If the name is not yet familiar, you may long for a definition: Founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, the Oulipo stands for OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature. It consists of writers and mathematicians who invent, reinvent and experiment with different types of formal constraints. Originally formed as a subcommittee to the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, the early Oulipo defined the practice of writing under constraint against the Surrealist model of automatic writing and in relation to the axiomatic method developed by Nicolas Bourbaki.
This is, more or less, the tenor of basic definitions available in literary manuals, cultural encyclopedias, and websites worldwide. In the best cases, such cursory descriptions are also followed by an up-to-date list of Oulipians1 and illustrious demonstrations of Oulipian constraints. Typically, examples range in complexity from simple operations like “S+7” and “slenderizing” to flagship works of Oulipian literature like Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes or Georges Perec’s lipogram, La disparition, a detective novel entirely written without the letter E (translated into English as A Void).
Since its inception, the reception of Oulipian work has been decidedly mixed. In the broad context of official literary culture — at least in the parts that are allergic to radical formalism — there has been, and continues to be, a general tendency to classify the members of the Oulipo as trickster. The implication being that their work does not qualify as serious literature. Like all forms of prejudice, that judgment is basically wrong; yet, in certain quarters, it persists via ignorance and an insipid attachment to the status quo.
In healthier, more sympathetic forums, the ideas of the Oulipo have been met with unbridled enthusiasm, occasionally leading to an effect of blurring or distortion of the basic tenets. For example, Oulipian practice has been frequently and falsely associated with chance operations and the mechanical production of texts. To a certain degree, in the English-speaking world this type of misunderstanding has been propagated by the language barrier; but it is also fueled by indiscrimination. Thankfully, crafty translations and thorough critical studies have helped bring the precise character of Oulipian constraints into sharper focus for Anglophone audiences, most notably Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (1986 & 1998) and, more recently, The Oulipo Compendium (1998 & 2005).
For those readers who have followed the evolution of the group over the past forty-six years, there is a growing consensus that Oulipian works and Oulipian theory have powerfully articulated a rich and expansive literary program, one that has impressively matured and maintained its promise. In an explicit bid to build on that momentum, over the past few years, the leading theorists of the group have insistently soft-pedaled the centrality of constraint itself and sought to concentrate more critical attention on the ouvroir’s third, more elusive term: potentiality.
If this shift in focus accounts for developments that surpass the activities of the Oulipo — and I will evoke some of those activities below — it also reveals that one of the latent goals behind the Oulipian enterprise is being realized before our very eyes: the explosion of a conscious revolution in the way we realize human potential.
In effect, the main thrust of the Oulipian experiment by far surpasses the practice of constraints alone, for since the very notion of potentiality is eminently transportable it may eventually be applied to almost every field of human activity — this is the basic tenet of the Ou-x-po movement, where an infinite number of possible workshops may be founded on an infinite number of fields, including comics (ba stands for bande dessinée) and painting (where pein stands for peinture) and graphic design.
In this special feature of Drunken Boat, I have attempted to bear witness to several facts: that the Oulipo has authoritatively demonstrated the viability of thinking and realizing potentiality through the use of literary constraints, that this demonstration resonates with many skilled para-Oulipians who pursue similar strategies, and that the Oulipian excursions into fields of potentiality have encouraged artists and thinkers in other realms to embark on their own conscious experiments in freedom. What better place to stage this exposition than in an online journal whose namesake, Arthur Rimbaud, once promised to recount the latent birth of vowels?
We may well attribute the growing popularity of the Oulipo to an undying fascination with the writings of its most prominent members;2 we may well understand the rise of the group by pinpointing crux moments in its evolution;3 but we should also consider how the Oulipo’s cultural activities have generated a broad interest in constraint-based art, for these social aspects help foster a spirit of generosity and exchange now current among a growing community of artisans.
The simple fact that the Oulipo has sustained a collaborative enterprise for forty-six years is exception enough to create synergy. Throughout that time, the group’s activities have been nothing short of astounding. As of September 2006, the Oulipo will have held 550 uninterrupted monthly meetings — a regularity unparalleled in other ouvroirs. The group also participates in collective cultural projects and frequently gives public readings on occasions that pay homage to its members (such as the Colloqueneau), at colloquia dedicated to the group’s influence (such the Noulipo Conference), or as part of their monthly Thursday readings, les jeudis de l’Oulipo (read jeux-dits de l’Oulipo, or “Oulipo’s spoken games”).
