This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 3
I kept notes diligently during every panel throughout the n/OULIPO conference except one: “The Politics of Constraint.” The speakers were poets Rodrigo Toscano, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, and sound-poet Christian Bök. Jen Hofer moderated. There were rumors hours before the panel began that something remarkable was afoot, and any panel with the word “politics” in its title is sure to be interesting, if not necessarily contentious; but the politics panel proved to be the most thought-provoking panel of the entire conference. I stopped taking notes simply because I felt I was missing too much (though ultimately by not taking notes I missed more) and because I wanted to pay close attention to what was being said. Rodrigo Toscano presented first. If you’re at all familiar with Toscano’s work, you’d know that he agrees with the Historical Materialists that “poems act as a barometer of one’s developing social consciousness” and that one of his tasks is to begin to imagine “a new internationally committed political poetry, with enough negativity and critical reflexivity to last into the night.” (Those quotes are taken not from the Oulipo conference, but from a talk [warning: pdf file] he gave at the UPenn “Poetry and Empire” conference in October 2003). I bring these quotes up not only to highlight a facet of Toscano’s poetics, but because I want to read them against something Johanna Drucker mentioned in the summary panel. But I’ll get to that later. For n/OULIPO, Toscano presented an allusive, poetic text that, if I remember correctly, played off the political connotations of the words “constraint” and “restraint”. I remember: “You givin' me lip?”. I remember: “New…lip…oh?” (I’ve asked Toscano to comment on his talk and if he does so I’ll mention it here).* In the meantime, I’ve found an excerpt of the play/poem he read from on Friday night. It was published in the latest Jacket Magazine: “Traux Inimical.”
Six Oulipian Men (facing, l to r: Jean Lescure,
François Le Lionnais, Raymond Queneau; backs
to the camera, l to r: Noël Arnaud, Claude Berge &
Next, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young read from a piece they wrote together (they seamlessly read alternating sentences). I noticed something strange right away; at first I thought one of them had a speech impediment, or that Spahr, who had spent some time teaching in Hawai'i, was reading in Hawai’i Creole English, but I quickly figured out that they simply weren’t pronouncing the letter r in the words of their sentences (it almost sounded like Elmer Fudd-speak, or as one audience member put it, baby-talk; so that, for instance, “writer” was continuously pronounced “wite” – a method that made a poignant point in phrases like “the wites of the Oulipo”). Let me be clear: this piece was about many things, and I don’t mean to be reductive or inaccurate, but I’m working not from notes but memory, so what I’m about to relate (like everything I’ve related about the conference) is only fragmentary. Stephanie Young said she may elaborate on her blog, The Well-Nourished Moon. Spahr & Young’s talk frequently made reference to female artists of the 1960s, 70s and 80s who foregrounded the body in their artwork – Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramovic, Kathy Acker – (and, I may be wrong about this, but if memory serves it was only when Spahr & Young mentioned these artists’ names that the letter r returned and was fully pronounced). They had noticed that several young, usually male writers whose work is influenced by the Oulipo have been able to successfully pass off their work as “radical” or “revolutionary”, while several young, usually female artists whose work is influenced by the body art of the 1970s have had their work dismissed as “old-hat” or “derivative”. Spahr & Young also noted that the Oulipo and the body artists developed their art and strategies during roughly the same era (the 1960s and 70s); the former are often spoken of as a cohesive group even as their individual projects differ, while the latter are rarely spoken of as a group or movement at all. Young & Spahr thus made a case for “carrying the body forward”. At a certain point during their talk, Young & Spahr stopped speaking “live” and a recording came on that continued their essay (complete with the poets alternating their sentences, though I believe during this recording the letter r was pronounced). While the recording projected their voices (disembodied, as it were) the two poets very matter-of-factly undressed. Meanwhile, 2 naked men and 1 naked woman casually walked down the theater aisle, sat down in seats near the front of the theater, and started reading. When Spahr & Young finished undressing they put their clothes back on, undressed once more, and put their clothes back on again. All this was going on as the recording of their text continued to be recited over the theater’s PA system. I believe they repeated this