:: Article

‘Pataphysics’ useless guffaw

By Richard Marshall.

Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, Andrew Hugill, MIT Press 2012

We are biased towards usefulness. ‘Pataphysics resists this bias. It bombards us with samples of the inutilious. Rennes schoolboys invented the world ‘pataphysics’ in 1888. Alfred Jarry was the leader of that particular gang. Absurdism, Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, Situationism et al find roots in its soil. Hugill notes that the name works like the self-defeater lying at the heart of Groucho Marx’s joke that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would accept him. We seek out solutions to problems. ‘Pataphysicians seek out solutions to non-problems. They deny that if something isn’t lost it can’t be found and find ingenious laughter in the insinuating joke question, ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ Hughill says that ‘Pataphysics wasn’t a movement but more a collection of ideas. Marcel Duchamp thought it was meta-ironic. They all knew that it didn’t have to exist to exist.

Jarry considered its subject matter ‘the laws that govern exceptions.’ He defined it as ‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their instruments.’ Jarry was out to shock bourgeois poets. Raymond Queneau thought it ‘rests on the truth of contradictions and exceptions.’ Contradictions are assumed by classical logicians to explode consequence. From a contradiction, everything follows. The paraconsistent denies the explosion. Miro Quesada thought of paraconsistency in terms of a quasi-logic. Most think of it in terms of a beyond-logic. Queneau is taking ‘Pataphysics further than paraconsistency and into the realm of true contradictions. Its common form is dialetheism. The philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid wrote: ‘No proposition is both true and false.’ Queneau seeks to deny this and destroy common sense as the platform. Graham Priest and Richard Sylvan were not ‘Pataphysicians but had an interest in claims that ordinary intuitions are controlled by dialatheistic deviant logic. This conflicts with ‘Pataphysicians counter-common-sense credentials. Rather than dialatheism Queneau might instead be understood as suggesting trivialism. This is the view that all contradictions are true and therefore, assuming that a conjunction entails its conjuncts, that everything is true. Priest and Sylvan want to resist this last entailment. If the ‘Pataphysicist recognises the usefulness of distinguishing truth from falsehood then they will be happy to embrace the conclusion that everything is true on the grounds that it is a stirringly useless conclusion.

Exceptionalism links the ‘Pataphysicians with historical debate involving the bias towards order. William Adams, in 1767, notes that a river must flow before it can be interrupted. Stable backgrounds are assumed to be needed for exceptions to make sense. Aquinas considered exceptionalism to be where something exceeds the powers of law governed nature. David Hume thought of exceptions in terms of ‘a violation of laws of nature.’ But Earman and others argue that exceptions aren’t always clearly violations of laws of nature. He points out that there are no laws of nature saying that people when dead must stay dead. Natural laws work at levels of biochemical and thermodynamic processes. Exceptions are tricky even if we disregard the difficulty of knowing which laws were bring violated. An exception seems just proof that what had been taken to be a regular pattern wasn’t one after all. If the view that there are laws and patterns is thrown out then exceptions form an empty set. This might be conducive to the ‘Pataphysician who can see the uselessness of this position. But the bias against emptiness has historically generated a theological filler. This is the kind of theology that patrols explanatory gaps and fills them with super-natural material. Exceptions become miracles, importing the theological connotations into its heart.

There are deductive arguments for miracles. Victorians were partial to these. They depend on sympathy towards those reporting miracles, which is now rare. Criteriological arguments assert criteria for miracles that enable their claims to be scrutinised and assessed dispassionately. But critics argue that other considerations such as extreme antecedent improbability of an event outweighs whatever criteria is set. Explanatory arguments suggest that a miracle might be the best explanation for a given set of accepted facts. But expanding the original list of facts always makes the miracle less compelling than other alternative explanations. Claimed facts can always be denied as well. A non-miraculous explanation may be proposed that is superior to the miraculous one. Implications of a miraculous explanation may be less compelling that its denial. There are Bayesian arguments for miracles. Miracles become more probable when some given evidence is more likely if a miracle had taken place than if it hadn’t. Richard Swinburne has pioneered this kind of argument in recent times. But is the ‘Pataphysicist wanting to find itself as a species of the religious? Maybe. Jarry saw ‘Pataphysics as the third stage of religion. The first stage was material religion that reached apotheosis in the Bronze Age. Then came metaphysical religion running from Zoroastrianism through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the end of the sixteenth century. Jarry’s religion takes the form of religion as epistemic hoax. This joke runs deep. But Asker Jorn seems, according to Hugill, to have wanted a more serious take and reading Jorn straight would be certainly betraying ‘Pataphysics, were that possible. But given that ‘Pataphysics is something that doesn’t even have to exist to exist and doesn’t matter, it isn’t possible. So Jorn is to be read as being a very dry humourist.

