excerpted from Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science
by Christian Bök
Northwestern University Press, 2002
ISBN: 0 81011 877 7
Scientific innovation in the era of postmodernity has become the august quorum of ideological controversy, particularly since the fiscal edicts of capitalism have threatened to reduce scientists to little more than court sorcerors in the royal entourage of military industry. Science has incubated a potential onslaught of planetary disasters (be they thermonuclear, environmental, etc.), ostensibly justifying these risks for the sake of an insistent curiosity, wagering the future of all humanity against the verity of a paradigm. Science at its logical extreme appears to conduct a capricious experiment that facilitates the extinction of the species, doing so, as if to facilitate the extinction of science itself. The fear of such a suicidal tendency in science has in turn spawned an array of vitally urgent, but largely futile, countermeasures (such as neoludditism, ecoterrorism, etc.).
'Pataphysics confronts the dangers of science, not with an antonymic wager (that counteracts the threat), but with a hyperbolic wager (that exacerbates the threat), accenting the grotesque absurdity of such epistemic extremism. 'Pataphysics even goes so far as to entertain a prohibited hypothesis, asking itself: What if the most radical gesture in science may in fact be this epistemic extremism -- this impulse to revolutionize the condition of the species, even if such a transformation entails the abolition of the species itself? 'Pataphysics suggests that any attempt to subvert the imperial paradigm of metaphysics may nevertheless require a metamorphosis of thought no less disruptive than the havoc already wreaked by science on behalf of the dubious project called "progress." What are the sociopolitical implications of such an enterprise? Is 'pataphysics apocalyptic?
'Pataphysics has inspired an anarchic politics of social revolt among much of the avant-garde, but the pedigree of this revolt has undergone many twists and many shifts in the clinamen of its evolution. How are we supposed to interpret the political integrity of an �sthetic, whose dispute with science finds itself adapted to the demands of any political franchise, be it Fascist (as in the case of Italian Futurism) or Leftist (as in the case of Russian Futurism)? How are we supposed to interpret the political solipsism of an �sthetic, whose coll�ges or ouvroirs must supposedly forfeit any commitment to a social agenda in order to become wryly nonpartisan (according to Shattuck) or wryly egalitarian (according to Sandomir)? The caprices of such a nomadic science almost appear to preclude its invested interest in politics altogether.
Vaneigem complains that, historically, the nihilistic philosophy of 'pataphysics has lent itself too easily to an aesthetics of social apathy even though such nihilism has the inherent potential to foment a rebellious apocalypse (1994:178). The nihilism that Vaneigem has described as "active" (179), because it foreshadows revolution, might aptly characterize the early 'pataphysics of the Futurist coterie in Russia, but the nihilism that Vaneigem has described as "passive" (178), because it discourages revolution, might aptly characterize the later 'pataphysics of the Jarryite coll�ge in France. The avant-garde philosophy that initially provokes a call for permanent rebellion against the social values of the bourgeoisie eventually devolves into a game of nihilistic conformity to such values. The paralogy of one era now furnishes the imperial paradigm for the next.
'Pataphysics may demand the dynamic nihilism of social revolt, but this demand has found itself either exploited on behalf of an autocratic radicalism or enfeebled on behalf of a scholastic conformism. While we might conceivably dismiss 'pataphysics because of its support for the technocracy of both the Fascists and the Leftists, we might at the same time take ironic solace in the fact that, in both cases, the spirit of such revolt finds itself suppressed by the very political apparatus that such revolt makes possible -- almost as if 'pataphysics threatens to unleash an �sthetic potential that even the revolutionaries must find threatening. Might we not speculate then that 'pataphysics represents a form of epistemic extremism, whose perils may pose so great a threat to any system of values that such a force must be aggressively tamed before it is inadvertently freed?