988. 127-34. Haraway, Donna. "The Theory in the Figure: Feminist Figurations for Unmanly Worlds." Diss. Indiana

U, 1991. Hofstadter, Douglas R. Godel, Escher, Bach., An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Random, 1979. Hull, Gloria. " |What it is I Think She's Doing Anyhow': A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt

Eaters." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 216-32. Kelley, Robert. "Virtual Realism: Virtual Reality, Magical Realism, and Late Twentieth-Century Techn of Representation." Diss. Indiana U, 1992. Kitchener, Richard, ed. The World View of Contemporary Physics: Does It Need a New

Metaphysics? Albany: State U of New York P, 1988. Prigogine, Ilya. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences. New York:

Freeman, 1980. Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. Toronto:

Bantam, 1984. Sangari, Kumkum. "The Politics of the Possible." Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 157-86. Stapp, Henry. "Quantum Theory and the Physicist's Conception of Nature: Philosophical Implications of Bell's Theorem." Kitchener 38-58. Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin

P. 1987. Margot Anne Kelley is an assistant professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in multiethnic American literature and literary theory. She is currently at work on a book concerning connections between contemporary fiction and scientific theories about complexity.
COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kelley, Margot Anne
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Talking to Wendy at my mother's funeral.
Next Article:Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy.

Related Articles
Reading South: Poets mean & poems signify - a note on origins.
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays and Conversations.
Those Bones Are Not My Child.
Reclaiming Community in Contemporary African American Fiction.
Those Bones Are Not My Child.
Bambara's feisty girls: resistance narratives in Gorilla, My Love.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters