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Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction.

Conte, Joseph. 2002. Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. $59.95 hc. $24.95 sc. 312 pp.

Academics interested in postmodern theory will enjoy Joseph Conte's Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. Its theoretical conjectures--if problematic--are nevertheless bold and interesting, and Conte's application of theory to individual works yields remarkable interpretations. Taking his lead from works like N. Katherine Hayles's Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990), Conte further develops and applies chaos theory to postmodern literature, explicating it in the context of the United States. Here, he examines numerous authors, prominent among them John Hawkes, Kathy Acker, Don Delillo, and Thomas Pynchon.

His theory of postmodern literature, like Fredric Jameson's, envisions a permanent and irreparable breach between modernist and postmodernist works. Using Thomas Kuhn's proposal that scientific progress proceeds via radical paradigm shifts, Conte asserts modernist science and literature have been superceded by the new paradigm of postmodern science and literature. Citing authors ranging from James Joyce to T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Conte reads modernism and traditional science as part of an outmoded paradigm which obsessively seeks to order reality because of a latent fear of disorder and unpredictability. This results in a modernist "political aesthetic whose concern for centering control approaches fascism" (2002, 11).

However, the artist or scientist working in the emerging postmodern paradigm does not fear such instability and uncertainty. Following Jean Francois Lyotard, the postmodern artist has an "incredulity toward metanarratives" and "expresses an affinity for--rather than an aversion to--forms of disorder" (Lyotard qtd. in Conte 2002, 6, 8). Thus, the postmodernist also dispenses with modernism's binary distinction and hierarchy of order/disorder, replacing it with an attitude resembling the two primary branches of chaos theory, which investigate "order as the possible emanation of disorder, and chaos as one possible result of an overly stringent order--the process by which one becomes the other" (9). One sees order and disorder's intertwining relationship through each novel's "world building"--a task indicative of order--and "the inventive form of the novel," the most prominent feature of which is "nonlinear narrative"--a form suggesting disorder (2).

I particularly liked Conte's reading of John Hawkes's Travesty, wherein he emphasizes order emerging from disorder. In the imagination of a suicidal driver-narrator, we see a beautiful, well-engineered sports car obliterated in "an 'accident ... perfectly contrived" by the narrator himself. This, of course, is paradoxical, since it "challenges the binary opposition between the deterministic and the stochastic, an event that has a causal relation to its antecedent and one that is purely the result of random processes" (2002, 38). While the driver has planned the accident, it is also possible that an unintended accident may occur while the driver speeds to his intended destination, the side of an old farmhouse. Thus, we have order, but the unavoidable possibility of chaos. Though the story's entirety takes place in the car as it zips to the intended destination, Conte submits that linearity remains suspended as "the narration refutes any claim to suspense as a means of galvanizing the reader's attention" (34). This is further supported by the narrative itself, since the story's conclusion (the crash) remains outside Hawkes's novel.

Equally interesting is how Conte reads order within the disorder of the narrator's imagined crash. This, again, remains tied to paradox, as thoughts of the auto's impact--the moment its pristine design meets the shattering effect of a stationary farmhouse wall--involve melding of order and disorder, as well as life and death. Though momentary, it points to the essential interrelationship of order and disorder. Here, car parts scatter randomly, but "human remains are integral with the remains of rubber, glass, steel. A stone has lodged in the engine block, the process of rusting has begun" (Hawkes qtd. in Conte 2002, 40). The human orderliness of auto design and the narrator's contrived linear death trip meld with processes beyond them; we see order break down to disorder, but a disorder that reveals an even more complex order in the form of nature's oxidation (rust).

Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless offers one example of Conte's other emphasis, namely, novels citing chaos as the necessary precondition for order. Conte sees Acker as mounting an anarchistic attack against patriarchy and capitalist domination through, among other devices, the mixing of "high" and "low" discourses, class language, and chaotic jumbling of genre conventions generally. Hence, while reading, one may go from pornographic language about "fucking for money" to a chapter title of a social-scientific essay, as in "3. Beyond The Extinction of Human Life" (qtd. in Conte 2002, 59). This rhetorical chaotics disrupts dominant forms of reading, forcing readers to confront literature as a device of social control. At the same time such chaotic practice is dialectically related to its opposite, order. Behind the many anarchic interventions is Acker's intending "conceptualism," a structuring device enabling readers to imagine the demise of the "patriarchal order into a state of liberating and enabling anarchy ..." (56). This state of ordered anarchy is, according to Conte, much like that intended by the Paris Commune; moreover, it is similar to the principle of chaos theory that valorizes "self-organization" and "spontaneity" in "(physical and social) systems which are capable of renewing themselves," which is to say that they do not succumb to entropy (Bruce and Butler qtd. in Conte 72). In this sense, Conte finds in Acker a viable and liberatory political economy for the future.

Finally, though the book's individual applications of chaos theory prove imaginative and insightful, I do have a number of reservations. One objection is the theory's grand claim of a postmodern paradigm shift, for which there is little empirical evidence. This stands especially since modernism itself is so ill defined. Moreover, it seems difficult to imagine some essential relationship between linearity and fascism, regardless of the claim's present popularity among some postmodern thinkers. Such difficulties indicate the close relationship between Conte's chaotics and poststructural postmodernism. Conte's chaotics--like much poststructural theory--rely on Lyotard's rejection of oppressive master narratives. But as with Lyotard their theoretical alternatives must remain paradoxical, since they end up doing the very thing they claim to reject, namely, offering a singular explanation of postmodernism and postmodernity.

Jeffrey Ebbesen

West Chester University
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Author:Ebbesen, Jeffrey
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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