Robert Coover's Self-Organized World: The Universal Baseball Association, inc., J. Henry Waugh, PROP.
now [the Association] needed a new ordering, perspective, personal vision, the disclosure of pattern, because he'd discovered [...] that perfection wasn't a thing, a closed moment, a static fact, but process, yes, and the process was transformation (UBA 212).
Introduction: A World of Interconnected Structures and Emergent Potentialities
Time is irreversible, its arrow moves unidirectionally toward the future at both microscopic and macroscopic levels (for phenomena as small as particles and for those observable by the naked eye). Its passage reveals temporality's positive and negative forms, what we perceive as evolution and progress, and what unfolds as entropy and decay. Thermodynamics bestows a pessimistic time of entropic disintegration, sterile uniformity, and extinction. Evolution is the optimistic, generative, and self-organizing aspect of temporality--irreversibility that carries a productive character. However, the universe of the contemporary society is no longer perceived as a Newtonian clockwork mechanism or a Darwinistic unbroken continuum of natural selection within evolution (that both insisted on predetermination) or, its counterpart--the entropic model which sustains eventual uniformity of all energy (assuming that the universe is a closed system); but as a frequently discontinuous process of self-organization, indeterminacy, complexity, and contingency (grounded on chaos theory), a postmodern perspective delineated in Robert Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association, inc. J. Henry Waugh, PROP.
Thus, this article focuses on the positive aspects of temporality, disclosing dissipative but fertile grounds upon which Coover fashioned his self-organized world of the fictive baseball association, that develop ever new forms from its bifurcating patterns and keep progressing to a higher order of complexity. The study is grounded on Ilya Prigogine's take on chaos theory--the theory of "dissipative structures" (2) that bifurcate and self-organize (Prigogine 73), "locally contradict[ing] the second law of thermodynamics" (Porush 57), where the universe displays a capacity to renew itself rather than run down. As Joseph Conte notes, "The Universal Baseball Association is a form of orderly disorder" (150), announcing the similarities between this novel and Prigogine's interpretation of self-organization, which exhibits the increase in complexity of open systems and is associated with irreversible thermodynamics and non-equilibrium.
Chaos theory implies that chaos is rooted in or arises from order, and vice versa, that chaos brings about order. Katherine Hayles explains that "chaos is seen as order's precursor and partner", which means that "entropy-rich systems facilitate rather than impede self-organization" (9). Indeed, as the novel unravels, Henry's Association goes through various stages, from balance and stagnation (assimilating thermodynamic entropy), to high production of entropy seen as disorder (fertile randomness of information entropy) (3) and self-organization (as Henry disappears), and to a ritual, which is just a phase for Coover as clarifies in an interview that he wanted to "keep [...] things open-ended" (McCaffery 57). The Association becomes an open system of evolving properties, incorporating the computations of nonlinear dynamics and adopting far from equilibrium states where new structures emerge.
Ilya Prigogine, the 1977 Nobel laureate in chemistry discovered that far from equilibrium, turbulent, nonlinear systems fluctuate and bifurcate, producing self-organizing structures (in tune with chaos theory). These systems and their structures can release order out of chaos--which is why he calls them "dissipative structures" (73)--testifying that time has an arrow facing the future which is not as negative as thermodynamic entropy predicts, but consists of positive, life-sustaining powers that compensate for the negative, unquestionable entropic pull. Each individual past (of human beings and systems in general) provides multiple bifurcating junctures--points extremely far from equilibrium at which a system needs to choose one of the possible directions/futures, and by swerving to one, all the other possibilities are eliminated (at that time in its history), proving that "our bifurcation points constitute a map of the irreversibility of time" (Briggs and Peat 144). Bifurcations and iterations endorse the emergence of new structures of increasing complexity, and even allow systems to branch off into entirely new states. The scientific paradigm called chaos theory (pioneering in 1960s and flourishing in 1970s) and Prigogine's dissipative structures that engage open, far from equilibrium systems and are in tune with Maturana and Varela's ontological theory of autopoiesis (self-(re)production), offer a revolutionary change in grasping of temporality for chaos is understood as proliferation of information rather than disorder, envisioning a universe that has the capacity to renew itself.
