Postmodernism as 'Pataphysics Institutionalized

by Douglas Puchowski

Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism is not an important bookon contemporary history, theory, or fiction, but it plays one in real life.First published in 1988, the book has been reprinted numerous times since,is widely used as a college textbook at the graduate and undergraduate level,and appears frequently in bibliographies of postmodernism. Part of the book'spopularity stems from the clarity of its concepts, relative to other bookson the subject, concepts Hutcheon buoys with numerous examples. In the book'ssecond chapter "Modeling the Postmodern" she writes:
I will argue throughout this study that postmodernism is a fundamentally contradictory enterprise: its art forms (and its theory) at once use and abuse, install and then destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing both to their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality and, of course, to their critical ironic re-reading of the art of the past. In implicitly contesting in this way such concepts as aesthetic originality and textual closure, postmodernist art offers a new model for mapping the borderland between art and the world, a model that works from a position within both and yet not totally within either. (p. 23)

Pataphysics appeared in Alfred Jarry's earliest writing, including his well-knownUbu plays, but its fullest expression came in his novel Gestes et opinionsde docteur Faustroll pataphysician. Though written in 1898, the workremained unpublished until 1911, four years after Jarry's death. DoctorFaustroll is born full-grown at age 63 and travels in a bed, which is nota bed, but a boat, which is not a boat, but a sieve that floats like a boat.The properties of which are explained in full detail in a chapter indebtedto the book Soap Bubbles:Their Colors and the Forces Which Mould Them(1890), by the English physicist C.V. Boys, who, we are told, is a friendof Doctor Faustroll's. The doctor travels to places like "The AmorphousIsle" and "The Great Church of Snoutfigs" accompanied byBosse-de-Nage, a dogfaced baboon "who knew no human words except 'Haha!'" and Bailiff Panmuphle, the story's narrator, who having beensent to serve Faustroll a summons, ends up an imprisoned rower aboard hissieve-boat. With imagination unbound, Jarry sketched a scientific pseudoscienceand used it to write an exuberant novel, profound and hilarious. Towardsthe adventure's end, Doctor Faustroll dies and finds himself in "Ethernity,"where telepathically he sends letters to Lord Kelvin. The novel closes withits most famous passage, a treatise "Concerning the Surface of God,"which uses a geometric theorem to prove that:


Jarry used parody and contradiction; incorporated other texts, mixed realand fictional characters, and fused art and life to create a work so unusual,even fifty years after it was written, Roger Shattuck was prompted to ask:"Is it literature?"

The postmodern poetic Hutcheon sketches, whenplaced in this context, reveals itself to be little more than an academicvariation of Jarry's 'Pataphysics. The analecta below pair two of Hutcheon'smain concepts with their pataphysical precursors.

This passage comes from Hutcheon's chapter "Decentering the Postmodern":

The ex-centric, the off-center: ineluctably identified with the center it desires but is denied. This is the paradox of the postmodern and its images are as often deviant as this language of decentering might suggest: the freak is one common example: in films like Carney or novels like E.L. Doctorow's Loon Lake and Paul Quarington's Home Game. The multi-ringed circus becomes the pluralized and paradoxical metaphor for a de-centered world where there is only ex-centricity. (p. 61)

This fromJarry's "Elements of 'Pataphysics":

Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be--and perhaps should be--envisaged in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality. (pp. 192-193)

This comes fromHutcheon's chapter "The Problem of Reference":

The metafictional impulse of novels like [Timothy Findley's] Famous Last Words--initially signaled by having a protagonist called Hugh Selwyn Mauberly--suggests that, yes, it is a fallacy, that the referents of the novel's language are clearly fictive and intertextual. But the co-presence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Ezra Pound in the same novel complicates considerably the metafictional fallaciousness of reference.
This is not really a devaluing of the referential dimension of language at all, as many theorists of postmodernism assert (e.g. Charles Russell in "The Context of the Concept"). Nor is it a reveling in factual immediacy... [p.145]

This from Jarry's"Concerning Some Further and More Evident Meanings of the Words 'HaHa'":

"HA HA," he said concisely; but we are in no way concerned with the accidental fact that he usually added nothing more.
[ ... ]

A juxtaposed to A, with the former obviously equal to the latter, is the formula of the principle of identity: a thing is itself. It is at the same time the most excellent refutation of this very proposition, since the two A's differ in space, when we write them, if not indeed in time, just as two twins are never born together--even when issuing from the obscene hiatus of the mouth of Bosse-de-Nage. (p. 228)

Hutcheon,however, does not dismiss an interelatedness between modernism, of whichJarry was a part, and postmodernism. She references the work of roughlytwenty theorists, including those who think postmodernism an extension ofmodernism and those who regard it as completely distinct, and she findsevidence sufficient to accept both. It is a conclusion that appears intelligentuntil the distinction below is made several pages later. is not only [visual] art that crosses the boundary between practice and theory: think of the ecstatic feminist writing of Hélène Cixous or of Lyotard's mixing of literary criticism and literary experimentation in Le Mur du Pacifique (1979), or the combining of art criticism and philosophy in his work with artists like Adami (1983), Francken (1983), and Arakawa (1984). All of these examples work to question both traditional critical and creative strategies and their artificial separation... this pluralizing is a distinctly postmodern phenomenon. (p. 54)

