Saturday, July 3, 2010

Playing with pataphors

What do infatuation, obsessive compulsive disorder, theories of mind, teamwork, string theory, Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson machines have in common?

They are pataphors, high level abstractions, "wild" assumptions built on "wild" assumptions. It's the "science of imaginary solutions that rests on "the truth of contradictions and exceptions".

Pataphors are like the Second Life of the mind. Much of what is incoherent or impossible in the real world can suddenly be obvious and simple in these worlds of the wildest imagination.


Pataphors can help us solve wicked, unsolvable problems. They are metaphors on steroids. Like when a character in a story invents herself. Koinonia, the Mary Poppins of Imaginary Friends, is a pataphorical creation. She is one of the main characters in a wild romp I'm writing with colleague Abby Straus.

Pataphysics began life as "nonsensical" philosophy invented in 1893 by French writer Alfred Jarry to poke fun at physics and metaphysics, to parody the modern scientific method and all its theories.

physics > metaphysics > pataphysics

Just as metaphors lend new meaning to other words and help us explore new conceptual landscapes, pataphors help us create imagined worlds built upon the foundations or assumptions of the metaphor. 

Take metaphorical landscapes as an example. Imagine for a moment that a world exists in which words have the characteristics of mountains. Rivers. Hillocks. Deserts. Forests. Jungles.

Jungle "word worlds" might be inabited by tropical concepts like succulent mango, or sabre-tooth tiger, or verdant vines so you might "enjoy sex like a succulent mango" or feel so constantly threatened you have "a sabre-tooth tiger of a day" or go "swinging through life like Tarzan, leaping from tree to tree with the aid of a "vine pendulum", to mix metaphors.

Pataphysics is, in essense, a degree of separation from reality. If we see someone we know on the street and believe they are ignoring us (even if it is not true), and then begin to imagine a reason for them doing so, we are essentially thinking pataphorically.

An example of a real-life pataphor is String Theory. Physicists have created this theoretical  explanation of how the universe works on the flimsy foundation of "speculative" mathematical theories of general relativity and quantum mechnanics. String Theory is more in the realm of fantasy than science. What gets me is how the quantum mechanics maths only works when you apply a technique called "renormalization" that eliminates the inconvenient x/0 terms. Which is crazy, since any number divided by zero is infinity. And one of the truths of general relativity is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. David Bohm's spin experiments say otherwise. And the superliminal effects of the Casimir effect and quantum tunneling show light travelling faster than it should. String theory is not in fact physics, but pataphysics.

When teenagers become infatuated with another, they use the tiniest cues or scraps of conversation to build a belief that the other is just as in love with them as they are with the object of their affection. I thought he looked at me (assumption 1), which means he thinks I am attractive (assumption 2)  and wants to sleep with me (assumption 3) and get married (assumption 4).

I know of a woman who was the mistress of the reputation killer pataphor. She began with the speculation "I wonder if Jack is having an affair?" Girlfriend One would reply, equally speculatively "I guess he could be having an affair". Turning to Girlfriend Two my reputation killer tells her "Girlfriend One said in all probability he is having an affair". The next time the story is told, the inconvenient words "in all probability" are left out and the story becomes "Jack is having an affair".  So out of almost nothing, a 'skyhook' or 'bootstrap' forms  and soon there is absolutely no doubt that I'm a cad, a bounder, a low life...and heading for the divorce court.

Pataphors can be our worst fears or cherished dreams run amok. They are whole worlds we create out of wild and wonderful assumption heaped upon wild "assumption assumptions". They are the creatures of a mind that borders on the schizophrenic, because according to the latest brain research from the Karolina Institute, the dopamine systems of the super-creative are similar to those of the victims of the condition we regard as a psychosis. We enjoy the same kinds of good feelings.

The ingenious contraptions invented by Goldberg and Robinson also defy normal physics. Wonderfully exotic and outrageous functions are combined into a complex "machine system" which covers up/brushes over the fatal flaws in logic.

The circular human chair is a physical equivalent of a pataphor. Each person sits on the knee of the person behind them to form a circle. Remove one of the humans in the circular chain and the whole structure falls over.

Here's a workshop to explore pataphorical thinking:

1. Brainstorm some metaphors and apply them to an everyday concept e.g. wolf woman, rocket man, diamond bullet, cave brain, corporate fool.
2. So starting with your metaphor, describe what it could be e.g. a cave brain is empty, dark inside, with a few skeletons, and the ashes of a long dead-fire.
3. Now in your cave brain world, describe how the "elements" you have included in your description come to life, e.g. the skeletons in his cave brain rattled around, looking for a fire to ignite his neurons, but all they could find were ashes.
4. Think of a time when you were madly in love with another person, but they took absolutely no notice of you. Describe how you imagined life would be like with them, and how even the slightest hint of a smile gave you hope.
5. Brainstorm a list of other kinds of "things" that "exist" that are pataphorical e.g. Second Life businesses, science fiction worlds, imaginary numbers i.e. square root of -1.
6. Thinking about the theory of mind concept and how you might imagine what another person might be thinking about what you are saying and doing. Invent two characters and how they think about each other this way. What do they do and say in your imagination?
7. What is your worst fear. Now, take that worst fear and explore at least five worst case scenarios that could happen as a consequence, and then a consequence of that, and then a consequence of that.
8. What is your most cherished dream? Starting with a cherished dream (that does not yet exist) explore at least five wonderful outcomes that could happen as a consequence, and then a consequence of that, and then a consequence of that.

Artist: Allan Lam, Rube Goldberg type machine from Dreams, Memes & Themes software, Zing Technologies, 2002.

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