The Seeds of Chaos:
Spontaneity as Resistance in the Work of Ruth Ozeki

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2015, Volume 14, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2015/spoth_warner.htm

 

Daniel Spoth and Cleo Warner
Eckerd College


In the early pages of A Friend of the Earth (2000), T.C. Boyle’s satirical account of the environmental movement, Teo, a minor character, is struck by a meteor while soft-boiling an egg in the kitchen. His death is described as simply an act of chance by the onlookers: “Eleven and a half billion people on the earth...sixty million of them right here in California. Meteors hit the earth, okay? They’ve got to land somewhere” (19). Yet, as the plot progresses by means of extended flashbacks, the improbability of Teo’s death becomes the rule rather than the exception. A hunter is killed during his attempt to achieve fame as the man who drove the California condor to extinction when the corpse of one of the enormous birds lands on him, breaking his neck. A celebrity perishes when a lion from his basement menagerie ascends the shaft of the dumbwaiter, subsequently massacring him and his staff. A twenty-five-year-old woman dies from a bee sting.1 A girl fatally plummets from a treetop platform where she has been staging a sit-in to prevent logging. All of this leads Ty Tierwater, the protagonist, to dolorously proclaim that “accident rules the universe, I know that, and there’s no escaping it, science or no” (93). Ty posits a cosmos – or, for the purposes of the novel, a biosphere – wholly unconcerned with human agency or ordering impulses, cruel to those who want to preserve it, but tolerant of those who act destructively. It is a place, as Werner Herzog posits in Grizzly Man (2005), whose tenor is “not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

Criticism and analysis tend to favor both an alliance between nature and chaos and the alienation of this ontological category from anything anthropogenic; Harriet Hawkins, a theorist of the interdisciplinary connections between chaos and cultural studies, writes in Strange Attractors (1995): “occurring everywhere in nature’s nonlinear systems and operating in humanly unforeseeable ways, deterministic chaos is the context, the medium we inhabit in everyday life” (1). Hawkins cites Ian Stewart’s Does God Play Dice? (1990), which makes an argument along similar lines, expressing amazement at “how much Nature seems to know about the mathematics of chaos” and how Nature “knew [this] long before the mathematicians did” (Hawkins 9; Stewart 185).2 Setting aside for the moment the veracity of the chaotic nature/orderly human divide, as well as the viability of fictional accounts of chaotic nature weighed against the academic study of chaos theory itself, we would like to suggest that the observations made by Boyle, Hawkins, and Stewart perhaps say more about what humans desire chaos to be than what it may actually entail. Ironically, Boyle’s attempt to conceptualize chaotic nature as an agent for punishing those who attempt to control (or save) it has the effect of forcing an orderly system (the plot device) onto a fundamentally disorderly cosmos.

Though coincidence and unpredictability are staples of fiction writing, the work of Boyle and others – particularly Pynchon and Delilo – expands (frequently metatextually) simple narrative unpredictability into the realm of agential chaos itself: unpredictable events occur not simply because they are important to the plot or reveal the constructedness of the narrative, but because chaos in fiction, far from being entirely dynamic and random, has an intense love for irony and serendipity.3 There may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but those ineffable elements, in fiction, tend to fulfill desired narrative roles. The remainder of this article seeks to chart the direction of one of these desires in the work of Ruth Ozeki – namely, the desire to see the culture of global capitalist hegemony decline in favor of local, organic, traditional means of sociality. In effect, Ozeki uses chaos to cut the Gordian knot of corporate omnipresence and media saturation that entraps her characters in My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), positing an ideal of spontaneous regeneration (the causes of which must remain, like the machinations of chaos itself, entirely obscure to humans). In doing so, Ozeki both widens the scope of and constrains contemporary resistance to corporate culture in unsettling ways.

Before we address Ozeki, however, a brief survey of the intersection of chaos theory and the humanities in academia may be necessary. Though the concept of chaos writ large has a voluminous history, the scientific analysis of the same is today only about half a century old, and the appropriation of selected bits of that analysis by humanities scholars and cultural critics is more recent still, attaining popularity only from the 1990s to today. Katherine Hayles’s Chaos Bound (1990), following on the heels of major works by Pynchon and Delillo, as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (trans. 1988), was one of the first critical volumes to suggest a direct link between the principles of chaos theory and the text.4 Hayles’s observations were capitalized upon by subsequent theorists. Hawkins, for example, writes, "The fractal geometry of nature operates on every scale. Small storms behave like big ones, even as the symmetries and asymmetries of individual cloud formations, mountain ranges and coastlines look much the same on different scales of measurement. And the same dynamic...operates in certain works of art" (104).

