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February 09, 2014


Oulipo, like Dogma 95, serves to emphasize what is already the condition of art, namely constrained choice. What interests me most about examples like this: it's very unclear to me where the boundary between choice and constraint lies, and just what the role of choice is in the finished product. I'm reminded of the claim that all Dogma directors broke some of the rules at some point during production. This isn't so for all Oulipo - in A Void for instance, the constraint is specific and clear enough that its boundary is certain (and Perec follows it religiously is my recollection). That he chose as the theme the very absence forced by the constraint seems like a choice which elevates the novel to art. But "rewriting with the vocabulary of the other" is much more ambiguous - what constitutes legitimate technique here? What serves to elevate the exercise to art? What specific role does the writer play in creating emotive and intellectual effect?

I demand commentary.

You demand commentary? Then you shall have, at least, a comment, in bullet point form.

-> I don't see why it's less clear here than in A Void where the boundary between choice and constraint lies: in either case, we can immediately tell if the text offends (in A Void, if the text contains an "e"; here, if either part contains a word not appearing in its prescribed source). Perhaps it's looser here because it's unclear whether or not Mathews has succeeded in "rewriting" the recipe using the constrained vocabulary of the poem, or vice versa (though I think he's done a pretty admirable job)—we can tell that he's only used the requisite vocabulary, and come up with a text that can be read in parallel with the original, but rewritten? If anything, though, there's less choice here than in A Void, since there's a constraint on both content and form (no doubt part of why Mathews described the composition process as "agony"), whereas Perec's novel could have been about anything. He follows the constrained religiously, but in very many ways it allows for a great deal of freedom. (The multiple constraints of Life a User's Manual are less obvious but perhaps more constraining ultimately.)

-> I don't really understand why the reflection of the constraint of A Void in its plot elevates it to art. Is it the mere fact of involution in "On the Sonnet" or A Fit of Something Against Something" that elevate them to art? They're certainly pleasing feats, but there are any number of sonnets and sestine that aren't about their own constraints, and one could write a sonnet on the sonnet that was artless and sucky. Though maybe all you mean is that in this case, i.e. that of A Void, the alignment of plot and constraint is what turned the trick—but that seems strange to me, too, or at least I'm not sure why one would think so.

-> I'm not really comfortable, in general, with questions like "what elevates the exercise to art?" (though lord knows I do employ the term art as an honorific, and in propria persona, even). I believe it is the standard Oulipo line that their constraints are to be thought of as techniques one might employ for various reasons, spurs to creativity or new formal strictures or whatever, and nothing more; they're experimental, and just because you've employed one, that doesn't mean you've created anything of worth. (And thus that the examples used to demonstrate them at Oulipo meetings or in things like the Compendium aren't what their real worth should be judged by, since they're just toy demonstrations: here's how the thing works, now go employ it in an actually ambitious work, if you wish to.) If anything elevates this particular piece to art, it would be, for me, the feel of the results; I find the texture and rhythms and odd reaching for meaning in the prose delightful. And those things probably would not have been produced but for the bizarre constraint Mathews labored under. But it isn't the constraint that makes the art, it's what Mathews did with it. (One also has to wonder how in the world it occurred to him to do this at all.)

Hmmm, well I did mean commentary on the role of constrained choice in artistic practice, not on my comment, but I guess the third bullet point addresses that.

I do think the question of how specific the constraints are should be relevant here, and on that score I do still think the "transplant" idea seems much more liberal than a constraint as specific as avoid a particular letter (or word, or whatever) - for instance, must one always replace the same word in one text with the same translation from the other? Must one replace every single word? May the "is" of text A be replaced by the "is" of text B? etc. Of course, we could perhaps recover how all these choices were made in this instance by examining the original text - but the crucial issue (the constraint is underdetermined) still stands.

The idea does seem to me a natural extension of the cutup technique, and one way in which it's an interesting extension is the change in the ordering of constraint and choice. In cutup, there is choice in choosing the initial texts, then presumably one must strictly adhere to the result of juxtaposing them post cutup, or one sullies the exercise. Here, there is choice of texts, then translation is in some degree mechanical, but with choices interspersed (which word to use as translation etc.).

