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Pataphysics

When i first came across this term ‘Pataphysics’, I was intrigued and a little wary of its usage, particularly when viewed in the context of the first chapter of the Speclab book . Through my research of the genealogy of pataphysics, I have uncovered its possible genealogy from Baudrillard’s work of the same title by the reading of the excerpts of his works translated here. Before I go into the translation of the pataphysical in the context of speculative computing as defined by Drucker and its connotation in the world of games theory, I would like to outline some of the pataphysical concepts Baudrillard has outlined in conversation with Artaud.

To begin, pataphysics is employed as a metaphorical tool to map Baudrillard’s intellectual disenchantment with the desire to attain ‘truth’ in meaning. In pataphysics, Baudrillard sees  a pathway by which he could escape the constrains of reality by disrupting the illusion of seamless historicity and narrativity. He advocates for this act of disruption as a way of transcending and and decoupling  space-time from linear narrativity based on the traditional assumption of knowing, of chronicity (the chronological) and the textual platform by which we’ve mapped our epistemology. In terms of motivation, he is similar to Ethington as both are advocating for a change in the ontology of knowing, the ethical, and the factual. They also seem to be agreement in how one’s concept of history is framed by the a priori condition of how ones views time and interaction with the physical world, which seems ‘intuitively’ defined by the Newtonian inertial frame. They both also seem to agree on the concept of “asymmetry in time” Ethington (471) that disallows time-travel as there is a point of no-return, a singularity (page 2 of my printout of Charles Dudas’s translation of Baudrillard’s Pataphysics of Year 2000) which Baudrillard refers to as the “vanishing of history…it pertains not to the acceleration but to the slowing down of processes.” To Baudrillard, this slowing down caused by matter is due to the saturation of multiplicities of exchanges and communication, the weight of which will in turn bog down the system, turning it into the “cold star of the social” when “history cools out” (page 3 of my printout). This seems allusive of Ethington’s reference to the entropic moment,

…thermodynamic processes have an infinitely higher probability of running from low to high states of entropy (from organized to disorganized) than from high to low states of entropy. Sugar cubes dissolve into hot coffee, but sugar in solution with coffee is extremely unlikely to form itself into a cube and rise to the surface. Hence, ‘the direction in which most thermodynamical processes in isolated processes occur is the direction of positive time’ (Reichenbach 1956, p. 127). Here again, however, time is defined as the interval between one entropic state and another. It is the behavior of matter and energy that is observed, not that of time. (471)

He uses the above analogy to demonstrate how time is embedded within the space we locate ourselves, and thus of the dynamics of our movement and actions which move matter and energy around the cosmic world, so that we cannot imagine time travel even if it takes place because our matter, memory and the very core of our existence (including our neurological memory) is defined by the time in which we locate ourselves. And this too seems to be the message of Baudrillard, when he says that “with respect to history, the narrative has become impossible since by definition as it is the potential of re-narrativization of a sequence of meaning. Through the impulse of total diffusion and circulation each event is liberated for itself only – each event becomes atomized and nuclear as it follows its trajectory into the void.” (Baudrillard page 2 of my printout). As time is controlled by matter, therefore the possibility/impossibility of formulating a narration independent of time becomes strangely dependent on whether a group/series of events that have been broken down, disrupted, disarticulated and diffused by the metaphorical particle accelerator can enter once more our channels and circuits of movements in time and flow back into the history; or will a vanishing point be arrived at if we force

all of the particles in our bodies and the world around us into the negative performance of all the motions that they had just completed. This necessarily includes the molecules of the entire planet, because adjacent energies cannot be separated. No individual could break free of the network of energy and matter to visit an earlier state of that network. (472)

And then, there are aspects of time intertwined with the physical world outside our immediate consciousness but residing within the virtual world of mathematical possibilities, which could be proven through the use of scientific instruments that could transcend our personal time as such instruments are able to live in huge natural cosmological time outside the human lifetime and our phenomenological (perceptive) time.

However, their individual projects diverge in at one point; Ethington is more concerned with how we can therefore recuperate history’s terminal condition by reconstituting time within a metaphoric space and thus dispense with our rabid attachment to flow of time as one-dimensional chronocity by weaving the geography into the way we read time (reading new meanings into time under this new frame), beyond the literal longitudinal timezones designed by our geographers and geophysicists that still presupposes a linear flow of time independent of its spatial locality and cultural place; whereas Baudrillard seems more pessimistic that time can ever be recuperated as the physical world in which it is embedded in is bent on the annihilation of time. Rather, Baudrillard is more concerned with locating the threshold, the point of evanescence (vanishing-point) whereby the determination of this point seems to be dependent on the Boltzman-Maxwell-like statistical distribution of the critical mass. I may venture a guess that Baudrillard takes on the Althusserian turn as influenced by Marxian reading whereas Ethington is more interested in the phenomenological rather than the cultural aspect (though he gives a nod to the latter project).