Jo Alyson Parker, following Hawkins in Narrative Form and Chaos Theory in Sterne, Proust, Woolf, and Faulkner (2007), suggests that chaos theory is particularly applicable to literature insofar as it “enables us to appreciate the infinite play of signification within a bounded arena of truth or meaning” (27). Chaos theory’s capacity as an interpretive semiotic system, for Parker, is a major cause of its “real staying power, not only in the sciences but also in cultural studies” (xii).5 Other critics are similarly attracted to the interdisciplinary possibilities offered by chaos theory, including Antonio Benítez-Rojo, whose The Repeating Island (1992) describes chaos as providing “a space in which the pure sciences connect with the social sciences, and both of them connect with art and the cultural tradition” (3).

One of the fundamental constitutive principles of chaos theory as a whole is the notion of ineffability – phenomena resist prediction and description by the very fact of their instability. Ira Livingstone argues, in “Chaos and Complexity Theory” (2011), that thinking in terms of chaos rather than order requires what is very nearly a transformation of the nature of the self, overcoming inherent tendencies to study extant elements in toto: “Part of the conversion to chaos involves learning to see structures not as structures, but as systems, events in process. This recognition is part of what makes chaos and complexity theory full partners with poststructuralist theory generally” (42). The epistemological indeterminacy that attends poststructuralism, according to Livingstone, in which meaning perpetually wriggles away from the linguistic structures designed to contain it, finds its correlate in the fundamental unpredictability of chaos studies. “In chaology,” writes Gordon Slethaug, “the initial conditions are likely to be out of all proportion to the consequences; indeed, origins are much more random, unpredictable, and unknowable and seemingly much less directly causal than in orderly systems” (xxiii). Even Benítez-Rojo, who seems more interested in chaos as metaphor than praxis, suggests that the connection between knowledge systems that chaos offers presupposes a “very different language and a communication that is hardly ever direct,” and that clear knowledge is offered only to “the reader who is attuned to Chaos,” for whom there will be “an opening upon unexpected corridors allowing passage from one point to another in the labyrinth” (3). In all of these accounts, the workings of chaos appear as fundamentally ineffable, whether by dint of their pure mathematical complexity or due to the counterintuitive, autonomous nature of chaos itself.

And herein lies both the potentiality and the perniciousness of deploying chaos theory in the service of cultural or academic aims: if chaos is fundamentally unknowable, there is a tendency to take its impenetrability as license to attribute all manner of phenomena that are otherwise improbable to the point of impossibility to its methods. Though chaos theory more commonly deals with decay, entropy, and disorganization, “the sudden change from a stable system to an unstable/stable one, the change from equilibrium to nonequilibrium,” in Slethaug’s phrase, most authors who deal with chaos seem most interested in the manners in which its processes can replace existing hierarchies (humankind as adjudicator of nature) with equally stable hierarchies (nature as unacknowledged master of humankind) – in this sense, chaos acts in fiction as a catalyst of revolutionary ideological progress (Slethaug xxi). Slethaug notes that Don Delillo tends to employ chaos as a means of disassembling “systems that are at the basis of socially dictated and institutionalized thought,” systems that, entrenched as they may be, contain the seeds of their own “entropic decay and impending death” (54). In this case, Delillo’s use of chaos is not dissimilar to Boyle’s – both employ chaos as a means of contradicting or altering long-held, stagnant social and political views.

Hayles claims that the crucial turn in chaos studies came when chaos started to be conceived of “not as an absence or void but as a positive force in its own right” (3). And Parker states that a fundamental precept of chaos theory is the notion that “patterns of order emerge spontaneously out of random behavior, that deterministic systems can generate random behavior when small uncertainties are amplified as the system develops through time (2).6 Significantly, Hayles links this unpredictability, which she calls the “spontaneous emergence of self-organization from chaos,” to the regenerative powers of organic systems: “the important conclusion is that nature, too complex to fit into the Procrustean bed of linear dynamics, can renew itself precisely because it is rich in disorder and surprise” (9-10). If the chaos inherent in nature can give rise to order, it stands to reason that one of the forms that natural chaos could take is an altered – perhaps even superior – form of order to those that are familiar to us. In fiction, this revolutionary aspect of chaos functions as the engine of desire we have already discussed insofar as it resolves dilemmas that humans find intractable.