‘Pataphysicism describes a universe supplementary to the natural one of science. Jarry sees second stage religion as too end-orientated. Jarry writes: ‘Pataphysics is the end of ends.’ Is ‘Pataphysics science? Dr Iren née- Louis Sandomire described ‘Pataphysics as ‘the most serious of the sciences’. Rene Daumal called it ‘the opposite of physics.’ Debuffet and Ionesco insisted that it was ‘essentially explosive, implying a mixture of radically incompatible fluids’ and thought this implied it was best understood as a ‘Permanent Detonation.’ Perhaps both religion and science are best understood through the lens of the ‘Pataphysicist, ‘a machine for exploring the world’ as Fernando Arrabal of the 1962 Panic movement claimed ‘Pataphysicalism was. Perhaps Jesus was playing with us: Arrabal certainly discussed ‘Pataphysics in terms taken from a Christian religion. Stas writes of it in strikingly spiritualised, religious, Roman Christianised terms, ‘‘Pataphysics is daily bread. Imperturbable … Mother of the infinite without reference to space (aerial or dead), and Mother of Ethernity without science of time (rotten weather or past glories’. It is compared by some to being like Zen. Brotchie thinks of it as a ‘… huge and elaborately constructed hoax, just as Zen is an exercise in hoaxing.’ Confucius, the Buddha and Laozi become precursors – or early practitioners – on this account. The reach towards transcendence is often remarked on. Mystical spirals play with this, involving complicated hierarchies of colours and sizes, its prototype being the belly of Jarry’s Grande Gidouille Mistah Ubu.

If a hoax, then ‘Pataphysics may be considered as a species of the fictionalist stance famously expressed by Voltaire: ‘If god did not exist then we’d have to invent him.’ This fictionalist theism has precedents in Sextus Empiricus and his Pyrrhonianism as well as the two truths of Buddhism and Duhem’s thesis about pre-modern astronomy. Hartry Field, Mark Balaguer and Stephen Yablo defend fictionalist stances towards mathematics. Bas van Frassen takes scientific theories to be fictionalist. Peter van Inwagen thinks ordinary object talk is fictionalist. Anthony Everett, Fred Kroon, Mark Balaguer and Caroline West think morals are fictionalist. Alexis Burgess thinks truth is. Necessity and possibility are fictions according to D.M. Armstrong, Gideon Rosen, John Nolt, Seahwa Kim and John Divers. I think its in terms of this fictionalist position that much of pataphysics is discussed, alongside Derridean postmodernity, but it shouldn’t have been and doesn’t have to continue to be. I prefer to see much of it in terms of epistemic paradox a la Borges.

Linguistic fictionalists say its utterances are best understood as being fictions rather than literal claims. Ontological fictionalists claim that things in a fictionalist discourse don’t actually exist, or only as fictions. Are ‘Pataphysicians linguistic or ontological fictionalists? Given that ontological fictionalists prefer to abandon or reject fictionalist discourses we may decide this matter by considering whether the ‘Pataphysician aims to dissolve such discourses or not. Are ‘Pataphysicians hermeneutic or revolutionary fictionalists? The hermeneutic fictionalist doesn’t aim at literal truth but only appears to do so. The very spelling of ‘Pataphysics nods in this direction, appending the appearance of a floating apostrophe at its start. Jarry used this apostrophe only once when discussing the definition of the Faustroll. The apostrophe is real, and is there to ‘avoid the simple pun.’ But no one knows what pun Jarry can be referring to and this suggests that it’s a fictional pun, one whose non-appearance is no more a problem that the non-appearance of Dr Watson’s wives in a Sherlock Holmes story.

Hugill prefers to drop the apostrophe throughout his book. The revolutionary fictionalist takes a different stance from the hermeneutical, and insists that we ought only to make pretend assertions. This normative dimension is itself subjected to its own fictionalism. I shall take a less standard interpretation of Sandomir’s 1955 injunctions regarding the spelling of pataphysics and the use of the apostrophe, and use it only if I can be bothered to, with the proviso that no one read it as anything but a fiction.

