The Post in Which I Explain Once and For All What Makes American Fractal a Fractal

conversationsindminor_by_stacy_reedYesterday I gave a new (for me) example of what fractals are — objects for which scale is irrelevant, because the same patterns repeat over and over again regardless of scale. Viewed from above, a photograph of a barren desert could be a mile wide or a meter, and there’s no way to tell the difference.

The idea for the book — and I won’t deny that it’s a mostly post-hoc idea that I contorted a collection of poems around — is that American culture exhibits the structure of a fractal.  Viewed from above, without any assumptions about perspective, there’s no way to tell what size social unit you’re looking at.  The same patterns echo like a standing wave through the personal, the familial, the political, the metaphysical, and back again.  Our national identity is just as nuanced as an individual mind — all the passions and paranoias of the microcosm reverberate through the macrocosm.

They only look like difference scales because we’re locked inside our singular plane of experience, full of referants to always remind us of where we are. We’re like the kid I was in the title poem, standing between two mirrors in my grandmother’s bathroom, staring at an infinite recession of smaller and smaller heads, stretching back so far that the horizon line becomes a point — and that point we’ll never see, because no matter how far we twist, our head is always in the way.

A good example has to compare two poems.  I won’t post either of them now, but you can read “Cutlery” in Rattle e.6.  In that poem, a woman with schizophrenia can’t sleep because it’s raining cutlery — “bare arms shielding [her] face from the tinny drizzle.”  Obviously, the poem is inspired by my time working at the group home — and it’s a story that may or may not be true (yes, I’m being coy) — but what might not be obvious to anyone but me is that the entire poem can be read as an allegory for American militarism.  (“Everywhere I look there’s more of it…“)  The obsession, the pride, the paranoia — the schizophrenic’s inability to distinguish between threats real and imagined.  (“so much to sort by sunrise…”)  There’s no a single reference to war in the poem, except for maybe the vague threat of cutlery used as a weapon, but it doesn’t matter.  The pattern is there.

Another poem, “Playing Our Part,” moves (or can move) in the exact opposite direction.  Ostensibly, this is a “why we fight” poem.  The epigram is from Nietzsche — “Under peaceful conditions, a warlike man sets upon himself” —  and it springs into a little narrative of a warlike God up on a hill, the villagers below resigned to fight so God won’t get bored and turn the rifle on Himself.  Honestly, the idea always strikes me as a little too quaint, but kind of funny.  Maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t.  But when you look through the lens of the fractal, you start to see that the poem isn’t just about militarism — it can also be read as an allegory for the perpetuation of violence within a family unit.  Every bully at school has a bully of a father (or father-figure).  It’s often explained as hierarchy, where the bully is stripped of power at home, and so desperately seeks to fill that void while at school.  But there’s more to it than that — there’s also this Lacanian psychological certainty that the father, the king bully, must be justified in his behavior, and so the cycle of violence is really a kind of pyramid scheme, always working to restore faith and solidarity with the father above. (“And so our factories whir incessantly…”)

You can play the same kind of games, finding various structural dualities, with every poem in the book. Every poem can be read as a metaphor for some broader or smaller subject.

That might sound impressive at first, like I did a lot of work burying all these meanings, but the truth is that the fundamental structure of human experience — and thus, the universe — is a fractal.  All of thought is metaphor and metonymy; it’s all relative, always.  We’re just locked inside our isolated plane of individualism, so we don’t usually notice the whole.  We confuse all these mental objects for concrete.

Zoom out into near-earth orbit, leave all your preconceptions about what it means to be human on the ground, and try to distinguish our civilization from a colony of bacteria in a petri dish.  We clump into cities that quickly expand outward, sometimes connected by arteries, consuming resources and excreting toxins at an exponential rate in a race to see if we’ll suffocate before starve ourselves out.  Some bacteria even give off light.

Not that I’m necessarily criticizing humanity or American culture, I’m just pointing out the repeating patterns.  I’m just talking about America because my experience happens to be American.  Fractals don’t judge; they only wave.  After all, who knows if we might be making champagne.

3 thoughts on “The Post in Which I Explain Once and For All What Makes American Fractal a Fractal

  1. “fractals are — objects for which scale is irrelevant, because the same patterns repeat over and over again regardless of scale”

    Thank you. That’s much better. Now I understand.

  2. Thanks, you both, I’m really glad this post makes sense! Megan said I didn’t do a good job of explaining things in Monday’s post the day before.

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