Baudrillard as Pataphysicist: Unknowledge Production for the Pluriverse
by Mark Horvath and Adam Lovasz
What is Jean Baudrillard, if not the hypertrophy of theory? After the French theorist’s turn away from the sociologizing tradition from the 1970s onwards, ironic overflow becomes the predominant characteristic of Baudrillard’s work. We may entertain the following seducive thesis: what if the end of history, with its concommitant fatalism, also made possible the unconditional liberation of simulations through the hyperreal creation of concepts? A demonstrably pataphysical reading could give new meaning to the much-criticized apolitical “fatalism” of Baudrillard’s later work. Our point is the following: having left behind the genre of social critique, what if Baudrillard’s later works ought to be read performatively? As Florian Cord highlights, „it was Alfred Jarry’s proto-Surrealist anti-philosophy of ‘pataphysics’ (…) that was to provide Baudrillard with a model for the kind of delusional stance he was calling for”. Baudrillard indeed declared on one occasion that „the only strategy against the hyperrealist system is some form of pataphysics”. However, in our view Baudrillardian pataphysics is not so much a critique as a performative „outdoing” or „overdoing” of hyperreality. Rather then merely presenting yet another biting social critique of „capitalist” alienation, these texts can be read post-ironically, as performing the very acceleration and explosion of the simulated hyperreal they represent. The Late Baudrillard, if such an entity indeed exists, would be theory-in-overdrive, an affirmation of simulation. We are always already withint the sphere of pataphysics. But what precisely does this mode of „unknowledge production” entail, and how does it connect to Baudrillard’s work?
To the best of our existing knowledge, the phrase „pataphysics” is a vernacular word introduced into discourse by Alfred Jarry, a French Symbolist playwright, prankster and hack. The most succint definition of this neologism is provided in Jarry’s Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician), a travesty published after the premature death of its author from alcohol-fuelled vagrancy. In this novel, we find the following definition: „Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments”. Instead of induction, pataphysics strives for a methodological affirmation of originality, non-linearity and an empiricism centered around exotic situations. The strange Doctor Faustroll (a Doctor Faust-like figure, who „trolls” his listeners and readers alike) invites us to think of the universe as an indeterministic system, where the sole rule is the prevalence of exceptions. Inverting the scientific method of induction, Dr Faustroll/Jarry invite us to think in a radically different manner: „pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions”. (21) If one were to think that this diverges from science, one would be quite mistaken, for conventional science too builds laws from „correlations of exceptions”. (22) Far from being a mere pseudoscience, pataphysics is a rigorous method of world-building. While the literary value of Jarry’s works is questionable at best, replete with plot-holes (clear evidence that the author lost the plot frequently), the science of exceptions is far from a myopic or useless. Guarding against any revival of epistemic security, let us delve deeper into pataphysics and it applicability to plural unknowledge production.
