Tuesday, November 03, 2009
What is 'Pataphysics?
The British literary journal the TLS, or Times Literary Supplement, has recently been asking this question, in a debate to which I have contributed. (The TLS and New Scientist would be the two journals that no-one with any claim to culture, and enough money to buy or subscribe, could possibly be without.)
Since 'Pataphysics is both easy and impossible to define, that being the nature of the subject, I came up with a description which, I think, is both excellent and true.
It is that 'Pataphysics is to physics (and hence the "real") as the imaginary number i, the square root of -1, is to the "real numbers" (the scale along which one finds 1,2,3… in one direction and -1, -2, -3 in the other).
The graph above shows what I mean. It will be seen that if one follows the "negative" "real" axis to the left, one reaches the "unreal" - this is not the same as the imaginary or 'Pataphysical of course. The unreal relates directly to the real; Derrida would, I think, have said that the unreal necessarily comes along with the real and vice-versa, in a text or in art and probably anywhere. A question remains - what is the "negative" aspect of the 'Pataphysical axis? Well, of course it's still 'Pataphysical! That's another definition of 'Pataphysics, for free.
i, or the 'Pataphysical, is an imaginary component that can be combined with the "real" to give a complex (with both real and imaginary dimensions) that can enable operations or experiments, concepts etc., which would be impossible without it.
An ashtray is an ashtray, but a 'Pataphysical ashtray needs another dimension, other than the "real", to make sense of it. It thus calls the ashtray into question.
Of course, our perception of this space is rather different from the logical or mathematical representation, and might best be depicted by an image such as the following - or indeed any other…
The burnt edges signify that this is just a fragment of a larger whole.