Warning: This essay features a discussion of French literary theory.
I know, bear with me. The good news: It’s pretty funny. And if you’re looking for a new and productive window on some of the unexpected developments in 2017, each of the linked stories will give you a view of something interesting and amusing.
‘Pataphysics — spelled with an apostrophe to avoid the obvious pun — is hard to define. That’s the point. It’s been described as the science of imaginary solutions, of the particular, and of the laws governing exceptions.
It was put forward by Alfred Jarry, who suggested it established the “superiority of virtuality” over the concrete. Not accepting conventional wisdom at face value is right in the center of the ‘pataphysical tradition. Dr. Faustroll, one of Jarry’s characters, explains:
“Contemporary science is founded upon the principle of induction: most people have seen a certain phenomenon precede or follow some other phenomenon most often, and conclude therefrom that it will ever be thus. Apart from other considerations, this is true only in the majority of cases, depends on the point of view, and is codified only for convenience — if that!”
The ‘pataphysical prescription is to appreciate the subtle, irreproducible, and obscure. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Archive of Useless Research is an interesting example of the value that can come from such an exercise.
In a 1989 interview with UPI, the archivist Helen Samuels explained that the university keeps it because “We’re an institution that looks at the evolution of scientific research . . . It’s very easy to document our Nobel Prize winners and advances in mainstream science, but it’s also useful to document the craziness, the fringe, or you don’t get a full picture of what’s going on.”
But it’s not enough to go off the beaten path. To a ‘pataphysician, it’s also critical to think about the nature of paths themselves.
This is because the delivery of information changes both its nature and our relationship to it. In his essay “‘Pataphysics of Year 2000,” Jean Baudrillard writes, “Where should one stop the perfecting of the stereo? Its bounds or limits are constantly pushed back or forced to retreat in the face of technical obsessions. Where should information stop?”
When I talk to investment professionals, perhaps the most common observation they offer is that there is too much disconnected information. The real-time trap — where we are bombarded with updates yet learn nothing — should be familiar to all of us. Baudrillard described it and the resulting alienation of societies from their own history at the dawn of the millennium.
But what does this mean for our work?
Investment managers are intimately concerned with seeing the truth of the organizations that they invest in and how they relate to society. As Damian P. O’Doherty of the University of Manchester wrote nearly a decade ago:
We are beginning to see then that, on the one hand, we are confronted with practitioners of Theory, inheriting the traditions of sober, scientific method, but producing, nonetheless, strange and often startling, internally inconsistent findings; on the other, all pretence at participating in a disciplinary project that proceeds by linear, incremental steps of iteration and addition has been abandoned.
Seemingly unconcerned with collective synthesis or contributing to any shared, iterative construction of a common understanding of organization that would enable communication, debate and compromise, recent developments simply prefer to promote idiosyncrasy, difference and shock.”
He concludes by asserting that ‘pataphysics offers a solution to this issue by prompting us to see the absurdities that surround us for exactly what they are: exceptional.
The spreadsheets and databases we employ as investment professionals often purport to describe “the universe” without irony. There are good reasons for this, but as we go into the weekend and towards the end of the year, we’d be well served by remembering that these universes are systems of exceptions.
Here are a few related readings you might find interesting:
- “‘Pataphysics and Computing” (Andrew Hugill, Bath Spa University)
- “‘Pataphysics: Your Favorite Cult Artist’s Favorite Pseudoscience” (Pitchfork)
- A measurement study of the politically incorrect “dark underbelly” of the Internet. (Proceedings of the Eleventh International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media)
- Surreal Memes (Reddit)
- “It Wasn’t Worth It, Says 103-Year-Old Vegetarian” (The Daily Mash)
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