In the past few years, attendance at the monthly readings has boomed. Initially held in large auditorium at the Université de Paris-Jussieu, overcrowding prompted a first move to the Forum des Images and then, as numbers continued to surge, the event was relocated to an even larger auditorium in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This trajectory illustrates the extent to which the group currently enjoys an intimate conversation with a faithful audience and it underscores the group’s success in earning a unique place in one of France’s most esteemed cultural institutions. In “Here is the Oulipo,” using a constraint known as larding, François Caradec ironically glosses the inherent contradiction of this popularity.
One socially fascinating development to emerge from that public forum is the creation of the Oulipo listserve, an email list animated by an extended group of friends and Oulipo aficionados. Anyone can join and the atmosphere is openly collaborative. Contributions range from critiques of Oulipian works, or essays about the Oulipo, to a broad variety of Oulipian, or Oulipo-inspired creations (mostly poetry). “Je suis le ténébreux,” for example, the first printed book to emerge from the Oulipo list, presents 101 constraint-based rewritings of Gérard de Nerval’s famous sonnet, “El Desdichado.” The book itself represents but a fraction of the poems that were posted on the list by the avatars of Nerval, and new conceptions of pastiche seem to abound daily. Also especially noteworthy in this small, open community of writers is that many of the most active members command a high level of professional expertise is mathematics or science. These enthusiasts are contemporary heteroclites — the kind that may well have figured in Raymond Queneau’s Encyclopédie de fous littéraires, were it to be written one-hundred years from now — and, consequently, their contribution to the Oulipian enterprise is difficult to fathom. Such is, for example, the case of Gilles Esposito-Farèse (innovator of the ambigram) and Alain Zalmanski, just to mention two extraordinary web curators of Oulipiania.
If the jeudis de l’oulipo have inspired intense fanaticism in this secret segment of society, the fact that Oulipian texts and writing techniques have been integrated into the curricula of the Education Nationale gives yet further proof of the group’s exposure.4 But games — as we all know — are not just for children, for at the same time, in the highly specialized corners of French literary scholarship, form-savvy writing has become the central focus of the new leading academic journals Formes Poétiques Contemporaines and Formules, just at it remains the confirmed predilection of journals like Les Amis de Valentin Brû, Les Cahiers Georges Perec, and Les Cahiers Roubaud. Among various other consequences, this progressive interest in constrained writing has been instrumental in developing a culture of writing workshops in France (where creative writing programs have little, if any, purchase), thereby spurring amateur writer into trying new things.
In addition, Oulipians themselves have increasingly ventured into the public sphere. While none commands as much cultural influence as Raymond Queneau did, the voices of Oulipians are finding expression in theaters, at festivals, and in the popular media. François Caradec, Jacques Jouet, and Hervé Le Tellier, for example, regularly participate in the weekly France-Culture radio program called “Les Papous dans la tête,” a program that is very different from, if related to, “What’s the Word?,” “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” and the puzzle segment of NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Assuming the responsibilities that accompany the high profile of public intellectuals, in various forums, as a group as well as individually, Oulipians have openly opposed the ideology of the Front National, as well as more recent events in Occidental imperialism.
To this evidence of cultural impact add the literary accolades garnered by Oulipian works: the Prix Médicis awarded to Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi (1978) and Ann Garréta’s Pas un jour (2002). And, this year, as a lifetime achievement award, Oskar Pastior won the Georg-Büchner-Preis, Germany’s most prestigious honor in literature. Perhaps before long the collective author known as the Oulipo will stand before the world in Stockholm and proudly accept the Nobel Prize in Literature — the merit is unquestionable, and it certainly would not be the Oulipo’s first trip to Sweden.