And thus we arrive at Ozeki’s fiction, which, like Delillo’s works, represents characters seemingly so entangled in systems of global capitalism and patriarchy that they cannot see an outside to them (on which more later). My Year of Meats follows the parallel stories of Jane Takagi-Little and Akiko Ueno, the former a Japanese-American television producer commissioned by the megacorp BEEF-EX to create episodes of My American Wife!, a show intended to entice Japanese audiences to consume more beef, and the latter a repressed housewife in Tokyo laboring under the demands of her husband, John Ueno, who, coincidentally, also directs My American Wife! The women, separated by an ocean, are thus bound together by similar structures of economy, gender, and media. Criticism of My Year of Meats has focused heavily on how Jane’s (and, less frequently, Akiko’s) status as a liminal figure enables her to influence, and eventually overcome, the hostile forces of patriarchal capitalist domination. Andrew Wallis writes, in a 2013 article, that Jane

refuses to bend completely to the corporate will and uses her bi-cultural, bi-lingual, and bi-racial skills to manipulate Ueno and sneak subversive ideas into every episode...it is thus from her "impurity," her half-white, half-Japanese status, that Jane gains her strength. Ozeki's character goes beyond multiculturalism as a spectacle, as an aesthetic choice, to diversity as a tool to deconstruct hegemonic systems, as a source of power and cultural liberation. (845)7

Wallis emphasizes Jane’s agency within the “hegemonic systems” already mentioned, detailing how she uses the (admittedly limited) creative freedoms available to her in order to disrupt those systems, “initiat[ing] a process of corporeal and spatial decolonization, a re-inhabitation of person and place” (851). Emily Cheng, in a 2009 article, sees Jane as effecting something of the same transformation as Wallis, but through the medium of the material body rather than ideological agendas. Cheng writes: “the abstractness of the national narratives that [Jane] grapples with...is ultimately grounded in the body and the material conditions of capitalist production through the narrative of meat” (192). The critical consensus seems to be that Ozeki offers a powerful portrait of female agency (inflected by biracial and cross-cultural identities) within repressive male systems of commerce and control.

Many of these themes are also borne out in Ozeki’s All Over Creation, though the pieces have been shuffled; the Japanese-American heroine of the novel (though much more peripheral to the plot than Jane in My Year of Meats) is Yumi Fuller, whose sexual precocity and desire for freedom drive her from her hometown of Liberty Falls, Idaho. When she returns twenty years later, she finds her family embroiled in a conflict with the sinister Cynaco corporation, whose pesticide-infused NuLife potato (a thinly disguised version of Monsanto’s NewLeaf potato of the late 90s) is attempting to gain traction among local farmers. This skirmish is exacerbated by the presence of the Seeds of Resistance, a ragtag band of roving activists traveling the West in a vegetable-oil powered van who adopt the plight of the Liberty Falls farmers as their private crusade.

Criticism of All Over Creation tends to stress the same principles of activism, gender equality, biracialism, and counterculture that pervade My Year of Meats. Molly Wallace, in a 2011 article, reads All Over Creation as emblematic of Lawrence Buell’s famous “toxic discourse,” placing Ozeki in a lineage that includes Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rachel Carson, and Terry Tempest Williams, all texts “that counter prevailing ‘expert’ knowledge by asserting the dangers of chemical, nuclear, or other risks” (158). However, Wallace also – somewhat indirectly – introduces the potential of chaotic forces lurking beneath the exterior of Ozeki’s activism. Referencing a 2003 conference paper by Susan McHugh, she suggests that “Ozeki’s use of a roving point of view makes the novel ‘rhizomatic’ – or, more concretely, ‘potato-like’” (173). The intrusion of genetic manipulation into the novel (in the form of Cynaco’s Frankenspud), Wallace claims, injects a quantity of spontaneity into the plot: “[genes] may produce phenotypic expressions that were not intended, predicted, or even predictable based on the component ‘parts’ assembled” (176). The analogy is clear: like the fundamental unpredictability inherent in genetic combinations, Ozeki’s novel tends to favor the uncertainty instilled by uncontrollable (and frequently obfuscated) external phenomena. We can find the same fondness for chaos in My Year of Meats, though perhaps in a more structural sense. The novel is constructed, as Wallis notes, from “divergent narrative genres,” namely, “an assemblage of faxes, scrap paper, quotes from textbooks, and straightforward narrative” (840). My Year of Meats, Wallis suggests, is so “culturally and thematically variegate” that it reads like an “intertextual crossroads between Shonagon’s Pillow Book, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Jungle” (840). Claire Dederer, in a 2003 review of All Over Creation, was somewhat less favorably disposed toward My Year of Meats, calling it “a jalopy of a book whose various bits seemed tied together with baling wire.”

