Tuesday, July 22, 2008

An Aaahaa Moment with Oulipo

Today I experienced a moment of pleasant surprise while doing the thesis slog (really...today was heavy...lots of deleting took place). I had read of the Oulipo poets in relation to all this digital textual stuff I spend my time with. I thought it was some ancient use of random data generation (valves and magnetic tapes??) to create permeations that were then called 'poetry'. It appears I was wrong. After spending some hours looking into Oulipo it actually seems way cool. Ill start with a short definition and the wikipedia link:

OuLiPo, the "Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle" or “Workshop for Potential Literature,” was co-founded in Paris the early 1960's by mathematician and writer Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Oulipian writers impose constraints that must be satisfied to complete a text, constraints ranging across all levels of composition, from elements of plot or structure down to rules regarding letters. OuLiPo thus pushes a structuralist conception of language to a level of mathematical precision; technique becomes technical when language itself becomes a field of investigation, a complex system made up of a finite number of components. (More from Dr Harris on the Oulipo)

Now, while I was previously hung up on the generative and structuralist side of the Oulipo, what I missed (and what is actually the most interesting I think) is the constraint-based text creation. The setting up of constraints in the creation of a text has enormous potential (I suppose it seemed that way in 1960 as well...I just a bit slow). In a sense a city could be constructed as an Oulipo work in progress. A text has the potential to become a performance with Oulipo. Found objects and cut-up language or images can be incorporated into a text network according to the constraints of the algorithm imposed to organize it.
In a general reference to the Oulipo poetic, I remember reading about the first printing of William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch (1959) which was typed up and each chapter was sent off to the printers at random. The pattern of streets between rue Gît le Coeur and the Olympia Press office and the printers became the constraint to the order of the text. When the galley proofs were returned to Gît le Coeur the party involved in the typing decided it was good enough and the rest is history.
There is not a lot of literature on Oulipo is seems. My university library returns no hits for a search on the word. There are a number of books an essays listed on Google Scholar. I shall begin ordering tomorrow. I suppose it would help if one spoke French....like with many things in life.
There is a site for the generation of Queneau's hundred thousand billion poems:

Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is derived from a set of ten basic sonnets. In his book, published in 1961, they are printed on card with each line on a separated strip, like a heads-bodies-and-legs book. All ten sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and employ the same rhyme sounds. As a result, any line from a sonnet can be combined with any from the other nine, giving 1014 (= 100,000,000,000,000) different poems. Working twenty-four hours a day, it would you take some 140,000,000 years to read them all.


dylan said...

I also discovered Oulipo and oulipan constraints while spending time with hypertext theory, etc. For me, a good introduction was a book called "Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature" by Warren F. Motte Jr.

I agree with you that oulipan constraint has a lot of potential, especially for anyone interested in the intersections between programming and text. A constraint, like a genre, is essentially a program, or a game whose parameters result in the text.

I wish I could find a coherent list of the various oulipan constraints that are out there already.

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Thanks for the book tip Dylan. I'll get my library to order it. I have been reading the Oulipo Compendium (Mathews and Brotchie Eds.) with great enjoyment and interest. The concept of constraints in the text is not so easily defined I think. Any digital text is operating under programming constraints so does this make them oulipo works? As well, somthing that I have not yet settled, do constriants have to be mathematical? I wonder about spatial and architectural constraints.
I do look foward to more oulipo.