Coover's novel reveals these changes in science, unraveling a highly dynamic, complex, indeterminate, and nonlinear world of interconnected structures and emergent potentialities, teeming with unpredictable evolutions. It deals with temporality and entropy in a rather positive way, illustrating evidently the values of irreversible processes. When the fictive baseball league experiences a state of non-equilibrium, it self-organizes to a higher order of complexity, meaning that "without violating the second law [of thermodynamics], systems far from equilibrium can experience a local entropy decrease" (Hayles 94).
The perpetual transformation of any creation, its existential (in)stability is also reflected in Whitehead's process theory for "[p]rocess is the becoming of experience" (166), underlining the dynamism of creation. In one of the interviews, Coover acknowledged his "commitment to design" and "the rich ironic possibilities that the use of structure affords", stating that "game is not intrinsically so important; what matters is that it be generative and exciting for me while I'm creating" (Gado 148, 145) (emphasis original). Coover, as well as Henry, is interested in the process of creation, just as Whitehead claimed that the actual world is a process--the becoming of new entities.
The Universal Baseball Association: The Evolution of the System that Eventually Self-Organizes
The novel evolved from Coover's story "The Second Son", which features the life of J. Henry Waugh, an accountant who is utterly consumed with a table-top baseball game and considers one of the fictive players, Damon Rutherford, as his "second son". Expanding the short story into a novel, Coover creates a whole new universe focused on Henry's addictive playing, which eventually unfolds into a self-organizing system for "the circuit wasn't closed, his or any other: there were patterns, but they were shifting and ambiguous and you had a lot of room inside them" (UBA 143).
UBA's main character tends to get bored with games of chance and strategy. He gets "depressed" with the "narrow-minded historical preconceptions" (UBA 44) that other players cherish and with their interest in zero-sum games that can be said to decay entropically either to a still-point of inaction or to ceaseless repetitions (intrinsically secured into static patterns within closed systems). This inactivity and uniformity of closed-form systems (in this case of games) disappoints Henry for they merely replicate his monotonous life and obligations as a bookkeeper. He thus invents a very systematic table-top baseball game, endorsing the fifty-six combinations of three dice and an elaborate system of cascading charts, culminating in the Extraordinary Occurrences chart triggered by a special combination of the dice. Henry creates a system with a capacity for generating new patterns and provoking unexpected organizations. He devises a game based on complexity, strategy, and multiple variables, assimilating an open dynamical system that imitates the fluctuations of the universe at large.
However, the system is still closed and, as time goes by, playing tends to get repetitive with recursive patterns, implying stasis. Henry craves for more excitement. The game seems in perfect equilibrium, predictable and stale, maybe counting its last seasons for "[t]he entropy, S, of an isolated system increases monotonically until it reaches its maximum value at thermodynamic equilibrium" (Prigogine 60). Playing has lost its appeal so Henry introduced a second generation of players, which means that he is opening the system, letting new energy in, and discarding the old dissipated out, as older pitchers get retired. Indeed, the external energy that has entered the system is good since Damon Rutherford, a brilliant rookie pitcher has arrived:
You mean, things were sort of running down before...? Yes, that was probably true: he'd already been slowly buckling under to a kind of long-run market vulnerability, the kind that had killed off complex games of his in the past. What had happened the last four or five league years? Not much. And then Damon had come along to light things up again. (UBA 136)
Damon is special because he energizes the league, acts unpredictably, and pitches a perfect game: "Exceedingly rare, no-hitters; much more so, perfect games. How many in history? Two, three. And a Rookie: no it had never been done" (UBA 11). Damon's triumph has put the game into motion, it is considered an "epochal event" (UBA 15). It has revived everybody in the league, including the proprietor, Henry, who pretends to be Damon himself when he deviates "from his monasticism" and "pitches his affections to Hettie in bed that night" (Conte 157).
