Saturday, August 22, 2009

Between Fire and Ice (on Jens Bjorneboe's Powderhouse)

Douglas Messerli
Between Fire and Ice

Jens Bjørneboe Kruttårnet (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1969). Translated from the Norwegian by Esther
Greenleaf Murer as Powderhouse: Scientific Postcript and Last Protocol (Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Dufour Editions, 2000)

Set in an asylum for the criminally insane, Powderhouse—the second volume of Norwegian novelist Jens Bjøneboe’s History of Bestiality series—begins with all indications that this work, like several of his others, will be ideologically driven. Indeed, the narrator threatens a lecture in the first chapter, and, in retrospect, the reader perceives the structure of the book to be centered around three such lectures: the first devoted to the Church’s persecution of heretics and witches, the second focusing on the methods and lifestyle of public executioners, and the third on the motivations of heretics and others who are publicly punished. For all of its didactic impulses, however, Powderhouse is perhaps Bjørneboe’s most emotionally-charged and forgiving work, and, at least in my opinion—as opposed to what Gary Kern has described as one of a series of “great failures”—is a complete success, a study of human evil that has the potential to transform all but the most doctrinaire of its readers.

The highly unorthodox treatment of Lefevre’s patients results in a murder and possible closure of his institution. But from the vantage point of the work’s narrator, Jean (self-proclaimed “caretaker” and possible patient himself), Lefevre's methods nurture a sense of humanness and peacefulness among these madmen and women that is closer to sanity than the world outside as presented in the horrible series of historical events outlined in the lectures. Against the backdrop of human atrocities recounted by Bjørneboe’s lecturers, the petty emotional explosions and occasional violence of the “Powderhouse” represent an almost utopian world where love and respect for one another prevail. Particularly powerful in their expression of human behavior at the opposite pole from the horrible histories described in this work are Jean’s nightly encounters with nature and his sexual activities with the nurse Christine.

All this is not to say that Bjørneboe’s fiction is an “easy” read. The book’s recurring depictions of human barbarity are as painful to endure as in any fiction I’ve read. But between the fire below and the ice above—the metaphors of human behavior that dominate this work—Bjørneboe proffers, through his narrator, enough hope to imagine alternatives to the horror of what we know is human history.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tom La Farge | Review of The noulipaian Analects

Tom La Farge
Review of The noulipian Analects
Edited by Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim(Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2007) 256 pages. $25.

1. The noulipian Analects grew out of a conference, “noulipo,” organized by the editors at REDCAT in Los Angeles in 2005. Several leading practitioners of experimental writing in North America, mainly poets, met with members of the French group Oulipo to discuss the oulipian practice of writing with constraints – invented, arbitrary rules. Participants included, from Oulipo, Paul Fournel (its president) and Ian Monk; from UBUweb Christian Bök, Caroline Bergvall, and Brian Kim Stefans; Rob Wittig from IN.S.OMNIA; and an array of experimental writers interested in oulipian procedures: Johanna Drucker, Tan Lin, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Doug Nufer, Vanessa Place, Janet Sarbanes, Juliana Spahr, Rodrigo Toscano, Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim (the organizers and editors), and Stephanie Young.

Besides a record of the conference papers, The noulipian Analects contains an anthology of constrained writing, since the panelists read from their work in evening sessions. This is a collection well worth having for showing the range of directions in which constraints and experimentalism in general can throw writing and the range of types of reading these can demand. Some of the pieces included are not new but are none the less delightful for that: Bernadette Mayer’s brilliant N + 7 poems “Before Sextet” and “After Sextet,” for example, or a selection from Christian Bök’s monovocalic Eunoia.

But primarily the panelists met to assess the oulipian tradition’s value on this side of the Atlantic and to consider, and debate, issues of poetics. The book as a whole takes a strong position in favor of a leftist, feminist poetics of experimentalism. That stand is most directly communicated by the papers read by Toscano, Spahr and Young and by Bök, and also by the editors’ comments.