I am not suggesting that the triumphs of potentiality should be linked to a popularity contest. Though in vogue, Oulipians are not impressed with themselves in the way the darlings of the art world are. To the contrary, within the Oulipo, the idea of occultation is still occasionally bandied about, perhaps as a nod to the Collège de ‘Pataphysique and Nicolas Bourbaki’s collaborators. However, it is quite probable that this tendency toward Pythagorean grandeur is also intended as a means of accelerating the fate of potentiality itself. That is, the second and third generations of Oulipians have yet to lose sight of the ambitions harbored by the founding friends. Nor have they ceased looking for ways to accommodate what they take to be an inevitable evolution in the fate of humanity (should our species manage to survive itself).5
How then might we historically situate the aesthetics of the Oulipo? What keeps Oulipians writing under constraint? Once we admit that the frenetic drive to innovate has bankrupt a long succession of 20th century avant-gardes, it is not surprising that we should now encounter a broad upsurge in constraint-based art. In some respects, thinking through constraint provides the most efficient means of concocting strong moves in the game of innovation. And yet, the Oulipo is not nihilistic in the way we have come to think of the avant-garde. Rather, as a group, Oulipians are both ironically positivistic and naively committed to their specific discursive methods and an ethos of play for the sake of play.
Altogether allergic to claims of tabula rasa so frequently intoned by experimental groups in the arts, the Oulipo positions itself as paradoxically pre- and post-avant-garde, deeply invested in traditions of poetics, also but somehow critically detached from historical measures of value they dictate. Indeed, the group is more invested in regenerative writing than in destruction writ large. Consequently, the Oulipian re-evaluation of literary value refuses to jettison all forms of criteria: even if it fails to always produce vaunted “works” of literature, writing under constraint aspires to amuse and amaze simultaneously. In this respect, constrained writing clarifies and tests our categories of literature, but not without also feeding our sense of humor.
Adding further contrasts, we might even say that the Oulipo is conservative in its reverence of literary history, if also unscrupulous in having fun at the expense of convention, sacred texts, and exclusive notions of genius so precious to the institutions of literature and art more broadly. Even though Oulipians approach literary traditions as mines from which they extract models of formal constraints, they also understand those traditions as our most privileged grounds of knowledge, as the bodies most capable of revealing the hidden potentiality of language, the cultural freight it harbors. In this respect, the Oulipo is incessantly engaged with collective memory, directly taking its raw materials and tools from the public domain, only to return them enriched via formal sophistication, personalized signatures, and a crafty optimism steeped in curiosité savante.
In other words, in contrast to the many avant-garde groups it has long outlived, the Oulipo does not purport to change the world through poetry alone, but rather aims to transform the way change itself is perceived. If potential literature is a possible literature — undoubtedly one of the meanings we may ascribe to the group’s use of po — the Oulipo undertakes the task of explicitly determining what is yet possible for literature, and then demonstrates how those possibilities may be realized in writing. In this sense, Oulipians imagine uncharted waters for literature and then proceed to map that imaginary space.
Another way we might think about potential literature is via an analogy with potential and kinetic energy. If potential energy is stored in an object, then we might say that potential literature is embedded within a language. In the first case, the field of gravity would determine an object’s potential energy; in the case of literature, the field of memory would determine a work’s potentiality. Pushing the analogy further, we can compare the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy to the conversion of potential literature into real texts. In physics, that conversion is expressed through motion, in literature it is expressed through two related ludic activities, both of them realized at the level of the letter: the crafts of writing and reading with volition.
It is appropriate to insist on the importance of the will in speaking about potential literature, not only because finding solutions to constraints often requires the triumph of sustained willpower, but also because Oulipian constraints are willingly adopted, intentionally designed, and strategically calculated to fulfill particular ends. For Oulipians, there is nothing random about writing under constraint. Even if they may appear arbitrary at first, most Oulipian constraints have long histories peopled by illustrious precursors, dubbed “plagiarists by anticipation” in Oulipian theory.6 Other constraints are invented from scratch, carefully crafted to satisfy the artist’s whimsy and sense of formal rigor. Once constraints have been adopted into the Oulipian family of forms, individual constraints take on a life of their own, actively participating in the general, axiomatic enterprise of discovery. In effect, as Claude Berge affirms, “the Oulipo is anti-chance” and, as Raymond Queneau has put it, “Il n’y a de littérature que volontaire.”
