My prototypes have helped me confront and explore widely applicable questions about how I read texts, what I value in them, and why I have been taught to read and value in those ways. They have also helped me better understand what elements of a text I am most passionate about—often it is design as much as content. Further, and most specifically, prototyping has invited intimacy with the texts I have imaged, glitched, reversed, and knit, so that I now feel I know what they are just as well as what they say. The questions that have arisen through prototyping have also revealed some tensions between my understanding of the texts and their self-proclaimed objectives. In prototyping, I often found myself making the text into what I wanted it to be, and thus exposing a gap between the intended and actual uses of a text. My oulipienne prototypes thus strayed from Oulipo’s main tenets while at the same time informing my understanding of them.
Oulipo’s position to literature has changed in its now 56 year history, and it has been intriguing interrogating where my prototypes fit in relation to that timeline as well as the texts themselves. Oulipo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potential or “Workshop for Potential Literature”, was founded in 1960 by math and literature enthusiasts Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Initially, it was a reaction to surrealism and the Romantic idea that art and literature could spring, formless, from the mind of its creator. Oulipo instead sought the development of literature and language through experimentation with constraint, recognizing that many of the literary forms that have produced great works are the result of arbitrary restrictions. According to Oulipo’s First Manifesto, “restriction then becomes the mother of invention.” Early Oulipo explored established literature for constraints that were previously unrecognized but that did and could inspire great writing (something they termed Anoulipism), and devised new constraints in the hopes of discovering literature’s next monumental form (Synthoulipism). The workshop restricted itself to strictly textual pursuits and, despite their goal of grandeur, recognized that “if the Oulipo suddenly ceased to exist … In the long run, everything would return to normal, humanity eventually discovering, after much groping and fumbling about, that which the Oulipo has endeavored to promote consciously”. This relaxed aspect of Oulipo, along with the fact that their constraints usually made the production of great literature (or what was accepted as such) difficult, combined to derail the movement from its original project; while some of their works achieved the oulipienne dream of being recognized as great literature, most fell short and then fell off the face of the earth. The majority of Oulipo’s works exist today only as ephemera, linking the workshop more with the production of entertaining exercises than of literature.
Within the First Manifesto, Le Lionnais recognized that he could start Oulipo’s project, but that its true greatness would be “prepared by people more worthy than [him]self.” The nature of Oulipo invites involvement from people beyond the official membership because the constraints they devise only become literary forms when adopted en masse. It is thus no wonder that Oulipo’s influence has spread far beyond their group and original goal—oulipienne constraints have inspired programming games like Code Golf, esolangs like Piet and Chef (the former creates pixel art while the latter spits out recipes), and even music. My prototypes, particularly my (kn)iteration of Queneau’s book, thus resemble current adaptations of Oulipo more than the official workshop because they take oulipienne invention beyond the constraints of text.
One of the major questions my prototypes have helped me confront is why Oulipo has officially restricted itself to text, particularly when other fields, like those above, have recently adopted its pursuit of creativity through constraint. The simple reason is likely that, being a movement based on restriction, Oulipo can restrict itself to whatever it wants to. The practical reason seems to be that outside literature constraints are ubiquitous and essentially instructions. As for a valid reason though, I have yet to find one. In prototyping many oulipienne texts I often found myself more concerned with the aesthetics of the prototype than what happened to the text’s content, and I believe that is because they tended to have very little in the way of literary content. Exercises like reversing a text or making it into a form did little to deepen my understanding of them, as the texts were senseless and shallow and deforming them only emphasized that. I did find several oulipienne works amazing for what they accomplish within constraint, but that caveat of “within constraint” means that they are unimpressive if taken outside the realm of Oulipo.
While the literariness of Oulipo is questionable, I applaud the workshop for what it has unintentionally encouraged beyond the textual. Oulipo officially seeks the expansion of language and literature as a way of furthering knowledge, but its constraints, when applied to other mediums, have the ability to deepen one’s understanding of that medium itself. In prototyping oulipienne texts as images and Plain Text, I gained an awareness of how the visual composition of text guides and limits its meaning. Exploring typefaces in relation to a text revealed how my reading of it can be influenced by the ideologies behind fonts. In knitting Queneau’s sonnets, I came to a clearer grasp of how a pattern both limits and encourages creativity, and how the medium physically affects that through limitations in how yarn can be carried across rows and when tangling occurs. The oulipienne project of creation through constraint is thus useful in the same way prototyping itself is: regardless of whether the prototype works, its creation is, to borrow the name of another of Queneau’s books, an exercise in style, and thus a way of understanding that style, structure, or medium itself.
By attempting to understand the First Manifesto as an image, I saw how Oulipo had truly united mathematics and literature. The image consisted of stark but orderly paragraphs of prose headed by an equation (N+7) that subsumed the text’s title and framed all content as a result of the formula. This image thus encapsulated Oulipo in a single snapshot.
I thought reducing an oulipienne work to plain text would not change the text much, if at all, because it was aesthetically plain already. As the text I chose had a necessarily moveable form, however, that was not so; copying Queneau’s Million Billion Poems to plain text eliminated the fluidity that not only made the book remarkable but made it actually work. In this instance, changing the medium of the text also changed its structure, and, as that is the center of all oulipienne works, created an entirely different text.
Experimenting with different typefaces foregrounded the ideological and historical baggage that accompanies a font, and gave me a new critical lens through which to view oulipienne works. I questioned why Queneau’s sonnets used a Romantic typeface when they resisted Romantic ideals, but understood after trying other fonts that that one best communicated the serious, poetic nature of the book—a necessary task as the text itself resists seriousness to some extent.
I finally achieved the aestheticization of Oulipo by translating Queneau’s sonnets to a purely visual and tactile medium. In removing the written text from his text I also made a conscious move in the battle between content and structure; my knit poetry had all the mathematical elements of Queneau’s sonnets and even retained their infinitude, but the language that made the text literature did not translate. The literariness of Oulipo is often in question, however, and though I do not see it being answered, things like my (kn)iteration show the workshop’s success at encouraging invention beyond the restriction to textual mediums.