The editors are a very strong presence in the book. They have organized The noulipian Analects like an encyclopedia, alphabetizing all the papers by title, the author biographies by last name (these include the creative selections), and the apparatus such as the copyright page and table of contents. More, the papers (most of them) have been broken into sections, as many as seven, and each section has been given a title and then laid out in alphabetical order, sometimes by the first letter in the title (“Litteral Poetics”) and sometimes by the first letter in the title’s key word (“Litteral Poetics in English, Towards a Future of,” which comes in the L’s not the T’s). The parts do not often appear in order. A useful rubric directs the reader who wishes to follow what Johanna Drucker, for example, has to say (the bits come in the order 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 5, 3) from each section to the next, and this information is also given in the “Contents.”

The effect of this is to disrupt the sort of reading one might otherwise give to academic papers. Reading the pieces in the order in which they come rather than following the prompts allows the voices, by interrupting each other, to set each other off and so add resonance to what each has to say. It creates, or recreates, a dialogue and of course a sense of experiment – a constraint carried out by the editors upon the work of the participants. In the way that encyclopedias are non-hierarchical in their presentation of information (since alphabetical order does not privilege any of the items so listed), this arrangement also fits with the egalitarian politics that many of the participants, including the editors, give voice to in the course of the discussion.

Or this would be the case if the editors had not so obviously imposed their control. It was they who decided how many pieces to break the critical papers into, and it was they who assigned those pieces titles, thereby determining where in the book a section would land and in what order, alphabetizing sometimes by first word and sometimes by key word. So for instance, by contrast with the dispersal of Johanna Drucker’s paper, Christian Bök’s, also in seven parts, has its first three, which all have “Oulipo” in the title, run consecutively and also the last three, all with “UBUweb” in the title. Spahr and Young’s is preserved intact. As it happens, Drucker calls some of Bök’s thinking into question and some of Spahr and Young’s as well. Those writers, especially Spahr and Young, have the editors’ explicit endorsement.

The editors’ “Introduction” lands in its proper place on page 103, and they also give a useful account of “noulipo: The Conference” on page 149. But they have permitted themselves seven other editorial intrusions, written for the book and not the conference. The citing of these comments suggests that they wish to steer, not the debates, but our reading of them. In an eleven-page run where the use of constraints are discussed, a central topic, the first piece is the editors’ “Constraint (vis-à-vis Rule, Structure and Procedure).” Readers who go through these pieces in order of appearance will read the editors’ first and will inevitably feel that the discussion is being framed.

Again, the editors’ voice is the first heard in the book. “& and” is the title of their piece, and so alphabetically it comes before “’& and’ and foulipo,” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. It also comments on Spahr and Young’s piece, and the comment is a strong endorsement deploying the detailed theoretical framework that the piece itself lacks. Here again readers may feel uncomfortable at having the value of the first selection so strongly underscored and its meaning so carefully expounded before they read it for themselves. Of course they can skip “& and” if they like, but as a piece’s author is not identified until the end of it, they will not know, unless they look, that “& and” is editorial comment.

This practice creates an unfortunate impression of clubbiness that is not reduced by Janet Sarbanes’ conclusion to “Binary Opposition vs. Difference in Combination,” a summary of a panel in which Christine Wertheim took part:

At one point in the conference, as Wertheim was explaining her theory, the projection of her text went down and her screen saver suddenly appeared before us — an image of the galaxy. And I remember thinking how much better it would be to live in Wertheim’s linguistico-conceptual universe, of which perhaps this conference was a little prototype.

In two other summaries of papers (why do individual papers need to be summarized?) Sarbanes reports more than dryly on the comments of the two members of Oulipo present, Fournel and Monk. In a parenthesis of his paper “My Life with Oulipo” Ian Monk says: “([M]ore women have been chosen [to join Oulipo] in the last few years than in the history of the group)” (140). Sarbanes reports:

While keen on preserving the exclusivity of Oulipo membership, [Monk] insists that attempts have been made by the group to address that well-worn Achilles heel of the avant-garde: the absence of other-than-straight-white-males from its acknowledged ranks. (156)

Nothing here about Ian Monk’s screen saver. The treatment is too visibly unequal. Wertheim, one of the editors, speaks frequently about the need to move past binary oppositions, especially in the field of gender. It undermines her own editorial work at making The noulipian Analects anti-hierarchical for her to prompt a prejudicial reading in favor of the feminist position, which is fully argued and quite strong enough to stand on its own.

