Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies

Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies

Mandelbrot Among the Gypsies (2001)

Gaston Julia, recovering from injuries caused by a hospital, was named king of the gypsies in 1917. He had darned some socks for corpses and driven a hawthorn stake through his soon-to-be famous set. Much of his initial groundwork was spent decapitating computers on a finite area of the X-Y plane. Female vampires might have been more helpful in seducing his theory, but Pierre Fatou was a familiar who was missing a finger. He used melons to free up computer time. Of course, they dripped blood. To ward off vampires, gypsies used computer-generated cremation grounds. In 1979, Benoit Mandelbrot himself could reproduce after he made noises and calculated Kali. The goddess drank his image -- all his blood was drained but none was spilled, thereby the “Mandelbrot Set.” The values of IBM went from C to mullo (one nomadic perimeter of a large, complex ghoul). The discrete boundary of this formula is very loyal to dead relatives, both inside and out. In 1982, Mandelbrot’s soul re-entered the world, and he published a book similar to ours only very different. It was called In the Fractal There Is No Death. His soul, kept crated in wooden boxes, stayed more around his publisher than his body. This was actually seminal, for undead followers soon generated and sprang out of the ground. They believed only in dendrites and Slavic primacy. Later, after deep zooming and (re)animating irregular shapes, interesting patterns like animal appendages emerged and wandered the countryside. These beautiful images were a surprise, and intestines and a skull combined to make an apparition that drank only coloring gradients. So, yes, Bram Stoker spread his work at high magnification. By 1000 AD, computer artists with their powerful PCs had settled in Turkey. All culture and contemporary simulation seemed to stop shortly afterward.


Using the "cut-up" composition method popularized by William S. Burroughs, two blocks of text were run through a virtual cut-up machine. The result: a randomly scrambled "found" text mirroring chaos theory and yielding new meanings.

The two texts used here and merged were:
1) an article about the beginnings of fractal art--
2) an article on gypsy vampire superstitions--


I want to write poetry the same way I make fractal images. Today's image is the first of a series I will be posting over the next week. I'll attempt to explain, as best I can, what I think I am trying to do.

Understand that I am not a mathematician. My poor explanations of fractal theory and geometry are probably fuzzy or even absurd. The little I know, or think I know, serves as the "Muse" for what I'm attempting. I guess I don't care if I have all of my facts exactly straight. It's the connections between the processes that interest me. That being said, I certainly welcome comments and clarifications from people more knowledgeable than I am. Google "fractal" and 21 million hits appear, so anyone reading this tip-of-the-iceberg post can easily zoom deeply into the subject.

My new process for creating poetry begins with the “cut-up” theory of writing used by the late Beat writer William S. Burroughs. Wikipedia describes cut-up composition as follows:

Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text (printed on paper) and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text. The rearranging work often result in surprisingly innovative new phrases. A common way is to cut a sheet in four rectangular sections, rearranging them, and then typing down the mingled prose while compensating for the haphazard word breaks by improvising and innovating along the way.

I try to add two new dimensions to cut-up composition: 1) collage software and 2) fractals and fractal geometry.

My process begins by pasting two existing text excerpts into a virtual cut-up machine. This is software that is designed to scramble and splice texts to make new, “found” texts. But I use the software in a very specific way -- and for a very specific end.

I am also a visual artist -- as this blog suggests. I use a computer to make fractal-based digital art. I use fractal-generating software to generate a fractal image. I import these images into graphics software (like Photoshop, PhotoPaint, Paint Shop Pro, and others) and “post-process” (manipulate outside the fractal generator) the base fractal image into a digital artwork.

My friends who love mathematics know what a fractal is -- and understand the geometry and formulas far better than I do. There are newsgroups and forums and graduate classes that hash out the mind-boggling formulas and details. But let me try to explain, in my own simple and unsatisfactory way, what a fractal is. Fractals are pictures derived from mathematical formulas and generated by computer software. A fractal is a geometric shape repeated at ever-smaller scales. Therefore, fractals are self-similar and infinite -- that is, one can (in theory) zoom forever into a fractal and continue to see permutations of the same forms. The irregular shapes and surfaces found in fractals cannot be reproduced by classical geometry, and so some people claim fractals also demonstrate chaos theory -- because the math formula is "set" but still cannot be reliably predicted. Many fractal forms are found in nature. Trees are a good example. A branch is like a smaller tree, and a twig is like a smaller branch, and so on. The increasingly smaller forms resemble the larger ones. Trees are "set" forms; however, no two, even if they are of the same species, are exactly alike. Fractals forms are everywhere: frost, broccoli, nervous systems. No two fractal images are alike either because minor adjustments in given mathematical formulas in fractal generators produce slightly different pictures.

