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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Critiques & Reviews
Postmodernism as 'Pataphysics Institutionalized
by Douglas Puchowski
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Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism is not an important book on 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's popularity stems from the clarity of its concepts, relative to other books on the subject, concepts Hutcheon buoys with numerous examples. In the book's second 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-known Ubu plays, but its fullest expression came in his novel Gestes et opinions de docteur Faustroll pataphysician. Though written in 1898, the work remained unpublished until 1911, four years after Jarry's death. Doctor Faustroll is born full-grown at age 63 and travels in a bed, which is not a 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 indebted to 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 friend of Doctor Faustroll's. The doctor travels to places like "The Amorphous Isle" and "The Great Church of Snoutfigs" accompanied by Bosse-de-Nage, a dogfaced baboon "who knew no human words except 'Ha ha!'" and Bailiff Panmuphle, the story's narrator, who having been sent to serve Faustroll a summons, ends up an imprisoned rower aboard his sieve-boat. With imagination unbound, Jarry sketched a scientific pseudoscience and used it to write an exuberant novel, profound and hilarious. Towards the adventure's end, Doctor Faustroll dies and finds himself in "Ethernity," where telepathically he sends letters to Lord Kelvin. The novel closes with its 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 real and 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, when placed in this context, reveals itself to be little more than an academic variation of Jarry's 'Pataphysics. The analecta below pair two of Hutcheon's main 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 from Jarry'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 from Hutcheon'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 'Ha Ha'":
"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 which Jarry was a part, and postmodernism. She references the work of roughly twenty theorists, including those who think postmodernism an extension of modernism and those who regard it as completely distinct, and she finds evidence sufficient to accept both. It is a conclusion that appears intelligent until the distinction below is made several pages later.
...it 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 distinct only if one has had her hippocampi removed or not read, among others, Stein's The Making of Americans (fiction/esthetics), Gide's The Counterfeiters (fiction/literary criticism), Cummings' EIMI (journalism/radical formal 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/visual art/esthetics) (a work Hutcheon considers late modernism) as a more recent one. Lapses like these appear throughout the book. They make Hutcheon's conclusions about the relationship of modernism and postmodernism seem less the 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 attributes to 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 having passed through the Future." A feat Jarry seems to have performed. In Faustroll the Doctor purchases, from the Luxembourg National Museum, paintings by several of the days popular artists: Bonnat, Tartempion, among others; the then little-known artist Henri Rousseau is put at the controls of 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 better minds. Karen A. Bearor's I. Rice Pereira: Her Paintings and Philosophy is such a work. The book is a model of scholarship, one that moves beyond questions to offer answers.
     The paradox to this aspect of Hutcheon's poetic, however, is that postmodernism is both popular and elite. A point that would seem better grounded did she demonstrate a knowledge of the work of less popular figures. Though Hutcheon does draw on examples from outside the well-known group listed above, these instances are typically little more than exercises in name dropping. She displays very little sense of an artist's work, at best acknowledging one piece. More often than not she shows complete ignorance of lesser-known figures. For example, Hutcheon mentions the concept of Intermedia as an aspect of postmodernism, without acknowledging its progenitor, the artist Dick Higgins, or his critical perspectives, which have appeared in numerous books since the mid-sixties. This subtle slighting of figures lesser 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 matter of perspective I suppose, but the suggestion "that there is no 'outside' to be found" would be much more persuasive to those of us who fancy ourselves outsiders, did Hutcheon's argument at least admit for degrees of 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 achieve some 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 films made 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.

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