The noulipian Analects raises a number of topics, but the one most often addressed distinguishes the Oulipo the group, its ideology and practice and the virtues and limitations thereof, from the possible alternatives to or extensions of oulipian writing that might form the basis of noulipo, a new and north American practice. The more interesting and valuable papers describe the latter. Caroline Bergvall’s two papers reflect on aspects of Georges Perec’s work to consider the role time, space, and the “infra-ordinary” in writing; aspects that vary from the classical math-based compositions of Oulipo (which Perec also practiced). Tan Lin discusses Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes as a model for New Media Writing, and Brian Kim Stefans also writes about electronic writing and stresses the importance, in the use of applications, of finding “the text – perhaps the only text – that is suitable” to fulfill the potentiality of “the engineering and programming” (63, 62). Stefans compares computer applications to bachelor machines, a concept to which I will return. Matias Viegener’s paper’s second part, “Potentiality: The Poetics of Play,” usefully reminds us of the importance of the ludic within experiment.

All four of these writers are well-informed about Oulipo and the range of its work. Of the participants who critique Oulipo, however, few appear to have read deeply in oulipian theoretical writing or indeed to have gotten all that far into The Oulipo Compendium, the compilation of oulipian constraints, concepts, and history by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (revised edition, London: Atlas and San Francisco: Make Now, 2005). The critique is political: Oulipo is not as engaged in challenging and escaping bourgeois literary practice and furthering social justice as an avant-garde should be. More specifically, it does not, as a group made up mainly of men (currently of nineteen living members there are four women) and as a practice, welcome the participation of women. The alternative writing practices that would correct and renew Oulipo, aleatory and accumulative writing, are proposed as more progressive and more feminist than any in The Oulipo Compendium. They are to form the basis of noulipo.

The critique is based upon the assumption that the Oulipo is a monolithic group of writers – a school built around an ideology. Christian Bök is particularly to blame for creating this impression, which is false, as he multiplies statements such as “Oulipo criticizes,” “Oulipo repudiates,” “Oulipo rejects,” “Oulipo imposes” (all on 158). Bök, in “Oulipo and Unconscious Tyranny” (158-60) finds six axioms which the editors of The noulipian Analects reiterate-by-anticipation much earlier in the form of a numbered list of “musts” and “shoulds” in “Constraint, the Six Axioms of Oulipian” (43). All of the items on this list were proposed by individual members of Oulipo. Some are matters of broad consensus within the group, others not. The first axiom states that a constraint must be easy to grasp, and no Oulipian would contradict it. However, the statement that a constraint “should reference its own existence” (Bök has “mention”) echoes what Jacques Roubaud says in “Deux principes parfois respectés par les travaux oulipiens” (in Atlas de littérature potentielle [Paris: Gallimard, 1981]). “Parfois” means sometimes.

As for the final “axiom,” that a constraint “must allow for one ‘anti-constraint,’ a deviation that breaks the rules,” this was a view expressed by Georges Perec about his own work, the intricately structured novel La vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual, trans. David Bellos [Boston: Godine, 1987]), from which he left out a chapter demanded by the structure. He invoked the concept of clinamen, the swerving from the pattern enjoined by constraint. Harry Mathews defines clinamen in The Oulipo Compendium as “a deviation from the strict consequences of a restriction … often justified on aesthetic grounds” but one only to be used if “following the initial rule is still possible” (126). Perec says: “The system of constraints — this is important — must be destroyed. It must not be rigid; there must be some play in it; it must, as they say, ‘creak’ a bit; it must not be completely coherent…” (quoted in Motte, Oulipo [U. of Nebraska Press, 1986], 20). These are not the same statement. To be fair, the editors state that the system must “allow for” the anti-constraint (Bök has “allow”), thereby acknowledging that the use of clinamen is a matter of choice. But there is some tension between the idea of choice and the idea of the dogmatic “axiom” into which they wish to force this point, which turns out rather to be another principe parfois respecté. It may be that the oulipians’ willingness to tolerate differences of procedure explains why the group still is meeting and producing work nearly fifty years after its founding.

