Tag Archives: constraint

oulipo in new york

The most prominent members of the Oulipo are making a rare descent upon New York this week; there are readings at the New School tonight and in Pierogi in Williamsburg on April 3rd. (A complete schedule of events can be found here.) Oulipo is the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (the workshop of potential literature), a group of mostly French mathematicians and writers who use constraint to generate new literary forms. The most well-known Oulipians are the late Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec; the group, however, carries on, and Marcel Bénabou, Anne Garréta, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews will be talking about their work.
Part of the occasion for their arrival is the publication of Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop in Jeff Fort’s English translation by the Dalkey Archive. (There’s a launch party tomorrow night at Idlewild Books.) The Loop, originally published in France in 1993, is the second volume of a series of works collectively called The Great Fire of London; five volumes have been published in France, and a sixth and final volume is in the works. While the first volume (published under the same name as the series) was translated into English in 1992, it’s taking a while for the rest of them to appear here. The Great Fire of London is worthy of mention here because it’s perhaps the most extended literary use of hypertext. The two volumes published here have “Fiction” stamped on the back cover, but that’s not entirely accurate: these books are writing about writing, a metafictional memoir if you will, arranged around Roubaud’s inability to write a novel entitled The Great Fire of London. (Marcel Bénabou confronts this issue more concisely in a book of his own entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.)
“Metafiction” is a word used in criticism to damn writing more often than not; especially in this country, it’s frequently presented as ivory tower excess, obfuscatory, the enemy of American plain-speaking. The Great Fire of London is certainly subject to these criticisms: Roubaud is dazzlingly intelligent (while a professor of mathematics at the Sorbonne he studied for a second doctorate in poetry), and his writing pulls no punches; within the first chapter of The Loop, the reader is faced with explorations of the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa, Wittgenstein, and Kripke, to name only the philosophers. But The Great Fire of London is also a very personal work: as explained in the first volume, Roubaud began writing the work after the death of his wife Alix as a means of working through grief. His wife’s presence hovers over the first two volumes of the work, albeit obliquely: her death is never discussed directly. Roubaud wakes every morning before dawn and writes a section of his evolving book; he forces himself to work linearly, not to revise, not to leave anything out. The first volume focuses on his conception of his project and his writing, though there are memoiristic departures: Roubaud’s ideas about how croissants should work and how jam was prepared in his childhood in Provence; the memory of an American love affair and his tastes in English novelists all make their way in to his narrative.
Roubaud does not constrain himself to a strictly linear writing style: periodically there are interpolations, glosses on passages of his linear book that go on for a few pages; interpolations frequently have their own interpolations. There are also bifurcations: sometimes Roubaud sees another way that his narrative could go and follows it for a longer period. The reader flips back and forth through the sections of the book; to follow Roubaud’s suggested pathway (which, he points out, is not the only way to read the book) requires three bookmarks.
Here, as a demonstration, is a diagram of the first chapter of The Loop, showing how 90 pages of the book’s text are interconnected: the chapter itself is about 30 pages, there are about 30 pages of interpolations, and the bifurcation also lasts for 30 pages. Horizontal connections are interpolations, where linear text is interrupted to suggest a possible digression; vertical connections are linear connections. The complete book is about six times this length; I’d love to see a complete map of the book, though I haven’t found one yet.
It should be noted that this diagram only captures the explicit interconnections in the book; there are also implicit interconnections, and especially in the bifurcation Roubaud refers back to other interpolations that the reader trying to follow the explicit map will not yet have read. Like Cortázar’s Hopscotch, this is a book that demands re-reading. Dominic Di Bernardi’s afterword to the English translation of The Great Fire of London, “The Great Fire of London and the Destruction of the Book”, argues that Roubaud’s work is the future of the book: the future was hypertext. Read 17 years later, this feels like a flying car vision of the future; the hypertext future that everyone imagined in 1992 never really arrived.
Roubaud’s work, by contrast, now feels like a deeply personal project: one man’s attempt to map out his memory as accurately as possible using the formal tools available to him, trying to smash the architecture of memory into the Procrustean bed imposed by the strict linearity of our readership of text. In The Great Fire of London, Roubaud explains how he works with a typewriter, an electronic model named Miss Bosanquet III (named after the secretary of Henry James); Miss Bosanquet III’s primitive word-processing capabilities allowed him to edit one line of text before it was printed. With The Loop, Roubaud started composing using a Mac. The results are obvious as soon as one opens the book: text is bolded, italicized, and underlined, and the type size changes. The Loop is primarily about Roubaud’s childhood, but it’s also necessarily an exploration of how writing can approach the problem of mapping memory, and, by extension, how technology changes writing. The problem for the reader of Roubaud is that technology changes reading as well: we’re left trying to catch up.

