February 11, 2013
Move the mouse or scroll your iPad screen to the space at the close of Amazon.com “Editorial Reviews” section for Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP 2012).
There, you’ll find a repetition of the “Book Description,” from earlier in the page, now inflected with all-too-common Amazon character errors:
The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature’s quirkiest movements—and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature’s potential.
“’s” is html code for a right singly quote, and “&mdash,” of course, is the em dash (—). These reverse-engineered impregnations of the Descrption are certainly errors, but also candy-store windows for those who take a sly delight in the structural underpinning of how words on a web page may be “put” there, so to speak, in the first place.
Therefore, for some readers—and writers—such an “error” could be more enticing than the correct version, particularly if the mistake might be exploited into a new or repurposed literary form.
You may count Levin Becker among this group. And so among the Oulipo.
Long covered in a sort of anti-mystique powered by a focus on empirical practice, the Oulipo occupies a place of particular interest in the potential post-literary and conceptual era. The mad group of personalities who have peopled the workshop since its 1960 founding, including the “big” names—Marcel Duchamp, Geroges Perec, Italo Calvino—are in Many Subtle Channels placed in context with the founding of the workshop and the many others who have contributed, as members, partisans, and anticipatory plagiarists.
Levin Becker presents a readable and obsessively delightful paean to the group that has seen fit to make him a member (through co-optation), after a period of related apprenticeship working in their Paris archives.
What makes Levin Becker’s membership of special interest is that he is geographically distant from the group, and therefore able—perhaps—to document their working in a manner that would impossible for a member closer to the action.
I had the good fortune to have lunch with Oulipian Harry Mathews (and Robert Coover) at the last &NOW festival in June 2012, and Mathews described for me—a routine well rehearsed—how the only way out of the Oulipo is to commit suicide with the pre-expressed purpose of resignation.
I wonder how Levin Becker might best document such an exit, were he ever of mind to make one, as Mathews and the others would not be on hand to make quick confirmation?
We didn’t get around to that question, not did we make note (this time) of the small-world fact that Daniel’s mother, composer Rami Levin, was my colleague at Lake Forest College, yet we did cover everything else you might ever want to know, before immediately checking out Many Subtle Channels, for its thoroughness, readability, and—as attested to by my students—teachability.
Davis Schneiderman: This book seems part love letter and part answer to critics. It’s not a defense of the Oulipo, per se, but a broad statement about the conditions which gave rise to the group and the way those conditions—and the group—have changed over the years in a process of mutual modification. Will conditions ever modify the Oulipo so far from its origins that it will no longer be the Oulipo? Must there be an inherent conservatism toward the original “mission,” even in its bending?
Daniel Levin Becker: This seems like a question forever doomed to be answered differently by Oulipians and critics. My instinct is of course to say no, that the group’s conservatism is not inherent but circumstantial—even now we’re moving slowly toward an expansion of what the group is all about (consider that our most recent recruit is a cartoonist)—and I say so with reasonable confidence and faith. But then you have to remember that I’ve been sipping the Kool-Aid for a while now.
Part of what seems to power the Oulipo is the mystique of “Authorship,” or at least, some level of mystique derived from a relatively small roster of members. Would you address the tension in the book between the exploration of empirical-based productions that might be “open” to all, on one side, and a sense of in-group belonging-ness that is if not the exclusive domain of the members, then the partial domain of those whose membership provides cultural capital that might be deployed for “discovery,” on the other? Put another way: is the Oulipo an Authoring mechanism that, despite its anti-Authorial methods, runs into a limiting contradiction? You address this throughout Many Subtle Channels, but what might you tell the skeptic?
On one hand, the Oulipo is fundamentally philosophically invested in the idea that forms don’t have owners and that its primary purpose, qua official group, is to explore forms, invent them, discover them, perfect them, whatever—and not to create literature. (Mathews, paraphrased: what we do as individual writers is our own business). Hence the remark in Many Subtle Channels about how scientists publish for scientists but science is for everyone. You don’t discover a new element or minor planet and then get pissed off when other people use it or point it out in the night sky. You get to enjoy the glory of having found it, and that’s all. At most you get to name it.