Nor, although its members have produced some well-known writings, is Oulipo a group whose mission is to produce constrained writing. The mission of Oulipo is to produce constraints that can then be used in writing, perhaps by others. Paul Fournel asserts and repeats this key point: “Oulipian work stops when the constraint has been elaborated and the writer’s work can start” (40) and “Oulipo creates the constraint, gives a sample and has finished its job” (41). How much the group ought to attend to the product – the work of the writer as opposed to the work of Oulipo – is a matter of debate. The group’s co-founder, François Le Lionnais, a mathematician, scoffed at “applied Oulipo,” the actual writing, while Queneau and others called for a few texts to illustrate or “prove” the constraint (Motte, 12). Many of the texts in the Bibliothèque oulipienne and The Oulipo Compendium do in fact serve as such illustration.

Among these illustrative texts are reworkings of traditional fixed forms of verse. Bök comments: “…[T]he poetic tastes of the group can often seem quite banal, insofar as its members seem to enjoy dickering with the gearboxes of obsolete, literary genres (like the sestina or the rondeau), revivifying these antiquary [sic] styles, yet entrenching their canonical status” (222). Of course Bök means that it seems banal to him. Others may have other responses, but if one accepts Oulipo’s own statement of its mission, which has held constant over fifty years, the poetic quality of their members’ output should be irrelevant, since the texts are designed to prove the axiom and not to stand as “poems.”

The comma Bök places (if it is his) between “obsolete” and “literary” suggests that he is using both of these epithets dismissively. “Literary” composition is not, for Bök, the same as “poetic” nor a worthy use of constraints, because, I assume, it only reinforces the romantic-narcissistic nature of bourgeois writing and the hierarchy of texts. Many oulipians have been and are really committed to literature, the “li” of Oulipo. Queneau was in at the start not only of Oulipo but of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the uniform edition of the masterpieces of French literature brought out from Editions Gallimard, where he was senior editor. We can see Bök unthinkingly making an equation between “literature” and the “canon” of infamous memory, but the tradition that Oulipo values includes, besides masterpieces, the tradition of experiment, of folie littéraire (Motte, 6). It is not identical with the canon ringwalled by old-school English professors clinging to their curricula, if not their jobs.

Queneau had no use for aleatory writing such as Surrealist automatic writing, which Motte acknowledges as “the avowed bête noir of Oulipo” (Motte, 17). Even though oulipian writing involves surrendering control of a text to a procedure, arbitrary and invented, that will force expression out of its habitual ruts, so that authorship is at best shared with some structure in language, Queneau and others insist that this writing is still entirely voluntary. The procedure is a machine that the writer constructs and then may use; it is the maze that the rats must build before they can escape from it, in Queneau’s well-known phrase. If the constraint is a machine, the writer still controls the settings. Instead of N + 7 (the procedure in which every noun in a text is replaced by the noun seven places after it in some dictionary), a decision may be made to use N – 7, or V + 7, or V + 11, and the dictionary to use is also a matter of choice. In the maze image we note the stress on escape, also a matter of intention.

Several contributors fault Oulipo for this exclusion of the aleatory, or the related process of accumulation, a rejection of authorial selection in a heaping up of information, perhaps electronically, that is copied or compiled in the simplest possible notation. But in fact writing-in-lists has been popular with the Oulipo. Harry Mathews gave Joe Brainard’s I Remember (NY: Granary, 2001) to Georges Perec, who imitated it in Je me souviens
(, an imitation re-imitated by Mathews, Hervé Le Tellier and Marcel Bénabou, among others. In “The Rue Vilin” (in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock [NY: Penguin, 1997]) Perec did something similar, systematically working his way down the street where he had lived as a child and listing, over the course of several visits, the state of the houses and other changes and incidents. His biographical relation to the subject is not suppressed – he mentions his having lived in No. 24 and his mother’s having been a dressmaker there – but his memories do not inflect the piece into nostalgia or even “personal writing.” In “Writing in Situ” Caroline Bergvall considers “The Rue Vilin” in detail and notes that Perec wanted his memory-list to be “more anonymous than Brainard’s, less personal, and singular” (248). On pages 102-3 she discusses this piece in connection with the concept of the “infra-ordinary” as it was developed by Perec in conjunction with Paul Virilio. The infra-ordinary concerns itself with the “bruit de fond” or background noise that we usually neither note nor even notice.

