This course examines how science and literature deal with the limits of representation. The emergent field of chaos theory investigates the interrelationship between chaotic behavior and systematic organization. While the disciplinary context for much of this recent work has been the physical sciences and mathematics, many of the problems and concepts with which chaos theorists work, including iterability, recursive systems, scaling, period doubling, interference and incommensurability can be related more or less directly to concerns that have preoccupied literary theorists and semioticians in thinking about representational systems. Nor is this field of investigation without a significant history: in the West, the aesthetic notion of the sublime, which goes back at least to Longinus, has been the focus of a long and rich meditation on the relationship of language and representation to that which disrupts and limits it, and the legacy of what has been called the “Romantic sublime” continues to exert a powerful influence on our present literary culture. In Asian thought, meanwhile, both Taoist and Buddhist traditions have explored implications of chaos, infinity, and nothingness. Assuming that students of literature, scientists and mathematicians may have something to learn from talking to and reading one another, this seminar proposes to investigate some of the possible connections: between current work in chaos theory and literary theory, and between both of these and some traditions of the sublime.

We will read contemporary writers on chaos theory such as Gleick, Peats and Briggs, as well as lay writings on number theory (focusing particular on the notions of zero, infinity, and the infinitesimal) by Seife, Rotman, and most importantly, Wittgenstein. Writings in literary theory will include Neil Hertz (on Longinus and the sublime) and Paul de Man (on Pascal and the zero). We will use Chuang-tzu and Alan Watts as windows into Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Western literary texts that will be central to our discussion will include Pope (from The Dunciad), Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, A. R. Ammons, and some contemporary science fiction. (N.B. No special knowledge of mathematics will be needed; “math-phobia” should present no obstacle to participation in discussion, and may indeed become a topic for investigation.)