Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)
Book Review: The Counter Fearful Thing
Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005.
Reviewed by Joseph Nechvatal
(Professor of Theory of Art at The School of Visual Arts in New York City and The Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA).
There is for me an evidence in the realm of flesh which has nothing to do with the evidence of reason.1
For Pataphysics all phenomena are totally gaseous.2
We are nothing more than a state of virtual fart…4
Baudrillard at the “Chance Event”5
There is no deal to be made with death.6
The first remarkable thing about Jean Baudrillard’s limited edition text Pataphysics is its passé, handmade, deckle-edged, luxury cover. I say remarkable in that I still tend to identify Baudrillard with the small, slick black covers in which Semiotext(e) introduced him to America; covers which implied more of a techno aesthetic than this solemn neo-gothic one. The second remarkable thing about this book is its slim size: it is only 14 pages long.
I was immediately struck by the nonsensical pairing of a distinguished looking façade that supposedly signified some kind of venerable “authenticity” with an interior teensy-weensy substantive content. But as I gleefully plunged past the books sign-value packaging and into the distinguished Simon Watson Taylor’s English translation (his final) of this circa-1950 text (ostensibly on the subject of Pataphysics, which Baudrillard here defines as “the philosophy of gaseous states”7, as “tautology”8 – the use of redundant language that adds no information and as “the mind’s loftiest temptation”) this pairing made a peculiarly drôle sense, as immediately I started reading about “fake” “stucco” “self-infatuation” and “vast flatulence”, followed soon after by talk of “fake universes”.9
I had first encountered this slim but fascinating text, which Baudrillard wrote at the tender age 21, when it appeared unexpectedly in Baudrillard’s collection of art-related essays which Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) released in 200510 (it is a different translation, however). But lacking the kind of provocative packaging Atlas (in association with The London Institute of Pataphysics) has given this version, it made a rather minor impact on me at the time. But this new stucco-coated version, with the what one might be tempted to say is rather pretentious outside packaging, has focused my mind sympatheticly by actualizing some of the significant pataphysical concepts raised within the text itself. And for that its idiosyncratic design intelligence must be appreciated.
Of course this style choice is internally consistent with Baudrillard’s notion that systems of signification and meaning are only understandable in terms of their ambivalent interrelationships. How better to reinforce his iconic concepts of viral seduction, simulation, and hyperreality than this paradoxical presentation of the blatantly conservative with the imaginative far-out?
One might first be tempted to point to the traditionalist signifiers being played with here as substantive affirmation of what some of his readers have identified as Baudrillard’s rather thinly veiled conservative longing for a lost originality in face of digital virtuality; an impulse which verges on the nauseating nostalgic. Indeed this impression is enhanced when reading in the prelude that the publisher pulled out the old rare book ploy here. There are only 177 numbered copies of this letterpress-printed book and 44 numbered copies signed by the hand of Baudrillard himself. What a rare and valuable commodity – if one dances to that sort of consensus trance.
Undeniably, such a comic example of self-imposed rarity in the age of virtuality can be infuriating – but that would be taking this project way too seriously. Assuredly Baudrillard here puts forth that “Pataphysics is not serious” but that it possesses a silliness that perhaps “constitutes precisely its seriousness”.11 Better to just scan it and pass it around up on the internet. Better still to just concentrate on its intangible pleasures.