This interest brings at least one member of Oulipo quite close to the Situationists, who in their “drifts” through neighborhoods of Paris noted similar sorts of information in order to compose “psychogeographical maps” that would record this most basic level of experience, the millions of small incidents and accidents that construct our experience of a place and a time. Such an image would stand against “the society of the spectacle” (the title of the Situationist leader Guy Debord’s best known book), the capitalist appropriation of experience by commodifying every aspect of life that it could reach, by turning things into signs indicating exchange-value rather than use-value. As Bergvall correctly notes, the use that Perec wants to make of the infra-ordinary is not explicitly political, but implicitly it is.

The most often-cited example of an aleatory-accumulative method is UBUweb’s Kenneth Goldsmith’s work in Day (where Goldsmith retyped an entire issue of The New York Times) or Fidget, where he recorded and transcribed a day’s-worth of his own body movements. Publishers Weekly called this procedure “extreme transcription.” Goldsmith goes much further than Perec did in the direction of de-authoring the text and of noting the infra-ordinary from no particular point of view. Contrasting his method with oulipian practice, Bök asks a pointed question:

Oulipo may argue that surreal revolutions represent unaware enslavement to unknown constraints, but Oulipo does not account for the fact that, despite this problem, Surrealism nevertheless promotes forthrightly a radical mandate for social change, whereas Oulipo does not, despite its self-conscious, self-liberated algorithms for creativity. If willful ignorance about such rules can result in covert obedience to their poetic dominance, yet still entail a social critique (as is the case with Surrealism) — how might willful obedience to such rules result in a poetic critique, yet still entail a covert ignorance about their social potential? (201-2)

This is too neat an antithesis. Those familiar with the work produced by Surrealists, as opposed to their (especially Breton’s) overtly political manifestoes, may be surprised to hear it described as enacting a social critique. The Surrealists as a group regularly attended the performance of the plays into which Raymond Roussel had converted his novels in order to gain some popular success and applauded them while the rest of the audience jeered. No one was less interested in social critique than Raymond Roussel, a multi-millionaire living off investments that paid for his own obsessively constrained writing, and no one was more interested in Roussel than the Surrealists, except possibly, later, the Oulipo, who claim him as one of the most important “plagiarists-by-anticipation” of their own work.

It is true that Oulipo does not as a group forthrightly promote social change, and it would be disingenuous to claim that its members, though several of the founders were alumni of the Resistance and Perec participated in the events of May 1968, lean far to the left. They are not Marxists. Bök remarks:

… Marxist writers from the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Group — writers, for example, like [Bruce] Andrews (who posits an “anti-systematic” writing) or [Charles] Bernstein (who posits an “anti-absorptive” writing) — have admitted in conversation that they find Oulipo impressive in its formal technique, but inadequate in its social rationale, if only because Oulipo has yet to question the ideology of its own grammatical, referential bias. (Bök, 222)

On the contrary, I find the members of Oulipo fully conscious of that bias, or commitment, in favor of “literature,” and I have already mentioned that “literature” is not defined by them conservatively or exclusively. Their fondness for the “obsolete, literary forms” such as the sonnet and sestina has more to do with the fact that these encode mathematical algorithms than that they are items in mainstream poetic practice (Jacques Roubaud, “Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau” in Motte, 89-90), a point of general and conscious consensus, if not of “ideology,” that deserves to be better studied. A reader of The noulipian Analects can sometimes feel that Oulipo is being treated as a group of Frenchmen playing word-games. But the importance of mathematics, especially combinatorics and topology, to the generation of language-structures is a serious intellectual endeavor.

Queneau used the sonnet as the basis for Cent mille milliards de poèmes because the sonnet contains elements that can be counted (the lines) and elements that can be repeated with variations (the rhymes). This text, in which ten sonnets of fourteen lines can be read by substituting for any line of any sonnet the line in the same position from any other sonnet, accumulates a hundred trillion (1014) different texts recombining the lines. There is no way for the author to predict what any one of those potential poems is actually going to say, or be read as saying, for signification in such a case (and in much oulipian writing) is really invented in the mind of the reader. It could be said that this empowerment of the reader is itself a political act. The texts themselves will be unconscious and may serve or question ideology. Oulipo’s own “ideology” really extends no further than to say that the mathematical construction of constraints for literature is a valuable activity; the political importance of the texts produced by constrained writing must surely depend on the constraint chosen and the use made of it.

