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Reviews

Ira Livingston, Arrow of Chaos: Romanticism and Postmodernity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-8166-2795-9. Price: £17.95

  • David M. Baulch

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  • David M. Baulch
    Westfield State College

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Ira Livingston's Arrow of Chaos is an ambitious attempt to engage some refreshingly new ways of thinking about Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, fractal geometry, and chaos, amongst a host of other topics that flash across the shifting surface of this challenging book. The "Preface" aptly describes the book as a "'chaology of knowledge' insofar as it is a study of chaos as a logic at work in epistemological processes. 'Romanticism' and 'postmodernity' name the blurry beginnings and ends of a modernity that is forever chasing its own tail" (vii). What is admirable about Arrow is that it does not use chaos in particular, or science in general, as an authorizing discourse that provides some "objective" point of view from which assertions are made. Rather, Arrow casts a postmodern eye over the whole of its diverse subject matter. At its best, Arrow offers an effective critique of the notion of the Enlightenment masternarrative without producing its own masternarrative in turn. At times strongly echoing Deleuze and Guattari, Arrow delightfully negotiates a path between freewheeling postmodern speculations and provocative close readings of works as diverse as Wordsworth's Prelude , Elisabeth Hands' "Mad Heifer" poem, Wallace Stevens's "Of Mere Being," Oliver Sacks' Awakenings (yes, the film too), and David Cronenberg's Rabid—but are we still talking about Romanticism?

If nothing else, Livingston's book is excitingly and even shockingly different from any other recent book focused largely on Romanticism. Paradoxically, it is because of the very success of its own project that Arrow runs the risk of not entering into a discussion of what many of its potential readers (Romanticists presumably) would think of as "Romanticism." What, then, does Arrow presume to do? As Livingston himself defines it, his book implicates

chaos, Romanticism, and postmodernity and traces relations between them at several scales (e.g. across the spans of the book, its chapters, and their sections), and by cycling through several kinds and dimensions of texts, sometimes by hypertextual 'asides,' tangential illustrations, and assorted uncomfortably overelaborated 'metaphors.' The book thereby works to install a 'recognition device' for fractal logics while leaving mostly open the question of what uses this device can serve (e.g., implicit injunctions to 'study this' or 'intervene here' or 'produce meaning at this intersection').

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For Livingston, "fractal logics" affords us another way to think of an underlying sense of organic structure attributed to Romanticism in the middle of this century. Rather than presenting itself as knowledge, the form of chaos manifests itself as a critical approach that identifies a rapidly proliferating disease, capable of endless mutations to avoid disciplinary capture in Arrow . The "hypertextual 'asides'" aren't hypertextual at all, but rather self-contained, loosely-related vignettes or illustrations that appear in boxes separated from the main body of text. Curiously, these vignettes at times give Arrow a playful feel; in other instances, however, they make Arrow read like an introductory psychology or sociology text book, seemingly assuming either boredom or the attention span of an insect on the part of their readers. Either way, Arrow's asides are indicative of its staunch refusal to act like a traditional volume of literary criticism, and, unfortunately, this refusal will probably raise the greatest questions for many readers as to its practical value.

Given Arrow's broad ambitions, it necessarily thinks of Romanticism as more than a historical, material, and/or cultural group of practices. Since various forms of the disciplinary power to define a discourse are Arrow's critical targets-of-choice, it is not surprising that a significant part of what is at stake in the book rides upon challenging the largely historical character of contemporary studies in Romanticism. Livingston is direct in his imputation that "[u]nless Romantic periodization is relativized by studies that do more than put literature 'into historical context'—that instead serves histories of the present—Romanticism is falsely monumentalized into an intricate network of fixations since 'outgrown'" (10). In other words, the value of Romanticism as something to be studied is not that it gives us a clearer picture of a historically-specific segment of culture that produces literary artifacts and vice versa, but that Romanticism offers a way to think of a whole range of literary, philosophical, scientific, and more broadly-defined cultural tendencies as both in flux and still, somehow, revealing a recognizable consistency from the Romantic period through modernism. This somehow is one of the principle points of critical utility Arrow finds in fractal geometry. The perplexing tell-tale traits of "self-similarity" and "self difference" of structure within "scaling pluralities" that identify the characteristic curling, swirling fractal patterns also define the general tenor of Arrow's critical methodology. The close readings Arrow offers work much like the pattern of figure-eight-like loopings known to science as "strange attractors," suggesting to Livingston in their "constrained but ever-variable orbit around emptiness" an apt emblem of "a definitely postmodern generation of disciplinary paradigms" (29).

