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‘Pataphysics’ useless guffaw

Pataphysics has massive presence in digital culture. Peter Volkart made his film Terra Incognita in 2005. Pataphysics is a by-word for experimental and left field work. German electronic band Farmer’s Manuel labels itself pataphysical. Tomoroh Hidari writes, ‘Even though originating from times before the private pataphysical turn of Nemo von Nirgends, this was compiled and remastered at the Delusory ‘Pataphysical Institute of Whateverism.’ DJ Spooky has a track called ‘Variation Cybernetique: Rhythemic Pataphysic’. There’s an American musician called Faustroll. There’s an Australian-Sri-Lankan rapper called ‘Pataphysics. Paintlust in Seoul ‘explore the possibilities of contemporary painting’ which ‘reinterpreted the concept of antinomy.’ Pataphysical Longing productions are based in NYC. The Pataphysical Laboratory of Sharon Harris ‘gives definitive answers to your unanswerable poetic questions and offers all the unsolicited writing advice you will never follow.’ There’s a Patafistic Studio in Florence. Patachromo was set up in Paris to achieve ‘chromotherapy seen through the prism of Pataphysics.’ And so on. There’s a lot of it about.

Hugill makes claims for pataphysics having problems with women. Some disputes its misogyny but Jarry’s relationship with women was at best complicated and at worst just nasty. For example, ‘What I like in women – blight and dross which God extracted from the grid of their [men’s] ribs – is their servility, but I want them silent.’ Coupled with the archaic titles that seem to inflect a ceremonial priestly hierarchical desire, there’s something wrong here. Hugill notes that women are an increasing presence.

He also notes the museums. There’s a secret one in Bristol, Rhode Island, USA, the LIP in London which in 2002 staged an exhibition of the paintings and sculptures of Tony Hancock and a good archive at MIT. He revels in the pataphysics presence in Academia. Dario Fo, Eduardo Sanguineti, Barry Flanagan, Barbara White, Roland Topor, Henri Bouche and Jean Baudrillard are given honorable mention. Baudrillard wrote two pataphysical papers. His first argued that ‘at the heart of information one finds history haunted by its own disappearance. At the hub of hi-fi, music is haunted by its own disappearance. At the core of experimentation, science is haunted by the disappearance of its object. Pivotal to pornography is a sexuality haunted by its own disappearance. Everywhere it is the same stereophonic effect, the absolute proximity of the real: the same effect of simulation.’

In a pataphysical moment we may place besides this ghost story Yablo’s equally compelling list of fictions that haunt our very language: ‘They put a lot of hurdles in your path, there’s a lot that could be said about that, there’s no precedent for that, something tells me you’re right, there are some things better left unsaid, there is something I forgot to tell you, viz. how to operate the lock, nothing gets my goat as much as chewing gum in class, a lot you can do for me, let’s roll out the red carpet, the last thing I want is to…, their people have risen in my esteem, I took her into my confidence, my patience is nearly exhausted, I’ll take my chances, there’s a trace of sadness in your eyes, a growing number of these leaks can be traced to Starr’s office, she’s got a lot of smarts, let’s pull out all the stops, let’s proceed along the lines suggested above.’ The literal truth is impossible and yet the metaphors force us to engage in treating the fictions as if Ptolemaic and absolutist truths.

Baudrillard continues: ‘This side of the vanishing-point – where there was still history, there was still music – remains irreparable. Where should one stop the perfecting of the stereo? Its bounds or limits are constantly pushed back or forced to retreat in the face of technological obsessions. Where should information stop? Confronted with such a fascination with ‘real time’, with high-fidelity, one can only resort to moral objections, and that does not carry much meaning/weight.

Once one has passed beyond this point, the process becomes irreversible. The possibility to move out of history in order to enter into simulation is but the consequence of the fact that, basically, history itself was none other than an immense model of simulation.’ He concludes that the year 2000 may well not take place.