But there is a point to be made about this opposition of the aleatory-accumulative and the arbitrary-voluntary methodologies. Automatic writing or the accumulation of the infra-ordinary has the purpose to reveal something; the subconscious mind in the first case, the sociology of everyday life in the second. In other words there is an underlying structure that is disguised by the normal processes of writing, which select what the author feels to be important, foregrounds that, and arranges it for a reader to follow. We do not need to be Marxists to feel an interest in gaining a sense of that basic, shared bruit de fond, whether psychological, sociological, or economic, since it shapes our lives and mentality. In this the aleatory-accumulative produces the poetry defined by George Oppen when, rearranging Shelley, he described the poet as “the legislator of the unacknowledged world.”

The arbitrary-voluntary procedures of Oulipo, instead of uncovering the underlying unacknowledged, permit the invention of an alternative, parallel world that composes in the reader’s mind. Michel Foucault (Death and the Labyrinth, trans. Charles Rosen [Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1986]) describes the effect of Raymond Roussel’s use of homophony to create équations de faits (equations of facts or objects) in one part of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique.

Nouvelles Impressions in search of impossible identities [of two words that sound alike] creates minuscule poems where words collide or separate, charged with opposing magnetic polarity; in one or two verses they cross an impenetrable distance between things, and from one to the other establish a lightning contact which throws them back to their original position. Thus strange shapes spring forward, sparkling for a moment, poems of a second’s duration, where, in a spontaneous motion, the separation of things and the emptiness between them is abolished and reconstituted. (150-51)

I think that is just this sort of sudden conjunctive poetry that oulipian writing regularly throws up, throwing language into opacity when we thought it transpicuous, turning words into objects and objects into experiences, creating imaginal worlds that are concrete and objective. In “Form: Revealing or Not Revealing” Vanessa Place describes the role of writer to work:

Whether we are reluctant gods, or those who elbow in, the consciousness of the concrete means our creations go on regardless of our intentions, willed free though wrought determinate. (88)

Earlier, in “Form (or Blue to Blue #632)” she affirms Paul Valéry “when he said the point was to make the poem that rang effortless and absolute, so that it bore no birth-marks” (82). It follows that instead of thinking of oulipian writing as disconnected and gratuitous, we should see it as utopian, a point made by Christine Wertheim in her non-editorial pieces on “Litteral Poetics”:

The aim of such a poetics is not simply to explore the linguistic arrangements of a given body as these currently stand but to look at what they might become – a utopian perspective. Litteral poetics is thus a reverse form of archaeology, a future-oriented mode of exploration that dis-covers potentials in the linguistic arrangements of a body, social or individual, endowed with a particular kind of tongue. (116)

It remains to add that the invention of alternative worlds is also the stated goal of ‘pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions,” and Jarry is as much an ancestor for Oulipo as Roussel. UBUweb was of course founded in homage to Jarry and ‘pataphysics, and it is therefore surprising to find some of its members insisting on strict movement politics. Johanna Drucker calls them on this when she speaks of “being scolded by [Steve] McCaffery for doing ‘pataphysics ‘incorrectly’ – as if the science of exceptions does not cover all deviant cases!” (15).

The editors of The noulipian Analects claim that

… for artists, the aleatory offers the possibility that accidents can produce something new, meaningful, and unique that could not be produced through deliberate constructions, for the chance operation contains the potential to scatter already related elements and to make new connections between hitherto “unrelated” ones. (34)

No one could have been more deliberate than Roussel, yet I’d argue that his constructions carry out this scattering and connecting equally well.

In short, the attempt to assert an important difference between oulipian and surrealist/’pataphysical poetics of experimentation reveals a desire to oversimplify one practice in order to sharpen the definition of another. Again Johanna Drucker hits the nail on the head:

Anxiety about authority showed in the [noulipo conference’s] discussion sessions. These attempts to police the use and definition of what passes as “Oulipian” sometimes have an unpleasantly shrill edge of authority anxiety. Careful nuancing of what is and isn’t this or that within typologies of experimentalism is an admirable and essential undertaking. But the guarding of borders that is a necessary part of critical undertakings seem counter-productive if artistic modes are going to be kept generative. (15)