Above all, it must be emphasized that, despite its deceptively parodistic appearance, pataphysics deserves serious treatment. As David Teh explains in a truly remarkable and enlightening piece, regarding Jarry’s relationship with scientific framings of reality, „Jarry neither breaks these framings apart, nor dismisses them; instead, he overproduces them, ultimately showing how easily they can be brought into existence. For the point of pataphysics is not to invalidate the sciences, but to affirm for them a much wider validity”. In this regard, there is an intimate connection between science fiction, pataphysics and Baudrillard’s work. Following Teh, we may describe the latter as a „sociology fiction”. The point of pataphysics is not a negation or, worse, parody of science, but rather the extension, deformation and overproduction of scientific concepts, to the point wherein their explosion leads to a new illumination of social reality. Pataphysics is concerned with extremity, exceptions that signify absences underlying the self-evacuating empty spectacle of (post)history. Any messages that is not radical fails to register the absence of change. The absence referenced by pataphysics is the information overload signifying the outlines of surrendered, immune-compromised contemporaneity. A superficial reading would associate the following Baudrillardian description of the early 90s in negative terms, as a dystopia of viral and virtual proliferation/s:
„In these transparent, homeostatic or homeofluid systems there is no longer any such thing as a strategy of Good against Evil, there is only the pitting of Evil against Evil – a strategy of last resort. Indeed, we really have no choice in the matter: we simply watch as the lesser evil – homeopathic virulence – deploys its forces. AIDS, crack and computer viruses are merely outcroppings of the catastrophe; nine-tenths of it remain buried in the virtual. The full-blown, the absolute catastrophe would be a true omnipresence of all networks, a total transparency of all data – something from which, for now, computer viruses preserve us. Thanks to them, we shall not be going straight to the culminating point of the development of information and communications, which is to say: death”. These viruses are both the first sign of this lethal transparency and its alarm signal. One is put in mind of a fluid travelling at increasing speed, forming eddies and anomalous countercurrents which arrest or dissipate its flow. Chaos imposes a limit upon what would otherwise hurtle into an absolute void. The secret disorder of extreme phenomena, then, plays a prophylactic role by opposing its chaos to any escalation of order and transparency to their extremes.
Transparency is the contexture of what Baudrillard calls „transpolitics”, the meaninglessness of the political realm generated by self-deceptive pragmatics. But pataphysics does not concern itself with merely registering the regrettable nature of the proliferation of extreme phenomena. Let us read Baudrillard’s words in greater detail. Theory-in-overdrive does not position itself on the side of the heroic Subject struggling to emancipate itself from viral agents, simulacra and transparency. Within the contemporaneity of post-history, the only method available is that of mutual neutralization. Baudrillard’s pataphysical hypertheory is itself a performative affirmation of symbolic overproduction, a prophylactic chaos preventing the „escalation of order and transparency”, preventing the implosion of discourse into negation. No, Baudrillard is definitively not a nihilist, for that would be too boring. Baudrillard is a Discordian, a thinker who thrives upon, and produces in turn, chaotic menageries. These texts do what they represent. No longer is external critique possible. We ourselves are components of positive feedback loops, text generators of surfaces „Today there is no longer transcendence, but the immanent surface of the development of operations, smooth surface, operational, of communication. The Faustian, Promethean period of production and consumption yields to the Protean era of networks, to the narcissistic, equally Protean form of branching, contact, contiguity, feedback, and generalized interface”. Or, to paraphrase Jarry, one could say that the era of hyperreality is a Faustrollian Aeon.
Baudrillard’s vision of arrested transparency emphasizes the crucial, indeed unavoidable role evil (opacity) plays in keeping contemporaneity dynamic. No evil, no acceleration: „The principle of Evil is not a moral principle but rather a principle of instability and vertigo, a principle of complexity and foreignness, a principle of seduction, a principle of incompatibility, antagonism and irreducibility”. (107) Indeed, for the pataphysician, transparency and opacity are unavoidably interconnected. Witness the following marvellous description of a crystalline liquid island in one of Jarry’s ravings: „The island’s surface is of still water, mirror-like (it was natural that the islands should appear to us as lakes, during our navigation over dry land); and one cannot imagine a ship sailing through it, unless in the manner of a ricochet skimming the surface, for this mirror reflects no ripples, not even its own”. (Jarry 49) Lacking the mystery and seductiveness of opacity – an appearance that culminates in its very disappearance – one could never even communicate anything resembling a semblance. Baudrillard’s work from the 1980s onward is filled with pataphysical references, in both explicit and implicit forms. Extreme phenomena and exceptions allow for, and indeed demand, an intensified Science, a discourse without compromises that foregrounds unknowledge. Evil is reversibility, and as such, provides for change, alternation, modification. It is the „trans” in transitivity. As Baudrillard explains, „When the hypothesis of intelligence ceases to be sovereign and becomes dominant, then it is the hypothesis of stupidity that becomes sovereign. A stupidity that might be said to be a sort of higher intelligence, on the verge of a radical thought—that is to say, beyond truth” – is this not as accurate a summary of pataphysics as any other? (Baudrillard 2005, 179) Our era is replete with worries concerning the spread of fake news, misinformation and other misnomers. No information is entirely false: within hyperreality, all differences, whether empirically grounded or otherwise, matter, insofar as they make a difference. Pataphysics, far from the gratuitous production of nonsensual statements, is in fact about becoming able to „glimpse the whole island through its transparency”. (Jarry 49) For the pataphysical gaze, the object itself commands attention, above and beyond its visibility.