In his “Plea for Constrained Writing,” Jan Baetens reminds us that total freedom of expression (or the myth thereof) can be paralyzing. As antidote, constraints serve to liberate even the most blocked writer. But there are two more layers in the game of designing constraint. As constraints can directly inform or determine the content of the work, there is the exacting creative energy invested in their execution — this factor is made self-evident in the formal decisions taken by each contributor in this feature of Drunken Boat. What’s more, in certain cases, the choices brought on by the constraint itself thematize the work, and thereby underscore a basic metaliterary principle, or axiom of Oulipian writing: a text written according to a constraint speaks directly of that constraint. Olivier Salon’s lipogrammatic sonnet (and its translation) “S’exercer/’S exert” provides a striking example of this principle.
And yet, let’s not overlook another, more ambitious way in which the conception of constraints can inscribe an artist’s will, one that is perhaps most widely appreciated in 20th century art via the work of Marcel Duchamp, more precisely in his invention of the ready-made. For Roubaud, Duchamp’s Oulipian legacy consists of turning constraints into language games in order to utterly transform the conditions of play within the discourse of art. In his “Talking Ready-made” — a work whose form stages its own elaborate series of interruptions — Roubaud suggest that an even greater incursion into the narrative mystery of 20th century aesthetic innovations should be attributed to François Le Lionnais, his conception of the Ou-x-pos.
In short, it is no mystery that form itself styles innovation. The most illustrious modernists — from Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud to Stein, Williams and Zukofsky — and the saints of constraint-based writing — from the troubadours to Raymond Roussel and beyond — have each helped transform the very terms of innovation through particularly strong formal demands. Oulipian constraint, its practice and its conception, imparts an awareness of and engagement with the stakes so precious to radical avatars of change; its very mode of being is to encode potentiality in intelligent design. This is why constraint-based innovation has become so recherché: the best constraints are fashioned by the conscious creation of forms capable of simultaneously accommodating an ironic cognizance of a work’s historicity and the indelible charm of an artist’s signature. The invention of “morale élémentaire,” for example, a form magisterially presented by Raymond Queneau in his last book, has, after being treated by Perec,7 helped articulate this new horizon for the pursuit of potentiality. In this issue of Drunken Boat, that form has been granted yet another bifurcation, thanks to the enigmatically duplicitous lexicon deployed by Ian Monk (“Morale élémentaire / Elementary Morality”).
If the disclosed charter of the Oulipo is the unveiling of untapped potential lurking just below the surface of the languages with which we represent reality (regardless of whether it be the idiom of cinema, painting, or pop music), then the very raison d’être of potential literature, its formal consciousness-raising, heavily relies on the active participation of readers. In effect, an appreciation for Oulipian art largely depends on the recognition of elegance in the application of a constraint. Like any formal rule, a constraint must be verifiable, tested against the work’s “user’s manual,” while also evoking some notion of beauty, perhaps related to shape, economy or force — or, potentially, a surprising mixture of yet other features. As such, writing under constraint is not a virtual or imaginary game, but a set of concrete methods playfully developed in a real forum that values proven and intellectually satisfying results.
This condition of verifiability, the game of authorial hide-and-seek, leads Hervé Le Tellier to reject the idea that a single theory of beauty should unite Oulipian writing. Instead, in his recent book L’esthétique de l’Oulipo (2006), Le Tellier claims that the most salient element common to all Oulipian work is the manner in which it promotes complicity between the artist and his or her public, a complicity that is grounded in the dynamics of the work itself. Needless to say, an enormous variety of pleasure awaits readers tempted into a novel by Jouet, a closing chapter by Bénabou-Perec, or a prose sestina by Harry Mathews. If the effects of the resulting complicity include a self-selecting sense of taste and the confirmation of a close family of readers, another consequence, soon to reach epidemic magnitude, is the awakening of artists everywhere who are contracting a feverish obsession with the pursuit of potentiality.8
One may ask what would happen if the Oulipo suddenly ceased to exist. In the short run, people might regret it. In the long run, everything would return to normal, humanity eventually discovering, after much groping and fumbling about, that which the Oulipo has endeavored to promote consciously. There would result however in the fate of civilization a certain delay which we feel it our duty to attenuate.
