Politics & Oulipo

While going through the material on oulipo, we found that much of the people working within it were reticent—sometimes hostile—about the notion of politics playing a role in their work. That said, we are sure few of us would be willing to argue that politics does not play a role (wanted or no) in all human endeavors, no matter how small. To that end, and considering the way we have cast the lyric poem in this class as an almost bourgeois or at least uncritical poem, we might want to consider what kind of politics oulipo might bring to the table.

Upon considering this question, the first question would seem to be whether the practice of imposing constraints upon writing could be political in any way—a question we would answer with a resounding maybe. From our perspective, the creation and addition of constraints leads to the possibilities inherent in changing one’s mindset. Once the any kind of constraint is in place, the words used in one’s text must be thought of in a different way—that is, the naturalized methods of thinking are broken up by constraining thought processes, and perhaps this is political in the sense that it fosters a belief in multiple perceptions or ways of organizing one’s perceptions of the world.

Following closely on the tail of this line of thought, we felt it was important to consider the situation in which oulipo was created—while potentially infused with an anti-woman bias at its inception (see the end of the Symes article for this point of view), the more positive fact remains that the oulipean processes and the concept of artificial restraints come from a fusion of mathematical and science-style thinking with literature. Many of the members of Oulipo are or were mathematicians, scientists, or other traditionally left-brained people. For our purposes, this is an interesting challenge to the classically modern(ist) conception of separate spheres of human endeavor. Instead of accepting the traditional definitions of what made “literature,” the oulipo allows for a different standard of aesthetics—something potentially revolutionary, depending on who you ask.

Finally, it would be remiss of us not to mention that the vast majority of oulipo and oulipo-style material is being produced and discussed outside of America, and while we aren’t arguing that there is a center-edge logic going on, there is an interesting shift outside of the classical halls of poetry into this system of constraints. However, it would also be remiss of us to ignore the fact that the vast majority of oulipeans are men, and an even larger majority is white. Whether that is something that undercuts the political gains in other areas should not be ignored.

Lyric & Oulipo
The/A/That/This/Their/My/You/Our/His/Her Lyric & Oulipo

To be oneself in the company of others, is, after forty-six years, the hidden face of Oulipism, and there are as many ways of achieving this as they are Oulipians.
Paul Fornell, Drunken Boat #8

The author lurks behind the scenes as the inventor of the constraint and the manipulator of itrs applications.
Alison James, Automatism, Arbitrariness and the Oulipian Author

Oulipo folds the self’s formal pursuits into those of the group who has utilized that form before, and/or the group who will use the form in the future. Oulipo was begun in opposition to eructative or shriek literatures, inspired work that refused form or constraint. “Rather than inspiration, rather than experience, rather than self-expression, the Oulipians view imaginative writing as an exercise dominated by the method of “constraints.” In addition to a marked move away from lyrical, confessional, and Romantic impulses, the procedural aspect links the practitioner to past, current and future practitioners.

Oulipo questions the particularity of the lyric, asking “should humanity really lie back and be satisfied to watch new thoughts make ancient verses?” (Primer 27). Jean-Jacques Poucel considers the work in the Towards Oulipo section of Drunken Boat #8 as addressing politics through its “invest[ment] in realizing and promoting individual and collective freedoms […][oulipian writing] enables the articulation of the self through alternate codes contained within and cast against dominant structures of expression […] it offers artists tools to consciously resist and reform the implicit constructions of discourses” This insistence on conscious choice-making is present in Alison James’ article, as well. To reading or write an oulipo text (then or now) is to take the potential and possibility you have generated by the constraint or procedure and use it for the purpose of the “particular author” (James’ term).


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