First off, there is the pleasure to be found in examining Baudrillard backwards (so to speak) in terms of hyperreal nonsense.12 Backwards in that we already know considerably well his mid-career and recent oeuvre, but poorly, if at all, such early formative texts. And following this backwards flip, we may examine him circularly and hence self-pataphysicly in that Baudrillard also defines Pataphysics as that which “revolves around itself”.13 So we can now regressively time trip and spin-view retrospectively his various observations, theories and analyses of technological communication through a young and delirious metaphysics deeply inspired by French and German poetry, the pataphysical anti-concepts developed by Alfred Jarry and the brilliant ravings of Antonin Artaud. These last two associations are explicit, as the reader is clued into these two contextual references in the text’s prelude, most importantly the text’s lapidary reaction to the publishing of key Artaud texts and the formation of the Parisian Collège de Pataphysique.14
By way of the understanding Artaud’s impact on the young Baudrillard, it may be valuable to recall Artaud's proposal in Le Théâtre et Son Double (The Theatre and its Double) that art (in his case drama) must be a means of influencing the human organism and directly altering consciousness by engaging the audience in a ritualistic-like trance. Even though in his essay The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation Jacques Derrida describes how Artaud's theory may be seen as impossible in terms of the established structure of Western thought15, this is precisely why Baurillard’s youthful creative text can be placed in position to Artaud's hypothesis and well within the College de Pataphysique. Indeed Baudrillard writes here that “Artaud demands a re-evaluation of creation, of coming into the world”.16
The Collège de Pataphysique was founded on May 11th, 1948 by an anarchic group of artists and writers interested in the philosophy of Pataphysics. These zealots devoted their time to perpetuating (and often distorting) Jarry's philosophical pranks. In 1959 Marcel Duchamp agreed to be a satrap in the Collège de Pataphysique17 and there have been numerous links established with the Oulipo literary movement – specifically through the participation in both groups by the poet Raymond Queneau. The fabulous wordsmith Jean Genet has described himself as following in the pataphysical tradition, and so Baudrillard seems now retrospectively like a fitting young candidate for the Collège (he evidently became a transcendent satrap there) as he, like Jarry and Genet both, obsessively circumnavigate around absurd mocked-up topographies.
For anyone who may not know, Pataphysics is the absurdist pseudo-philosophy/ideology devised by Alfred Jarry. The term first appeared in print in Jarry's article Guignol in the April 28th (1893) issue of L'Écho de Paris littéraire illustré. It is a form of conceptual flatulent hot air that hinges on the idea of utter nonsense. A practitioner of Pataphysics is a pataphysician or a pataphysicist.
For Jarry, Pataphysics is the anti-scientific realm beyond metaphysics that examines the laws which preside over exceptions – an attempt to elucidate an imaginary cosmos. Jarry specifically defined Pataphysics as the “science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments”.18
So we recognize here some rhizomatic roots that may have nurtured Baudrillard's hyperbolic and jaded view of an incongruous virtual-reality drenched world. In Jarry we already relish an artificial Baudrillardian simulated world created by an hallucinatory social structure where shimmering objects decree in odd ways what people can and cannot do within the vast void of virtuality. Indeed, like Jarry, Baudrillard mostly arrives at this social examination without demonstrating any sustained systematic analysis. Poof! Voila: a gaseous bon délire: an airy imaginary solution. But in Pataphysics, every occurrence in the universe is established to be an extraordinary event. No simulation possible.
Of course this aim of creating an inorganic world ex nihilo and luxuriating in its rarefied artificiality was not unique to Jarry. Indeed it was perfectly articulated in 1884 with the publication of Joris-Karl Huysmans's decadent novel; A Rebours (Against Nature), a story of a recluse art worshiper who yearns for new sensations and perverse pleasures within a transcendental artificial ideal. Recall that decadent French theory, which is almost equivalent to Fin-de-Siècle Symbolist theory, aspired to set art free from the materialistic preoccupations of industrial society.
But what struck me as most exact to the young Baudrillard text’s bizarre propositions was its deep reflection (one might even say brooding) on the theme of ignobility, and this shoddily shifted something in my appreciation of Baudrillard’s total word production. Notably, already evident is Baudrillard’s display of a mordantly witty obsession with language, a flatulent smoky language that tests the limits of form and stretches the bounds of meaning by recasting our experiences of encountering wildly disjunctive ideas into the sumptuously physicality of total negation.