I want to incorporate similar methods/concepts to create a kind of “fractal poetry.” There are, indeed, many connections. Chopping and rearranging the same two “set” texts means the subsequent cut-up(s) will always be “self-similar.” The field of available words never changes and syntax replicates but is shuffled with each iteration. In theory, the cut-up text could be infinite -- if I could live forever and constantly keep cutting up the same two select texts (is that a circle in hell?). Fractals are infinite in theory, but a graphic viewer capable of an infinite deep zoom has (to my knowledge) not yet been designed. Moreover, by placing all of the virtual cut-up machine’s settings on “random,” chaos theory begins to come into play. The resulting cut-up text is indeed very fractal in design -- having traits of computer generation, self-similarity, theoretical infinity, and influence of chaos theory.

I am not the only writer to link fractals and poetry. Poet Alice Fulton has discussed “fractal poetics” in her book Feeling as a Foreign Language (Graywolf Press, 1999). She writes:

Science’s insights concerning turbulence might help us to describe traits common to the poetry of volatile (rather than fixed) form…Just as fractal science analyzed the ground between chaos and Euclidean order, fractal poetics could explore the field between gibberish and traditional forms. It could describe and make visible a third space: the non-binary in-between.

Naturally, Fulton has her detractors. Michael Theune disses her ideas in an issue of Pleaides:

At first, Fulton’s theory sounds promising. A real departure from organic theories of poetry, it could help to privilege a new kind of poetry, a hyper-repetitive or incremental poetry perhaps analogous to the fugue -- a structure Fulton mentions in her essay, “To Organize a Waterfall” -- that might approximate the not-quite and both chaotic and self-similar -- “[a] self-similar mechanism is, formally speaking, a kind of cascade, with each stage creating details smaller than those of preceding stages” -- aspects of the fractal. The fractal, one could say, replaces the paradigm of the musical score with the paradigm of the loop.


The trouble with Fulton’s theory is that none of this happens. Instead, Fulton makes a mess of things, bleeding her potentially interesting theory dry by turning it into at best a lightweight surrealism or at worst a trite descriptive tool.

I think she's into something good. Fulton seeks to apply fractal theory to existing free verse patterns in hopes of discovering a middle ground of exciting expression poised between sense and nonsense and for extracting (“deep zoom”) new meanings. Fulton is less interested in generating new work than she is concerned with applying fractal theory as a critical tool to decode and validate a charged free verse poetry. In contrast, I am more attracted to using fractal theory as a mirror and a map to generate new “found texts” that are fractal in method and design and truly exist in Fulton’s “third space.”

And that's where I want these poems to be. Snug in that third space suspended between chaos and order.

Fulton goes on to say is poem is not a fractal because poems aren't "complex adaptive systems." I have my doubts. If a poem can be written to embed fractal characteristics, and each subsequent stage of a cut up is a new iteration, doesn't that resemble complex adaptation?

If you're interested, drop back by, and I'll show you some more fractal poems over the next week. Decide for yourself what they are and mean -- if anything.


Anonymous said...

Another rejection -- and with poems that I love and which should have been accepted because the fit the request that the journal offered. I might as well be dead. No, I am dead. All this poetry writing is nothing more than a neurotic self-indulgence. The void wins.

cruelanimal said...

I certainly know how you feel. I feel the same way myself sometimes.

I guess I'd like to believe the void wins when there are no poems and images and films and music and friends to help fill it -- or to at least amuse and disract as one tumbles past the event horizon.

thelily said...

It's all in the punctuation, really.

All this poetry writing is nothing more than neurotic self-indulgence!

(Note - and this is important - that I HATE exclamation marks. They're just low-tech emoticons[insert winking smiley face here].)

The point is that sometimes the writing is enough. Sometimes better than enough, because there are those sparkling moments of interior perfection when the words line up exactly as you didn't plan, and you actually do pull off the hat-trick. The feeling of that is almost as gratifying as knowing the editors can't see you sitting at your desk in the dark, flipping them off with abandon.


cruelanimal said...

I agree. There is enormous self-satisfaction when something you write or draw suddenly comes together.

But so much of what I see and read, and judged by popular or critical consensus to be of high quality, does not take the top of my head off. Instead, it leaves me flat and blank. I wonder sometimes who is flipping off whom?

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