On the other hand—the in-practice, spirit-of-the-law hand—the Oulipo has sort of cornered the market on this kind of thing, and it’s tough to sugarcoat that. To the skeptic, embodied crudely but conveniently for these purposes by the nOulipo conference people, my take is pretty much a sympathetic shrug. Authorship still counts for something in the material world, which is where most Oulipians have no choice but to spend their daily lives. Maybe in ten years or twenty or one-hundred we’ll all operate under some sort of global Creative Commons model where we can actually author shit without Authoring it, at which point maybe the Oulipo will stop publishing anything but scientific journal-style findings, or just invent pseudonyms under which to publish the literary applications of said findings. (How this will change my response to your last question remains to be seen.) For now, though, I think the group is right to be fairly protective of its brand, such as it is.
The idea that an Oulipian may get to, at most, name a discovery, to some extent, recalls the situation of the cut-ups and William S. Burroughs. Most accounts locate the “discovery” of the technique with Brion Gysin (in 1959), who then quickly transferred the sacred knowledge to Burroughs. While the cut-up aesthetic has been picked up by, well, almost all media of the last decades, the literary version of its practice is over-identified with Burroughs. The counter-argument is that this over-identification elides a real history of extensive non-Burroughs cut-ups and, in doing so, elides those practices by labeling the named technique as, what becomes in practice, the exclusive domain of the “master.” Have you felt any pressure to invent a form, and one that hasn’t already been proposed by Perec?
Whoa, that question swerved at the last minute from where I thought it was going. To answer your phantom question for a second, I will say that the Oulipo is generally pretty good about disavowing any proprietary relationship to those forms and constraints that its members didn’t invent—the sestina, the sonnet, even weirder shit like Jacques Jouet’s “great ape” language, which he attributes consistently to Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. And let’s not forget that Perec wrote a history of the lipogram the same year as he wrote La Disparition. (Ed. note: novel without the letter “e”). (I don’t have it on hand, but I think it ends with whatshisface, the Gadsby guy. Ernest Vincent Wright. (Phew!)) That said (yeah, now I’m ventriloquizing you as asking a counter-question to my response to a question you never really asked), does the Oulipo treat its own forms, or its members’ own forms, like the morale élémentaire, any differently from the way it treats the sonnet? Not especially, in my experience. So make of that what you will.
Now, on to me: I have felt a vague nagging compulsion to invent a form at some point, but not because I feel the need to leave my mark on the group’s history, or what have you; it’s more, to my mind, that I have this idea that inventing a form and having other Oulipians tweak and parody it will feel like my official acceptance into the group at long last. (Not to say that I feel like an outsider, except for the part about not living in Paris.) The closest I’ve come so far was the index-as-poem thing from “Index of first lines,” which is less form than, like, unwieldy reading procedure. But it’s already been worked on, which feels pretty rad.
Further, in the case of the Oulipo, the Author is the group, rather than the mytho-poeticized individual writer. Many Subtle Channels offers an excellent account of the group’s links to Bourbaki and ‘Pataphysics, two earlier units that attempt to critique authorship (among other targets) through their collective and collaborative methodologies. This may not be quite right, but I think most literary folks would be hard-pressed to name an individual member of the early College of ‘Pataphysics whereas, well, who doesn’t love Oulipian Italo Calvino? Does the success of the Oulipo’s individual practitioners refract back to the group? If Mathews says that what the individual writer does is his own business, can that really be the case once one has been co-opted into the group? Wouldn’t anything you write from now on—unless you commit suicide with the intention of resigning your commission—be forever read as an Oulipian production first and a work of “literature” second? Put more crassly: Is there a downside to membership?
I actually think Calvino is, second to Duchamp, the worst example you could pick of an Oulipian who is well-known as an Oulipian. (But yes, Perec, sure.) In which respect, I think Calvino illustrates quite well how it’s possible to be famous/read independently of belonging to the Oulipo. It’s almost 30 years since he died and I still find it a rarity when someone knows he was an Oulipian; I find it hard to imagine that more people made that connection while he was alive. It may be different now, but I’m not sure I believe that.
