In 1948, a collective of avant-garde writers and artists set up the College de ‘Pataphysique. In 1975, they decided to go underground as an experiment in survival. In 2000, they re-emerged and today have about 1,000 members, Umberto Eco among them. Go read this article, and then go read this novella, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, by Jorge Luis Borges, and come back and we’ll talk.
Andrew Hugill tells us that pataphysics is
the science of imaginary solutions and the laws governing exceptions. Resisting clear definition, purposefully useless, and almost impossible to understand, ‘pataphysics nevertheless lies around the roots of Absurdism, Dada, futurism, surrealism, situationism, and other key cultural developments of the twentieth century.
When dealing with pataphysics, we tiptoe between between the twin dangers of oversimplifying a serious subject and taking a joke too seriously, because this really is a serious concept. It is something of an offshoot of Absurdism.
But what the heck is pataphysics, really? You will be thrilled to know there are over one hundred definitions. I will try to bunch them together like a nosegay, a collection that contains all different varieties, but its result is one unified item. (See what I did there?)
Works within the pataphysical tradition tend to focus on the processes of their creation, and elements of chance or arbitrary choices are frequently key in those processes. Select pieces from the artist Marcel Duchamp and the composer John Cage characterize this. In addition, it can be found in speculative computer applications applied to highly imaginative problem solving methods. Who knew!
In writing, a pataphor essentially describes two degrees of separation from reality (rather than merely one degree of separation, which is the world of metaphors and metaphysics). The pataphor functions as a critical tool, describing the world of “assumptions based on assumptions”, such as belief systems or rhetoric run amok.
A pataphor is not the traditional metaphor, but rather a set of metaphors built upon an initial metaphor, obscuring its own origin rather than reiterating the same analogy in myriad ways.
Still with me? So, whereas a metaphor is the comparison of a real object or event with a seemingly unrelated subject in order to emphasize the similarities between the two, the pataphor uses the newly created metaphorical similarity as a reality on which to base itself. In going beyond the original idea, the pataphor seeks to describe a new and separate world, in which an idea or aspect has taken on a life of its own.
And where did this nifty word come from? From a French writer named Alfred Jarey, back around the turn of the century. .. the LAST century. It is a contracted formation, derived from the Greek epi meta ta physika, which means “that which is above metaphysics”.
Whew. Glad we go that all cleared up.