Kira Magnus-ENGL 337: Iteration Essay

My semester’s story in this class can be viewed through a lens that is offered in Robert Eglash, in African Fractals, that of infinity. Eglash offers two kinds of infinity in African Fractals. The first is one that defines infinity in the way European mathematicians before Georg Cantor defined infinity, as “a symbol that vaguely means ‘the number you would get if you counted for forever’” (Eglash, 8). This kind of infinity is something that starts but does not end, only continuously expands. The other kind of infinity is the one that you find in fractals, it is an infinity that “fits into a bounded space” (12). While these two definitions of infinity are not directly opposed, they are two separate ways of thinking about the concept. These ways of thinking are similar to James Snead’s conceptions of viewing repetition, of “accumulation and growth” and “circulation” (149). The readings and work for this class throughout this semester have begun to shift my thinking from a mindset of vague, linearly endless, infinity, that, as Snead would say, accumulates and grows, to a mindset more inline with the idea of inward endlessness and a capacity for infinity inside something with a set beginning and end, an infinity of “circulation” and recurrence. This shift is evident in my work this semester.

In the beginning of this semester, I wrote my seed shape essay on the idea of repetition. This idea drew on James Snead’s essay, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” in which he argues that the world is “not inexhaustible in its manifold combinations” (146). In arguing this, Snead establishes that the world requires repetition. As mentioned, he goes on to argue that repetition can be viewed through a lens of “accumulation and growth” or as “circulation” (149). In my essay, I argued that repetition viewed as “circulation” can be used as a seed shape for understanding literature. While this argument is one that I still find to be true, the way that I make this argument fails to use the lens in which I am arguing for. Instead, I use the first lens of “accumulation and growth,”a lens of linear infinity, to analyze the literature I was discussing. 

I argue in my seed shape essay that Harriet Jacobs’ book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, can be better understood by viewing it without the anticipation of “accumulation and growth”; however, I do so with an expectation that Jacobs will fulfill my narrative expectations of end goals and solutions to problems. I write that Jacobs’ book does not fit the dramatic structure of “Exposition, Rising action, Climax, Falling action, Denouement,” commonly known as freytag’s pyramid (Turner), that tends to fit into the mindset of “accumulation and growth.” Instead, I write, “the disorder that Jacobs’ experiences does not exactly rise but rather exists in constant and differing threats she experiences…Each solution in Jacobs’ story has another problem.” (Magnus). While my analysis of Jacobs points out its lack of conformity to the form of freytag’s pyramid, it also conforms to a linear sense of problems and solutions. By stating that the solutions in Jacobs’ narrative all contain more problems I suggest a sense of accumulative infinity. 

As I continued in this class I kept some of this sense of accumulative infinity, though I also began to shift my mindset to something more similar to inward or circulatory infinity. The first piece of evidence for this can be found in the sections I worked on for the Collaboration Exercise. In analyzing Kwame Alexander’s poem “life,” I argued that Alexander leaves a space for the audience to respond at the end of his poem. I write that the abrupt end of his poem “may just imply that the house was destroyed, [but] it also allows room for a double meaning that implicates the reader. By stopping the poem before the house is potentially destroyed, Alexander gives room for the reader to intervene in the conversation” (“Sustainability Through…”). My analysis of this poem, while not mentioning any kind of infinity, does explore the possibility for infinite answers contained in something finite. In acknowledging a “double meaning” in the poem, I acknowledge the ability for multiple possibilities to exist at the same time, which contains a form of infinity. 

The idea of multiple possibilities existing at the same time is also something explored in the first/second mini collaboration. The entire focus of this mini collaboration was to explore the many possible answers to whether or not Ishmael Kidder’s art/Art is restrained in Percivall Everett’s book, The Water Cure. I mostly worked on establishing whether Ishmael Kidder’s art of writing under the name of Estelle Gilliam is restrained or unrestrained, and I eventually landed on unrestrained. However, doing so required acknowledging the infinite possibilities for what Ishmael Kidder’s art was and what it meant for it to be restrained. 

As we finished The Water Cure, I began to notice its other capacities for inward infinity. This form infinity is one that is present within The Water Cure on both the level of content and structure. On the level of content, Everett explores multiple ideas which grapple with this capacity for infinite ideas in one confined space. One of these ideas is that of Schrodinger’s cat, which is heavily alluded to throughout the book. A significant place where it is indirectly referenced is when Ishmael Kidder’s daughter Lane tapes a beetle in a box and says that it must never be opened (91). Kidder states that “without telling us what the beetle meant to her, we were left with the knowledge, clear as anything in the world, that the beetle did mean something, and something different to each of us” (91). In this statement, the possibility for inward infinity can be found in many places. There is the infinity in the possibility of what the beetle means to each of them. There is also infinity in the idea that not only does the beetle mean something different to Kidder, his wife, and his daughter, but also to the reader or anyone in the world. There are an infinite number of possible meanings as well as an infinite number of people making those meanings. Yet all of these meanings are contained within the box. 

On the level of structure, Everetts novel as a whole also offers an example of inward infinity. Everetts novel obviously has a clear beginning and end, yet it contains infinite possibilities. These possibilities are evident in the lack of clarity the book offers towards whether or not anything that is stated in the book has really happened. An example of this lack of clarity is in a scene in which Kidder describes driving with a man in his trunk and getting pulled over. Not only does Kidder openly admit that he is not sure that the man in his trunk is his daughter’s attacker, but it is also almost certain that the conversation never really happened (55). The way the officer and Kidder speak to each other, and the fact that the police officer lets him go, are unrealistic, making it unlikely that the conversation took place. However, at the same time, given to overt criticism of American corruption throughout the book, there is room to also believe that this conversation truly did happen. This scene alone raises doubts for the reliability of Kidder to tell the truth to the reader. In this unreliability is the possibility for infinite interpretations and understanding of Everetts book. While almost all books contain room for interpretation, The Water Cure is different in that all of these interpretations are internal to and supported by the book. 

Throughout the course my thinking about course texts has begun to change towards a mindset that focuses on internal and circulatory infinity rather than cumulative infinity. In the beginning I knew of the need to think without expectations of “accumulation and growth” yet had difficulty exercising. Throughout this class, and especially through reading The Water Cure, my perception of infinity has changed to see the ways that infinity can be internal, not merely external. A seed shape, through the lens of linearity, is finite. It is only in examining what is between its beginnings and ends that its infinite possibilities unfold. The Water Cure illustrates this. It takes a human being, which begins and ends finitely, and unfolds what is in between, the capacity for infinite questions and answers. 

Works Cited:

Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. Rutgers University Press, 2005. 

Everett, Percival. The Water Cure. Graywolf Press, 2007. 

Turner, Kitty. “Freytag’s Pyramid: Definitions and Examples of Dramatic Structure.” Scribophile, Scribophile, 28 June 2023, www.scribophile.com/academy/what-is-freytags-pyramid. 

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.