Though Wallis and others regard the seemingly haphazard construction of Ozeki’s novels as a (sometimes dubious) stylistic and structural choice, we take it as evidential of a repeated undercurrent in her fiction: the notion that chaos, and its strong allegiances with natural systems, provides a continuous source of spontaneity that counteracts the frequently intractable, stultifying subject-positions forced upon her characters by capitalist hegemony. Chaos, in other words, grants (frequently miraculous) possibilities for spontaneous natural regeneration in humans and their environments. Frequently, this regeneration takes the form of human reproduction, which functions in entirely unpredictable, and sometimes miraculous, ways in Ozeki’s fiction. It is not uncommon for Ozeki to parallel the trials and tribulations of motherhood experienced by two drastically different women, one often being more successful with pregnancy than the other. Through this parallel, Ozeki creates a narrative opening for a spontaneous and unexpected moment of conception or fertility. In My Year of Meats, Jane and Akiko both struggle with their own capacity to produce offspring. As a result of a (now banned) type of fertility drug given to her mother during Jane’s conception, Jane developed only the façade of a viable system of procreation within her; her warped uterus makes for a hostile environment for a fetus.8 Jane’s Japanese counterpart, Akiko, suffers from eating disorders, stress, abuse, and weight issues, making it nearly impossible for her body to conceive as well. This lack of a basic human and evolutionary function is implicitly mocked by the boisterous and beaming American wives who spend their days cooking for their numerous children. When both Jane and Akiko become seemingly spontaneously pregnant despite the obstacles imposed by their improbable situations, we feel jolted by the inexplicable and unlikely occurrence. Despite Jane’s slim odds of pregnancy, she finds herself having to make a call to Sloan, the father of her child, to tell him the confusing news. Likewise, a strange and mystical event occurs when Akiko not only becomes pregnant (a natural process her body continuously rejected), but is impregnated as a result of the brutal rape that her husband John inflicts upon her. Both of these spontaneous pregnancies, occurrences that have defied the odds, exemplify Ozeki’s belief in the chaos that undergirds conception. It proliferates despite obstacles, always fighting to somehow come to pass.

The argument could be made that, given the intense corporate control of procreation and reproduction in My Year of Meats, the spontaneous generation of offspring by both Jane and Akiko represents a variety of insurgent anticapitalist resistance, an unlicensed generative act performed using the medium of the body. However, My Year of Meats offers a much more overt case of chaotic defiance of capitalist hegemony in the saga of the Bukowsky family of Quarry, Indiana, a devastated post-industrial town that Jane visits in search of new subjects to film for My American Wife! The decline of industry in Quarry (the town’s name symbolizing both extractive resources and lacunae) leaves the town barren and destitute, and the opening of a Walmart megastore seems to seal its fate. “If there is one single symbol for the demise of regional America,” Jane editorializes, “it is this superstore prototype, a huge capitalist boot that stomped the moms and pops, like soft, damp worms, to death” (52). Christina, one of the Bukowsky family’s children, in a plot development that seems impossible not to read symbolically, is struck at a young age by a Walmart delivery truck, putting her into a comatose state. “The force of the blow fractured the back of her skull,” writes Ozeki. “The trauma to the left temporal lobe rendered her more or less a vegetable, uncomprehending, incapable of speech” (128). Despite the doctors’ diagnosis, the Bukowsky family works tirelessly to bring their daughter back to conscious life. Her parents begin by asking the widely unemployed mining town to sign up for shifts to visit their living room, “the Room for the Living,” and talk to Christina about the “Thing in Life You Love Best” (130). The experience becomes palliative for the local population:

The townspeople of Quarry were invested in Christina’s rehabilitation. They had grown to look forward to, and in fact even to count on, their visits to the Living Room and the opportunity it gave them to talk freely about the things they loved best – topics of conversation that would send their own loved ones at home into eye-rolling, mind-numbing catatonia. And miraculously, these same topics appeared to have a therapeutic effect, provided the listener was already, literally, catatonic. (131)

The ostensibly miraculous nature of the recovery experienced by Christina’s visitors is, of course, outweighed by the almost literally miraculous reawakening that Christina herself undergoes. After many months, Christina begins to open her eyes, move her fingers, and eventually make her way back to life.