— François Le Lionnais, “The Second Manifesto”
At the moment of inception, when he first exposed the idea the Oulipo to his friend Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais may already have been keenly aware of, and invested in, the rapidly communicable nature of potential literature. An expert chess player, Le Lionnais took a certain and calculated pleasure in foreseeing and designing broad horizons for the future of the group and its various members. The fresh-from-the-archive post-card included in this dossier intoned the simultaneous levity and gravity of Le Lionnais’ debonair dictatorship: even when announcing from as far away as Russia a luncheon with Marcel Duchamp, his tone is injunctive: “Qu’on se le dise: l’Oulipo ou la mort!”
The author of three Oulipian manifestos (only two of which have seen the light of day; the third remains shrouded in an apparently unspeakable mystery), Le Lionnais did not actually write constraint-based texts. His contributions remain primarily theoretical. In fact, in his opinion, a constraint hardly needs to be realized more than once, if at all, in order to enter into the service of potentiality. Inventing a form is thus nearly as good as exhausting it. As Roubaud indicates when introducing the Oulipo, Le Lionnais’ conception of constraint complicates the group’s method, even if entirely in keeping with the drive toward constant renewal.
If he left the execution of constraints to Queneau and his Oulipian disciples, Le Lionnais did in fact repeat the incisive gesture of group formation: he founded a second Ou-x-po, the Oulipopo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Policière Potentielle in 1973. Others in the same family would follow; including an Oumathpo, which would allow literature to reciprocate with the discipline of mathematics, returning the gifts it had received via the Oulipo (aka the first Ou-x-po). This move toward expansion confirmed Le Lionnais’ ambition for an eventual Universal Institute of Potentiality.
That is, not only did Le Lionnais foresee and prepare the creation of Ou-x-pos related to all human activities, he also conceived of meta-workshops, think tanks engaged in the virtual realization of potentiality in any given field, including the pure field of potentiality itself. Eventually, as the levels of abstraction, recursiveness and inclusion would expand, the universe itself and all that it contains could enter the field whose potential we must responsibly steward: Ou (ou (ou … x … po) po) po. According to Roubaud, this project disappeared in 1984, along with the Oulipo’s Fraisident-Pondateur: “His death brought an end to this enterprise, which one day perhaps, after several thousand years, humanity under the direction of some shaman will restore to its agenda.”
Since then the march down the shining path may have slowed, but the momentum is again building. The founding of the Oulipopo, led to a flourishing of still other Ou-x-pos, some of which are featured in this dossier: the Oupeinpo (1981), the Oucuipo (1990), the Outrapo (1991), the Oubapo (1992), the Oumupo, and the Ougrapo (2000) — where pein stands for peinture, cui for cuisine, tra for tragicomédie, ba for bande dessinée, mu for musique, and gra for design graphique. Other, more or less active Ou-x-pos abound in well-lit places, each of them harboring the promise of potentiality, some of them carefully documented by Alain Zalmanski and others by Milie von Bariter, whose function as the “Provéditeur du Potentiel” in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique is to coordinate the pursuit of potentiality across the various ouvroirs. On 22 January 2005, in homage to François Le Lionnais, and thanks to von Bariter’s organizational exploits, there was a reunion of Ouxpos; naturally, it was held at the Centre d’Animations VercingétoriXpo.
The relationship between these various workshops and the Oulipo is sometimes collaborative, especially when group membership overlaps, as is the case with the Oupeinpo. But in general, that relationship is based on imitation; this is why I have labeled Ou-x-pian activity para-Oulipian. In my view — and at the risk of being proven wrong — the current Ou-x-pos rely heavily on translating Oulipian discoveries into a different media, thereby bringing Oulipian language games into the arts.
