Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pataphysics--Initial thoughts

"Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun"

--John Donne

I found this book interesting and frustrating at the same time. I will
gripe more about the particulars maybe tomorrow, but this email is
supposed to be as productive as possible.

Response to Becca:

Although suggestive, I'm not sure the four "stages" can be mapped onto
the tropes. I think essentially Bok is creating a very very short
re-hash of standard literary history in terms of pataphysics. He
references Foucault['s "Prose of the World" chapter in The Order of
Things and one can tell that he follows this kind of "episteme" way of
looking at history. What Bok somewhat pretentiously calls
"cyberogranismic phase," which sounds remarkably like "the postmodern"
or even the "posthuman" I think is talking about our 'current moment'.
Becca I think raised a great question as to how we are supposed to
respond to this situation. My guess aligns with John's that pataphysics
allows, as Bok put it, "the conceit to regain its status as a device of
poetic wisdom" (19).

Syzygy and Conceit

I agree with John that we need to look at syzygy and the idea of
conceits. Bok is attuned to Eliot and the Modernist's obsession with
the "metaphysical" poets, the most famous one being John Donne (see the
epigraph). The importance of syzygy I think comes from its mocking of
dualisms and holisms, which ends up producing laughter and pleasure
(jouissance). The equation of this with not this is not a "truth" of
the world--revealing that really all is One, but

"The absurdity of such extremes and their equation is laughable---but
this laughter is itself what negates dualism and affirms syzygy--a
joyful wisdom" (Bok 42).

Also, it seems that the conditions of syzgy are similar to the
conditions of our scholarship and academia: "differing from every other
thing in a system that values the norm of difference [syzygy] serves
the will to confuse" (40). We want to confuse things and mix things up,
but not in order to create a synthesis, but to laugh at the
psuedo-synthesis that we have created--to take pleasure in this act.

I think this gives us the right idea. What I want to call attention to
in Bok is the concept of "measure," as Ulmer was pretty insistent that
we were trying to find a "measure" for the accident. The idea of
"Ethernity" seems to frame the pataphysician as a type of demiurge, and
it seems that Prezi may be just the medium to do this:

"Ethernity is a state of maximum entropy--a nullified condition whose
potential goes unmeasured, unobserved, its eigenstate corresponding to
'the perplexity of man outside time and space, who has lost his
measuring rod and his tuning fork. Like the Maxwell Demon, the
pataphysician intervenes in such a void [. . .] sorting its randomly
distributed atoms into narrowly constructed forms--creating, in this
case, a spectroscape whose maesurements cause a fiat lux ex nihilio"
(Bok 35).

We are the pataphysician that must arrange the elements in the void of
Prezi. However, the difference is we cannot create something from
nothing--we have to have material to work with in order to place it
into the Prezi. Perhaps our own situation on the net has realized some
sort of material limits (measures) of what we can do and make--the free
reign of imagination and association is, as we have reminded ourselves
with our 'human need' we identified tied to embodiment. I have not read
Jarry, but I imagine that issue is that we don't get as much of the
limitations--the fact is that even our Prezi space is 'limited' despite
its visual rhetoric of infinity. In the network and in the EmerAgency
we are not solipsistic, perspectival pataphysicians, but a collective
subject which we are trying to undergo, experience, and ultimately

(Side note: As I was reading Pataphysics, I was frustrated and yet
intrigued by Bok's appropriation of scientific terminology and his
reduction of the values of science as well as his narrow reading of
Nietzsche as a "perspectivist." The "research" he did, with its breadth
but lack of depth read like a parody of theoretical discourse, except
that Bok doesn't seem to be aware of it in his prose. He goes about the
project seriously AS IF this is the way it is--maybe the joke's on me.
I suppose I could read his insertion of terms (without deciding he will
define them--assuming his audience is familiar with such things) as a
performance of the concept of clinamen--akin to disrupting the flow of
words with a tipo).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Angela Carter's Nights and the Circus in Conversation with Callois