Christina’s spontaneous regeneration is mirrored by that of Quarry itself, as it seems to transform almost overnight into a thoroughly wholesome small-town environment, bereft of the depression and poverty that had previously characterized it. The town is renamed Hope, and quickly begins to market itself as a site for therapy and rehabilitation:

Within a year the Hope Renewal Center, run by Mrs. Bukowsky, had moved into a brand-new two-hundred-bed long-term-care facility. The townspeople found jobs with the Center or started their own businesses as affiliated service providers...A CD store and a butcher’s shop were among the businesses that sprang up along the newly thriving Main Street. [The Bukowskys] starred in a promotional videotape, Welcome to Our Living Room: The Bukowsky Method of Compassion and Renewal. (132)

Several aspects of this transformation, framed positively in the book, are intriguing – the notion that Christina’s spontaneous, chaotic recovery is repeatable as a program of medical care, whether against the backdrop of a modern hospital or in a domestic setting. Second, it is worthwhile to note the speed with which the residents of Quarry/Hope transform Christina’s regeneration, phrased as existing independently from (and, indeed, as a means of resisting) capitalist exploitation, into a capitalist venture in itself. Jane, perhaps fearing that the subtleties of this metamorphosis are eluding the reader, directly comments: “the town of Quarry had discovered a new natural resource – compassion – and they were mining it and marketing it to America” (132).

In the case of Quarry/Hope, order emerges from chaos in a very straightforward manner, cracking the monolith of capitalist hegemony (embodied in the figure of Walmart) and bringing about a new regime of “compassionate” capitalism, deeply inflected by local culture, business, and communitarian healing. In this manner, chaos serves as a type of late-capitalist prayer or wish-fulfillment, as it does for Boyle; deprived of the means necessary to challenge Walmart on its own terms and revitalize Quarry, the residents instead pursue what might be called a kind of divine intervention, which nature, through the fundamentally ineffable medium of chaos, provides. What is perhaps most remarkable about this process is how it is appropriated (indeed, marketed) by the town of Hope as a viable means of therapy, and how Jane implicitly treats it as a potential source for more large-scale resistance to the vicissitudes of global capitalism. Such is Ozeki’s response to the quandary of discovering an external perspective from which to critique seemingly omnipresent forces of global capitalism. J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism cites a cocktail of cultural critics whose work has contributed to the idea of “capital as absolute presence,” or, in the words of the critics themselves,

‘a fractal attractor whose operational arena is immediately coextensive with the social field’ (Massumi 1993: 132), ‘an enormous...monetary mass that circulates through foreign exchange and across borders,’ ‘a worldwide axiomatic’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 453) engaged in ‘the relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places’ (Jameson 1991: 412), ‘appropriating’ individuals to its circuits (Grossberg 1992: 132)

In these writings, Gibson-Graham claims, “capitalism becomes the everything everywhere of contemporary cultural representation” (9). The End of Capitalism argues for an alternative perspective upon global capital, one that is both irreducible to the “margins” or “outskirts” of a traditional capitalist worldview and challenges the notion that “capitalism is the hegemonic, or even the only, present form of economy and that it will continue to be so in the proximate future” (2).9

Though My Year of Meats seemingly offers an alternative to capitalist development in the form of chaotic regeneration, in doing so, it falls back upon existing patterns of consumerism. As we will see, All Over Creation reveals similar narratives of dissociation from, yet simultaneous reliance upon, capitalist methods. On the surface of things, the plot of both novels are almost identical – the villainous corporation, the biracial heroine, the friction between traditional, grassroots food politics and capitalist domination of dietary practice. The stakes are somewhat higher than in My Year of Meats, however; pressured by corporate bullies and facing the impending wave of genetically-altered vegetables, lifelong farmer Lloyd Fuller marks the conflict as nothing less than apocalyptic: “‘It’s the death of the land,’ he told them. ‘Soil’s dead now. Water’s dead, too. You should have seen the birds when I was a boy! Oh, my goodness, the sky would be black with them’” (144). While Lloyd’s farm once bore out the idealistic belief that, “with the cooperation of God and science, and the diligent application of seasonable cultural practices, man could work in harmony with nature to create a relationship of perfect symbiotic naturalism,” the novel charts his relentless descent into despair, poor health, and obsolescence (4). In opposition to what seems like an unworkable situation of capitalist oppression, All Over Creation offers something of the same rhetoric of fertility as My Year of Meats. Ozeki juxtaposes Yumi’s abundant and diverse children with the loyal and wholesome Cass’s inability to conceive, despite numerous and emotionally tiring attempts. Fertility and family are highly sensitive subjects for both Cass and her husband, as even attempting to start the process of having a baby brings stress, anger, and tears that tend to draw the couple further from one another. To Will and Cass, it is even “rough to see other people’s beautiful children” (95).  The couple feels the absence of a child acutely as tensions build around their relationship, and Cass becomes almost obsessive with her searches through online adoption agencies.

