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Cover of issue #222

Current Issue: #222 Recursive Time (Autumn 2014)

Canadian Literature's Issue 222 (Autumn 2014), Recursive Time, is now available. The issue features articles by Hannah McGregor, Aleksandra Bida, Anne Quéma, Nicholas Milne, Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten, and Eric Schmaltz, as well as new Canadian poetry and book reviews.

From Speech to Silence

  • Christian Bök (Author)
    'Pataphysics: The Poetics of Imaginary Science. Northwestern University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Maurice Blanchot (Author)
    Faux Pas. Stanford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Charles Barbour

Christian Bök’s ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of Imaginary Science proposes that Alfred Jarry and Steve McCaffery can be seen as bookends for twentieth-century avant-garde thought, placing Derrida and Serres, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard and Lyotard, as it were, in between them. Pataphysics is a neologism that Jarry, the father of absurdist theatre, invented to describe a science that exceeds both physics and metaphysics, or that is to metaphysics what metaphysics is to physics. It operates by privileging exceptions as opposed to rules—indeed by suggesting that there are only exceptions, and that the postulate of a rule is always arbitrary. Absurdity is revealed through an analysis of the overwhelming detail of all things, especially machines.

Quite deliberately, Jarry’s idea oscillates between pseudo-science and a serious insight. For his part, Bök seems interested in how it articulates the relationship between science and poetry or science and language. For the ’pataphysician, Bök suggests, science is not opposed to poetry. Its more clever students (and Bök is nothing if not clever—astonishingly, often exasperat- ingly clever) know full well that science draws poetry closer precisely there where it feigns to push it away. Science plays a game of "fort-da" with poetic metaphors. And just as, for Freud’s nephew, the toy represents a father who has been called away to fight at the "fwont," so too does science reveal the identity of its absent progenitor whenever it toys with the poetic. But unlike Freud, Bök does not want to point beyond the pleasure principle or towards the inevitability of death. An heir to Nietzsche, he seems concerned less with death than with life-with sustaining pleasure through continuous supplementation. To this end which is not one (this télé sans telos, this sending of mes- sages void of intended addressee), Bök marshals three "Jarryite" concepts: anomolos,or "the principle of variance"; syzgia,or "the principle of alliance"; and clinamen, or "the principle of deviance." According to Bök, variation, alliance, and deviation are the theoretical coordinates of "pataphysics," while Italian futurism and Canadian language poetry are its praxes.

The range of references in ’Pataphysics is decidedly outrageous—from Epicurus and Copernicus to Paul McCartney and Margaret Atwood. In effect, this assemblage of figures and names performs Bök’s argument. It enacts the principles of variance, alliance, and deviance. None of this is intended to establish any substantial claim, of course. Following Nietzsche, Bök points to the theological "belief" at the heart of Enlightenment reason. "Why believe in truth?" he wonders.

"Why not believe in untruth? Why does belief in either case take itself so seriously? Why does belief in effect believe in itself? Why not move from the deceit of truth to the truth of deceit?" The claim is far from original, and variants of it have been formulated in exactly these terms throughout the history of skeptical thought. But Bök makes some use of the skeptical mode, par- ticularly in his critique of science—the seriousness of which, like everything else in Bök’s book, is always left up in the air.

While, for Bök, language is a matrix of signs referring to other signs, for Blanchot things get interesting only when we begin to distinguish between different levels of surface and depth, internality and external- ity. First published in 1943, Faux Pas collects a series of essays, or what Blanchot calls "digressions," on everything from myth and linguistics to novels and painting. His tastes are cosmopolitan, but generally rooted in the canon—Goethe, Gide, Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Balzac, Woolf, Mallarmé, Melville. These short works interrogate the tangled relationship between solitude and writing, or the path, as Blanchot puts it, from anguish to language. What does it mean to write alone, or to write that one is alone? "The writer," Blanchot maintains, "is not free to be alone without expressing that he is . . . . That which destroys language in him also makes him use language."

Blanchot believes profoundly in an internal world of solitary contemplation and emotion—a world which thinkers like Bök represent as the secondary effect of external relations and semiotic exchanges. He locates the source of literature in a privacy no semiotics could analyze. Thus Blanchot is less interested in a writer’s publications than in his or her journals and notebooks. There he finds individuals struggling with what it means to write when one, and that one, is alone. For Blanchot, though, the experience of literature is of the false steps and mistakes which, like Kierkegaard’s ethical decision taken at a moment of madness, locate us in the world exactly there where we most desire to abandon it.


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MLA: Barbour, Charles. From Speech to Silence. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 July 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 108 - 109)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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