In some quarters, Baudrillard has been accused of „a hatred of the human.” Against these accusations, Teh explains that „Baudrillard renounces” not „the human, but rather humanism and anthropocentrism. (Siding with the object is neither ethical, nor metaphysical. It is pataphysical.)” For us, the seductiveness of the pataphysically perceived object lies in its very opacity and inaccessibility: „to seduce is to appear weak. To seduce is to render weak (…) We seduce with our death, our vulnerability, and with the void that haunts us”. Pataphysics is the intensive science of conceptual creation. The problems which compel philosophers to create arrive from outside, from the object which seduces through its interobjective inherent unavailability. A frustrated advance, generating the reaction which is conceptual creation, such is the external constraint which resonates with new elaborations of thought: „free and savage creation, therefore, but not, especially not, ferocious, not defining that with which it deals as a prey to be attacked. The point is not to declare war on the conventions that bind us, the habits that enable us to be characterized. Instead, it is merely to place on the same level that is, in-adventure – all of our judgments”. (Stengers 27) Conventions, after all, are at root arbitrary signs. This is the case even within standard modes of science. As Henri Poincaré, one of the proponents of relativity theory alongside Albert Einstein and Émile Meyerson explained long ago, „no rigorously invariable solid exists. The geometrical axioms are therefore neither synthetic a priori intuitions not experimental facts. They are conventions. Our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free, and is only limited by the necessity of avoiding every contradiction”. As compared with standard science, pataphysical intensive science is merely more extensive when it comes to the scope of its own delimitations. One may measure with any unit one pleases, provided the system of measurement is internally consistent. „At the winter solstice the atmospheric sonority drops from a eat’s cursing to the buzzing of wasps and bumblebees and the vibration of a fly’s wing”. (Jarry 57) The pataphysical extends conventions, extracting utility while rendering a compelling image of the arbitrariness of the abyssal (w)Hole.
Instead of Truth and Falsehood, or Good and Evil, Baudrillardian pataphysics measures in terms of inertia and acceleration. Mass is the fatal shadow of evacuate substance. Intensive, or better yet, extended science deals with the „black spots” unavailable to regularized, empirical and conventional knowledge registers. This phrase denotes, among other meanings, a place where road traffic accidents tend to be concentrated. As a paper on „black spot analysis” points out, „although no universally accepted definition of a black spot or black zone is given, these locations” can „be described as high risk accident locations”. If standard science is about measuring relative probabilities, then non-standard intensive science (pataphysics) relates how the improbable can come to coincide with the definite. Differently put, the adherent of the pataphysical strategem searches for the implausible explanations, those that stretch credulity, at considerable risk of plunging into explicitly conspiracy theoretical idiotism. For the pataphysician, this gamble is worth taking. J. G. Ballard for instance, another of the 20th century’s pataphysically oriented writers, recounts some doubts surrounding the circumstances of John F. Kennedy’s assasination, a legendary (non)event in North American pop culture: “The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation”. Perhaps it was merely a race gone horribly wrong. The pataphysician, while running the risk of authoring idiocies, seeks to occupy the position of learned or, better yet, studiously unlearned theoretical idiocy, deliberately pursuing the unconventional, the extraordinary, the extreme. As Erasmus already demonstrated, achievement of unknowledge requires almost certainly more expenditures of cognitive energy than studious development of intellectual self-cultivation. Realizing that „all mankind are fools” is a weighty, burdensome task. Once subjected to the ordeal of enculturation, the subject is compelled to reflexively go beyond its condition, favoring uncertainty and ambiguity over fixed knowledge claims.
