The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
What does chaos theory have to do with art?


By offering little to no narrative and creating a dynamic theatrical pattern through the iteration and juxtaposition of images and sounds Industrial Symphony exists as a perfect example of a chaotic system in motion. I must admit, however, that I could have chosen any production that met these requirements (the Lynch piece happened to be accessible and available on videotape). The point is not that chaos theory has something specific to say about Lynch's work (or Wilson's work), but that it is useful in analyzing performances generated by our present artistic (postmodern) condition. I firmly believe that there are points of contact between the manner in which "chaoticians" approach unstable systems and the process by which contemporary nonnarrative productions are created.

Conceivably the most important comparison between chaos theory and imagistic theatre is a shift in focus. Quite simply, both provide a uniquely contemporary method of perceiving the world around us. In his celebrated text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn examines what he has termed "paradigm shifts" in the way in which scientific inquiry proceeds from a base of acknowledged beliefs (or momentary truths) through the challenging and upsetting of these truths, to the (re)establishment of new beliefs. Scientific exploration, like theatrical creation, is based on an accepted body of knowledge and techniques and it is not until these static approaches are challenged that a revolution in thought can occur. As Kuhn points out, "What a man [or woman] sees depends both upon what he [or she] looks at and also upon what his [or her] previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him [or her] to see."29 By disrupting these established conceptual frames both chaos theory and postmodern performance offer a challenge to these accepted (momentary) truths. Truly, as N. Katherine Hayles has observed, "Although it is too soon to say where the discoveries associated with complex systems will end, it is already apparent that chaos theory is part of a paradigm shift of remarkable scope and significance."30

Because it is a part of the larger (postmodern) paradigm shift, chaos theory offers theatre criticism a methodological, philosophical approach to dynamical systems in which the diachronic interaction of elements takes precedence over the synchronic examination of fragments. Analyzing a work of art with this in mind we can clearly see that contemporary performances created by the dynamic interaction of all stage elements (propelled by an internal logical structure rather than an external narrative frame) mirror the structure of a chaotic system. By mingling the basic tenets of chaos theory with semiotics and deconstruction, the postmodern theatre critic has an extremely useful analytical tool with which to explore the "chaotic" productions that tend to fall outside the boundaries of traditional theatre criticism. As William W. Demastes concludes in his essay "Re-Inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard," the chaos model "may very well be an essential tool for future research into modem and postmodern drama."31

As a philosophical attitude directed toward the theatre, chaos theory removes the demand to know what a production ultimately "means" by redirecting the focus to the overall pattern created by the interaction of individual elements as they move through space and time.32 In approaching a contemporary work by someone like Wilson or Lynch, meaning and interpretation can not be looked at as stable entities, but are splintered amongst the viewers as the interaction of the stage elements leads, not to a moral or climax, but to a chaotic pattern of movement and images. Certainly one may describe this interaction of forms as constituting the "meaning" of the production, but in doing so one must also ask if this is the same type of meaning that is generated by the work of someone like Ibsen. In order to begin to thoroughly analyze the structure of a postmodern production by the likes of Lynch or Wilson, we (as theatre critics) must search out new methodologies that are sympathetic with the dynamic systems that these productions create. So, in conclusion, I return to the question that began this inquiry: "What does chaos theory have to do with art?" What does the flap of a butterfly's wing have to do with a skinned deer? Perhaps Western Union knows.


1) This paper was originally presented as part of the International Federation for Theatre Research Performance Analysis Symposium in Montreal, June 1995.

2) N. Katherine Hayles, ed., Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (Chicago, 1991), 5.

3) Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light (New York, 199I), 20.

4) This connection between scientific exploration and performance criticism is the subject of a special supplement of The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism entitled "Physics and the New Theatre Historiography," 5:2 (Spring 1991), 6I-I36.

5) Stephen H. Kellert, In the Wake of Chaos (Chicago, 1993), I39.

