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Theory and Practice: A Response to Arkady Plotnitsky

by R. Paul Yoder

[1] Arkady Plotnitsky’s "Chaosmic Orders" and my own "Unlocking Language" demonstrate rather dramatically different approaches to problems in the work of William Blake. Plotnitsky’s essay, as I read it, is essentially a study of the relationship between quantum theory, chaos theory, and literary theory, and Blake’s work operates as the field on which these two theories most amicably meet. I think it makes for fascinating and breathless reading, as Plotnitsky draws into his view thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche.

[2] My own argument is obviously less theoretical in orientation. It began as an attempt to answer some specific questions about Blake’s Jerusalem: How might we account for the emphasis on expansion and contraction in the poem? How does that emphasis relate to the issue of scale, as in the opposition between the minute particulars and general forms? How were these issues related to the problems of language posed in the poem? And how might these questions relate to the critical denial of narrative in the poem, and to the different versions of "synchronic structure critics have posited? I began to look for a model that might help me to think about these questions.

[3] The model I stumbled upon, fractals, is borrowed from chaos theory, and I am as surprised as anyone at how well it fits. Indeed, the model of self-similar patterns repeating themselves across an expanding and contracting scale turned out to be authorized not only by Blake’s poem, but also by literary traditions with which the poet may be assumed to have been familiar. I do not pretend to be a mathematician or a physicist, and frankly, for me chaos theory is simply an interesting diversion. I am not so interested in the relationship between chaos theory and literary theory as I am in plundering chaos theory for an image with which to think about the problem of signification in Jerusalem. I have, in fact, deliberately avoided invoking Blake’s use of the term "chaos" because I do not believe that his "chaos" is the same as the "chaos" of modern theory. Nevertheless, I do believe that the fractal model fits wonderfully.

[4]Given the extreme ends from which we begin, Plotnitsky and I have reached remarkably similar conclusions. We both posit a system of expanding and contracting signification in Blake’s work, what I call fractals, and what Plotnitsky, drawing from the language of photography, or calls "zoom". Indeed, the similarity between us is perhaps most clear in the similar language of two of our sources: I cite James Gleick’s definition of a fractal as an "infinite line in a finite space"(Gleick 139), while Plotnitsky cites Leibniz as saying of the monad, "it finitely represents infinity." Plotnitsky is much better equipped than I to define the difference between a fractal and a monad, but as I see it, his conclusion regarding Blake differs from mine in that he finds a discontinuity between the levels of signification, between the levels of "zoom." Therefore, in his reading, Blake’s system is not fractal. I agree that obviously the "meaning" of the serif on the letter "g" is not the same as the meaning of the word "give," for example, but I would still argue that the structure of signification is the same across the various expanding and contracting levels of the text, and so the structure of signification itself is fractal.

[5] I do want to address two other points of difference between our arguments. First, at several points Plotnitsky suggests that infinite fractal reiterations would be monotonous, and I agree that this would be the case in many instances. However, given Blake’s emphasis on the human form as the standard of iteration, such monotony is unlikely inasmuch as Blake’s notion of the human form includes all human experience. Blakean fractals, based on a human standard, would be no more monotonous than human life itself.

[6] The second point I want to address is related to this issue of monotony. Instead of a single monotonous form as the standard for expansion and contraction, Plotnitsky suggests an embrace of the lawful and the lawless, like the one depicted on the title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This suggestion is complicated because as he describes it, the "lawless" is not an other in any absolute sense. Nevertheless, the image of an embrace would seem to depend on the continued existence of a binary system, a system of sexes, even after the awakening of Albion. We might wish for this to be so. Certainly it would allow us to avoid the perhaps uncomfortable (and to me evident) conclusion that Blake’s originary man is in fact a "man," a male rather than a female. But Blake’s characters explicitly confront this issue. The positing of such an embrace, the desire for the continued existence of such a binary system is the basis for Enitharmon’s fear of annihilation at the awakening of Albion toward the end of Jerusalem. But Los responds that "Sexes must vanish & cease / To be" (92: 13-14), and after Enitharmon appeals to her sons for aid, Los tells them, "We shall not die! we shall be united in Jesus" (93: 19).

[7] These differences in our conclusions may well be irreconcilable: self-similar fractals and radical organization forever locked in the embrace between the lawful and lawless that Plotnitsky describes. Heaven and Hell might wed, but they may never merge. Nor is it clear whether we should expect them to. The image on the final text plate (99) of jerusalem shows Albion embracing his returned emanation. Moreover, Blake's vision of Eternity at the end of the poem, where "we shall be united in Jesus," is characterized primarily by human conversation, the exchange of ideas that itself implies the tense embrace of mental fight. Everywhere in Blake's work is the tension between diversity and unity, from he early emphasis on the union of contraries to the Savior's assertion in Jerusalem that "Lo! we are one," and Albion's denial of that assertion, "We are not One: we are Many" (Jerusalem 4:20, 23). What Plotnitsky and I share is a recognition that at whatever level of "zoom" or fractal iteration we might choose, organization does occur. How does this organization occur? Where does it come from? Is it continuous or discontinuous with other levels of organization? These remain open questions.

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