The hermeneutic fictionalist may deny that a sentence can make sense unless taken as a fiction. Stephen Yablo takes this line when he thinks he couldn’t conceive of ‘Chicago exists’ as meaning anything other than in the fictionalist sense. Jarry himself seems to support this view. Principles of induction for Jarry have the same coding as the names of cities do for Yablo. The particular and the unique are the reasons Jarry points to the intrinsic fictionalism of physics. A universe ordered by a series of unique events is one where imaginary solutions, including those of physics, are equal. ‘A page of the telephone directory has the same VALUE for us as a page of the Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll’ according to Regent Marie-Louise Aulard. But we are still entitled to ask whether the pataphysicist makes a distinction between the fictionalism of the things represented and the props used in the fiction. Numbers, for example, can be conceived of as the things represented. But they can also be used as a prop in a fiction, such as, ‘There was one grinning cat.’

Do pataphysicists think they are asserting their fictions? This might result in them saying that they assert their fiction, but what is asserted is not to be taken literally. But this hardly seems radical. ‘Sherlock Holmes walked into the room’ asserts something that is not to be taken as literally true. Alternatively the pataphysicist may be denying that she is asserting anything. It is a different kind of speech act from assertion. Scientific instrumentalism such as Quine/Duhem’s is like this. In that case, pataphysicism is wrong to claim a different scientific pedigree. Rather than being the meta-metaphysics of physics, it reduces to mere physics. Indeed the more we examine the claims of the pataphysicist’s claims for iconoclasm, the less plausible it looks so long as it is easily aligned with contemporary thinking about the nature of science, numbers and the art of fiction. The pataphysicist may be making the move of combining both these approaches: she does not assert the literal content of the sentence, but some non-literal content is asserted instead. But again, far from capturing an iconoclastic stance this rather captures a rather common and ordinary phenomenon of common speech. When we assert we may well not be literally asserting the sentence, but rather asserting something else. ‘There are no more apples’, I may say. I don’t mean to assert the literal truth of the statement, rather maybe something like that here, in the bowl before me, the last apple has been eaten. Banal.

In Faustroll Hugill explains how Jarry combined the name of the mage who makes the fatal devil pact with the Nordic legendary creature found in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and concludes that pataphysicians have a complicated relationship with antinomies and doubleness. One of the Kantian antinomies is the conflict between freedom and physical necessity. Pataphysicians are beyond metaphysical solutions. Hugill explains how the fictionalist approach redacts the pataphysician from metaphysical strictures. In this explanation Hugill is denying that there is a literal truth anywhere being asserted in the pataphysical assertion. This makes a distinction between common practice and the pataphysicist possible; ordinarily we are indifferent to implications of kinds of truths in what we say, whereas the pataphysician is not. Even when engaged in pretense we are not actively engaged. Pataphysicians, in being actively engaged, are more awake in their concerns than ordinary folk. Their preoccupations, be they serious or humorous or, more commonly, both, give them their identity and differentiate them from their everyday appearances.

The pataphysicist is shown in this to be both halves of a coin, what becomes a theme of ‘plus-minus’ running through everything. Borges, Calvino and Perec are obvious cases. Hugill takes Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ as the apotheosis of this. Here the antinomy was erotic, formally arranged as a hinge which was the symbol of the opposition. It was a pataphysical object which he repeated as the conceptual understanding of the endgame position of games of chess, described in the seminal book Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled which Duchamp co-authored with Vitaly Halberstadt in 1932. The pataphysical implications for understanding Sam Beckett’s whole oeuvre cannot be overestimated. ‘Endon’s Affence’, the chess game in Murphy, as well as Endgame itself, of course, are cases of Beckett making pataphysical objects equivalent to Duchampean ready-mades with Fustrollian preciosity and wit. Contrariness is the subject of the pretense, where pretense is not the making of a fantasy world but more a manner of speaking.

The belly of Ubu Roi is drawn as twin spirals. This symbol derives from Mallarme who wrote a poem that was an allegory of itself. Here the pataphysicist references the realisation that contradiction and self-reference are twin complications for truth. The deviant logicians attempt to understand truth in terms of contradiction was begun when contemplation of the liar paradox revealed problems with conventional understanding. ‘This sentence is false’ provoked consternation for classical logicians. The sentence, if true, is false. If false, it is true. It spirals on and on. Each iteration leading to the next, round and round. Mallarme, in writing his poem ‘Ptyx’ in 1887 writes of this spiraling and paradoxical madness:

‘A window opened at night, two fastened shutters; a room with no one inside, in spite of the still appearance presented by the fastened shutters, and in a night made of absence and questioning, without furniture, if not for the likely outline of what might be sideboards, a quarrelsome and agonising frame, of a mirror hung up in the back, with its reflection, stellar and incomprehensible, of the Ursula Major, which connects to heaven alone this dwelling abandoned by the world.’