The illusion of transparency is refracted by crystallized inpotentialities. Pataphysics „is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics (…) extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics”. (Jarry 21) Beyond generality, outside the universal, „the devil Plural is born”. (60) As Andrew C. Wenaus points out, pataphysics is a theatrical gesture, for Jarry was above all else a playwright. Far from being an exclusively subjectivist pasttime though, pataphysics „need not be projected outward toward some kind of” theatrical „presence on the stage”. Rather, the pataphysician elaborates a self-referential or recursive methodology as a new object of seduction, which nonetheless generates real externalities. The text, in other words, externalizes and constructs itself as a novel object, seducing author and reader alike. Objects themselves are replete with meanings. As Bishop Mendacious explains to Dr Faustroll, „if lobsters are dirty and non-depilated, it is perhaps a proof that they are free. A nobler fate than that of the can of corned beef which you carry on a ribbon round your neck, doctor navigator, like the case of a pair of salted binoculars through which you like to scrutinize people and objects”. (Jarry 66-7) The proto-Dadaism of these sentences belies the novelty of the associations they mobilize. As a matter of fact, the proposed correlation between dirtiness and liberty is far from implausible. The lobster has not yet been cleaned, whereas the corned beef, hygienically treated, is rendered artificially fit for human consumption, and thereby somewhat impoverished in its being.
Or is it? Reversibility plays tricks upon us. The pataphysician Baudrillard would say that we ourselves are not unlike the canned beef, packed tightly into overpopulated cities, pacified, and enjoying our state of domestication. Within the dehistoricized universe of post-history, change is obscenity, while the obscurity of evil poses a challenge to the transparency of information in a universe emptied of events. The transparency and obscenity of space in the promiscuity of networks: this is how society and the masses relate to one other, the latter being an obscene and transparent, but also empty elaboration of the former. In the era of meaninglessness, sociology fiction is used to construct meanings from arbitrary conventional signs. For Baudrillard, writing a chapter of The Illusion of the End entitled „Pataphysics of the Year 2000”, the „mass” is the final product, the Last Man, the revenge of the object upon the subject, the remainder that obstinately perseveres in the aftermath of alienation: „it is the product of the hyperdensity of cities, commodities, messages and circuits. It is the cold star of the social and, around that mass, history is also cooling. Events follow one upon another, cancelling each other out in a state of indifference. The masses, neutralized, mithridatized by information, in turn neutralize history”. Far from being dejected, however, we should be grateful for the silent majorities. They are the blackspots, so to speak, preventing the complete, polyphonic implosion of reality into devastation, destruction, capitulation. Rather neutralization than crash, better incompletion than the truly apocalyptic „end” to all history. Baudrillard, and here we must address a frequent misunderstanding surrounding the pataphysical theorist’s work, does not seek a return to some pre-simulational authenticity or authentic historicity. As Baudrillard makes clear in a fascinating digression on music, „excessive high fidelity casts radical doubt on music”, but „we shall never get back to pre-stereo music (except by an additional technical simulation effect)”. (6) The way out is not by attenuation, but rather via accentuation, exacerbation and acceleration. Instead of educating or enlightening the passive silent majorities, the pataphysician stands in awe of the neutralizing capacities of these concreted subjectivities: „the masses function as a gigantic black hole which inexorably inflects, bends and distorts all energy and light radiation approaching it: an implosive sphere, in which the curvature of spaces accelerates, in which all dimensions curve back on themselves and “involve” to the point of annihilation, leaving in their stead only a sphere of potential engulfment”. There can be no question of education, merely a performative inundation of the text by inertial massification. The pataphysician recognizes, through unknowledge, that „two signs cancel each other out or impregnate each other, and there results simply their progeny, which becomes egg or zero, all the more identical because they are contrary”. (Jarry 108)
Ballard, J. G. (1973) „The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race”, https://evergreenreview.com/read/the-assassination-of-john-fitzgerald-kennedy-considered-as-a-downhill-motor-race/
Baudrillard, Jean (1983) In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities… or The End of the Social and Other Essays. trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)).