Henry's game system is opening when he introduces new players, which allows the system to avoid the entropic "heat death" state and to regenerate. Many seasons have passed and the same players and statistical charts were observed; there were no surprises so that the game got inactive and boring, and the system dissipated. When famous Damon arrives, he is not the only rookie introduced; what makes a difference is that his score is not just impeccable as Law's is (a senior player), but he has done the "impossible". From the scientific point of view, it makes sense because although Damon is not a perpetual motion device, he has driven the system far from equilibrium and the entropic decay; and, "far-from-equilibrium situations [are] situations undergoing a great deal of energy input from outside" (Briggs and Peat 136), revealing the irreversibility of time and spontaneous evolution towards increased complexity: "The ordering we observe is the outcome of irreversible processes, and could not be achieved at equilibrium" (Prigogine 64).
Everybody is overexcited in the fictive league, including Henry, who celebrates Damon's victory and thinks of the rookie as his son, wishing to play day and night. Although Henry should have known better and "rested" the rookie a bit longer, he gave the boy only a day's rest for "[h]e wanted to see Damon Rutherford pitch again tonight! It wasn't the recommended practice to start a pitcher after only one day of rest, but it wasn't against the rules" (UBA 63) (emphasis original). (Un)fortunately, Damon dies, and there is no turning back for Henry or his game. The accident drags the system irreversibly "to nonequilibrium dissipative structures", where "new bifurcations typical of chaotic behaviour may arise" (Prigogine 73, 68).
It must be kept in mind that although the system opens when Henry introduces new rookies, it is also closed from the perspective that only Henry controls it. The system is not transmuting with the environment because Henry is the only one who decides what kind of input to engage. Henry follows dice (which is also connected to randomness) that are attached to the charts that he has drawn. When he suddenly disregards dice and the rules of the game, intruding on his own by killing Jock Casey (another fictive player), he sabotages the system and everything goes downhill, and with time Henry disappears. However, as is the case in nature, new forms of order can originate out of disorder, time's unidirectional arrow does not have only negative connotations. New patterns are created, and with Henry's disappearance, the system adapts on its own and transmutes with its surroundings, opening up and acting as a homeostatic system. From this point on, the league has much in common with Ilya Prigogine's non equilibrium systems, displaying spontaneous occurrence of organized structures and evolution in internal arrangement.
In order to understand how the Association evolved, the beginning of the novel should be addressed and the most capable pitcher of that time, Swanee Law. He was a seven-year veteran whose fast ball "got faster every year, most consistent, most imperturbable", yet who is "never an easy man to get along with, too pushy, too much steam" (UBA 5). Although his personality is not pleasant, it demonstrates his efficiency within the baseball system. The last line alludes to his ability to control entropy, the metaphor of the steam engine proving his effectiveness. Law is also obsessed with his own statistical progress (as well as Henry is fascinated with statistics): "Law knew what he had going for himself: whenever sportswriters interviewed him, they were shown large charts he kept tacked to his wall, indicating his own game-by-game progress in comparison with that of the five men in history" (UBA 144-45). His record is more than solid, which makes him reliable. Law's near future and therefore the system's future (unless some major fluctuations or anomalies occur) is predictable, except that he is getting older with every season--the processes of his system irreversible. Jackson Cope reveals that Law presents the "law of averages, the opposite of Damon Rutherford who breaks them" (Cope 44). Unlike Law, who is stable and spreads equilibrium, "Damon/demon" is associated with turbulence and Maxwell's Demon, a machine that could stop the entropic pull. (4) He has brought enormous joy to Henry and originated a bifurcating evolution of the dull system (until then) by activating it.