a return to orality

I’ve been making my way through Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, which came out a couple years ago in Canada, but which is now getting an American release from Counterpoint. Bringhurst is probably best known to the readers of this site as the author of The Elements of Typographic Style, though he’s well-known as a poet and translator of Native American languages in Canada. This book is a collection of essays looking broadly at oral, written, and visual language and culture through an ecological lens, a viewpoint not dissimilar to the gatherings of wood s lot, the work of his fellow Canadian Mark Woods.
Much of The Tree of Meaning looks at Native American literature of the Pacific Northwest and how that was gathered by the followers of Franz Boas who gathered and disseminated native stories in songs. I know painfully little about anthropology; perhaps that’s why Bringhurst’s words on the problems inherent in transcribing oral literature seem evocative:

It is true that writing changes literature. It changes it, first of all, by leaving things out. A transcript of an oral poem never captures the fullness of a living performance tradition. And this is where writers become more deviant still. As they take their own dictation, they begin to try to use the resources of writing to patch up the holes and mend the tears they cannot help but make in the fabric of literature as they slip from the oral tradition.

(p. 178 in “The Humanity of Speaking: The Place of the Individual in the Making of Oral Culture”.) The idea of the printed word as being what’s left behind isn’t one we commonly think about, but it instinctively makes sense – perhaps more than ever in a world where a book can be simmered down to a text file constrained to the 127 ASCII characters. Looking to return closer to the original poetry, Bringhurst investigates John R. Swanton‘s typographic transcriptions of Haida myth and finds that document to be more complex than we commonly give it credit for:

The typescript, like the photograph, filters and compresses features of reality. We have to learn to read it – and I don’t just mean we have to learn the language. Learning to read transcriptions of oral literatures is something like learning to read historical photographs. The depth and the color, the sounds and the smells, the coughing and spitting, and a lot of the rest of the nitty-gritty is missing. Through informed imagination, much of that can be restored. And it’s like learning to read music. The point is not just to grasp the grammar and the syntax but to envision, and maybe re-create, a genuine performance.

The typescript looks at first to be plain prose, which is a form designed to minimize the outward individuality of any human voice. Almost no one speaks in genuine prose, but the form is often used – by journalists, linguists, and court reporters alike – for transcriptions. The typographic form we associate with prose makes speakers look like writers.

Swanton went looking for what he couldn’t see, and his typewritten texts are the result. I went looking, in the typescript, for what I couldn’t hear: the oral art, the form and meaning hidden in the flattened landscape of the page.

(p. 188 in the same essay.) He reproduces a portion of the typescript, demonstrating his point:

illustration from p189 from the tree of meaning

There’s a lot to think about here, especially now. Each technology in its own way dictates a Procrustean bed, though we’re often not attuned to what the constraints of our technology are. The high-bandwidth networked screen creates possibilities: more can be passed along in the transmission of stories than was before. But constraints dictate form: we know how to read the print book perhaps because that extra information has been sheered away. Learning to read electronically may be complicated.

…and cinematic photographs

image from the whale hunt by jonathan harrisTo make a trifecta of film posts for the day, I’ll point out Jonathan Harris’s The Whale Hunt. Properly speaking, this isn’t a film at all; rather, it’s a sequence of 3,214 photographs which Jonathan Harris took over a week’s trip to Alaska to observe a traditional whale hunt. Harris has date-stamped, captioned, and tagged (in three ways) each photograph. They appear in a Flash interface which displays the images in sequence: a very long slideshow. What’s interesting about Harris’s work – and which may merit his declaration that it’s “an experiment in human storytelling” is they way in which tags are used in the interface: if you click the whale that appears in the top center of each photographs, you can change the constraints on the sequence of photographs that you’re looking at. You can choose to see, for example, only photographs taken in Barrow, Alaska; only photographs featuring the first whale killed; only photographs that show children. Or you can choose a mixture of qualifications. One particularly interesting qualifier is the use of “cadence”: you can choose to see pictures that were taken close together in time – presumably when more interesting things were happening – or further apart – when, for example, the narrator is sleeping and has the camera set up to automatically photograph every five minutes.

My sense in playing with it for a bit is that using constraint in this manner isn’t a tremendously compelling method of storytelling. It is, however, a powerful way of drilling into an archive to see exactly what you want to see.