Thursday, February 15, 2007

Alfred Jarry

No, I hadn't heard of him, either...that is, until I ran across his name in Deleuze's Essays Critical and Clinical. I've owned the book since it first appeared in English in 1997 (has it been a decade already?), and I've trudged several times through the chapter called, "An Unrecognized Precursor to Heidegger: Alfred Jarry." Admittedly, I never got it, owing largely to the fact that I had no idea who Alfred Jarry was. I assumed--erroneously--that he was a philosopher, given his pairing with Martin Heidegger, coupled with Deleuze's gesture toward phenomenology. I should have realized that Jarry was a writer, since most of the chapters in Essays Critical and Clinical concern literature and literary figures.

In any case, I returned to the book this past week while working on my essay, "What Is This Critical in 'Critical Cultural Studies?'" and decided to give the Jarry chapter a long-overdue rereading. And by the good graces of the folks at Google and Wikipedia, I was able finally to get some much-needed background on Alfred Jarry. Evidently he was a forerunner of the theater of the absurd, and as my extended but still preliminary research tells me, he's influenced radical puppet theater, spawned a mock institute, and even infiltrated the work of Michel de Certeau, among others.

Mostly, though, I'm intrigued by Jarry's notion of pataphysics, "the science of imaginary solutions...extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics." I should say, on a note of caution, that Jarry intended pataphysics to be something of an absurdist joke. Evidently those who take it too seriously open themselves up to all sorts of rebukes and recriminations by its self-appointed guardians--who, I'd suggest, probably take themselves much too seriously, as evidenced by the uncharitable review of Christian Bok's Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science appearing on So what I'm about to say I say knowing full well that I'm probably not "getting" the joke: pataphysics seems to me a name for talking about a "science" or study of virtuality, in the Deleuzo-Bergsonian sense of the term.

Indeed, what I find most lacking in contemporary critical philosophy and practice is both a willingness and a vocabulary by which to talk about imagination, creativity, and what used to be called the classical canon of "invention." What I'm after is, I think, a speculative orientation that would embrace that which "is real without being actual, ideal without being abstract." And my sense, despite (or perhaps because of) the jokes, is that the notion of pataphysics might begin to point the way there.

For further reading: Gilles Deleuze, "How Jarry's Pataphysics Opened the Way for Phenomenology," in Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974) (Semiotext[e] 2003).


jeremy said...

another big proponent of Jarry is Baudrillard in his middle works.

Ted Striphas said...

...yes...and here's the link to a website with a review of Baudrillard's book, Pataphysics. Evidently it's an essay published as a limited-edition, stand-alone volume. A different translation of the piece is collected in Baudrilard's The Conspiracy of Art. I haven't yet had a chance to read either.