Ludic Clowns, Grotesque Masks

According to Callois, Ludus cannot connect to ilinx, our primary mode of game because ludus can only be used to discipline the effects of ilinx—to reign it in, so to speak. This concept of ludus as a disciplining mechanism has allowed me to finally address an issue I’ve had with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. The circus seems like it would be a liberating place and, indeed, it is in this novel compared to other locations. However,  the circus is a separate, detached realm (or at least pretends to be) that is structured by real political forces: The Imperialist Circus it’s called—run by a guy who looks kind of like Uncle Sam. The circus is a symbol for American Imperialism as well as the freedom that it brings. Contrast these two passages:
“Surely I can rely on a fellow Amurrican to see the glory of it! All nations united in the great Ludic Game under the banner of Liberty itself” (Carter 102)

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognize himself [. . .] he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom [. . .] Walser’s very self , as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque” (103)

Perhaps this feeling is closer to mimicry and ilinx than that “ludic” game of the circus.  Callois argues that ludus is related more with agon and alea and that it disciplines acting and the theater into an art. Carter connects the circus to alea by describing the circus ring in terms of Fortune:
“the circus ring turns into that durably metaphoric, uroboric snaked with its tail in its moutsh, wheel that turns full circle, the wheel whose end is its beginning, the wheel of fortune, the potter’s wheel on which our clay is formed, the wheel of life on which we all are broken” (107).

In a paper I wrote for an Art of the Novel course I argue (without the knowledge of the meaning of ludus) that Carter’s novel portrays the clowns of the circus in terms of what Bakhtin calls the Romantic Grotesque rather than the renaissance grotesque he finds in Rabelais. Carter is well aware that festival is only a temporary reversal and reprieve—we cannot live in it forever.  I cite from my own paper:
            “Drawing from the narrator’s explanation, Magali Cornier Michael argues that the clowns’ “freedom to choose the self they wish to become undermines the Western concept of an essential self or soul that exists prior to socialization. The political potential of a concept of the self as constructed rather than essential is great, since it allows for the creation of new versions of the self” (Michael 196).  However, Michael ignores the catch to self-creation. Buffo explains to Walser, “once the choice is made [of a certain face, identity] I am condemned, therefore, to be ‘Buffo’ in perpetuity, Buffo forever” (Carter 122). Grik even describes most clown faces as already fixed Platonic ideas: “the faces exist of themselves in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life” (122). Indeed, Buffo makes it clear to Walser that he must accept his new identity as constitutive of his subjectivity: “You must know what you have become, young man, how the word defines you, now you have opted to lose your wits in the profession of the clown” (120). The word, the new name, and the mask all define the limits of Walser’s agency.
Therefore, the clown’s mask fixes Walser’s being rather than allowing him to juggle with it. This fixed quality, argues Rory Turner, shows that the clowns are a Romantic rather than Rabelasian grotesque: “The romantic grotesque consists in much the same imagery as the grotesque, but the imagery is presented in a fashion that loses the regenerating capacity of the grotesque” (Turner 49). Whereas the carnival mask is liberating, the Romantic mask mirrors the new bodily canon defines definite individuals rather than connecting him or her to universal human characteristics. Bakhtin writes, “[i]n the new bodily canon the leading role is attributed to the individually characteristic and expressive parts of the body: the head, face, eyes, lips, to the muscular system, and to the place of the body in the external world” (Rabelais 321)” (Riley 4-5).

The disguise is “ludic” because it doesn’t have any effect in the real world—it is, as Callois writes, “a makeshift device to allay boredom while we await something preferable” (Callois 31). The clowns’ actions in the circus, no matter their regenerative power within the ring, cannot change the fact that they are part of the Imperial Circus with Liberty at the head of its Ludic Game. It is as if our American values of Liberty and Freedom are distractive signifiers for true civic participation!  

