One doesn’t hear as much about chaos theory as one used to; as with “quantum physics”, which for most purposes is used to mean spooky-action-at-a-distance and Schrödinger’s sodding cat, “chaos theory” has been boiled down into a handful of middlebrow clichés about infinitely crumpled fractal boundaries and “the butterfly effect”. Reading DeLanda’s Inorganic Life, (originally published in Zone: Incorporations in 1991) took me back to the moment in the late 80s when I was reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making A New Science and running programs to generate Mandelbrot set images on a BBC Micro for eleven hours at a time. It was all very exciting back then, and DeLanda’s text channels some of that excitement into metaphysical enquiry in a manner that today’s “speculative realists” ought to appreciate.
One difficulty that I had with this short text was that DeLanda seemed to want to connect the behaviour of non-linear systems (bifurcation, turbulence and so on) with the Deleuzian concept of “the open”, implying that such systems demonstrated the invalidity of deterministic physical models based on a static frame (that is, models where the state of the system at time T is entirely determined by the complete set of facts about the state of the system at time T-1; as I understand it, an “open” system supposedly never forms a closed set of facts, because its contexture includes the continuum of folds and fluxes that surround and permeate it). The problem here is that the canonical examples that appear within chaos theory are all in fact entirely deterministic: pretty much the whole point is that chaos theory accounts for the appearance of such peculiar entities as strange attractors within a deterministic framework.
I’ll come back to this shortly, because the example I have in mind – the infinitely self-similar contours of the Mandelbrot set itself – is one that bears detailed scrutiny. The mathematics out of which the Mandelbrot set emerges are at bottom extremely simple, and I’d like to try and rehearse the steps through which, in my late teens, I came to understand more about what on earth was going on in that – at the time – exceptionally strange and exhilarating new domain.