Jakon Bournoulli, a Swiss mathematician, is famous for his study of spirals. His tombstone has on it: ‘I arise the same though changed.’ Hugill notes that the carved spiral there is the wrong kind of spiral. It is an Archimedean spiral that has a constant distance between its turnings. Bernouilli’s is a logarithmic spiral that seems to continually increase. The fictionalism of the pataphysicist seems to both add nothing – and therefore revolve as a naught, and yet simultaneously grows. The pataphysicist can say that some things don’t exist and yet should not be abandoned because they expand in worthwhile ways. Arguments of mathematics adopt this kind of approach when questioned by eliminativist antirealists about numbers. Though numbers don’t exist, they are nonetheless useful. Similar defenses of moral discourse are also mounted: even if literally untrue, morals have value in bolstering self-control, says the contemporary philosopher Joyce. God may even be subject to such a defense. It is better to believe in a fictional God than not to, say some.

Is pataphysics a revolution that changes nothing? The anomalous nature of the pataphysicist is according to Hugill ‘best embodied in the figure of Ubu, whose reign is certainly terrible, but who ultimately leaves the world unchanged.’ The pataphysician is the fictionalist who believes we would carry on speaking as if things were real even when we found out they were fictions. This shows that we are not committed to the reality of anything, even when supposing them non-fictions. The discovery of their actively engaged fictionalist project is that reality alone doesn’t cause anyone to change their minds about anything.

Here the great conspiracy theorist Charles Fort can be seen as contributing to the pataphysical project. The commonly asserted scorn and derision for conspiracy theorists is a result of assuming not only that there is a clear distinction to be made between real and unreal but also that we know of it and further, that once known it makes a difference. It is this last part that makes the pataphysicist project of interest. Even if the first two points are conceded, the third point remains to be proved. The philosopher Stephen Yablo has argued about the ontological commitments an assertion brings with it, and it is certainly not obvious how the relationship between our utterances and ontological commitments work. Yablo imagines an omniscient Oracle who tells you that abstract entities, such as ‘prime numbers, don’t exist’ despite which, no one changes how they talk about prime numbers. The pataphysicist seizes on this common anomaly and looks for useless payoffs. These tend to be humourous. George Perec writes: ‘You don’t have a brother and he likes cheese.’ The syzygymous happenstance of all this is a hallmark, for Hugill, of artistic practice and helps make (non)sense of lives.

The pataphysicist seeks imaginary solutions to an anomalous universe, one where anomalies are normal and rules are exceptions. Yablo declares fictonalism a normal routine, whereby unobtrusive metaphors cover language like sand. Given that they do, he is comfortable declaring that fictionalism is something we take in our stride. Like the pataphysicist, he refuses to say that beneath the sand there is always (or even often) a realer beach. There are no literal truths being pointed to by the non-literal ones. To deny Yablo and the pataphysicist, anti-fictionalists may say language is idiomatic not metaphorical but Jarry writes, ‘Faustroll defined the universe as that which is the exception to oneself’, and that’s not idiomatic but absurd. Hugill describes this as the representation of ‘the will to disruption which is one of the principal sources of pataphysical energy.’

Hugill notes that Jarry depended on a notion of the Absolute and this is largely irrelevant to people outside of religion. The spiritual orientation of pataphysicians is due to this strand perpetuated by Jarry’s drinking and his ruined Catholicism. But it isn’t a necessary component. Hugill is investigating the humor that is more essential to pataphysics as a whole. Pataphysical humour has a range: Ionesco absurd, farcical Marx brothers, intellectual Duchamp, too-serious Jorn, inadvertent Brisset, knowing Borges, pointless Oulipo, pointed Cravan and so on.

Hugill suggests that pataphysics is a growing force. The college de Pataphysique started after the Second World War. Hughill sees it as a humorous coda to Parisian existentialism, late surrealism, Marxist-Leninism and Jarry, surrealism and Dadaism were part of its ordering energy at that time. Hughill explains that time, being a spiral in the pataphysical universe, makes chronology different. Hugill records the creation in 1949 of the Perpetual ‘Pataphysical calendar, the influence of Deleuze, Foucault, Eco and Baudrillard on the digital presence of pataphysics, the web proliferation of sites and offshoot organisations and the activity of social networking sites in creating a sense of the haphazard and lively, a vortex of strange activity that claims you for longer than anyone initially desired.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 21st, 2012.