It is distinctonly if one has had her hippocampi removed or not read, among others, Stein'sThe Making of Americans (fiction/esthetics), Gide's The Counterfeiters(fiction/literary criticism), Cummings' EIMI (journalism/radicalformal experimentation), or Jarry's Faustroll (all of the above).It also fails to consider Biographia Literaria (literary criticism/poetry/plagiarism),as an earlier precursor, or Federman's Double or Nothing (fiction/visualart/esthetics) (a work Hutcheon considers late modernism) as a more recentone. Lapses like these appear throughout the book. They make Hutcheon'sconclusions about the relationship of modernism and postmodernism seem lessthe product of an open-minded historiographer, than that of a lazy reader.These lapses also reveal the primary foundation of her thought: Other theories.It gives her a limited sense of the present, but I will return to this later.For now it is best to follow Hutcheon's circular argument 'round, because,as she writes, a historicism has been an oft-raised critique of postmodernism.

What interests me ... is not the detail of the debate, but the very fact that history is now, once again, an issue--and a rather problematic one at that. (p. 87)

What postmodern writing of both history and literature have taught us is that both history and fiction are discourses, that both constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past ("exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination"). In other words, the meaning and shape are not in the events, but in the systems which make the events into present historical "facts." (p. 89, italics maintained)

The question begged is: How shall one sincerely pose a challenge to the systems without some knowledge of the events and how they relate to a particular system? This is Philosophy wun-Oh-wun: If you don't understand an opposing argument, you don't completely understand your own. In criticizing Hutcheon's claim that formal "pluralizing is a distinctly postmodern phenomenon," I purposely selected well-known authors, but texts few would consider part of a rigid canon, excepting the Coleridge. One would certainly excuse a few of these lapses, but any attempt to distinguish modernism from contemporary art, literature, music, etc., which ignores Gertrude Stein, is taking the path of least resistance. Stein receives no mention in the book. Hutcheon's light reading is also evident in her use of abstract terms, say modernism, when critiquing a subject, but then specific authors and works, E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, when praising.

Although 'Pataphysics is primarily concerned with the present and future, digging into Jarry's oeuvre, one discovers some intriguing thoughts on the past. In his essay "How to Construct a Time Machine" (1899), aptly classified as a piece of science-nonfiction by Roger Shattuck, Jarry explains that,

the Time Machine has two pasts: the past anterior to our own present, what we might call the real past; and the past created by the Machine when it returns to our Present and which is in effect the reversibility of the Future.

From this passage, one could draw an analogy to the historiography lessons Hutcheon attributesto postmodern writing above. Yet it is probably a better analogue for Jarry's visionary mind. In fact it is possible Jarry constructed such a machine.He writes, "the Time Machine can reach the real Past only after havingpassed through the Future." A feat Jarry seems to have performed. InFaustroll the Doctor purchases, from the Luxembourg National Museum,paintings by several of the days popular artists: Bonnat, Tartempion, amongothers; the then little-known artist Henri Rousseau is put at the controlsof a painting machine, with which he is to embellish these canvases "with the uniform stillness of chaos." Other than time travel how else could Jarry have known Rousseau would come to be regarded as one of the important painters of the 20th century, while the others would fade into relative obscurity.

Hutcheon's claims to "problematize the past" seem even more deficient when one considers her sense of contemporary writing. The authors most often cited are Doctorow, Findley, Fowles, Rushdie and Eco; the theorists Foucault, Derrida, Jameson, and Lyotard. This is not a slight on the these writers, but on Hutcheon's limited sense of the present. She builds her case for alternative interpretations of the past, primarily with well-known--one would even say mainstream--examples from the present.

What Hutcheon's style of historiography amounts to ultimately is a grand revisionary tone with very little revision. One might regard this posturing as harmless, but since Hutcheon's style of "problematizing" is easy and attracts more attention it tends to crowd out the work of betterminds. Karen A. Bearor's I. Rice Pereira: Her Paintings and Philosophyis such a work. The book is a model of scholarship, one that moves beyondquestions to offer answers.

The paradox to this aspect of Hutcheon's poetic,however, is that postmodernism is both popular and elite. A point that wouldseem better grounded did she demonstrate a knowledge of the work of lesspopular figures. Though Hutcheon does draw on examples from outside thewell-known group listed above, these instances are typically little morethan exercises in name dropping. She displays very little sense of an artist'swork, at best acknowledging one piece. More often than not she shows completeignorance of lesser-known figures. For example, Hutcheon mentions the conceptof Intermedia as an aspect of postmodernism, without acknowledging its progenitor,the artist Dick Higgins, or his critical perspectives, which have appearedin numerous books since the mid-sixties. This subtle slighting of figureslesser known in tasseled circles makes dubious Hutcheon's advocacy of "decentering"and "ex-centricity."