Indeed, we find this very recognition of the emptying out of the sacred in contemporary manifestations of the spirit of carnival (which combines ilinx and mimicry). Callois writes that the mask “necessarily lsoes its power of metamorphosis in a society freed from bondage to the mimicry-ilinx combination” (128). It loses its power of metamorphosis because it becomes affixed to a particular individual as we saw in the above quotation from Bakhtin’s book. The body becomes closed, static, individual, and sterile rather than open, fluid, grotesque, general, and fertile.
 The mask becomes a means of hiding and liberation from external social constraints rather than a means of metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood in the general narrative of sacred life and societies. The mask affixes identity rather than allows one to “juggle with being” as Walser read his make-up at first. Instead of a temporary overturning of the social order, our contemporary “mask”—the uniform—transforms the individual into a powerful, anonymous authority. Anonymity is not related to joy and celebration but to the evasion of taking personal responsibility for actions.

Let us look now to two characters in the ‘circus’ discussed by Callois. I will place his observations in dialogue with the chief clown of Carter’s circus—Buffo the clown. Callois knows, like Carter, that the circus is a “closed and rigorous” universe such that the circus cannot really be considered play but, he thinks, two activities can be associated with ilinx and mimicry. Buffo the clown King realizes that the clown’s ‘work’ is not play. I wrote in the earlier paper:
“Not only the clowns in the circus, but for every performer, this “play” is forced and, we know, “nothing is more boring than being forced to play” (109). Buffo is aware of this paradoxical way of life: “we know we are mere hirelings hard at work and yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play [. . .] so there is always an abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour” (119)” (Riley 7).

But Callois seems to maintain that the chief clown’s grotesque imitation, ending in catastrophe plays out a sort of sacred mythology. Buffo plays out this mythology, but instead of sticking to playing out the illusory ritual of sacrifice, he goes mad and really murders someone on stage. This is a break in the ‘pretend’ that cannot intrude upon the circus’ closed world.

reflections on Callois instructions

"If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy"
--Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Walter Kaufmann

"Mature Manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play" --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

There is much to talk about and to take issue with in Callois. We already know that we need to focus on reviving the importance of mimicry and ilinx and so I will say little about the other 2 types of games, with which we are no doubt already too familiar.

Because Baudrillard does not engage in extensive citation, it is difficult to realize that the terminology that he seems to make up out of the blue may stem from some crucial passages in Callois' book. For instance, Baudrillard's attention to seduction may have come from Callois' idea about the seduction of games. Callois insists that adults are still "seduced" by games and that the games they play can involve great energy and exertion (66). He goes on to say that "the behavior that is so exalting develops in a separate, ideal world, sheltered from any fatal consequences" (66). Thus, Callois, unlike Baudrillard, seems to not embrace fatal in its second meaning--that of being predestined. I think Baudrillard may be working from this idea and we should do. Other passages support this connection between fatality, seduction, and the games that concern us here: ilinx and, to some extent, mimicry.

The way Callois describes the relationship between mimicry and vertigo recalls the first aphorism from Nietzsche above: "Fatal situation is created by the fact simulation in itself generates both vertigo and split personality [. . .] wearing a mask is intoxicating and liberating [. . .] the association of simulation and vertigo is so powerful and so inseparable that it is naturally part of the sphere of the sacred" (75-76).

This attention to masks is something Callois will develop later—and something I will get into later. But for now I want to look at what Callois has to say about 2 different modes of play that he likens to drives or desires: ludus and paidiea

Paideia is not part of any order—it is “the spontaneous manifestation of play instinct,” the need for disturbance and tumult, but also the way that a child discovers that he or she can be the cause of something (78). According to Callois, this sets off a desire to invent rules and abide by them, which can lead to ludus. In our CATTt, I think we need to pay attention to this idea of paideia (suggesting the ‘seriousness’ of Nietzcshe’s child) rather than ludus.

In contrast to the circus seems to be the “travelling fair.” Callois writes that this is a  universe of vertigo without mimicry. Thus, the fair approximates the carnival more than, say, the circus but “vertigo replaces the mask” (136). He describes the fair in these vertiginous terms: “physical sensations reinforced by related forms of fascination designed to disorient, mislead, and stimulate confusing, anxiety, nausea, momentary terror” (134). In this way, I think one of our instructions may be to substitute for James Dean’s game of “chicken” one of the classic fair rides: BUMPER CARS! When one is in a bumper car, you can hit other people, drive anyway you want, how fast you want, where you want—there are no roads. There is no “agon” in bumper cars because there is no enemy. Road rage cannot exist without a road that leads somewhere. With no fixed direction this kind of ride is seemingly useless play. How can we use this idea of bumper cars to create our figure?