The feminist critique of Oulipo is articulated by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young in “’& and’ and foulipo” (5-13). In this piece, composed accumulatively (like Je me souviens) of “and-then-we-thought” reflections, an appearance of aleatory rambling that nevertheless develops an argument, Spahr and Young wonder about the passing and seeming irrelevance today of the body art of the 70s, as practiced by Shigeko Kubota, Carolee Schneeman, and Eleanor Antin among others, at a moment when men, and specifically the men who take college-level poetry classes with them, are so interested in restrictive, number-based restrictions – in other words, with Oulipo and its constraints. Why is the first set of procedures so “over” while the second (they refer specifically to Christian Bök, whose Eunoia is a best-seller) is so popular and widely imitated? Johanna Drucker answers the first point: “The grounds have shifted, and the present dynamics of poetry scenes, though they have their usual share of homosocial groupings, are not exclusively dominated by these – are they?” (169). Body Art was a specific response to a historical situation. About the second part, the popularity of constrained writing among males, Drucker says succinctly, “If some poetry boys exhibit pack behavior, so what?” (169).

In my own experience, as many women as men attend the constrained-writing workshops and classes that Wendy Walker and I have been leading over the last dozen years, and it is not noticeably the men who prefer “number-based” constraints or who get the most interesting results from them. Of course we are drawing self-selected adults to a gallery venue and not teaching poetry in a college. Many of the procedures that we try out are collaborative in nature, and it should be noted that oulipian procedures lend themselves easily to collaboration. Particularly in these collaborations I am always struck by how much this sort of experimentation leaves gender and racial differences behind.

The noulipian Analects is the record of a conference, and therefore the questions it raises and the answers it supplies are merely those of the participants free to say what was on their minds about Oulipo and poetics. As such the book will make many readers think about the poetics of experimental composition, and may leave them wishing, as it did me, that their thinking had not been so insistently steered toward one side of the issues and that other views had been more fully explored and less summarily dismissed. Before hearing the critique of Oulipo, they might have liked to see the poetics of Oulipo much more carefully and knowledgeably explored from an oulipian and an extra-oulipian position. They might have liked to hear less from writers and more from readers about the actual experience afforded by reading constrained writing. They might have liked to hear a mathematician, or more than one, discuss the debt to Bourbaki or the use of set theory or combinatorics or topological concepts in the composition of writing. They might have liked to hear more of the history and context for Oulipo: the ground it shares with Surrealism and with ‘Pataphysics, its debt to Roussel or to Lévi-Strauss, its interest in the grands rhétoriqueurs of the 15th and 16th centuries. They might have been interested to hear about Oulipo’s fecundity in spinning off other ou-x-pos such as Oupeinpo for painters or Oulipopo for writers of detective fiction. They might have liked to hear from fewer poets and from more writers in the narrative forms where oulipians have scored some of their most remarkable applications of constrained writing; Doug Nufer had to carry all the weight in this area. They may be excused for thinking that while the aleatory-accumulative methods of composition hold real interest, they are not enough to make a reality of noulipo; that noulipo has not yet found a praxis; and that its ideology, while clear, is anything but new. Whatever the value of noulipo, however, the value of The noulipian Analects is unquestionable: it has started a discussion that till now has flourished mainly in Europe. Any North American interested in constrained writing will be grateful for that.

Having said so much, I want now to suggest an idea that may be useful in continuing the conversation. I was very struck by the description of the performance that Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young gave of their paper at the noulipo conference. At first Spahr and Young read alternate sentences. Then their recorded voices took over and they, together with some others, began to remove and then put back on their clothes. Their performance stands as an homage to their Body Art predecessors, about whom they were speaking, and also as an assertion that this very specifically feminist form, foregrounding the “gendered body” (12), aging and “messy,” is the right reply to make to another experimental practice, the oulipian, which might then be understood as the bodiless head-games of men.

Spahr and Young’s performance calls to mind an aesthetic concept under discussion at around the same time as Body Art, the mid-70s. This concept is the “bachelor machine,” the subject of a major exhibition put together by the famous Swiss curator Harald Szeeman in 1975 and shown in Bern, in Venice at the Biennale, and in several other European cities. The phrase, also sometimes translated as “celibatory machine,” was first used by Marcel Duchamp to describe the lower panel of his famous Large Glass (“The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even”) now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Borrowed by Michel Carrouges in a 1946 article, in his Les Machines célibataires (Paris: Arcanes, 1954) and again in Le Macchine Celibi/The Bachelor Machines, ed. Harald Szeeman (Venice: Alfieri, 1975), the same phrase is used to describe a tradition of imaginary machines defined by Duchamp’s piece and including elements of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Villier de Lisle Adam’s L’Eve future, Alfred Jarry’s Le Supermâle, Kafka’s “The Penal Colony,” and Roussel’s Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa. All these writers stand in the surrealist/’pataphysical/oulipian pantheon, and all describe “bachelor machines.”