Does the pataphysicist require paraphrase? Was Artaud making this move when after Jarry’s death he created his theatre of cruelty and visions of madness to put creation back into the world? Baudrillard thinks he was. He thinks this a mistake, echoing Duchamp’s ‘there is no solution because there is no problem’ with a clumsy ‘pataphysics is ex-sangue and doesn’t get itself wet… such is the unique imaginary solution to the absence of problems.’ But perhaps Baudrillard is mistaken in this. Artaud may well be drilling into the absurd humour of the crazyist who declares ‘I’m happy with the average women: now let me know her telephone number.’ Baudrillard resists the absurd by claiming that the fictionalist’s appeal to pretence can be overcome by denying the reality of anything other than fictions ‘after passing the vanishing point.’ But Artaud, in order to protect the fiction, resists the idea that we can have access to the fictionalist attitude. His madness introduces a novel and drastic form of failure of first-person authority over one’s own mental states. From this perspective, the insane hallucinatory and bodily contortionist mental theatre of Artaud organises a greater pataphysical humor than Baudrillard. Seth Giddings and Damien P O’Doherty develop the dry approach of Baudrillard applying notions of the stuplime derived from Sianne Ngai’s analysis of postmodern conditions of boredom, anxiety, stupefaction, envy and ‘ugly feelings’ generally.

But perhaps the attempt to pinpoint a preference between these approaches is to approach the matter with the wrong attitude. A fictionalist may suggest preferences but ought to do so only to the same degree that she acknowledges her preference for the pataphysical fictionalist move itself. Anything stronger would either be a joke or a renunciation of the pataphysical. And of course, between the two, there are no signs to let us know which attitude is actually in play. This is a similar criticism to those who in metaphysical ontologies claim some variety of fictionalism but then insist on a preference between hypotheses rather than adopting a principled agnosticism.

But in 1975, on the day between the 19th and 20th April, the college of Pataphysics disappeared. This moment was labeled the start of the ‘occultation.’ The deaths of Max Ernst, Man Ray, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert, Pascal Pia, Rene Clair and Joan Miro were supposed to be a contribution to this, although they all died after 1975. The occultation lasted until 2000. Offshoots appeared. Artworks by Arman, Baj, Dubuffet, Duchamp, Ernst, Farfa, Fontana, Jorn, Miro, Picabia, Prevert, Man Ray and Spoerri appeared in the Galeria Schwarz in Milan in 1964. Other Institutes since proliferated. Stockholm, Oleyres, Liege, London, Berlin, Valencia, Santiago, Sao Paulo, River Plate, Lapland, Mongolia, Shanghai and elsewhere had ‘pataphysic organisations.

Hugill sees pataphysics’s influence in the films of Tim Burton, citing a study by Alison McMahan. Hugill sees an influence on Donnie Darko of 2001, thinking that the film makes ‘a convincing case for how fundamentally useless ideas can be and have been applied in moviemaking.’ He sees the movement influential in literature. Hugill claims science fiction has pataphysical roots. Brian Aldiss’ classic ‘The Man With his Mule’ and his ‘National Heritage’ are cited as important examples. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman includes a quotation from Faustroll. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes hints at pataphysical aspects.

John Cage is a pataphysical music composer. He knew Duchamp and was a member of the Fluxus group. Cage didn’t like Jarry but acknowledged his influence: ‘I myself think that Duchamp and Joyce having used Jarry is far more interesting than anything Jarry himself did.’ Gavin Bryars’ ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ is explicit in its pataphysical commitment. But ‘Jesus Love Never failed Me’ is his masterpiece: a Duchampean ready-made tape recording of a tramp singing a single phrase and then looped to build a hypnotic beauty that leaves one astonished and emptied. Its genesis is of interest. Bryars was playing the tape of the tramp and left the office to make a coffee. On returning everyone in the busy room was silent, transfixed by this found object. Sadly the tramp died before hearing the piece. Tom Waits involvement presses the claim that his gorgeous melodies are pataphysical constructions of subtle detournement. John White continues in this vein.

