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Pataphysics: A Useless Guide

by Andrew Hugill
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
296 pp. $24.95  £17.95
ISBN: 9780262017794.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Collège de ’Pataphysique, Paris, France

To talk about ’Pataphysics (of which there are more than 100 definitions) usefully, we have to get rid of certain notions of which the most important may be that any way of thinking about the world should be testable within that world. Was non-Euclidian geometry testable in this sense before its physical manifestation in gravity? Did imaginary numbers make sense "externally" from mathematics until it was shown that the behaviour of elementary particles depended on the totally imaginary square root of -1? With 'Pataphysics it gets even weirder. It is entirely internally consistent to say that ’Pataphysics is not only physically manifest everywhere in all universes, but that it also changes the physical world, becoming externally consistent just because it says so! Some will find this nonsense; some may say that it is useful nonsense; and others may agree with me that this science of the absurd, the study of the laws governing exceptions, the science of the particular, is the most liberating and creative catalyst there is. Others who have agreed range from Tom Stoppard to Jean Baudrillard, from Umberto Eco to Marcel Duchamp, Ionesco, Miró, Genet.

Members of the Paris-based Collège de 'Pataphysique include artists and scientists from all disciplines, philosophers, dramaturges, technologists, doctors, historians, futurologists, film-makers, astronomers, paleo-botanists, roboticists and more. The current Vice-Curator, Lutembi, is a crocodile. The Collège itself consists almost entirely of a delirious but deeply important bureaucracy, like Freemasons on LSD. Subcommittees include ones for the fine and ugly arts, of between-the-lines moralities, of realisable incompetences, of anagrams, inadequations, badger-brushes and of the inexact sciences. Certain thinkers, artists, and scientists from long ago, such as Leonardo, are also pataphysicists in virtue of their plagiarism by anticipation. Joan, in the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, “was quizzical / studied pataphysical / science in the home”.

Here an interest must be declared: whilst your present reviewer does not know the author personally, we are both office holders in the Collège. Normally a disqualification, this lends the review, pataphysically, extra objectivity. It just does. And anyway since this is a pataphysical review, what else did you expect?

The subtitle, A Useless Guide, paradoxically tells us at once that this is no shrinking violet of a book, but one that intends to claim a necessary status for itself as a seminal text. However since all texts, even those as yet unwritten, must be considered as seminal to ’Pataphysics, we must ask ourselves if this book is an exception to that rule (and more pertinently should one buy it?). If it is, it isn't. If it isn't, it is. So the answer must be: yes and no. I hope that this review has helped the reader decide.


Last Updated 1st April 2013

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