Henry knows that the system will not collapse if he opens it up; he is sorting out "hot and cold molecules", associated with Maxwell's Demon (Maxwell 328), retiring old and engaging new players. He acts as a sort of a "demon" (5) and Law helps out with his good record so that the system seems in balance: approximately the same amount of energy is injected into the system as is dissipated. However, balanced systems are more prone to the entropic pull because of their equilibrium. Henry is also aware that Law is an "old eagle" (UBA 144), his time within the league is slowly but definitely running out, he is getting older, and the system stale. Henry needs more energy to activate the system, which Damon finally provides.
As is so often the case in nature, an outside source of energy can trigger the transformation of the system, involving a succession of bifurcations. As Prigogine notes, "[n]ature is indeed related to the creation of unpredictable novelty, where the possible is richer than the real" (72). Although Damon has brought the game alive again, he soon dies being hit by a beanball in a third consecutive roll of triple ones. Henry must obey the rules that he had created and let the boy go, otherwise all is meaningless. Damon proves to be one of those extremely rare forces in nature since he has done the "impossible" when pitching a perfect game, and now the least expected has happened, which brings the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart into play:
This was the only chart Henry still hadn't memorized. For one thing, it didn't get used much, seldom more than once a season; for another, it was pretty complicated. Stars and Aces could lose their special ratings, unknowns could suddenly rise. (UBA 69)
When Damon dies, Henry is crushed and this perturbation brings the system far from equilibrium and into instability, testifying to the irreversibility of time.
Henry wants vengeance. He intrudes--setting the dice so that Casey dies. This is not an accident as was Damon's death, this is a murder committed by the maker, and it makes the game meaningless because Henry did not follow the rules, he crossed the line and there is no return. Prigogine explains that "[m]atter acquires new properties when far from equilibrium in that fluctuations and instabilities are now the norm. Matter becomes more 'active'" (65). Indeed, soon after that Henry disappears, the system is left on its own, as it turned out to be for the best, for it started to function as homeostasis, adopting in response to the environment:
Far from representing a striving toward deadly dissolution [of the sort one finds in thermodynamic equilibrium], the tendency to homeostasis ha[s] come about in biological evolution as a means of preserving life. Instead of the stagnation created by a state of maximum entropy, the open system of the organism constitute[s] a steady stream of absorbed and expended energy. (Arnheim 47)
With Henry gone, the system is completely open to exchange energy and information with its environment, susceptible to multiple fluctuations, granted by unpredictable and irreversible temporality. It is ready to evolve on its own.
Biology and paleontology teach us there exist a multiplicity of evolutions. As Stephen Gould, the famous paleontologist and evolutionary biologist demonstrated, some species as bacteria have not evolved much, remaining basically the same since the Precambrian era, while others have evolved dramatically, and often over short time scales. As Gould notes,
[t]o understand the events and generalities of life's pathway, we must go beyond principles of evolutionary theory to a paleontological examination of the contingent pattern of life's history on our planet--the single actualized version among millions of plausible alternatives that happened not to occur. Such a view of life's history is highly contrary both to conventional deterministic models of Western science and to the deepest social traditions and psychological hopes of Western cultures for a history culminating in humans as life's highest expression and intended planetary steward. (84)
It so happened that the self-regulating system (that initiated as Henry's invention) evolved positively in time, "highly organized thanks to temporal, irreversible, nonequilibrium processes. No formulation of the laws of nature that does not take into account this constructive role of time can ever be satisfactory" (Prigogine 56). Coover does not provide a thorough explanation about the stages of the system's evolution after Henry is gone. The fluctuations, iterations, and adaptations of the system that took place afterwards are unknown since the story does not progress slowly, but suddenly jumps to its conclusive phase, and the system's final stage (as the novel ends) appears as just one of the stages the Association will go through.