However, in one of the last sections of the novel, as the Seeds are about to leave Liberty Falls, a teenage Seed unexpectedly gives his (now motherless) baby daughter, Tibet, to Cass and Will. This spontaneous gift restores hope and rejuvenates a family, offering life where once there was none. Molly Wallace links the discourse surrounding human fertility in the novel to the potential for vegetable reproduction:

Lloyd’s ‘seed embryos’ appear in a novel in which one of the major events around which the plot turns is his daughter Yumi’s abortion...Lloyd’s anger regarding this event underlies much of the discussion of ‘seeds’ in the novel, and the implied analogy becomes overt in a scene in which terminating a pregnancy becomes synonymous with terminating a plant’s ability to produce viable seed. (165)

In this manner, the spontaneity of human reproduction (or, in the case of Cass and Tibet, adoption) becomes a means of resistance to the control exerted by the patriarchal corporation – significantly, a means that is phrased in the novel as allied with the concept of nature. Nature itself, cast as female (according to convention) is described as gifting humankind with, among other things, “her wanton promiscuity...she reproduces herself with abandon, with teeming, infinite generosity” (266). The corporate villains of the novel, however, perceive this progenitive chaos as both feminine and threatening; in a lengthy monologue, an executive brandishes a statue of the Hindu goddess Kali at one of the characters, proclaiming, “she is all women, all nature, the dark secret of the Universe” (323).10

Gendered, natural chaos repeatedly appears in All Over Creation as a counterbalance to the powers of patriarchal, corporate order. The arrival of the “Seeds of Resistance,” an aging activist group traveling the country in a van powered by discarded cooking oil, is represented as a beneficial dose of disorder injected into the familiar narrative of grinding corporate domination. In a speech at the novel’s conclusion, one of the Seeds lectures Yumi on the value of sprawling, diverse nature as opposed to tightly controlled monoculture:

picture the whole planet as a garden, teeming with millions upon millions of flowers and trees and fruits and vegetables and insects and birds and animals and weevils and us. And then, instead of all that magnificent, chaotic profusion, picture a few thousand genetically mutated, impoverished, barren, patented forms of corporately controlled germplasm. (407)

All Over Creation also offers a tale strikingly similar to the regenerative narratives of My Year of Meats in the form of the Seeds’ pornographic website, the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” eventually being repurposed as an online public seed bank. One of the Seeds, using a multilayered pun, claims that “the Internet is a perfect vehicle for dissemination” (352). Through the renovated website, people can exchange a vow to grow, save, and share the seeds for free packets of Momoko’s exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Through this system, when one pack of seeds is sent to one person, they are grown, and ultimately distributed, to more people by the original recipient. Like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic growth, Lloyd and Momoko’s seeds disperse across the nation in every direction possible. As the network grows outward from Lloyd’s farm, the Internet allows for an ever-expanding web of connectivity among the seeds and the people who have procured them, providing one of many regenerative potentialities that All Over Creation advances as a means of resistance.
           
However, chaos seemingly acts disruptively in the novel as well; certain significant plot points are veiled by indeterminate, ineffable causes that negatively impact the main characters. The explosion of the Spudnik, the rehabilitated RV used by the Seeds, at the end of the novel, is a good example; though many theories are offered, the underlying cause for the explosion and the culprit who set the events in motion are left to the whimsies of chance. The narrator states: “It may simply have been an accident, random and tragic, a bit of very bad luck. Or it may have been something far more sinister – a rogue element set loose in Liberty Falls” (373). The very elements of chaos that are extolled as the beneficent demesnes of Nature in other sections of the book become here an obfuscatory agent that denies closure to the narrative arc of Cass, Yumi, Lloyd, and the Seeds. More severe still is the baleful force of chaos as played out against the backdrop of genetic manipulation of seed potatoes, the lifeblood of the Idahoan farmers that round out the cast of heroes of Ozeki’s novel. “If you try to propagate a domesticated potato using seed, sexually,” we learn, “chances are it will not grow true to type. Instead it will regress, displaying a haphazard variety of characteristics, reminiscent of its uncultivated potato progenitors – it may prove superior to the parent plant or it may be wildly inferior” (55). Chaos, in the economic logic of agriculture, becomes the enemy, yet simultaneously the source of the entire industry’s success.

