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Millenial Pataphysics: The Postmodern Apocalypse of Science

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by Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry
Originally published in Open Letter 9.7 (winter 1997)

"[M]etaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature."
(Borges 14)

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges features an imaginary universe, a fantastic surreality, where "every philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des Als Ob (14) a game that Jarry might call by the name of 'pataphysics (192), the quixotic science not only of imaginary solutions and arbitrary exceptions, but of academic frivolity and hermetic perversity. Borges imagines an allegory of simulation, a tragedy of seduction, in which a secret cabal of rebel artists has conspired to replace the actual world, piece by piece, with a virtual world, so that the inertia of a true history vanishes, phase by phase, into the amnesia of a false memory. Jarry likewise suggests through 'pataphysics that reality in its verity does not exist as a Ding an Sich, but exists only as the interpretive projection of a phenomenal perspective -- which is to say that reality is never as it is, but is always as if it is. Reality is pseudo: it is more virtual than actual; it is real only to the degree to which it can seem to be real and only for so long as it can be made to stay real. Jarry claims that 'pataphysics studies "the universe supplementary to this one" (131), but not simply an adjunct reality so much as an ersatz reality, "a universe which can be [...] envisaged in the place of the traditional one" (131) -- an alternate universe that, as a' supplement, threatens to seduce the predicate universe away from its own presence. Tl� n thus spills over the edges of its imaginary world and floods the frame of our millenary world, realizing its alien images while etherealizing our human events.

'Pataphysics, for Jarry, dramatizes "the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics" (131), as both its excess and its redress, in order to become "the science [...] extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics" (131). 'Pataphysics arises in a time when a tyranny of truth has increased our esteem for the lie, when a tyranny of reason has increased our esteem for the mad, so that, as Nietzsche avers, "to be noble might then come to mean: to entertain follies" (92). Jarry performs humorously on behalf of literature what Nietzsche performs seriously on behalf of philosophy, each providing a feasible exemplum in the past for a possible scientia of the future -- one which demonstrates that anomalies extrinsic to a system remain secretly intrinsic to such a system, the most credible of truths always evolving from the most incredible of errors, the praxis of science always involving the parapraxis of poetry. 'Pataphysics, "the science of the particular" (131), does not study the rules governing the general recurrence of a periodic incident (the expected case) so much as study the games governing the special occurrence of a sporadic accident (the excepted case). 'Pataphysics thus shadows forth from metaphysics, appearing as an image that replaces its model according to a structure as parallel perhaps as these sentences. ' 'Pataphysics is imaginary: it does not exist as a discipline. What then is there to study? Such a science, like this nonsense about science, is perhaps no more than an ectype without a prototype -- a form generated ex nihilo, like an ur from Tlön.

'Pataphysics heralds apocalyptically what Baudrillard might call a "casual form of writing to match the casual vnementialit of our age" (1995:17) -- an Ubuesque commentary upon "the Grande Gidouille of History" (17). Baudrillard observes that, for the "[']Pataphysics of the year 2000" (1), history has accelerated past the escape velocity for reality, moving from the centrifugal gravity of the real into the centripetal celerity of the void: the interzone of simulation. Contributors to this issue of Open Letter participate in such a postmodern commentary, insofar as they all subvert the categorical distinction between science and poetry. Such writers not only criticize pedantic theories of expressive truth by resorting to the formalism of poetry in order to reveal the mysticism of science, but also criticize romantic theories of expressive genius by resorting to the formalism of science in order to repeal the mysticism of poetry. These writers suggest not only that the instrument of science can inform itself through the experiments of poetry, but also that the instrument of poetry can perform upon itself experiments for science. The science of 'pataphysics arises during the historical transition from an organism to cyborganism, when the metaphysics of science has totalized its control over truth, but has not yet optimized its' control of truth -- so that, while poetry can no longer depose science from without it, poetry can hope to oppose science from within it. The science of 'pataphysics thus expresses on behalf of poetry what the metaphysics of science represses in itself.

'Pataphysics (a neologism fraught with polysemy) makes its debut at the turn of the century when Ubu, the nihilistic scaramouche, describes himself as a "Professor of [']pataphysics" (26): "a branch of science which we have invented and for which a crying need is generally experienced" (27). Jarry precedes the orthography of the French word 'pataphysique with an apostrophe in order to avoid a "simple pun" (192), but ironically enough, such a diacritical mark only signals, as present by proxy, what is absent by edict, so that the word invokes apostrophically the homophonic phrases that it revokes catastrophically. Ubu, for example, is a slapstick comedian (pataud physique) of unhealthy obesity (pateux physique), whose bodily language (patois physique) foments an astounded physics (épatée physique) that is not your physics (pas ta physique). 'Pataphysics embodies a polysemic fusion of both poetry and science, insofar as the French idiom for the English word "flair," la patte (the hand of the artist, the "paw" of the style), appears in the homophonic phrase patte physique the flair of physics. The science of 'pataphysics often deploys such flair through any one of three tactics -- each one a different case of exception: variance (anomalos), deviance (clinamen), and alliance (syzygia). The anomalos generates a special case of dissimilitude within a' general case of similitude; the syzygia generates a special case of similitude within a general case of dissimilitude; and the clinamen generates a swerve that breaks away from the continuum that connects the anomalos to the syzygia.

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