In jazz the Rv. Dr. Fred Lane alias Tim Reed put out the album ‘Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Review’ in 2002. Boris Vian’s engagement with The Hot Club in Paris and his contact with Hoagie Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis indicates a Black Atlantic pataphysical strand going deep and wide. Avant-garage band Pere Ubu was formed in 1975. The band Nurse with Wound put out Present the Sisters of Pataphysics in 1988. Rusty Magee put out the musical Ubu Rock in 1995. Frank Zappa, The Residents and Captain Beefheart were all part of the pataphysical hippie movement from the 1960s onwards, seeing Jarry as a precursor of Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. Ted Nelson, of ‘hypertext’ coinage, Howard Rheingold and Mark Amerika alongside Peter Schickele and Tex Avery all are indebted. Harry Nielson’s ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ and ‘Aerial Ballet’ are best listened to as pataphysics. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was named after Bonzo the Dog, a cartoon character created by George Studdy in the 1920s that was rooted in Dada and the pataphysical. The band was very successful initially as a band that sold beer in its pub gigs. ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’ is their pataphysical classic. Billy Childish’s Buff Medways constructs a sound garden that pays homage to Zappa and Beefheart: ‘Vanessa Does Favours’ and ‘Archive from 1959’ are examples of this pataphysical rawness. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion turns in a grinding pataphysical blues rock and things like ‘Flavor Part 2’ and ‘Dub narcotic’ are sure to bomb the Pataphysical vibe into your well-being. Ditto the more nimble and hilarious Zodiak Mindwarp.

In art Martin Creed and Simon Starling have pataphysical presences haunting them. Thomas Chimes is a key figure for this connection. He read the Evergreen Review and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years where the pataphysical was introduced to the West Coast freaks. Apollinaire, Jarry, Rousseau. Joan Miro, Max Ernst and, of course, Duchamp were influenced by Jarry and pataphysical humour pervades their works, none least than the famous ‘Fountain’ urinal of Duchamp. Much of the influence of pataphysics has been unobtrusive according to Hugill. More obvious has been the cult of Jarry and the development of an occult route to the public.

The 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a source for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code of 2003, claimed that a guy called Pierre Plantard was in a direct line of descent from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The joke still fools many. Oulipean writers abound, famously Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Hugill sketches all this and ends noting the pataphysical influence on the reversed tape voice of the dwarf in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The pataphysicist insists that nothing is serious, including pataphysics. The riddling nature of this injunction reminds us that the goad and guide of paradox requires agnosticism that can take more than one form. Harold Bloom thought that the study of poetics was indebted to this stance: ‘the study of poetic influence is necessarily a branch of ‘Pataphysics, and gladly confesses its indebtedness to it.’ Poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbury were deeply influenced. Ashbury’s surreal and self-defeating poetic images can be traced to the influence of Raymond Roussel. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep has a pataphysical figure in Mercer, the messianic figure of the religion of Mercerism, a sham. Mercer turns out to be a B-movie actor paid to play the role, called Al Jarry from Indiana. Stanislav Lem’s Solaris imagines a pataphysical ocean providing solutions without problems. Steve Aylett does the same throughout a maniacally brilliant sequence of novelistic meconium.

J.G. Ballard’s science fiction is pataphysical throughout: he declares this explicitly in his 1967 ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Downhill Motor Race’, reconstructing Jarry’s 1903 religious blasphemous text ‘The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’ as a secular blasphemy. Stewart Home shows Claude Pelieu, an associate of Burroughs, was doing pataphysical stuff in the novel Kali Yug Express. Stewart Home’s whole prankster stand is pataphysicalism updated. He plays with the occult versions in some outings, gets rough with it in others. His novels are formulations that go further than any of our contemporaries and it’s probably because he is a successful pataphysicalist that he doesn’t get the airtime his work deserves. The criticism of the way countercultures get to be recalled and recounted is that the offensiveness of the originals is largely skipped and ignored. There is a sense that even Hugill’s book tames its creatures through a kind of deviant intellectualisation. Home’s deviations are more fluid-directed.