Selected quotes from Luther Burbank, the father of the modern potato, are strewn throughout All Over Creation, and the novel makes it clear that Burbank’s horticultural fame spread from an ultimately spontaneous, unpredictable freak of fate: “the entire agricultural backbone of the state of Idaho,” claims Lloyd, “rests on a bit of luck that turned up in a truck garden in Massachusetts in 1872” (54). Burbank’s good fortune in discovering a genetically viable, saleable potato is twinned with a twist of serendipity on the part of market capitalism: “The rapid growth of the fast-food chains was the random factor that helped fuel the potato boom of ’74. In the 1980s it was McDonald’s introduction of the Supersize Meal. In the nineties it was Wendy’s Baked Potato. That was the fun, Lloyd always said, in growing potatoes. The randomness. The little bit of luck” (54). Here, in a somewhat unsettling turn, the chaotic (and gendered female) aspects of nature that elsewhere provide an effective counter to the forces of patriarchal capitalism that seek to steamroll the independent subjectivities of All Over Creation become the very catalysts that enable capitalist expansion. Chaos, it seems, serves no master, yet it must be said that the “randomness,” “serendipity,” and “luck” cited by Lloyd in the above passage, though they could be viewed from an objective perspective to foretell another nail in the coffin of the small American farm, are, in Ozeki’s novel, portrayed as universally positive developments for the growers themselves. Such is the case with all of the chaotic intrusions in Ozeki’s work: even if they seem to be catastrophic, as in the case of the Spudnik’s immolation, they ultimately act redemptively (in the bequeathal of Tibet to Cass and Will). Chaos is always on the side of the underdog, the brave individuals fighting for freedom.

When a gum-chewing Jeff Goldblum spouted doomy prophecies based on the butterfly effect in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), chaos theory was a dream come true for intellectuals: a complex mathematical system that a layperson was nonetheless perfectly capable of grasping without command of the sophisticated equations underlying its concepts. Chaos theory, in the years following Spielberg’s film, became a vital fragment of public intellectualism, an axiom of new cosmologies across the West. Yet we are tempted to wonder whether the implicit faith in chaos, the belief that events are fundamentally unpredictable and beyond the capacity of humans to influence or even comprehend, results in a certain abdication of agency on the part of capitalist subjects today. Might Ozeki’s endorsement of spontaneous, miraculous regeneration attend a variety of subjective paralysis, in which the reader (the listener, the viewer) regards global capitalist hegemony as wholly intractable with the sole exception of mutations governed by chaos?

In A Friend of the Earth, Ty Tierwater completes his thoughts on the concept of “accident” ruling the universe: “accident gives rise to the concept of luck – and if you believe in luck, you might as well break out your juju beads and get your mojo working, you might as well borrow a totem...and go out and talk to the trees” (93). Boyle’s point is (perhaps unsurprisingly) cynical, but is it valid? Does a belief in the redemptive power of chaos necessarily dictate an abandonment of any responsibility to other knowledge-systems? Ozeki’s novels seem to suggest that chaos will ultimately act to right any imbalances imposed upon nature by human agency in manners that are characteristically unpredictable and spontaneous, yet chaos must function in her fiction in ways that are subservient to narrative; it is valuable for the story of My Year of Meats that Jane become unexpectedly pregnant and that Hope rise from the ashes of Quarry – similarly, the arc of All Over Creation relies on the unexpected arrival of the Seeds and the subsequent fiery tragedy that befalls them. Chaos, as it functions in natural systems external to humanity, does not obey the demands either of narrative or human desire writ large, and to advance it (as Ozeki does seem to do) as a miraculous solution to the problems brought on by late capitalism seems to be quixotic at best. Yet Ozeki’s emphasis on chaos does articulate, consistently, a position that is outside of the purview of capitalist hegemony, and offers a potentiality of sorts for activism in an age of global capitalist control.

 

Notes

1. The narrator comments on this incident in language heavily informed by chance and accident: “Jane had gone through an entire life, all twenty-five years of it, without ever having been stung before . . . so this wasn’t funny, wasn’t the casual mishap it might have been for 99 percent of the species, the lucky ones, the nonallergic and resistant” (129).

2. See also A.C. Swanepoel’s “Irregular Regularity” (2007), which claims: “The link between chaos theory and ecocriticism seems obvious. Chaos theory concedes that nature contains a deep order that emerges naturally (Sardar & Abrams 2000: 86). Not only does chaos theory explain natural processes, but it also reintroduces mystery and unpredictability into nature” (448).

3. For more on coincidence in fiction, see Hilary P. Dannenberg’s Coincidence and Counterfactuality: Plotting Time and Space in Narrative Fiction (2008) and much of the work of Wai Chee Dimock.

4. Admittedly, A Thousand Plateaus is not about chaos in any traditional sense, but the presence of a chaotic universe provides the backdrop against which it makes its claims. Specifically, the “structureless” nature of the book and its invocation of the chaotic growth of “rhizomatic” systems as compared to “arbocentric” systems has proven enormously influential. See Deleuze and Guattari, especially pages 7, 9, 12, and 18.

