’Pataphysics Unrolled | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

’Pataphysics Unrolled

’Pataphysics Unrolled
Katie L. Price and Michael R. Taylor, Editors

Penn State University Press, University Park, PA, 2022
344 pp., Trade, $109.95
ISBN: 978-0-271-08958-4.

Reviewed by: 
Brian Reffin Smith
October 2022

That a congeries of mainly high-ranking academics having to do with Philadelphia donned, where needed, blindfolds, felt what bits of pataphysics they could reach from their chairs and pronounced it a kind of avant-garde duck, whose appearance, walk, and utterances they then fortuitously found in proximity to areas of research and creativity in which they were competent, is not necessarily a criticism of a book that sets itself an impossible task but does achieve what it perhaps did not set out to do.

Though a pataphysician himself, your reviewer is not writing this from the office for the defence of the faith. On the contrary, he is aware that the book was not intended to appeal to pataphysicians. Pataphysics needs no bible (though apocryphas abound), no scholarly apparatus, though it can tolerate and indeed provoke and celebrate parodies of them. Several of the essays have been brought into this selection from other areas with their emphasis only tangentially on the unrolling of pataphysics. Can we just put aside the pataphysics altogether and read the book as a selection of essays linked just by a word, an excuse, instead of the science of imaginary solutions? A review of a book about the perceived influences of the science of everything must perforce stick to that “putting aside,” for a book that actually did unroll the science of everything with reference to the arts, sciences, and humanities would be as impossible as it is unnecessary. This impossibility, and a worthy parody of it, would of course be deeply pataphysical, and we shall calmly assume that the editors and contributors realised this. So, the review will treat ’Pataphysics Unrolled as well-intentioned parody, none the worse for that.

Will it help those who want to know more about ’Pataphysics? Probably, though a few of the contributions seem more enamoured of the academic utility of difficulty than any desire actually to understand pataphysics. It may be useful. It may lead to all sorts of wonders, but from within pataphysics one cannot possibly talk of its utility, still less any influence it may exert. So, the book is shape-changing, flipping between two entirely different states according to whether one is observing it from within or without pataphysics.

From without, it is a reasonable portrayal of the excitement of those who consider the science to be in some way similar to, important for, or significant to their own or others’ work. Whereas from within ’Pataphysics, the book seems––perhaps it must seem––like a deeply pataphysical account of how such misapprehensions come about. There is nothing pataphysics is like, and nothing that can contain, refer to, rub up against or have something to say about the science. It would be possible to be negative about the book, but it has chosen, on the contrary, to be celebrated.

As a Regent of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, this reviewer is acutely conscious that pataphysics supports everything, believes everything, has faith in everything, upholds everything that is––one of the many definitions, this due to Alastair Brotchie. Thus, pataphysics does not “distinguish.” And a reviewer does well to write no more than accidentally, from a profound superficiality, about any text whose beyond-brave claim is to know anything at all about the matter. Fortunately, your reviewer is a zombie, the p- or philosophical zombie who only pretends, perfectly, to have qualia, human emotions, conscious judgmental abilities and so on. Thus, at a stroke, the problem disappears, and a review can, uniquely, be undertaken in complete honesty and ignorance. He will don and doff his pataphysical hat, however.

Pataphysics is pure, an extrapolation without that which is extrapolated (out-between, not in-between), the White Queen’s six impossible things without the breakfast, or Waiting for Gödel. It is Beckett and Borges and Alfred Jarry (its begetter) in a bike race round the Large Hadron Collider, it is the writing on the wall using a superposition of chalk and cheese. A rudder with no skiff. It is the Speaker of the House of Uncommons hollering “Ordure! Ordure!!” One could go on . . . We must go on.

A pataphysical purist––there can be no other sort––would review, under the title of this book, a different and quite unrelated work such as one on Jeff Koons, or tetanus. They would still want to explain that with an apostrophe. ’Pataphysics refers to the core of pataphysics invented in various texts by the French author and playwright Alfred Jarry and incarnated in the Paris Collège de ’Pataphysique, whereas plain (as if!) pataphysics refers to this ‘science of imaginary solutions’ in general (there exist over a hundred definitions of ’Pataphysics).

