This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 1
The Los Angeles Oulipo conference (or n/Oulipo or noulipo as others have it) is over. Its participants and audience must now get back to the book (or paper or writing or internet or nature as the case may be). I thought about using a constraint to compile these notes but it seemed both too obvious and too taxing. I have enough trouble updating “me old blog” as it is – I haven’t stretched enough to jump another hurdle. Maybe a few laps around the track will tip me into shape. I apologize in advance for any lacunae, inaccuracies, reductions or misinterpretations in what follows. I also apologize for the stilted prose. I’m working from notes, some of which seem incoherent now, and I’ve had very little sleep the past few days. Conversation went deep into the night. I’ve included very little of my own thoughts and reactions to the work presented. I hope instead to offer a summary of the event (though I suppose the title of this blog-entry and what I choose to note and ignore reveal my own interests and biases). When the yearbook is published next year you will be able to read some of the essays, poems, and prose that were presented at the conference. Last year’s edition (from the Séance conference) is freshly printed from Make Now Press and should soon be available here.
CalArts professor Matias Viegener opened the proceedings by invoking the infamous Ben Marcus essay on experimentalism and realism in September’s issue of Harper’s, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen and Life as We Know It” (an excerpt of which can be found here). Viegener suggested that the essay is too defensive and does not go far enough in its interrogation of the conflict between experimentalism and realism. The essay’s primary fault is that it offers no real definition of the experimental. On the other hand, it does open a potential space for the discussion of the experimental inclination in writing. It was from this space that Viegener hoped the n/Oulipo conference would operate.
Paul Fournel, President of the Oulipo (or King of the Umpa Lumpas, as others had it) gave the next address, dedicated to recently departed Oulipian Jean Lescure. Fournel described how Raymond Queneau recruited him in the early 1960s “as a slave” for the newly formed group (but, he added, “everybody loves Raymond”) and that they created “a secret garden of research and friendship”. They were interested in the non-immanence of constraint and math & science as structural elements of textual production. Fournel carefully differentiated constraint from structure. Structure is focused on the text while constraint is focused on production (this distinction was brought up frequently during the conference). Constraints, he said, can be found in numerous “anticipatory plagiarists”. Constraints for the Oulipo have a pedagogical efficiency and can be exclusively related to the writer of the text and not just the text itself.
The first panel was entitled “Letters and Numbers” and included Brian Kim Stefans, Christine Wertheim, and moderator Douglas Kearney. Stefans asked: “What can the Oulipo do for new media?” To be honest, Stefans read so quickly that I didn’t manage to write much down or follow everything he said, but here’s what I have: words are traditionally privileged entities; but words are not just another element to be used like sound or color. Stefans is interested in digital works for which texts solve a problem. He suggests that the limitations of media art form a kind of constraint. As he read his essay he projected images from various works of media art on a screen behind him. Those interested should explore his fascinating website arras.net for links to some of these new media artworks (or his blog Free Space Comix). And be sure to check out his work as well (his book Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics goes into many of his ideas in-depth). Christine Wertheim, a member of the Institute for Figuring, presented an intriguing and complex essay that seemed to parody scientific inquiry by employing a pseudo-scientific theory she developed herself. Integral to her theory is the interactivity of the (textual?) body and the symbolic. For Wertheim, language is a visual phenomenon. Structures found in nature and mathematics can be applied to an analysis of language due to “knots” or “nots” in space-time. For Wertheim, the universe is “linguistico-conceptual”. To prove her theory she projected slides that combined mathematical equations with visual poetry. We all know that the substance of the universe is space-time, but for Wertheim the substance of the linguistic-universe is “time-space”. Through visual-poetic alchemy (“time-space” converted to “+/’me --> rhythm” and further series of playful metamorphoses of linguistic characters) Wertheim showed that language could be smelted into seven Aristotelian categories (I couldn’t catch all the categories because she changed the slide after only a few moments). This was proof that ideology, i.e. binary categories of conceptual thought, is embedded in language itself (and as students of Western Civilization we all know that binary opposition is one of the ideologies at the basis of human thought). Wertheim ended her talk by urging us to move beyond simple binary opposition.