Prog Rock picked up the same vibe: Soft Machine’s Volume Two album contains ‘Pataphysical Introduction Parts 1 and 2.’ Hawkwind, with Michael Moorcock and Robert Calvert were in on pataphysics. Paul McCartney showed an interest, and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ shows the influence, modeled on ‘Chanson du decervelage’ (the debraining song). Hugill claims that Sergeant Pepper was a pataphysical solution to fame.

As an aside, I recall Scott Esposito also noting the enormous importance of Perec in bringing an optimism to the 60s via a ‘pataphysical joke inversion of negation. He writes,

‘One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. … … Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible — an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. … Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.’

The Situationists, the second magistrality of Jean Mollet, Art Brut, and Gilles Deleuze are efficiently dealt with by Hugill. Deleuze saw Jarry as an unrecognised precursor to Heidegger, saying that Jarry’s bicycle was the equivalent to Heidegger’s ‘fourfold.’ Hugill is especially useful in reproducing huge chunks of the writings of seminal players in the movement. Sadomir’s pataphysical cry ‘the world is a gigantic aberrance’ helps introduce us to the Dadaist, Surrealist Pataphysicism of Julien Torma who sees pataphysics as what is left after underpinnings have been assaulted. Tinctures of the Spiritual, Absolute and Religious epistemic hoaxing is apparent in much of this. Artaud becomes a crucial figure, injecting a much-needed visceral violence to what at times can seem mystical eye-wash. Stephen Barber’s essential writings on Artaud are an obvious port of call after Hugill’s introduction here. Barber’s work on the Dirty Avant-Garde and the Japanese Butoh work of Tatsumi Hijikata is equally crucial as counterpoint when we read of the instantaneist ballet Relache created by Francis Picabia, choreographed by Jean Borlin with music by Erik Satie.

Hugill notes how the French find depths in American and English mainstreams of comedy and drama missed in their original setting. Iain Sinclair noted recently how The Midsummer Murders TV show, considered decidedly middlebrow in the UK and USA is received as an existential tract in France. The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis receive the same transition. Hugill embraces this. Beckett’s choice of Buster Keaton for the role in Film may be explained in these terms, although accounts of the filming suggests Keaton himself resisted the pataphysical depths being attributed to his performances.

Hugill is particularly good at summation of pataphysical lives. His section on Arthur Cravan, a pataphysical saint who disappeared mysteriously in 1918 on his way to Argentina is compelling. Roger Conover wrote of him: ‘Dancing, fucking, boxing, walking, running, eating, swimming. He loved the taste and smell of the body’s first issues – urine, shit, sweat – and regarded these fundamental utterances as proto-texts. “Je mangerais ma merde”, he proudly proclaimed. His poems and essays were secondary spirations – but in their gestural sweep and postural fix they can also be read as bodily manifestations, lines delivered or speech executed like ring exercises, by-products of a body always in motion – crossing borders, slicing sensibilities, murdering reputations, knocking heads.’ Cravan is seeking a dirty astonishment.

This connects him to the metaphysicians of Tlon in Borges’ short story. In this Borges is writing about pataphysicians who, in Hugill’s pregnant phrase, ‘enjoyed playing with their erudition.’ Borges wrote of a pataphysical machine in 1937. ‘If [the machine] does not work, but that, to my mind, is a secondary matter. Nor do the machines that attempt to produce perpetual motion, whose plans add mystery to the pages of the most effusive encyclopedia; metaphysical or theological theories do not work … but their well known and famous uselessness does not reduce their interest.’ Zeno’s paradox of movement, Thompson’s lamp and other supertasks may be familiar and linked to supposed impossibility, but since Cantor the twentieth century has seen several supposed impossibilities defeated. This suggests the pataphysicians are not error free, even if nothing matters.

