For the final prototype, I’ve attempted to translate Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poemes into knitting!
Creating this prototype raised questions about why Oulipo has limited itself to invention strictly through textual restrictions rather than in other mediums. Their mantra that “restriction then becomes the mother of invention” seems to me to be applicable to any form of art or creative pursuit. In knitting within Queneau’s constraint, however, I found my room for creativity was somewhat limited. I had free reign over colour choice, type of stitch, and the size of the final prototype, but the mathematical pattern I had to follow to model my knitting after Queneau’s sonnets eliminated the possibility of creating anything too wild. There also remained the fact that my knitting could not be anything more than knitting in the end. To rephrase, one oulipienne constraint can produce a thousand different works of literature because language is infinitely variable—take Queneau’s Exercises in Style for example, a work that retells one man’s mundane encounter on the subway 99 times. Knitting, in contrast, does not have the same capacity for variation because it is a physical object; the realm of infinite possibility that is abstraction and symbolism is off limits to what concretely exists. Of course, if knitting was a form of written language—as fibre craft is in some cultures—my argument is no longer true.
The act of knitting Queneau’s book also helped me explore the act of invention in relation to Oulipo. As mentioned already, I found little opportunity to go wild creatively because I was following a strictly established pattern. While that didn’t mean that I could knit on autopilot (I repeatedly had to rip out rows where I messed up the rhyme scheme by not paying attention) it did mean that once I’d solidified the pattern all I had to do was follow it. The creation of this prototype thus reminded me of the first one I made, in which I literally pasted the First Manifesto into an N+7 generator that changed every noun in the work to the noun that followed 7 places later in the dictionary. The intensity to which many oulipienne constraints limit makes them easily programmable in some ways; however, I don’t see that as having an impact on their capacity for invention and variation for the reasons mentioned above. I think that instead of making us consider how restriction limits invention then, Oulipo hints that invention has a mind of its own: a work produced within a system of constraint is largely authored by the system itself.
Does this realization harken back to the sinister messages I found in the redacted First Manifesto? I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think this notion is an undercurrent in Oulipo at large. After all, the workshop’s creators disagreed with the Romantic premise that art flows freely from the individual, instead arguing that true literature is really produced by systemic constraints. I don’t know where authors fit into that picture—perhaps the existence of most oulipienne works as ephemeral exercises rather than published texts indicates that they don’t fit at all. In that sense maybe knitting is an ideal medium for Oulipo, as the importance of pattern always eclipses that of the producer.
Here’s the guide to how I made my (kn)iteration of Queneau’s sonnets: 508 capstone flyer