The final chapter of UBA takes place one-hundred seasons after the bifurcation point of the year LVI, on "Damonsday" in CLVII. Henry is not there and the author has not specified what has happened to him, nor does he comment where Henry might be when asked about it (McCaffery 56). One of the possibilities is, and it is concordant with this discussion, that since the Association is a homeostatic system, it does not need the creator, for it fends for itself. Also, human life-expectancy is shorter than games', sports' and alike, in accord with the entropic pull. Just as chemical reactions demonstrate that billions of molecules must somehow "communicate" in order to act as a whole, so is the baseball league demonstrating self-organization as "random behavior leads to a complex coupling of feedback and spontaneous order" (Briggs and Peat 138).
Still, from the perspective of this analysis, Coover has finished the novel in a surprising manner since he has presented the game evolving into a religious ritual, which associates with reversibility. Saltzman suggests that Coover is stressing the communion: "a merging of sides in the collective, faithful center" (60), as opposed to competing. This is easily connected with homeostasis if we look at its self-regulating process which maintains stability while adjusting to changing conditions, implying the working of the whole. From ancient times, ceremonies, rituals and practices alike were used as vehicles to restore the balance and security of various systems. It means that the ritual, "Damonsday", protects the system, dragging it closer to equilibrium and towards thermodynamic entropy if sustained for a longer period, recalling the beginning of the novel when Law was considered the vehicle of balance, and yet the system was turning dull. This would imply that (if the novel is to be looked at from the "nonequilibrium", "irreversible" perspective) what we have a peak at in the end of the novel is just a phase, "keeping things open-ended" (McCaffery 57).
It could be said that the ritual indicates some recurrence for "Damonsday" presents new generations of players to the Association even when Henry is gone. The fluctuations continue and the system will evolve into something else, the irreversibility of time is not questionable. The question is just would the passage of time have positive--emergence of new patterns, but never denying its entropic part, or completely negative consequences--disintegration with the entropic pull. If the ritual persists, the time of the system is going to run out, featuring only its negative entropic value. However, through his playing, Henry has realized that "perfection wasn't a thing, a closed moment, a static fact, but process, yes, and the process was transformation" (UBA 212), and Coover's belief in the process of creation and indeterminism of nature make us conclude that the Association will prevail as an open system and evolve into new forms of procreative life, just as Whitehead and Prigogine have accentuated that nature does.
Conclusion: The Process of Becoming: "perfection [was] process, [...] the process was transformation" (UBA 212)
Beginning with Einstein and Hubble, modern physics gradually accepted that our universe is not static but has been developing for billions of years, becoming with each moment, with time rushing forward--utterly irreversible--the everlasting change/progress that keeps humans alive. Whereas relativity theory rendered inoperative the Newtonian idea of absolute time frame, and quantum mechanics abolished infinite precision, claiming that micro-world is indeterminate, chaos theory completely discarded "the idea that the course of the universe is both determined and predictable" (Morris 211).
The analysis of Coover's UBA in terms of changes in scientific theories, chaos theory and self-organization in particular, is an example of how the world functions as an everlasting process of becoming and how temporality unfolds in an open, dynamic system, which displays the properties of homeostasis, regulating its internal environment through the dynamical balance of input and output, entailing continuous transformation and adaptation to conditions that are optimal for its survival. The vitality of Henry's league is sustained by correlated strategies and interdependent factors within the system. It is a continuous process that evolves, fluctuates, and keeps adjusting, and therefore it cannot cease. As illustrated in the analysis of the novel, Coover acknowledges the negative, dissipative outcome of entropic processes, which he tries to regulate by administering unique information sorters and energy boosters (demons), aiding the collapsing system with the input of external energy, so that new forms of order can originate out of disorder, in accord with chaos theory.