It is on this point that Hutcheon's postmodern poetic turns from resembling the amiable, inclusive meanderings of Dr. Faustroll to the darker obliviosness of Jarry's King Ubu. She writes:

I keep returning to this question of the position, the "outside" from which much Marxist theorizing seems to come, because postmodern contextualizing contests its very possibility. In doing so, of course, it does circumscribe its own radicality. It admits that it does not itself work outside the institutions which it nevertheless seeks to interrogate. It suggests that there is no "outside" to be found.

It is a matterof perspective I suppose, but the suggestion "that there is no 'outside'to be found" would be much more persuasive to those of us who fancyourselves outsiders, did Hutcheon's argument at least admit for degreesof difference. It does not. Although outsider culture is familiar to many readers of EC, allow me to offer a sense of it for those to whom it is not.

It is a lifestyle that struggles to achievesome version of Peter Lamborn Wilson's "Temporary Autonomous Zones";a world of used book stores, Salvation Army record bins, and street theater;of free lectures, free concerts, and free art galleries; of pay-what-you-will day at museums, cyberdiscussion groups, flea markets, suggested donations,independent radio stations and record labels, small press books, short filmsmade on credit, web-art, mail art, zines; a world of volunteering, bartering,interning, and teaching English in other countries; of activism, home schooling,intentional communities, compost piles, and renovated industrial buildings;"Can I sleep on your couch?" "if you give me a ride""have you ever tightened the brakes on a '78 Ford?"; a world of entrepreneurs, dope dealers, instrument builders, freelances, bad guitarists,autodidacts, losers, DJs, stone masons, graffiti artists, clerks, waiters & waitresses, drunks, heads, circus performers, poets, anarchists, cinematographers, hobos, choreographers, hackers, sculptors, cellists, rappers, slackers, shysters,and so on. There is no tenure, health insurance, or retirement plan. In short it resembles, to some extent, the bohemian culture from which Jarry conceived his 'Pataphysics. For most it is a chosen life, rational (well,usually) because $1.25 and A Postmodern Reader won't get you on the bus.

Sadly, this blindspot appears not only in Hutcheon's omissions. She writes:

Modernism's great purist monuments to the corporate elite and to the cultural seats of power (museums, theaters) gave way, for example, to the Centre Pompidou's (at least stated) desire to make culture part of the business of everyday living.

King Ubu seems oblivious to the fact that it is not up to the Centre Pompidou, (or Universities, or any other institutions) "to make culture part of the business of everyday living," culture is part of everyday living.

"Ha ha," he said succinctly and he did not lose himself in further considerations.

Background: What is the College of ’Pataphysics?

from College de 'Pataphysique
The vastest and most profound of Sciences, that which indeed contains all the others within itself whether they want it or not, ’Pataphysics or the science of imaginary solutions was illustrated by Alfred Jarry in the admirable person of Doctor Faustroll. The Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician, written in 1897-1898 and first published in 1911 (after Jarry’s death), contain both the Principles and the Purposes of ’Pataphysics, science of the particular, science of exceptions (it being clearly understood of course, that the world contains nothing except exceptions, and that a “rule” is precisely an exception to the exception; as for the universe, Faustroll defined it as “that which is the exception to oneself”.

The Science, to which Jarry dedicated his life, is practised unwittingly by all mankind. Human beings could more easily dispense with breathing than with Pataphysics. We find ’Pataphysics in the Exact and Inexact Sciences (though nobody admits it), in the Fine Arts and the Foul Arts, in every kind of Literary Activity. Open the newspaper, turn on the radio or television, explore the Internet, speak : Pataphysics!

’Pataphysics is the very substance of this world.

The College

The College of ’Pataphysics was founded in 1948 (vulgo) to study these most important and serious of all problems : the only ones that are important and serious. Let there be no mistake: it is not a question, as some simple minds who take Jarry for a satirist seem to think, of denouncing human activities and cosmic reality; nor is it a question of promoting a mocking pessimism or a corrosive nihilism. On the contrary, it is a question of discovering the perfect harmony in all things, and through this harmony the profound concordance between people’s minds (or, equally, the ersatz which takes the place of mind). It is a question of a few people doing consciously what all others do unconsciously.

The College of ’Pataphysics addresses itself and can only address itself to a minority.

Its activities have an ambiguous character. The superficial observer is amused, even delighted: he imagines he has come across a group of cruel practical jokers, cynical or subtle irony, collections of pungent curiosities, merciless exposures of pretence. Is he perhaps mistaken?

A closer look and a more prolonged acquaintance with these activities will enable the observer to perceive that they correspond to a general viewpoint and an entirely new psychology, beyond laughter and even, perhaps, beyond smiling. Jarry was imperturbable.