Jean-Michel Rabate links James Joyce with Jarry and enjoyed the jouissance of Jarry’s name. Ulysses becomes a pataphysical novel. Flann O’Brien’s de Selby character is a pataphysical Faustrollian. Everything in Beckett, as noted earlier, is a pataphysical twilight out of Duchampian chess. Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique was illustrated by Henri-Achille Zo who was give a description of what to draw and not the actual pieces to be illustrated. As Hugill comments, ‘the drawings were inserted under the uncut pages of the eventual publication, and were therefore visible only if the reader was prepared to make the necessary cutting. The dissociation between illustrator and subject, and indeed between poet and artist, which Zo found extremely uncomfortable, results in images that are powerful in their banality and mysteriousness. It is an illustration of the depth of Roussel’s pataphysical understanding that he deployed a method so unique yet so simple, to an end that was so original yet lacking any trace of aesthetic novelty.’ Jean-Pierre Brisset was influenced by frogs in the marshes of La Sauvagere. Foucault placed him at ‘an extreme point of linguistic delirium.’ Beckett’s Watt uses the frog call in the ‘Krek, Krek, Krek’ passage. Hugill gives Jarry a whole chapter at the end of the book.

Hugill has written an essential, sharp book on this vital subject. He has a brisk style that gives the book pace and punch. It is authoritative and full of wonders. He gives the geography of the movement and maps out the exhilaration of uselessness. There are many aspects of the movement that now seem outdated, offensive or tame. Philosophically, its fictionalist stance is less daringly iconoclastic now than it once was but this is because many of its discoveries have been incorporated into our contemporary culture. The epistemic paradoxes of counterprivate sentences such as, ‘I read Hughill’s book on Friday but I don’t think I did’, and other Sorensenian Blindspots will revitalise the territory. The gigantic guffaw of ‘pataphysics can still be impressive, especially when experienced through the prism of its many outstanding practitioners. There is an important corrosiveness in this uselessness. A bureaucratic mentality is scandalised by any denial of graspable and orderable purpose. Refusing to present opposition and resistance to such a mentality in terms and forms that coopt the bureaucratic, ‘pataphysics embodies its resistance in a lunatic beauty. The deadly seriousness of resistance too often fades out into merely an alternative bureaucracy. The imperative to ask ‘But what are their policies? What do they want?’ dogged the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, even the Pussy Rioters. There were suggestions that articulate experts should go to the Occupy movement to formulate crisp agendas and policy briefs. The sub-text of all this was that what the people were doing was useless. But in the initial moments the gorgeousness of these movements was precisely their uselessness. These spontaneous big giggles of uselessness were alien, confusing and frightening to minds addicted to means/ends go-getting calculation. Being so, ‘pataphysics draws attention to the distinction between uselessness and futility. Though useless, a pataphysical excercise is not futilitarian. For this reason we can understand Beckett in terms of useless optimism rather than futiltarian pessimism, imagine. These movements will die out and stop being ‘pataphysical once they start thinking about wanting something. Pataphysics refuses to fight fire with fire. It is Stewart Home novelising ‘this is not a sentence’ and Sam Beckett describing a game of chess as a ‘Bachelor Stripped Bare’ erotic hinge, even.

As a coda, the errors of the pataphysicians strike me as important if it is to accumulate further cultural ground. For instance, they are confused about non-material concrete objects and nothingness. Take silence as an example of this. The legendary Maurice Blanchot claims that silence cannot exist saying, ‘Silence is impossible. That is why we desire it.’ Bataille calls silence ‘among all words it is the most perverse, or the most poetic: it is the token of its own death.’ According to Cage, his four minutes and thirty-three seconds prove Blanchot and Bataille right. He accused the original audience of making a mistake in thinking that the coughing and the sounds extraneous to the piece were not to count as part of the performance. ‘There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and in the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’

But Cage is wrong. Roy Sorensen points out that an anechoic chamber is silent when unoccupied. Placing a microphone in the chamber we can hear the silence from the outside. Any noise we hear is not from the chamber. Contrary to Blanchot, Bataille and Cage silence is both possible and something that can be heard. It loses none of its poetic qualities even though the ‘pataphysician is forced to recalibrate her astonishment and love of paradox. Sorensen ends his ‘pataphysical update with this most profound moment: ‘The vast majority of the universe is empty. And empty space is silent… The laws of thermodynamics doom the universe to heat death. Everything, everywhere, will end in silence.’

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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