6) Before proceeding with this investigation it is important to make clear that while the juxtaposition of terms like internal and external, inside and outside have the appearance of establishing a Platonic dialectic, the two do not exist independently of each other. There is a very tangible bond between the visible (external) pattern created by the erratic swing of the pendulum and the (internal) logic that drives it. The two are not mutually exclusive, but merely provide useful terms to facilitate discussion. A good analogy to keep in mind is Saussure's description of the connection between signifier and signified as inextricably linked as two sides of a piece of paper. Each side can be independently manipulated, but cut through one and you affect the other.

7) Kellert, 96.

8) Ibid. Italics mine.

9) James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York, I987), 5.

10) For other accessible sources on chaos theory see: N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca, I9go) and John Briggs and F. David Peat, The Turbulent Mirror (New York, 1989). so Edward N. Lorenz, The Essence of Chaos (Seattle, 1993), 8.

11) Gleick, 23. See note 9.

12) Now to some this may seem like comparing apples and oranges, but working to draw a parallel between contemporary scientific inquiry and contemporary theatre practice is an action that not only requires a certain amount of reductionism, but the setting up (and knocking down) of certain straw dramatists.

13) Bert 0. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms (Berkeley, 1985), 135. Italics mine.

14) While I have chosen Ibsen as the quintessential example of a stable narrative structure, William W. Demastes reveals the chaotic side of Ibsen's dramaturgy in his "Re-Inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory From Ibsen to Stoppard," New Theatre Quarterly to (August 1994).

15) Demastes's essay not only offers a unique approach to the work of Ibsen and Stoppard, but provides a concise description of the movement from Newtonian physics to chaos theory. In a piece like Deafman Glance the "narrative" frame is simply the presence of the "deafman" suspended above the sequence of surreal images that are presented on the stage below.

16) Frances Alenikoff, "Scenario: A Talk With Robert Wilson," Dancescope (Fall/ Winter 1975/76), 15.

17) I emphasize all stage elements since in Wilson's work it is impossible to hierarchize the elements as one can in the more traditional theatre of Ibsen. In Wilson's productions setting, sound, and light are not subservient to character, plot, and dialogue, they conjoin in a more egalitarian manner.

18) Gleick, I5. See note 9.

19) This is evidenced by the fact that Wilson routinely lights his productions so that certain objects are isolated and various parts of his performers are made to stand out - sometimes a hand is brighter than the rest of the body.

20) Barbara Barracks, "Einstein on the Beach," Art Forum (March 1977), 33.

21) David Lynch, director, Industrial Symphony No. I: the dream of the brokenhearted, (Warner Reprise Video, So minutes, 1990).

22) Produced and written by Lynch and Badalamenti, the album includes a number of songs from Industrial Symphony.

23) Glenn Kenny, "New Music America: Industrial Strength," The Village Voice (I4 November, 1989), 88.

24) David Breskin, "The Rolling Stone Interview with David Lynch," Rolling Stone (6 September, 1990), 63.

25) Ibid., 62.

26) Lorenz, 181. See note lo.

27) This multi-layered signification is also evident in Lynch's choice of performers. The mere presence of Julee Cruise (who, singing and dressed in the white crinoline prom dress, is oddly similar to the tiny chipmunk-cheeked woman who sings from the radiator in Eraserhead) and Michael Anderson evoke Twin Peaks, as Dern and Cage do Wild at Heart, and the industrial noise and landscape do Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Although it appears that every film Lynch has directed is represented somewhere in Industrial Symphony, there is no mention of Dune, his 52 million dollar disaster. Perhaps he felt that the sound of bombs dropping and air raid sirens were enough of a reference.

28) Julee Cruise, Floating into the Night, produced and written by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti (Warner Brothers Records, 1989).

29) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), I 3.

30) Hayles, 2. See note 2.

31) Demastes, 252.

32) It is this approach that was most aptly described by Susan Sontag in her landmark essay "Against Interpretation" when she stated that, "The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York, 1967), 14.

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