British Oulipian Ian Monk gave the next address on “what the Oulipo is not”. According to Monk, the Oulipo is not dead, but it might smell funny. The Oulipo does not seek to suggest what one must do; it seeks to say what one can do (if one wants to do it). If you write a novel without using Oulipian constraints, the Oulipo will not say, “yes, this is all nice and good, but you’ve used all the letters in the alphabet here.” The Oulipo ultimately seeks to solve the problem of the blank page. Monk prefers to use the terms “structure, form and technique” rather than “constraint.” By using techniques, you will get something other than a blank page – that something might be crap, but it’s something. And ultimately it is up to the writer whether he or she wants to use techniques or not. On the question of the translation of Oulipian texts, Monk says that it is essential that the translator retain the formal technique in the translation. An audience member asked Monk to describe an Oulipian meeting. Monk said, first, that each meeting must have at least one new creation or text. Secondly, there must be a “rumination” (an idea for a new creation). Next, usually during supper, the Oulipians engage in “erudition” (that is, they present to each other various interesting texts and works that they have discovered –other novels or poems that may use Oulipian techniques). Finally they all pay up for dinner, usually $10. As Monk explains it, some Oulipians have a great deal of money, some less, so they all try to pitch in the same modest amount. Monk ended with some threatening advice: if you ask to be a member of the Oulipo, you will not be a member of the Oulipo.
The next panel, “The Contents of Constraint,” consisted of Paul Fournel (again), Oulipo-esque novelist and poet Doug Nufer (who has a great day time job – he runs a wine shop in Seattle) and Vanessa Place, who has a new novel out called Dies: A Sentence (the entire 117 page novel is a single sentence). Place presented an allusive essay I would much rather have read, its density defeating my patience. My one note from her talk: the question of form is exhausted. Fournel limited his remarks to the topic of constraint, which “forces language to speak that which it does not want to speak.” Sometimes constraint is totally obvious (e.g. Perec’s La Disparition, a novel composed without the letter e). When constraint is not obvious, the constraint is usually more complicated. Concerning the politics of revelation: if the constraint can be re-used by others, the Oulipo recommends that it should be revealed. But under what conditions would one not wish to reveal a constraint (“Mathew’s algorithm,” for instance, is an unknown constraint Harry Mathews used to compose Cigarettes)? First, there may be commercial reasons. Often readers may be turned off if they are told a book has been written using constraints. Second, there may be a personal, secret reason (the case of Harry Mathews – he simply didn’t want to tell anybody). Third, by not revealing the constraint a writer can focus the attention of critics on another aspect of the work, such as plot or character. A French critic once reviewed Perec’s La Disparition without noticing there was no letter e. Italo Calvino was afraid to reveal his constraint for If on a winter’s night a traveler… because he worried it might scare readers away. But revealing, said Fournel, can be another way of hiding. Surrealist automatic writing often reveals constraints that do not look like the freedom it purports to access. Doug Nufer then addressed the old saw of "form & content". In commercial fiction, he noted, form and content is not an issue. Imagine how much more interesting Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter or Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News would have been if they had been written in the forms their titles reference. Ultimately, commercial fiction is defined by arbitrariness and is ruled by a dictatorship of taste. Purveyors of the conceit of “taste” often fail to recognize parody. Witness the genius of National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook. For Nufer, form is content. Constraint creates content and content creates restraint. Nufer then related an anecdote that illuminated the question of the revelation of constraint. Nufer was employed teaching literature to prison inmates. As part of the program the prisoners read his book Never Again (a 200 page novel in which no word is repeated).* The prisoners very earnestly and respectfully told Nufer that they did not like his book. But when the prisoners were informed of the formal constraint they became very interested and insisted on reading the book again.
The evening readings: Janet Sarbanes read from a novel about the president’s daughter; Bernadette Mayer read some hilarious n+7 poems (the source texts of which seemed to be sexual instruction manuals); Vanessa Place read from her novel Dies: A Sentence; Christine Wertheim read some visual poetry (which, she explained, was meant to be looked at and not necessarily read); Doug Nufer read some Oulipian-inspired work and sang a tin pan alley song (I believe it was a poem sung backwards); Rob Wittig read some Google poems; Tan Lin read from an unpublished novel (for a more detailed account of Tan’s reading check out Stan Apps at Refried Oracle Phone); and Rodrigo Toscano (along with Christian Bök, Stephanie Young and Brian Kim Stefans, all of whom I was happy to finally meet) read from a play (I didn’t catch the title) which was definitely the highlight of the night.
Okay, I’ve gone on long enough, and probably longer than I ever have before. If you attended the conference and wish to add anything or correct my mistakes or clarify any misunderstandings, please comment. And check back soon for Part 2.
*CORRECTIONS: Doug Nufer sends word that the book he had the prisoners read was not Never Again, but Negativeland (where each sentence has a negative construction). Also, and I can't believe I didn't recognize this, the song Nufer sang was "Star Dust" with the lyrics rearranged by spoonerism and inversion.