action once more before the piece ended. Content & form had often been debated & discussed during the conference, but this was the only piece that put the tension of those two terms to work viscerally; even as the very important content of their essay demanded close scrutiny, the form (both in the disembodied vocal aspect and the clearly embodied physical aspect) could not be ignored. The fact that such form has been ignored, dismissed, or otherwise rejected by self-described members of the avant-garde was part of the point (Though perhaps the case can be made that the critical reception of the work of 70s body artists has focused too much on form and not enough on content. You're only paying attention to form! You're only paying attention to content! Someone said: Harry Mathews was disappointed when reviewers would pay attention only to the formal logic of Perec's novels and not their beautiful narrative content). Some mentioned that the absent letter r represented the absent female subject. The poet Tan Lin speculated that their performance demonstrated the "dated critical object". Anyway, I’d like to hear from others who were present, or from anyone who cares to amend or correct any mistakes in my account (I’m sure there’s a few and it's obviously not comprehensive). I don’t want to be the only narrator. I’m especially looking forward to anything Stephanie Young may write about this talk/performance, as she hinted she may do. A few other notes regarding Spahr & Young’s talk: in Q&A later that night, Oulipian Ian Monk pointed out that simply not using or pronouncing the letter r in a text does not a constraint make. For it to be a constraint the absent letter r would have had to determine which words were actually used, which didn’t seem to be the case. Monk also referred to their performance as a “strip-tease” (is it possible he’s just ignorant of the body art history referenced by Young & Spahr? at any rate – poor and inconsiderate choice of words), which term, inexplicably, was repeated by summary panelist Tan Lin. One more note: I’ve noticed Los Angeles poet Catherine Daly (who was noticeably absent from the conference – if any local poet should have been invited to be a panelist it’s her) has posted a few thoughts about what kind of performance she might have done. She also contrasts Young & Spahr’s performance with the recent Fence Magazine cover controversy.
Christian Bök presented the final paper for the “Politics of Constraint” panel. The contrast with Young & Spahr’s piece could only have been more exaggerated if Hulk Hogan gave the talk. (That’s actually quite unfair of me – Bök’s talk was terrific, but there seemed to be some unacknowledged questions of gender and performance in what one audience member described as Bök’s “machine-like,” “masculine,” forceful presentation. Said Bök: I saw nothing gendered about my presentation; I was simply reading a straight academic paper in accord with the traditions of the discipline. The audience, in response, laughed in disbelief). Bök, a member of the UbuWeb collective, spoke specifically about the politics of the Oulipo. Or rather the Oulipo’s lack of a coherent political program. Whereas most avant-garde movements throughout the 20th century made politics a central tenet of their respective organizations, the Oulipo, despite its individual members’ left-leaning proclivities, has declined to articulate a politics. The Surrealists – with whom the Oulipo’s founder Raymond Queneau was briefly affiliated – despite their shortcomings, nevertheless managed to sustain a social critique that is absent from the Oulipo charter (my two-cents: this question of the politics of the Surrealists and the perceived lack of Oulipian politics may be elucidated by a reading of Raymond Queneau’s semi-autobiographical novel Odile, wherein the commitment of the Surrealist-like group is portrayed as superficial and opportunistic). The College of ‘Pataphysics, the Oulipo’s immediate precursor, was named as an organization that still retained a certain level of positive political activity. For Bök, whose UbuWeb group is greatly influenced by the Oulipo, the lack of social critique by the Oulipo is a kernel of unrealized potential that still needs to be cracked. Needless to say, the Oulipians present vehemently disagreed. Paul Fournel mentioned an article penned by Jacques Roubaud that explicitly criticizes French Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (using a constraint, of course). Fournel also took issue with the implied political commitment of the College of ‘Pataphysics.
Well I had meant for this to be the final post on the conference, but I think there's enough here to consider for now. I would still like to play those earlier quotes (and others) from Rodrigo Toscano against a few things Johanna Drucker mentioned in the summary panel. Looks like there'll be a Part 4.
*Update: The piece Toscano read at n/OULIPO was called "De-Liberating Freedoms in Transit," an excerpt of which can be found at Silliman's Blog.