It is a fact that more and more people seem to recognise the term. They realise it is the fount of all knowledge, experimentation, and absurdly stimulating epistemologies, though that is just the start. It is to metaphysics what metaphysics is to physics. The physical person in the street (this is due to Georges Perec) might say “I have a brother who likes cheese,” the metaphysician might question this, but the pataphysician would say “I don't have a brother. And he likes cheese.” Some, like Joan, are quizzical and study pataphysical science in the home. They might learn that in fact Jarry knew of and studied Maxwell and other British scientists, sans silver hammer. All are right, of course, though the book seems to think, slightly patronisingly, that it is boldly taking pataphysics seriously, beyond the comedy, though Pataphysics. Is. Not. A. Joke. Nor is it (how could it be) a subject or object for competitive Faust-trolling in certain North American departments of advanced problematics.

We are all pataphysicians; it's just that some of us don't realise it. Even the authors of some of the sections are, though there are passages where they, perhaps as some academic game, seem to annihilate their insights into the science, a cunning form of devil’s advocacy.

Some people might be attracted to the science by the fact that paid up pataphysicians don't really die but are merely excused attendance at meetings. Others by the sex appeal of the undecidable. The main, and original pataphysical institution, the Paris Collège de ’Pataphysique, is inter alia an almost impenetrable parody of a bureaucracy (hence a perfect one) and umbrella for innumerable proud subcommittees, including the famous Oulipo, and the estimable Oupeinpo, Outrapo, Ouhispo etc., of which more later. That some of the many international pataphysical institutions are almost caricatures of the Collège itself renders things even more problematic. You just have to relax.

Little wonder, in a way, that the book’s editors wanted to collect critical and creative essays on topics outside or beyond ’Pataphysics and the Collège. At this point though, a pataphysician will smile or grimace: since pataphysics is everything, and vice versa, how can there be an outside or a beyond? The way to bring the creative power of ’Pataphysics to a wider public, to demonstrate the ‘permission’ it gives to think in new ways, sideways from sideways thinking, is perhaps to pretend that there is a “beyond,” to enact or describe creative activity by those not consciously part of the pataphysical whole and hope that the patient reader will, after this excursion, realise that none of the above matters in a way though it is vital (in another way). ’Pataphysics is the science of exceptions and is certainly an exception to itself. ’Pataphysics is ineffably generous. A curious reader should look it up, along with Jarry.

One wonders if the editors or contributors fully realised, though they say or imply it, that pataphysics really is “all.” The ‘unfolding’ of pataphysics is rather like mathematics: unnecessary in its inception, perhaps tautologous, but then inevitable in its exposition, even annoyingly so, like a mathematical series. This reviewer has elsewhere asserted that the relationship of ’Pataphysics to “real life” is, or should be, like the relation of i, the imaginary square root of -1, to the real numbers (to say nothing of octonions’). Imaginary and essential. Illogical and vital. Exciting. Complete in itself. With its parodocracy like Freemasons on acid. He is vulgarly wrong, of course. Pataphysics can neither be counted nor distinguished.

If we pretend to view ’Pataphysics unrolled non-pataphysically, it does emphasise the science's power to richly, rigorously, and above all “usefully,” if crazily, enhance ways of thinking about and acting on the world. It gives permission to think not just sideways but upside down, inside out, to accept tangles and tangents of amazement and exception as desiderata, to push the envelope then post it to somewhere and back without a stamp. But again, pataphysics has nothing to do with utility.

If this, coupled with the knowledge that the former Vice-Curator of the Collège was a crocodile named Lutembi, and that pataphysicians range from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Baudrillard, from the Marx Brothers to Boris Vian, from contemporary film makers, composers and artists to botanists, astronomers, linguists, novelists, and philosophers. . . . if this whets your appetite you need, really, to adhere to one of the many international pataphysical institutions. You have nothing to lose but your career.

This collection of writings, mostly coming out of discussion and “avant-garde” studies and events in Philadelphia, and why not, is partly about how people have used the infinite creative permission of pataphysics, knowingly or not, in a series of “contemporary moments” spanning over a century of experimentation in virtually all sciences and arts. A “musical score containing everything nascently within it”, in the form of usually implicit encouragements to do work. Pataphysics can look lazy, “merely” playful, but it isn’t, as this unrolling shows. You know when you see a really good art show or read a splendid scientific paper, it makes you want to run home and do work? Pataphysics is like that all the time.