Nonetheless, both posit a thought experiment whereby a model can be built, perhaps a form of simulacra, that can challenge and re-wire our perception of the temporality of history. Ethington has done so with his ghost metropolis of the city of Los Angeles. Baudrillard’s concept has been worked into the Speclab initiative of Johanna Drucker and the ludic virtualities/realities of gaming (see for example the article “A Pataphysical Engine: Technology, Play and Realities” by Seth Giddings published in Games and Culture volume 2, 2007. pp 392-403).

For Baudrillard, pataphysics is the philosophy of the gaseous state and the pataphysical game is of a “narcissism of death” (page 2 of my print out of Drew Burke’s translation of an excerpt of “Pataphysics” as published through the Ctheory.net’s “1000 days of history”project). In other words, it posit a final moment of climax,  of the giving of all (and this harks back to the idea of the “vanishing point”).

…all Pataphysical procedures are a vicious circle where, maddening forms, without believing in each other, devour each other like crabs at the edge of a cliff, digesting themselves like stucco buddhas and renders nothing in all its criss-crossing but the fecal sound of a pumice rock and dried ennui. (2-3 of the same print out)

Baudrillard’s discussion of the pataphysical does not only situate it within the realm of the virtual-irreality but also within the location of the abjective-scatological. How can this then be linked to the Speclab project? Let’s take a look at the table below which I have culled from the Drucker book, p 25

Look at the highlighted section by which Drucker contrasts digital humanities with speculative computing through her attribution of the former to informational technology which to her is equivalent to formal logic (thus read as ‘constraining’) versus pataphysics, the science of exception. She says that

“Pataphysics derives from the study of exceptions and anomalies in all their specificity – the outliers often excluded by statistics procedures.  Only a punning method suffices, thus the invention of our term ‘patacritical’. If norms, means, and averages govern statistics then sleights, swerves and deviation have their way in the pataphysical game. Adopting a ‘patacritical’ method is not an excuse for abandoning intellectual discipline. Rather, it calls attention to individual cases without assumptions about the generalizations to be drawn. In short, it takes exceptions as rules that constitute a de facto system, even if repeatability and reliability cannot be expected.” (26)

She goes on to say that Pataphysics “forces a reconceptualization of premises and parameters, not a reassessment of means and outcomes.” (28) . Hence, for her, speculative computing allows for a more ludic and fluid assessment of the situation and does not pre-determine the form in which solution should take, whereas digital humanities still ride on the old style of humanities (that is dominated by the logical-analytical formula) that is merely layered over with the rhetoric of digitality. I can of course link this back to my previous discussion of digital humanities in my last post. However, if the process of speculative computing is based on indeterminate provocation, how could that be transparent at the point of its passing? If it is like a form of quantum entanglement, than much of the causal processes would be oblique and only become transparent in the aftermath of hindsight, rather than at the point of happening. This therefore seems not to gel with Baudrillard’s depiction of the pataphysical as existing in a gaseous state of ambivalence, where the pataphysical “procedures are a vicious circle where, maddening forms, without believing in each other, devour each other like crabs at the edge of the cliff…”(page 2 of my printout of “Pataphysics” in “1000 Days of Theory. This “without believing in each other”, is it similar to the subjective deformance mentioned by the Drucker? And can one broaden boundaries of digital humanities via speculative computing without believing in the efficacy of the method employed (an allusion to the back blurb of the Speclab book  about taking on risky projects ?).

Now let’s look at how Baudrillard sees the pataphysical as the “highest temptation of the spirit ” (1 of my printout, from “Pataphysics” in “1000 Days of Theory”, Ctheory.net). He considers the pataphysical to be only definable by its own term as it does not exists outside that definition. If that’s the case, it does provide a fruitful way by which one can explore pataphysics as a way of circumventing the conventional physics in game programming and design, and even in the way in which ergodic narratives have been the source of continuing disputes and contention.  Of course, those with differential investments in the theorizing both digital humanities and speculative computing would beg to problematize the binaric way in which Drucker seeks to differentiate these two. I am not competent to discuss this in more detail at the moment. I will have to read through the book more to try to understand how the pataphysical is employed in the terms of speculative computing and how radical is the move really away from its critique of Digital Humanities. Maybe someone here will have something to say.

References

Baudrillard, Jean. “Pataphysics.” 1000 Days of Theory. Trans Drew Burk. <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=569&gt;

____________. “Pataphysics of the Year 2000”. Trans Charles Dudas. Originally from  L’Illusion de la fin: ou La greve des evenements, Galilee: Paris, 1992. <http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-pataphysics-of-year-2000.html&gt;

Drucker, Johanna. Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing.Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Ethington, Philip J.  “Placing the Past: ‘Groundwork for a Spatial Theory of History.” Rethinking History. 11.4 (Dec 2007). 465-93.

Nechvatal, Joseph. “The Counter Fearful Thing”. Book review. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. 4.1 (Jan 2007). <http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol4_1/nechvatal.htm&gt;

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