Baudrillard, Jean (1990 ) Seduction. trans. Brian Singer (Montreal: New World Perspectives).
Baudrillard, Jean (1993 ) The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. trans. James Benedict (London and New York: Verso).
Baudrillard, Jean (1994 ) The Illusion of the End. trans. Chris Turner (Cambridge and Malden: Polity).
Baudrillard, Jean (2005) The Intelligence of Evil. The Lucidity Pact. trans. Chris Turner (New York: Berg)
Baudrillard, Jean (2008 ) Fatal Strategies. trans. Philippe Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)).
Blühdorn, Ingolfur (2007) “Self-description, self-deception, simulation: a systems-theoretical perspective on contemporary discourses of radical change.” Social movement studies 6.1: 1-19
Cord, Florian (2017) J. G. Ballard’s Politics. Late Capitalism, Power, and the Pataphysics of Resistance (Berlin: De Gruyter).
DeLanda, Manuel (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London and New York: Continuum).
Erasmus (1913) The Praise of Folly. trans. John Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Guerts, Karolien and Wets, Gert. (2003) „Black Spot Analysis Methods: Literature Review”, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=a3e4397b86458573e69ed50381f21cb31a584018
Harman, Graham (2005) Guerrilla Metaphysics. Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (La Salle and Chicago: Open Court).
Hugill, Andrew (2012) Pataphysics. A Useless Guide (Cambridge: MIT Press).
Jarry, Alfred (1996 ) Exploits & Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician. trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change).
Kellner, Douglas (1989) Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. (Cambridge: Polity).
King, Matthew James (2019) “Object-oriented Baudrillard? Withdrawal and symbolic exchange.” Open Philosophy 2.1: 75-85.
Poincaré, Henri (1905) Science and Hypothesis. trans. George Bruce Halsted (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Walter Scott Publishing Company).
Stengers, Isabelle (2011 ) Thinking With Whitehead. A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press).
Teh, David (2006) „Baudrillard Pataphysician”, https://baudrillardstudies.ubishops.ca/baudrillard-pataphysician/
Wenaus, Andrew C. (2021) The Literature of Exclusion. Dada, Data, and the Threshold of Electronic Literature (Lanham: Lexington Books).
Wilson, Eric (2021) The Republic of Cthulhu (New York: Punctum Books).
 Cord, Florian (2017) J. G. Ballard’s Politics. Late Capitalism, Power, and the Pataphysics of Resistance (Berlin: De Gruyter), 8.
 Baudrillard, Jean (2005) The Intelligence of Evil. The Lucidity Pact. trans. Chris Turner (New York: Berg), 45.
 Orthographically, pataphysics should actually be written as ’pataphysics, but for the sake of simplicity, let us remain with the more common usage.
 Jarry, Alfred (1996 ) Exploits & Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician. trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change), 22
 Teh, David (2006) „Baudrillard Pataphysician”, https://baudrillardstudies.ubishops.ca/baudrillard-pataphysician/
 Baudrillard, Jean (1993 ) The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. trans. James Benedict (London and New York: Verso), 68.
 We are kidding ourselves if we believe that we have the power to change society according to any preconceived plan or ideal. Blühdorn, Ingolfur (2007) “Self-description, self-deception, simulation: a systems-theoretical perspective on contemporary discourses of radical change.” Social movement studies 6.1: 1-19.
 Baudrillard, Jean (2008 ) Fatal Strategies. trans. Philippe Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)), 91.