Taking a larger view, a reader may wonder why Arrow needs to privilege Romanticism as a starting point for the postmodern present. If fractal logic is the basis of form in nature, it wouldn't it work equally well with the literature of earlier historical eras? The answer Livingston offers as to why Romanticism is the starting point for this way of thinking is the disappointingly unspecific and unsupported claim tucked away in the book's penultimate chapter amongst thoughts on Blake, Sacks, Mayhew, Haraway, and Star Trek that: "The world seems to be created anew in Romanticism because creation is created—in the image of a capitalist discipline, continually revolutionizing power and knowledge, dissection and connecting" (186). While Livingston does make a provocative comment that would seem to present a challenge to Sayre and Löwy's claim (which Arrow cites numerous times) that Romanticism is defined by its "opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values." Arrow's interest is less in a rigorous engagement with the specific features of the established dialogue and more in developing its own approach to Romanticism.

By rejecting history as the basis of its critical view, Arrow charts the bounds of the critical discourse in which it engages. Considering the dizzying range of topics that Arrow touches upon and its marked preference for postmodern and poststructuralist theory, its definition of Romanticism is clearly framed to both reflect and suggest its influences and scope:

I follow the provisional tactic of considering Romanticism as a set of temporal or spatial patterns formed through interactions between the synchronic distribution of differences within Romantic discourse and the diachronic (or syntagmatic) fraying and braiding of discourse across post-Romantic history.

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While Arrow's idea of Romanticism will likely send those readers suspicious of theory into a defensive posture, it does at least offer the possibility of navigating a course through the Scylla and Charybdis of previous definitions of Romanticism. For the most part, Romanticism is either identified as a kind of change (a reaction to a broadly-defined sense of the Enlightenment values, or the historical emergence of "Romantic ideology"), which is in turn constituted as a stable identity; or as an endless, nonteleological process of becoming. Given these views, the idea of Romanticism that Arrow produces suggests "not only a set of changes, but a change in the form and status of change itself" (11). Livingston calls this process a "metachange" making Romanticism in his view, "metastible , capable of infection and altering a range of both synchronic and diachronic relations"(11). Ultimately, Arrow's Romanticism is a homeorrhetic entity: a stable pattern that is capable of being constituted by and propagated through an historically-disconnected array of host "media," be they literary texts, medical conditions, films, phone conversations, dreams, or a search for parts for a 1970 Chevy at a salvage yard in Minnesota.

Much like the patterns of chaos upon which Arrow models its critical methodology, its chapters seemingly have no connection, and yet the reader has a clear sense of what is coming next at the level of Arrow's rhetoric regardless of the topic at hand. In many respects the first chapter, the book's "Introduction," is the most interesting because it concentrates more on the theoretical underpinnings of its notion of Romanticism while minimizing its attention to strictly literary texts. The farther Arrow goes into its close readings of individual literary texts (with its fleeting attempts to link them), the overall argumentative coherency of the first chapter is replaced by a looser associative series of approximate repetitions of an idea. This sort of procedure models the patterns which chaos theory describes, but, applied to literary texts, it is a less than satisfying argumentative strategy. Each chapter moves forward in a roughly chronological order in terms of the texts it examines. For instance, chapter three focuses on figures of "Concentricity and Eccentricity" in Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and Twin Peaks . The chapter draws no conclusion—it simply ends—suggesting that the act of identifying patterns of concentric collapse in various works could be repeated infinitely.

The sixth chapter, a "Postmodern Postscript," contains a fascinating, if brief, discussion of the Chinese "'Obscure Poetry'" movement of the 1920's. Of this movement Livingston notes:

While its 'debt' to Imagism has been noted too often, several characteristic features of Obscure Poetry also suggest its complex relations to Romanticism, especially in its new emphases on subjectivity and on subjective experience, and along with these, the tendency to endorse a mutual opposition between aesthetic and political discourse. Paradoxically or not, this tendency can remain a radical one in China only as long as the opposition itself continues to be thoroughly politicized; this observation also illustrates the danger of mistaking Romantic 'features' as definitive when they signify very differently in different historical contexts.

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This instance is indicative of what I find entertaining in Arrow's scope—its ability to take in a wonderfully diverse array of topics—but the above passage also shows the limitations of Arrow's project. While it is intriguing to find Romantic features in a Chinese poetry movement, Arrow cannot pursue this line of inquiry without stopping itself to recognize that it runs the risk of producing an "Orientalist masternarrative" regarding the development of Chinese literary history. While Arrow is a consistently interesting and challenging book in terms of the way it is able to blend the depth of philosophical content that the best of the postmodern theorists have to offer with the fun of pop analysis and a hint of the recognizable procedure of a close reading of a text, I am not sure I would say the mixture is a harmonious one that many readers will find altogether satisfying. Arrow's most significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of Romanticism is that it offers the possibility of a recovery of a way of thinking about Romanticism outside of the bounds of a naive construction of history. In this, it provides a healthy reminder that the future for criticism's ability to understand literature as a historical phenomenon, or anything else, depends on a constant and growing awareness that constructions of history and the most fundamental physical structure of events—be they political or mathematical—should be informed by an awareness of what is taking place at the cutting edges of theory in philosophy and science.