This reality-rejecting text delivers an airy irrational punch of nonsensical negation by tying together methods of insouciant informality with a visceral camp irony: at turns hip and flamboyant, then turning towards the morally outrageous. At times the text simulates the disappearing ephemeral we associate with electronically provided information today on the internet, and the flickering of its translucent form. Still the reader is expected to work devotedly to solve the absurd flatulent conundrums supplied here, to supply mental transitions between the diverse and massive assortment of irrational elements which supply the text its pataphysical hooks. One must fabricate a complicated forensic fairy-tale out of this flatulent melange, which keeps slipping in and out of idiosyncratic narration. And that recitation keeps turning back into one about stinking death, that strange, incurable and deeply irrational affliction. Baudrillard in fact defines here the rules of the pataphysical game as narcissism of death, a lethal eccentricity”.19 Yes, I read this text as a meditation on humiliating death in all its undifferentiated fabulousness, by which I mean its essentially nasty comedy. So this is a young man’s text about funny, difficult death then, which while pulling down our pants and revealing our soiled undies, keeps everyone laughing (or at least gurgling) till the bitter end.
According to Baudrillard, in Pataphysics “all things become artificial, poisonous, resulting in a schizophrenia induced by pink stucco angels…”.20 But also there is here an awareness of impertinent splendor in the tranquility of flatulent decomposition, which makes it all seem faintly heroic in face of death’s inexorability. Thus this irrational text implies an antiphilosopher’s knowledge of dumb death’s putrid ignobility – but Baudrillard will not give in to that parody either. And this is what gives the work its extraordinary sense of dignity, a dignity which asserts life’s primacy over death because death is beyond narration and words.
So this text’s irrational gaseous hypothesis is actually fine absurdist Ubu art.21 But an Ubu art which does not merely help us pass the time away; it enlivens time if we surrender to its fearful pataphysical difficulty. A vertigo intricacy of which Baudrillard says is “anaemic” and “impossible” as its “procedure is a vicious circle within”.22
So Baudrillard’s work here provides the chance to do the counter-fearful thing then, to look at what we fear so that such an effort will help release us from fear’s irrational grip. Then we can pataphysically expand into the airy void and see beneath the stucco surface of Maya23 and so enjoy absurd life all the more. So that the ignobility of death can be ignored and nonsensical dignity restored – for the fleeting moment.
1 Antonin Artaud. Manifesto In Clear Language.
2 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005.
3 Motto of The Collège de Pataphysique.
4 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005.
5 The “Chance Event” was produced by Cris Krauss at Whiskey Pete’s In Las Vegas from November 8-10, 1996. Baudrillard is photographed reading the text of a song he wrote a decade earlier called “Motel-Suicide”.
10 Jean Baudrillard and Sylvere Lotringer (Editor). The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotexte and MIT Press, 2005.
11 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005:10.
12 A. Sokal and J. Bricmont. "Jean Baudrillard" in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science New York: Picador, 1998:147-153.
13 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005:8.
15 Jacques Derrida. "The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation" in Jacques Derrida Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978:232-250.
16 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005:10.
17 M. Sanouillet. "Marcel Duchamp and the French Intellectual Tradition," in Marcel Duchamp, Philadelphia: The Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
18 Alfred Jarry. "What is Pataphysics?" Evergreen Review, Number 13, 1963:131
19 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005:8.
21 Ubu is defined by Baudrillard in this Pataphysics text as “the gaseous and caricatural state…” (page 7), (among other things). Baudrillard builds here on Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi, a play that created a famous scandal when it was first performed at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1896. It is an important precursor of Dada. Through a language of shocking hilarity, Ubu Roi tells the farcical story of Père Ubu, an officer of the King of Poland who is a grotesque figure who epitomizes the mediocrity and idiocy of middle-class officialdom. It was through writing Ubu Roi that Jarry became the creator of the science of Pataphysics, his absurd a-logic which defined the science of imaginary solutions as enshrined since 1948 in the Collège de Pataphysique.
22 Jean Baudrillard. Pataphysics. London: Institute of Pataphysics and Atlas Press, 2005:10-11.
23 The concept of Maya in Indian philosophy refers to the purely phenomenal, insubstantial character of the everyday world.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)