Consider, for example, Matt Madden’s use of the sestina in his “Six Treasures of the Spiral” and Etienne Lécroat’s use of sonnet technology in his “Soupe-Sonnet.” The constraints exploited in these works have more to do with literature than they do with comics; the same cannot be said, however, of Ciment’s “Cigares du Pharaon,” for that strip exploits a media specific constraint, reduction, entirely reinterpreted via a famous volume of Tintin; the adaptation of the constraint brings with it no residues of formal encoding, as does the use of alexandrines in Lécroat’s punning soup. Similarly, in Jack Vanarsky’s “La bête en moi,” the constraint used, lamelization, appears entirely occasioned by the display of digital images on monitors. That constraint is entirely born of the media.
What, then, is the purpose of multiplying Oulipian forms in other media? Especially if the innovative drive within the Oulipo favors the invention of new constraints over the reproduction of already tested formulas?
Just as Oulipian works incite and defy constraint-based translations, even the most optimized Oulipian form challenges new writers to remake its history. In effect, regenerative innovation has preoccupied second and third generation Oulipians, leading them to combine previously unrelated constraints and to develop, formally and thematically, branches within the Oulipian corpus.9 In addition to thematizing an autopolygraphic novel composed of poetic works and “Moments Oulipiens,”10 these self-reflexive tendencies within the Oulipo argue for sustaining a high-level of dynamism in the conception of constraints, regardless of the field of application.
The crucial mutability of constraint is in no way lost on the craft-savvy authors I have included in the Toward Oulipo section of the dossier. Many of these writers submitted excursions into specific forms of constrains commonly frequented by the Oulipo; e.g. Christian Bök, Élisabeth Chamontin and Craig Dworkin’s anagrams, Paul Hoover’s homophonic autotranslations, Michelle Taransky’s univocal lipogram, and Amber Sheilds’ elementary morality. Others submitted texts that respect (or deviate from) more idiosyncratic constraints, hybrid forms of their own devising.
The contrast between Robert Rapilly’s palindromic sonnets and Trevor Joyce’s “The Peacock’s Tail,” for instance, tells us something about the force and range of constrained writing outside of the Oulipo group. Joyce’s poem designated four points of departure: the Fanny Howe line “The human is a thing / Who walks around disintegrating”; the spatial model of Chinese verse; a reappraisal of rhyme; and a single entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Joyce then engineers a rational and invisible order by which he presents extrapolations of these central elements; those decisions are made according to numerical preferences and the application of theoretical model of rhyme. “The Peacock’s Tail” is consonant with Oulipian enterprise because it application of formal rigor permeates every level of the poem, including the use it makes of tradition. Similarly, Rapilly’s sonnet palindromes recall and complicate Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes; they up the ante by adding a different twist to the combinatorial restrictions: these poems are entirely reversible, provided the coupling of appropriate lines (1/14, 2/13, 3/12…). Consequently, in addition to revealing a new possible form for the individual sonnet and the recombinative sonnet cycle, Rapilly’s “Être venu damner Icare” incites a total rethinking of the book object itself. The vanguard of constraint is indeed thriving.
Finally, several contributors remind us that it is not only productive, but also imperative to interrogate how political potential may be realized via constrained writing. If the Oulipo generally avoids running commentary on current events (a conceit that is not widely followed by para-Oulipians), it is unquestionable that the pursuit of potentiality, and the real accomplishments it entails, is nothing if not respectfully invested in realizing and promoting individual and collective freedoms. That is, writing under constraint amounts to more than overcoming the difficult obstacles we impose on our own language, it enables the articulation of the self through alternate codes contained within and cast against dominant structures of expression. It opens the means of strategic deviance. Difficulté vaincue provides all writers a method of claiming their own terms for dwelling in the world; it offers artists tools to consciously resist and reform the implicit constructs of discourse. As Paul Fournel claims, this freedom of choice, deciding how to exist and work within an extended family, describes the primary condition of contemporary Oulipians everywhere, regardless of which groups they make their own.
What remains to be decided in the present historical moment, a period characterized by an explosion in means available to the self-conscious construction of identity, is the extent to which the conscious pursuit of potentiality, the willing adoption of constraint (and restraint), may simultaneously improve our quality of life and ensure the survival of what we hold most dear… “Qu’on se le dise: l’Oulipo ou la mort!”