Monthly Archives: June 2008

pataphysics and the philosophy of the absurd

The “tagline descriptor” for Apostrophe Books—“poetry intersecting theory, philosophy, cultural studies, and pataphysics”—has garnered a lot of intrigue. Several readers have asked what we mean–precisely–by “pataphysics” and if it was a neologism. One university colleague even went so far as to “correct” me: “Don’t you mean paraphysics?” In fact, pataphysics is exactly what we mean. . .


As far as I know, the term was first used by the French writer and dramatist, Alfred Jarry in 1907 to describe—humorously—a conception that exists in contra-juxtaposition or contradistinction to metaphysics. From the OED:


Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien (1980) viii. 31 La pataphysique, dont l’étymologie doit s’écrire et l’orthographe réelle ‘pataphysique, précédé d’un apostrophe, afin d’éviter un facile calembour, est la science de ce qui se surajoute à la métaphysique.”


In this passage, Jarry seems to be adding the “pata” as an addition to metaphysics, a kind of elision of Aristotle’s original configuration. But, ultimately the “–meta” (Latin: “beyond,” but also, interestingly, “a column or post” [solid support or foundation?] in Ancient Rome), is replaced by –pata, rather than a prefix addition to the word. “Pata” as a prefix does not seem to have an exact definition, but I did discover some interesting meanings in other dialects and languages (all from the OED):

1) From the Xhosa and Zulu phatha phatha, which literally means ‘touch-touch.’ In the 1960’s and 70’s it came to mean a “type of sensuous dance especially popular in black townships” (OED), or the jazz-influenced music that was played during this dance.

2) Slang for sexual intercourse.

3) In Indian and Nepalese painting: cloth, canvas; a picture painted on a scroll of canvas

All of these have interesting implications. There is the eroticized and carnivalesque in the first two, and the visual representation in the second. The phatha phatha also suggests a challenge to the dominant and oppressive culture; dance and music as protest by African-Americans since the days of slavery through the jazz age and BAM and still relevant today.

But, back to “pataphysics” and it’s relation to poetic discourse in the books we publish. . . We intend to extend Jarry’s definition here with these specific points:

q the philosophy of the absurd

q the ecology of hypothetical experience

q the science of that which is super-induced upon metaphysics

q the science of imaginary solutions

Jarry suggests pataphysics has the potential to change art, philosophy and science as a branch of knowledge that deals exclusively with concepts or ideas that elude science and traditional metaphysical understanding. The extended use of art via pataphysics as pseudo-scientific or pseudo-metaphysical nonsense is quite compelling. This doesn’t mean an investigation of 19th century obsessions with phrenology or mesmerism (though this could be interesting at the hands of Meng, Göransson or any of our other poets), but more, with an impulse toward the absurd and Jarry’s explicit and implicit critique of metaphysics; one that seems more interested in the use of irony and comedy, say, than the deconstructive approach of Derrida. Perhaps rather than an infinitely spinning negative dialectic, an infinitely and uncertain spinning positive dissolution? Implicit in Derrida and Jarry both is a sense of “play” (linguistic, syntactic, semantic, synchronic, diachronic – and philsophical) and this is the sense we hope our writers embody.

The intersection, then, with pataphysics involves an “anti-metaphysical” trajectory that delights in the uncertain and indeterminate nature of human experience; a kind of postmodern Negative Capability perhaps. . . . I’ll end with an anecdote by Charles Olson describing the possible (very speculative) origins of Keat’s Negative Capability that seems to parallel (partially) the notion of pataphysics:

Two years before Melville was born John Keats, walking home from the mummers’ play at Christmas 1817, and afterwards, he’d had to listen to Coleridge again, thought to himself all that irritable reaching after fact and reason, it won’t do. I don’t believe in it. I do better to stay in the condition of things. No matter what it amounts to, mystery confusion doubt, it has a power, it is what I mean by Negative Capability.

Keats, without setting out to, had put across the century the inch of steel to wreck Hegel, if anything could.*


(*from Olson, Charles. “Equal, That is, To the Real Itself.” Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York, NY: A New Directions Book, 1966.)