But maybe I’m dodging the question a little bit. Sure, there is a downside, and it’s that pigeonholing you describe. I don’t know how to respond to that other than to sort of shrug and say that readers will always draw their own conclusions and associations based on whatever they’ve ferreted out about an author (I mean, I do it too, not even with what I know about the author but on even less legitimate grounds—I’ll give or not give a book a second glance depending on whether it’s published by, say, Melville House or Muumuu House), and that I see no way to care about that and stay sane/productive. It also dawns on me that, given all the reader-empowerment rhetoric I spit in Many Subtle Channels, I have no more right to care if someone reads a record review I write as an oulipian text than I do to care if someone reads a poem I wrote and finds a constraint I didn’t know I had used. I’m prepared to encounter the real-life effects of that downside one day (such as—not to be macabre—leaving a suicide note that my bereaved loved ones interpret as an encrypted set of directions to my secret fake-death lair), but the more I say about this right now the more I talk myself into thinking it’ll be kind of awesome for a reader to discover unconscious oulipian echoes in, like, a strongly worded letter I write to the editor of Playboy in 15 years.
Yes, then we’ll really read it for the articles! The delight in discovering the Oulipian in the quotidian is certainly represented in Many Subtle Channels. This seems to be—at its most hopeful—as a way of reading the world: a place essentially of meaning, or at least of the lexical deliriousness we can discern, with proper training, in the unstable oscillations of language. You detail how the surest way to never be co-opted is to ask for membership, which seems sensible, and yet I hope you might discuss your own co-option (?) into the group. You were working in the Oulipo archives on a Fulbright, correct? Was there a moment you began to discover the possibility of your own involvement? Did this color your interactions with the group? Did you receive a lipogrammed letter, out of the blue? Where were you when you learned JFK had been shot, put another way?
Correct. The possibility of my own co-optation (I think) pretty much always loomed over the whole enterprise, largely because friends and family members prognosticated that which I didn’t dare articulate to myself. But I wasn’t expecting to be made a member starting out, any more than you really expect something you’ve idly dreamed about to actually happen, so my interactions with the Oulipians were mostly the usual tongue-tied and starstruck fawning on my part and polite indulgence on theirs. Not a whole lot of conscious social climbing or jockeying for position. I think staying in Paris for a second year post-Fulbright made a big difference, both symbolically and in terms of my relationships with many of the members; by the time I was preparing to leave the country they knew me well enough to invite me to be the guest of honor at a monthly meeting. Even this doesn’t mean that co-optation is imminent—lots of people are guests of honor and never become members—and my working model at the time was the case of the few recruits before me who had been elected some years after attending a monthly meeting. (Slow deliberators, these Oulipians.) So after I moved to San Francisco my thinking on the matter was that they might consider me as a candidate a few years down the line, once I’d done a bit more to establish myself literarily. But then a month after that Paul Fournel emailed me (with no constraint I have been able to identify), informing me that the Oulipo had elected me. And that JFK had been shot.
You make a good point about Calvino. Perhaps I am one of the small group that reads him as Oulipian. Since I’ve also assimilated the power of the lifetime-association discussion in Many Subtle Channels, the link is strong. What about for you, though, living on the American west coast? I assume you are only a sporadic attendee of the regular meetings. Are there others in geographic exile, and how do you see this functioning over the longer period? Do you imagine a prolonged return to Paris in the future? And, if we might further speculate, what will the Oulipo at 100 look like in terms of membership, focus, or geography?
I don’t see the group becoming decentralized any time soon. The in-person camaraderie and squabbling and collegial mutual theft (all the stuff I’m missing by living in the states, in effect) is so crucial to what’s good about the Oulipo that I expect even the youngest of us, who have the fewest loyalties to The Way Things Used To Be, to remain fairly protective of that. There are some of us who are abroad or traveling more often than not, and we’re relegated to a kind of second tier where we’re either mostly aloof or outspoken in group email chains, but there’s always a solid core of people who show up to every dinner and every reading and write a text for every occasion and have basically made it their daily business to be Oulipians. Which is essential, I think. Personally, I don’t think I’m done with Paris and I could see making it my daily business to be an Oulipian being attractive at some point, but I have no immediate plans to move back (I guess it was sort of a weird gambit on their part, electing me to a position for which it’s pretty silly to be anywhere besides Paris, a couple of months after I moved away).
In terms of 50 years from now, I guess you can extrapolate what I’ve just said to the realms of membership and focus: we’re gradually branching out in certain ways (e.g. our most recent recruit is a cartoonist), and we’re resisting branching out in others (e.g. we still don’t have anything meaningful to do with computer-generated literature), but I expect we’ll always be pretty vigilant about maintaining what’s special about the group. Wouldn’t kill us to get another vegetarian in the group, though. Shit is awkward.