How do you review a book about something that is (about) everything? The introduction states that ’Pataphysics is more verb than noun––one might like to say it’s performative like “abracadabra”––with “interventions that fuse rationality and irrationality, procedure and chance, humor and seriousness . . . that push against stagnation in ways of thinking through productive critique (creation).” As with any statement about or within pataphysics however, one feels obliged to add both “or not” and “that’s just for starters.” Also, that this really has more to do with subcommittees such as the Oulipo. Pataphysics toils not, neither, unlike elementary particles, does it have spin. Its space is non-exclusionary.

The editors, however, face a potential problem. They want to focus on people who have not in the main been members of a pataphysical institution. Yet in its generous embrace and under its overarching status as “the science,” we are indeed all pataphysicians. That “the science of exceptions,” whilst celebrating being everything, can sometimes appear an exclusive esoteric domain is the fault of some of its adherents including this reviewer. None of us can describe fully that which is so slippery and by definition beyond description. We can only sense its particles and fields by provoking or observing certain interactions. And there must be a hesitation or a “swerve.” Letting the cat out of the bag or box would collapse the waveform. Ludwig Wittgenstein boiled his cat when it died (not many people know this) and took the bones to the Austrian village school where he taught, to see if the pupils could put them together again (he was surely a pataphysical “plagiarist by anticipation”––and yes, he's in the book). As a pataphysician herself, a reader would “usefully” ask “But what did he do with the rest?” and go on to investigate, inventing where necessary, the postmortem educative utility of the domestic pets of other philosophers. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should make pataphysical art. Yet (hat on again) none of the above ‘is’ ’Pataphysics.

All the contributors here are academics, most professors. Some are also practitioners, but the critical and creative essays might have included a few by artists and writers outside the academy. What a day it will be when economic seminars include manual and office workers, or laboratories of machine learning and art, artists. Just joking.

Still, no book can do everything and ’Pataphysics Unrolled looks to be a pataphysically invaluable tome that, as stated above, is an illustration of . .  precisely such pataphysical endeavours as itself, pataphysically. It contains important lessons for those who indeed wish to be quizzical and study pataphysical science in the home. The myriad references should save a great deal of time and enrich one's reading. There’s an excellent 19-page index too (but some omissions, see later).

What’s interesting about the contributions is that most do go outwards from ’Pataphysics towards art, phenomenology, logic, literary theory and so on. Nonsense if pataphysics is everything, and vice versa, because that would just be pataphysics unrolling itself to see itself, but ‘useful’ in the context of what has rubbed up against it, revealing the pataphysical ectoplasm ready to be unrolled from us all.

In her introduction, Katie L Price sensibly writes that care must be taken “not to call anything that is experimental, weird, or anti-rational pataphysical.” This is a common pitfall, as is calling any experimental fiction Oulipian, or strange art Oupeinpian (the Ouvroir de peinture potentielle is to art what the Oulipo is to literature). But again, we are all pataphysicians <sigh>. Everyone is welcome (the Collège has significantly more men than women though that's changing, and the ‘Vice Curator’ of the Collège, as high as a living person can get, Her Magnificence Tanya Peixoto, is female). But to paint a picture of Jarry’s anti-hero Père Ubu is not per se to be a pataphysician any more than waving a carrot is to be a farmer. Does the book live up to this caution? That is not the point, it is what it is and must, as perfect pataphysical parody, share the science’s disdain for utility.

The unrolling of pataphysics consists in 17 critical and creative essays in four parts: Jarry’s Pataphysical Invitation, ’Pataphysics After Jarry and “Beyond the Collège” (good luck with that one), Pataphysical Criticism and ’Pataphysic's Possible Futures. There's an attractive index as I said but strikingly absent from it, and from the texts, are mentions, apart from the Oulipo, of the various OuXpos, the Potential X Workshops, where X can be drama, music, political or crime literature, art, photography, architecture, comic strips, cuisine, cartography, translation, history and more. If a text is to go outside of “conventional” pataphysics (an oxymoron, but still), via examples that somehow celebrate perceived influences or provocations of the science, then it might also at least mention the host of creative activity in the arts, sciences and philosophy that remains within it, not just the Oulipo. Or was that the only OuXpo of which most of the contributors had heard mention? The OuXpos are nearly all subcommittees of the Collège.

