Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2002, xi, 272 pp. Elizabeth Agee Prize for Best Manuscript in American Literary Studies, University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Reading eight major contemporary authors through the lens of chaos theory, Conte offers new and original interpretations of works that have been the subject of much critical debate.
Design & Debris discusses the relationship between order and disorder in the works of John Hawkes, Harry Mathews, John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and Don DeLillo. In analyzing their work, Joseph Conte brings to bear a unique approach adapted from scientific thought: chaos theory. His chief concern is illuminating those works whose narrative structures locate order hidden in disorder (whose authors Conte terms “proceduralists”), and those whose structures reflect the opposite, disorder emerging from states of order (whose authors Conte calls “disruptors”).
Documenting the paradigm shift from modernism, in which artists attempted to impose order on a disordered world, to postmodernism, in which the artist portrays the process of “orderly disorder,” Conte shows how the shift has led to postmodern artists’ embrace of science in their treatment of complex ideas. Detailing how chaos theory interpenetrates disciplines as varied as economics, politics, biology, and cognitive science, he suggests a second paradigm shift: from modernist specialization to postmodern pluralism. In such a pluralistic world, the novel is freed from the purely literary and engages in a greater degree of interactivity between literature and science, and between author and reader. Thus, Conte concludes, contemporary literature is a literature of flux and flexibility.
Drawing on the work of a wide range of contemporary American poets from Ashbery to Zukofsky, Joseph M. Conte elaborates an innovative typology of postmodern poetic forms. In Conte’s view, looking at recent poetry in terms of the complementary methods of seriality and proceduralism offers a rewarding alternative to the familiar analytic dichotomy of “open” and “closed” forms.
Unending Design examines general issues of contemporary poetics–how to categorize versions of the postmodern long poem, or to address the multiple voices of the lyric, for example–as well as the smallest details of poetic structure. Conte reads closely the works of such canonical figures as Creeley, Ashbery, and Duncan, semi-canonical writers such as Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, and Lorine Niedecker, and previously overlooked poets including Harry Mathews, Paul Blackburn, William Bronk, and Weldon Kees. He describes the serial form adopted by Creeley, George Oppen, and Jack Spicer, among others, as combinative and provisional, incorporating random events without succumbing to formlessness. Then he discusses the procedural form–developed by poets including Ashbery and Mathews, and the composer John Cage–in which arbitrary constraints generate the content, rather than merely contain it. Among the characteristics of proceduralism are the varation of recurrent lexical or semantic elements and the free play of poetic artifice. Conte employs the semiotic approaches of Barthes, Eco, and Riffaterre to define these new compositional methods and to interpret the meaning of form in contemporary poetry.
Unending Design provides both an overview of postmodern aesthetics and a penetrating analysis of the distinct forms of contemporary poetry. It will be welcomed by anyone interested in American poetry in particular and postmodernism more generally
 Reviews of Design and Debris appear in: American Literary Scholarship: An Annual (2002), American Book Review, Choice, College Literature, Comparative American Studies, Contemporary Literature, Electronic Book Review, Modern Fiction Studies, Studies in American Fiction, and The Year’s Work in English Studies (2004).
 Reviews of Unending Design appear in: American Literary Scholarship: An Annual (1991), American Literature, Choice, College Literature, The Modern Language Review (London, Eng.), Poetic Briefs, Poetry Now Review (Manchester, Eng.), Sagetrieb, Sulfur, and The Year’s Work in English Studies (1991).