But the question is: Do we need to resignify the mask, restoring its sacred rather than official or merely disguising motives? I think that since we are trying to locate the sacred in our culture and bring it to policy formation, we may want to start with the cultures that do not radically separate a type of mimicry and vertigo as a separate realm of play. Furthermore, these cultures retain the important sense of metamorphosis to the mask but without focusing on deception or illusion. The masked spectacle of the shaman takes both the audience and the shaman working together, much like prestidigitation (recall my reading of The Prestige) (Callois 93).  As with magic tricks, the people kind of “know” there is a trick but choose to believe. When a child reaches the point where he is becoming a man, the elders reveal to him the human nature (rather than the divine) of the mask wearers. For Callois, this eventually leads to a demystification of the mask and thus a loss of power and social order. Since the masks’ initiation system depends on knowledge of the deception once one knows it is an “illusion” its harder to achive the trance and thus there is a fissure in the system (Callois 105). 

However, we as the EmerAgency need to find a way to maintain this fascination with the shaman. Magic tricks and shamanism is one way that we can form cooperation between audience and performer. The audience is not merely an observer, but also a participant—this differs the shamanistic rituals from the circus, which is pure spectacle. Callois writes, “masks are the true social bond” such that vertigo and simulation are not completely absent from ordinary life. In a way, this corresponds to the “corruption” of games that Callois doesn’t seem to like—particularly when it involves the corruption of agon

The corruption of ilinx Callois argues are alcohol and drugs while the corruption of mimicry is when the simulation is not accepted as a simulation (51, 49). By keeping play within its own separate bounds, we prevent this alienation from self. However, if this is our condition today and we not corrupt mimicry and vertigo? Or perhaps we should think of the corrupted mimicry as our current situation—the one described by Baudrillard and that the ‘solution’ if you will would be to rejoin mimicry and ilinx so that, as Waler says, we can “juggle with being.” Callois seems to think this a dangerous idea, arguing that games within the confines of play discipline our instincts (one might use the Freudian term, ‘sublimate’)—left on their own, he argues, they lead to destruction. 

We have lately been looking at the basic human needs intertwined with our accident’s being. Thus, might it be that we need to let our “instincts” guide us to the brink or limit of the destruction of corrupted ilinx and mimicry? Should we use ilinx to allow for a fluid rather than alienated identity?

I found Callois’ last discussion of satire useful. Satire, he argues, “helps subdue vertigo” and moves on to conclude: “This is the introduction into the band of masked divinities of characters of equal rank and identical authority, charged with parodying their betwching mimes, and tempering by laughter what might end fatally in trance and hypnosis, where this antidote absent” (142). 

One could argue that pataphysics—the mockery of physics—and all of the avant-garde is actually satire rather than pure vertigo. Indeed, satire could be the NEW MEASURE we are looking for. It seems as though our society has begun to take satire in its positive rather than negative role—satire that evokes laughter rather than critique, satire that gives us pleasure while we laugh at ourselves and the absurd human condition. But this is a satire that is not based on the sharp edge of reason, but satire of jouissance. Perhaps its related to Freud’s thoughts on wit, which we could relate to this idea of “flash reason.” Indeed, you yourself (Dr. Ulmer) talk about the importance of “aphorisms” for electracy—perhaps we should add the epigram? 

Perhaps satire gives us a way to channel paideia--rather than strict rules and regulations, we can mock them--not from some "point from nowhere" hovering above the situation in the seat of the eternal Judge, but from below--as we undergo our current project. We are not like the tightrope walker who tries to "master" vertigo (for how could we in the dromosphere) by obeying it, but by imposing the measure of mockery, testing all of our ideas on the pleasure/pain axis--the jouissance of laughter.