The Cyclical Nature of the World

A seed shape is the starting point of a fractal, it is the beginning of something never ending. Fractals are the object of study in Ron Eglash’s book African Fractals, in which he describes seed shapes such as a “single straight line” (8) in a cantor set and a “triangular shape made of four lines” (10) of a Koch curve. These seed shapes produce a kind of infinity, in which the seed shape is reproduced over and over and over onto the original shape. In a Cantor set this takes the form of the middle of the straight line being erased, and the two lines produced by this erasure becoming two smaller versions of the original seed shape. When their middles are erased, four seeds are produced, ready to take part in this process of erasure and production. This process is called recursion. As recursion takes place, the original seed shape is not lost, but is still discernible as the essential shape of the fractal when one zooms out to see the whole picture. The concept of seed shapes is not exclusive to mathematics, but is relevant in other conversations. A foundational concept can be likened to a seed shape, the concept being the seed that allows for the beginning of thought, and the thought then being applied over and over in increasingly specific realms, creating a potentially infinite number of applications and understanding. A seed shape in the form of a foundational argument can be found in James Snead’s article, “On Repetition in Black Culture.” Snead first asserts that the world is “not inexhaustible in its manifold combinations,” that there is a limit to what can be created, and therefore there must be repetition. Snead then argues that different cultures see this repetition differently, specifically that European culture sees repetition on a scale of accumulation and growth, whereas black culture sees repetition in terms of circulation (149). This idea that Snead provides, of seeing the world as cyclical rather than infinitely growing/progressing, can prove to be a seed shape for analyzing literature and the world. 

The narrative of accumulation and growth fits well into the narrative structure of order, disorder, and order restored. The order is the base to grow off of, the disorder creates the need for growth, and order restored achieves the growth. This structure also prioritizes both the need for an opponent or antagonist and the end goal of the win. The opponent creates the disorder which one can fight, and win against, in order to restore order. In a society that prioritizes accumulation and growth, these types of stories are seen as the norm. Stories that do not fit this mold are still often read as though they do, and are less understood because of it. The stories that don’t fit this mold resemble more closely the ideas of repetition, circulation, and flow as described by Snead. Snead offers that an essential nature of the cycle is the “cut” which allows you to “pick [the thing going through the cycle] up when you come back to get it” (150). In using the “cut” rather than the win, this structure emphasizes compromise and shared experience. However, if one views these stories through a different lens, the lens of Snead’s seed shape, one can see these stories and the varied arguments they offer more clearly.

One piece of literature that can be analyzed through this seed shape is that of Harriet Jacobs’ book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In some ways, one could think of Jacob’s story through the structure of order, disorder, and order restored. She begins in relative order, not knowing she is enslaved until she is seven years old. Then upon learning she is enslaved, and especially when her first enslaver dies, disorder begins. Finally, order is restored as Jacobs’ achieves freedom in the north. While this summary fits relatively well onto Jacobs’ narrative, when one zooms in closer to the details of the book, the structure no longer fits these expectations. 

The main ways in which Jacobs’ book does not meet the expectations of one conditioned to read for accumulation and growth is in the content of what would be the disorder and the conclusion. The disorder that Jacobs’ experiences does not exactly rise but rather exists in constant and differing threats she experiences. Jacobs is sexually harassed by her enslaver and threatened with her life by the wife of her enslaver. The way she escapes this disorder is by hiding in her grandmother’s attic for seven years, being disconnected from her children and living in constant fear of being caught. In escaping this disorder she flees to the north, where she is still disconnected from her children and initially fearful of being discovered. Each solution in Jacobs’ story has another problem. Even at the end of the book, Jacobs writes “the dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own” (Jacobs, 464). Through this ending it is clear that Jacobs’ story is not one of accumulation or growth in a linear sense. Instead it resembles more closely the circulation and flow described by Snead. Jacobs does not win at the end of her narrative, she finds a compromise between her and her children’s freedom and her desire to live with them and have a home of their own. A foundational concept that can be seen as a seed shape is one that can provide the framework for an idea or conversation, then offer more specific insights as one focuses on specific topics. As can be seen by the application of Snead’s concepts to Harriet Jacobs’ book Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl, his ideas of accumulation and growth and circulation and flow as responses to repetition work as a seed shape for discussion of other topics. Viewing Jacob’s book through Snead’s ideas allows the reader to see it through a different lens. Instead of attempting to assign roles of antagonists and protagonists to the people in Jacobs’ book, one can see the many roles taken by many characters and the ways in which they don’t necessarily simply triumph over one another, but find compromises.

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