As with the Duchamp piece, it is not easy to understand the composition of these machines, and still less so to evaluate them. They often seem to be unattractively “about” some of the more voyeuristic, onanistic, and specifically masculine formations of the Freudian Apparat, and to seal themselves off from the world, particularly the world of the messy, gendered body. The Bachelors, who appear in uniforms and thereby inscribe an idea of hierarchy into their part of the composition, are, in Carrouges’ phrase, “the masters of the Machine” (Le Macchine Celibi, 40). Michel de Certeau gives a much more nuanced picture of the bachelor machine in “The Arts of Dying: Celibatory Machines,” his essay in the Szeeman book mentioned above and reprinted in Heterologies. Discourse on the Other (trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986]). De Certeau encapsulates a history of the novel as a bourgeois form dominant for four hundred years, till the start of the twentieth century, that substitutes for myth in making history as “a capitalist, productive mode of writing.” Eventually it becomes “[a] machine par excellence, in turn pedagogical, entrepreneurial, urbanist, scientific, and revolutionary.” But then “[t]he text, closed in upon itself, loses the referent that authorized it, and is no longer anything more than the Schauplatz der Träume” [the scene of the dream]. De Certeau describes what happens next:

Writing proliferates in the vicinity of the break that vibrates in the nothing of the work. It is an “island/inscription,” a Locus solus, a “penal colony,” a dream inhabited by the unreadability to which, or of which, it thinks it “speaks.” It is this baring of the scriptural myth [of the novel] – an act of derision – that makes the celibatory machine blasphemous. It challenges the principle of Occidental ambition. With its traps and machinations, it undermines the simulacrum of being that comprised the (now unveiled) secret/sacred aspect of a Bible transformed by four centuries of bourgeois writing into the gospel of the domination of things by the letter and by writing. (All quotations above from Heterologies, 158.)

Oulipian constrained writing as a procedure seems as if it might be a bachelor machine, intended precisely to liberate “things” from the domination of a tradition of bourgeois writing by making language itself objective, material available for manipulation from outside its own rules and traditions, by means of a wholly different set of rules and concepts: the mathematical, applied as constraints. But of course there are other sorts of constraints besides these; the world is fertile in structures that can be applied to composition.

In my own view, the more an object (person, thing, word) is mine, an object of my possessing, the more it serves me as a slave, an instrumentality to extend my reach. The less it is mine, the more it becomes a person to me, the object of knowing and an interlocutor in conversation. The joy that I take in oulipian constraints, and which I took in reading many of the constrained pieces in of The noulipian Analects, including Spahr and Young’s paper, is the pleasure of encountering a language that is not owned, that owns itself, where the “author” is at best a collaborator, and where the text demands a collaboration of me. I feel grateful to all enablers of experimentation that can produce this result, but especially to Oulipo for the generosity with which, over the course of half a century, they have offered their work for use by anyone who can respond to it.

Spahr and Young responded to it and used two oulipian procedures, “slenderizing” (removing all instances of the letter r) and N + 7. But additionally their performance enacted a mise à nu that matches the Bride’s in the upper panel of Duchamp’s piece. Carrouges rather half-heartedly locates some other “brides” in Jarry and Roussel, but we can take up this work with more vigor by asking: Where is the oulipian Bride? That might be an interesting way to formulate Spahr and Young’s question, and the bachelor machine, with its two parts juxtaposed or in dialogue, might be a useful concept in advancing the discussion begun in The noulipian Analects.

Copyright ©2009 by Tom La Farge

Author of several books of fiction, including the two volume work, The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors and the award-winning Terror of Earth, La Farge most recently began a series of books on methods of writing fiction, 13 Writhing Machines, the first of which was titled "Administrative Assemblages." The Crimson Bears, A Hundred Doors, and Terror of Earth can still be purchased through Green Integer (