The revolutionary change in the understanding of entropy and chaos (traditionally perceived as disorder) that Coover illustrated in his novel demonstrates just how well he comprehends and digests reality for he is not a physicist. It also proves how art transcends beyond the natural sciences, both responding to and shaping culture's general assumptions so that entropy and chaos are uncovered as rich with information and capable of action and intervention. Coover's UBA underlines this positive value of the passage of time, the system's evolution and self-organization, as new forms of order and self-organization have emerged. These forms accommodate a highly productive, indeterminate, and nonlinear world of interdependent structures and developing potentialities, swarming with accidental evolutions, and corresponding with Prigogine's "nonequilibrium" systems that can progress spontaneously into complex ordering, delivering order out of chaos, which is "the outcome of irreversible processes" (Prigogine 64).
In the description of the Universe as unknowable and random, with attributes of an open, dynamic system, and in the projection of man as a fiction-maker who contrives ever new and incessant constructs to conquer time and deal with the follies of life and the abyss of death, for "perfection is process, not stasis" (Frisch 162), Coover has attempted to redefine twentieth-century fiction (and possibly reality) of the Western world. In the last chapter, the author dramatizes this process theme that Henry has realized is perfection. Henry's great-great-great-grandchildren validate the transformations, affirmative and flawed, productive and destructive, that they and time have placed upon Henry's original game. Once on the field, they are enveloped in the dynamics of the game for the process of playing is all that matters. As one of the players, Paul Trench reveals,
he doesn't know any more whether he's a Damonite or a Caseyite or something else again, a New Heretic or an unregenerate Golden Ager, doesn't even know if he's Paul Trench or Royce Ingram or Pappy Rooney or Long Lew Lydell, it's all irrelevant, it doesn't even matter that he's going to die, all that counts is that he is here and here's The Man and here's the boys and there's the crowd, the sun, the noise. (UBA 242) (emphasis original)
Coover stresses that being "here" is imperative, and the actual transformations that the players and the game go through are irrelevant, as long as they keep the system alive. The perfection of life is once more mirrored in its constant change--the process of becoming. Neither Damon's or Casey's death, nor Henry's disappearance stop the play since play is a never-ending process. The Association and this novel are artistic creations which, Coover suggests, assume their own identities and are engaged by those who take pleasure in them in a variety of ways, becoming and self-creating in continual adjustments to dynamical conditions and environmental factors in order to survive.
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(1) Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association, inc. J. Henry Waugh, PROP is hereafter abbreviated to UBA.
(2) The term "dissipative structures" underlines a paradox of this phenomenon since dissipation suggests chaos and falling apart, while structure points to order, which is exactly how these structures operate, maintaining their identity by remaining open to the flow of their environment and taking advantage of entropy.
(3) There are some differences in the understanding of entropy for it is a difficult concept to comprehend and one metaphorically applicable to many conditions in life. Its meaning changed through time and various scientists' experiments, from classical thermodynamics theory (entropy's most widespread usage), where it means an inescapable dissipation of heat in any heat transfer, shortly "heat death" (Clausius), to Maxwell's experiment which illustrated that thermodynamic laws are closer to statistical generalization than to absolute truth, to Boltzmann's view of entropy as disorder or randomness in a closed system, and in terms of information theory where entropy is seen as maximum information (Shannon), which makes it suitable for self-organization.
(4) James Clerk Maxwell envisioned a tiny being that could control dissipation of energy by separating fast molecules from slow ones in a closed system, so that the entropy would decrease, "in a contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics" (Maxwell 328)
(5) Another postmodern author, Thomas Pynchon, used Maxwell's Demon theory in his novel The Crying of Lot 49, where apart from the experiment, he introduces the main character Oedipa as a sort of a "demon", who strives to make some order and stop the entropic decay of the system that is dissipating. For further discussion of entropy in Pynchon's novel, see my article "Irreversible Time and Entropy in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49" (Athens Journal of Philology. Available online 11 September 2017. https://www.athensjournals.gr/philology/2017-1-X-Y-Grmusa.pdf).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 10, 2018|
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