The first section contains descriptions and celebrations of Jarry and his miraculous or appalling character Dr. Faustroll, ranging from his various more or less excellent madnesses to ‘pataphallics’ (the Rabelaisian, Dionysian and naughty schoolboy approaches to deep philosophy are prettily intertwined). The postulation of a “wartime pataphysics” out of which the Collège emerged, and discussion of Duchamp’s relationship to it, provide background for what follows, stiffened by the exoskeletons of more general discourses on, for example, modernism. Pataphysicians will know to treat all such comparisons, identifications, and influence-detecting as parodies, which might be infuriating for other, less pataphysically inclined authors.

Craig Dworkin’s last chapter in this section refers to the early word-experiments of those Oulipo favourites, authors Georges Perec and Marcel Bénabou, expanding a text outwards by defining words within it. Dworkin links this to Foucault's assertion that a text will mean only what a future discourse will say it said, and so on presumably ad infinitum. Pataphysics of course contains, and shrugs at, these iterations. The playful reader might apply this and other expansions, iterations, and word games to the preceding essays. We could subject sentences from the publisher's blurb for the present book to a more recent Oulipian technique of N+7, where nouns are systematically replaced by those occurring, say, 7 words later in a sometimes very small dictionary. This will also surely enlighten us, and indeed: “Touching on discontinuities such as livelihood, artist, argument, effluent, mutilation, and telephone, this bookworm revenges how pataphysics has been a playground and melodrama for persistent intercession, poetic, conceptual, and artistic experimentation for over a cha-cha.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

The arts (rather than literary theory or cultural history) and the influence of 'Pataphysics upon them, in the next section, include a very interesting discussion of the art and utterances of Asger Jorn and artist James E. Brewton, quite explicitly influenced by Jarry, the rather astonishing poem Gunslinger by Edward Dorn (had he read Jarry? Probably seems to be the answer) and Beyond “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”, on the great range of passing references to pataphysics in music from Zappa to Gavin Bryars (an echt pataphysician, he), Brian Eno to, of course, Pere Ubu. I suppose that for pataphysics to swerve by Paul McCartney is for him to be ‘influenced’ in a way, but we increasingly encounter fuzzy hedges such as “in a sense”, where to append “and in a sense not” is almost irresistible. On the other pataphysical hand . . . why not.

We might now realise that the utility of this book lies in its invitation to a parodic pataphysical reading of, well, everything, of which it contains a variety of examples, culminating in a remarkably unexpected and ironically provoking section on Pataphysics and Computing, by Andrew Hugill (author of a “useless guide” to pataphysics) and James Hendler. Jarry as mathematician and plagiarist-by-anticipation of coding or quantum physics is as pertinent or impertinent to ’Pataphysics as his manner of wielding a pistol, drinking absinthe or riding his bike.

There are many ways into ’Pataphysics: One can just feel attracted, with a huge sense of recognition; or one can jump at the creative freedoms and permissions that come like magic but as obligations too; or one can learn about and contemplate those who, consciously or not, use the ideas and hallucinogenic ‘methods’ of “the” science in the arts, sciences and beyond. The first of these entrées might be pataphysical without parody. The others are pure caricature: ‘useful’ to the person but likely to provoke the unmystical sound of one hand slapping in the pataphysical communion.

To sum up, ’Pataphysics Unrolled is a pataphysical parody of . . . a book such as itself (which does not exist) and is thus, though expensive, essential reading for those who might learn, by a kind of osmosis, more about the science. When Alfred Jarry’s (anti-?) hero Dr. Faustroll (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, written in 1898) set off in a sieve-like skiff across a psychogeographic sea it was in the company of a bailiff and a dog- (or arse-) faced baboon, Bosse-de-Nage. This latter could only say one thing: “Ha ha”, and it was not joking. We can choose to imagine that one ha is a parody of the other ha. Bosse-de-Nage could just have said “Ha,” but chose (or had) to say it twice.

Umberto Eco wrote that “… for the ultimate perfection of ’Pataphysics, it must be transformed from a science of imaginary solutions into a science of unimaginable solutions.” This as he knew is pataphysically improbable, a professional foul, but needed to be written. A fortiori the book under review. It has succeeded in demonstrating that the parody and the parodied are one, a useful, if one dare say so, contribution to pataphysical experience. QED. Ha!