5. A contrary opinion to Parker’s narrative of the chaos theory boom of the 1990s is provided by Gordon Slethaug’s Beautiful Chaos (2000); Slethaug portrays chaos studies as “the product of a genuine American counterculture that only grudgingly was granted a place in the mainline scientific academy” and suggests that “it is perhaps this insistence on marginalization that gives chaos theory at least some of its appeal for the modern writer and reader of recent American literature” (xi).

6. Order arising out of chaos has, of course, a mythic precedent to accompany its theoretical prominence. Edward S. Casey writes, in The Fate of Place (1997) that “chaos [in Hesiod, Aristotle, and Genesis] is not a scene of disorder – of what moderns shortsightedly call ‘the chaotic.’ It is a scene of emerging order. Such a scene cannot be an utter void, a merely vacant space. It is a scene of spacing, not just gaping but ‘gapping’ in a cosmogonically active sense. To be chaotic in this sense is not to destroy order but to create it” (9).

7. For a contrary opinion to Wallis’s synergistic reading of Jane’s multiculturalism, see Monica Chiu’s 2001 “Postnational Globalization and (En)gendered Meat Production in Ruth L. Ozeki's My Year of Meats.” Chiu reads Ozeki’s treatment of race as more a cliché than a revolutionary technique, claiming that “the novel gestures toward an endless circulation of meaning in which the latest ‘other’ inhabits the former house of slavery, now touted by Jane as a habitation of happy multiculturalism, meanings completely lost on both Jane and Joichi. The foundation of contemporary diversity is built on the soil of somebody else's sorrow” (110).

8. The drug in question is diethylstilbestrol (DES), a supplement administered to both humans and cattle (Ozeki makes frequent allusion to the manners in which humans and stock animals are treated similarly under late capitalist regimes) as an estrogen booster during the middle of the twentieth century. In 1971, the drug was discovered to cause varied and significant negative side effects, including birth defects and cancer, and was removed from use.

9. Myra Jehlen seeks a similar alternative perspective in a 1983 article vis-à-vis feminist critiques of “the presumptive order of both nature and history.”  Jehlen invokes Archimedes, who, “to lift the earth with his lever required someplace else on which to locate himself and his fulcrum,” claiming that feminists “would appear to need an alternative base” (70).

10. All Over Creation, by and large, follows conventional patterns of gendered ecosymbology; men represent order, science, and the artificial while women signify the opposite. For example, Yumi is “overwhelmed by the orderly force of my father’s opinions” upon looking at the seed catalog,” while “certain kinds of chaos thrilled” Lloyd’s wife Momiko (66, 251, emphases added).


Works Cited

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

Boyle, T.C. A Friend of the Earth. New York, NY: Penguin, 2000.

Casey, Edward. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Oakland, CA: U California P, 1998.

Cheng, Emily. “Meat and the Millennium: Transnational Politics of Race and Gender in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.” Journal of Asian American Studies 12.2 (2009): 191-220.

Chiu, Monica. “PostnationalGlobalization and (En)gendered Meat Production in Ruth L. Ozeki's My Year of MeatsLit: Literature Interpretation Theory 12.1 (2001): 99-128.

Dederer, Claire. “Instead of Potatoes.” Rev. of All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki. New York Times 16 March 2003: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/16/books/instead-of-potatoes.html

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Lionsgate, 2005. Film.

Hawkins, Harriett. Strange Attractors: Literature, Culture and Chaos Theory. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Jehlen, Myra. “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism.” The Signs Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship. Eds. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Able. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1983.

Livingston, Ira. “Chaos and Complexity Theory.”The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science. Eds. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini. New York, NY: Routledge, 2011.

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004.

---. My Year of Meats. New York, NY: Penguin, 1999.

Parker, Jo Alyson. Narrative Form and Chaos Theory in Sterne, Proust, Woolf, and Faulkner. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2007.

Slethaug, Gordon E. Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000.

Stewart, Ian. Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1989.

Swanepoel, A.C. “Irregular Regularity: A Chaos-Theory Reading of the Ecology Presented in Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight.'“ Journal of Literary Studies 23.4 (2007): 444-460.

Wallis, Andrew H. “Toward a Global Eco-Consciousness in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 20.4 (2013): 837-854.

Wallace, Molly. “Discomfort Food: Analogy, Biotechnology, and Risk in Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.” Arizona Quarterly 67.4 (2011): 155-181.

 
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