I guess the elevating to art point may be off base - if constrained choice is an essential feature of art, then it seems to me these sorts of exercises, which are self-conscious about this aspect of art and push it to the extreme, have the power to reveal something about the essential nature of art. I would be hard pressed to state it myself, though, which is why I asked you. For what it's worth, I think the question is more interesting here if we take "art" in a deflated, rather than honorific, sense.

The point about A Void was meant to be particular to it. There, I guess, the apparently arbitrary nature of the constraint receives justification from its marriage to theme. In the case of sonnets, although there are some aspects of the constraint which are arbitrary, much of it is justified, not the least of which justification being simple historical precedent (if writing novels without an "e" became a standard practice, a recognized genre, then thematizing them on absence would no longer be interesting).

There's an amazing moment in Xenakis' dissertation defense, where Messiaen challenges him on this issue. Xenakis has put all his effort into defending algorithmic music, music where all the choice goes into choosing the algorithm and the rest is mechanical, and Messiaen relates a moment when he passed Xenakis in his office writing music, and Xenakis, reflecting on something his algorithm had generated, erases it saying, no that wouldn't sound good at all. For Messiaen, it was the standards by which the choices to break form are made which were interesting, and it was exactly those which Xenakis' emphasis on establishing the form ignored.

I've seen variations on the last point before, I think on Kyle Gann's blog, talking about how the profusion of options for varying tone rows and setting up initial conditions, etc., had the effect of rendering the strictness of serialism more apparent than real. (Also, interesting, in one of Andrew Hussie's periodic process reflections on the composition of MS Paint Adventures, which theoretically was initially driven by reader responses—it has the form of a text adventure, and there are attached forums, in which readers can respond to the "what do you do now?" prompts—just taking the first response led to a total mess, and as soon as he gave himself latitude to pick a response, he discovered that given the volume of responses, he could just pick whatever he wanted, so it didn't really work as a constraint anymore.) There's an officially sanctioned concept in Oulipian practice for this kind of thing—they've adopted the term "clinamen" for a chosen deviation from a constraint ("chosen" meaning to capture the idea that it's not a clinamen if you just don't know how to proceed within the constraint).

Possibly related—a good exchange, or at least a good quotation, from the interview linked in my previous comment:


Do you not care whether your stories make sense?


I don’t say there is no sense or no meaning. There is, but it’s not one that exists outside of the work. Robert Louis Stevenson—and he’s not exactly considered a modernist writer—once wrote: “The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is both designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work.”

To be honest, I don't really understand why you think there's more choice in this constraint than with a lipogram; at best I'd think there's no grounds for comparison. Certainly to say "you must use these words and no others to rewrite (however construed) this text" leaves open whether you can, say, use "is" for "is" or whether you can vary the use of words in the new vocabulary to capture the words in the target text—but banning "e" doesn't tell you whether you can sometimes write "copulation" and sometimes "fucking" for "sex" (of course a lipogrammatical composition isn't to be thought of as a translation of a text with the full range of letters into a new text with a reduced range—unless, of course, that is sometimes what happens, as it does with several poems in A Void—which is just another reason for thinking that the constraints are too different for meaningful comparison). It's perfectly possible to tell in each case whether the constraint has been violated: use of a word not in the source text; use of the banned letter. Your complaint seems to be that there might be ways of further constraining transplant that aren't specifically addressed—but why must they be? I don't understand why it's underdetermined as is, just because there could be a more determinate form. (One wishes to say: Moses, do whatever you want!. Yes, I know the cases aren't strictly analogous.)

Actually, one thing that might be revealed by procedures like this just is that since they're self-conscious adoptions of a constraint they (maybe? could?) help explode the idea that less self-conscious cases aren't enabled by some (potentially feeble) free adoption of a constraint, even if it's (merely?) generic (and doesn't descend into e.g. specific word choices or orderings)—Mathews actually puts it well in the part of the interview where he calls the composition of "Cauliflower sans Merci" agony: "But I discovered something very important, which is that once you start on a project like that, no matter how insane it is, you rapidly become convinced that there’s a solution, which is, of course, nonsense. You have to make it happen."—I mean to call out the "You have to make it happen" part. It's not just going to happen naturally.

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