 Kellner, Douglas (1989) Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. (Cambridge: Polity), 165.
 This particular aspect of Baudrillard’s work, its emphasis on the object beyond anthropocentric conceits, has proven valuable for Object-Oriented-Ontology. As Graham Harman, philosopher and metaphysician elaborates, „Baudrillard observes that what seduces us about a thing is its weakness rather than its strength, and in this he is surely correct”. Harman, Graham (2005) Guerrilla Metaphysics. Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Objects (La Salle and Chicago: Open Court), 139.; see also King, Matthew James (2019) “Object-oriented Baudrillard? Withdrawal and symbolic exchange.” Open Philosophy 2.1: 75-85.
 Baudrillard, Jean (1990 ) Seduction. trans. Brian Singer (Montreal: New World Perspectives), 83.
 As Manuel DeLanda emphasizes, „concepts (…) are not to be thought of semantically, but literally as state or phase spaces, that is, as spaces of possibilities structured by singularities and defined by their dimensions or intensive ordinates” DeLanda, Manuel (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London and New York: Continuum), 175.
 Stengers, Isabelle (2011 ) Thinking With Whitehead. A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press), 27.
 Poincaré, Henri (1905) Science and Hypothesis. trans. George Bruce Halsted (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Walter Scott Publishing Company), 50.
 Guerts, Karolien and Wets, Gert. (2003) „Black Spot Analysis Methods: Literature Review”, 5, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=a3e4397b86458573e69ed50381f21cb31a584018 We may refer to J. G. Ballard’s novel, Crash, which contains extensive pataphysical reflections.
 The conspiracy theorist and the detective are, after all, twins. Wilson, Eric (2021) The Republic of Cthulhu (New York: Punctum Books), 150. Both are driven with a passion for revealing truth, even at the expense of truth and integrity. Their very passion for truth is their downfall. Thirsting for the intelligible real, they are unable to accept the inherently obscure idiotic horror of the human condition.
 Ballard, J. G. (1973) „The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race”, https://evergreenreview.com/read/the-assassination-of-john-fitzgerald-kennedy-considered-as-a-downhill-motor-race/
 Andrew Hugill compellingly argues for a structural similarity between Ballard’s short story, „The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race”, and Jarry’s Supermale, which similarly recounts a race. Hugill, Andrew (2012) Pataphysics. A Useless Guide (Cambridge: MIT Press), 75.
 Erasmus (1913) The Praise of Folly. trans. John Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 174.
 Wenaus, Andrew C. (2021) The Literature of Exclusion. Dada, Data, and the Threshold of Electronic Literature (Lanham: Lexington Books), 114.
 Baudrillard, Jean (1994 ) The Illusion of the End. trans. Chris Turner (Cambridge and Malden: Polity), 3.
 This evolution of musical genres alluded by Baudrillard was already underway in the 1990s. Lo-fi music goes beyond the hi-fi sound, but only in the form of a new elaboration of sonoral simulation. Bizarrely, Jarry seems to have anticipated this development:
„Some women propose the name: “Atari.” Others: “Fei.”
The L.W.: “No! (Pedal. Two quaver-rest,) Lo-ti (B-F, pedal, organ note).”
The L. W.: “Henceforth (ped. ped.) let him be named Lo-ti.”
All surrounding him: “It is the moment of baptism! (RATHER SOLEMNLY).
In the land of songs, In the land of loving (crotchetrest), Lo-ti (E flat, e, crotchet-rest, cresc.), Lo-: (e) ti (E flat) shall be your supreme name (SIC)” (Jarry 82)
Interestingly, Atari Video Music (Model C240) was the earliest commercial electronic music visualizer, released in 1977, over half a century later. The resemblance between lo-fi and lo-ti is also strange, albeit coincidental. That being said, for the pataphysician, there is no such thing as a coincidence.
 Baudrillard, Jean (1983) In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities… or The End of the Social and Other Essays. trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)), 9.