Posts Tagged ‘oulipo


Kenneth Goldsmith (Thesis Draft Excerpt)

Thesis excerpt (draft) from section on Kenneth Goldsmith:

* * *

The popularity of so-called ‘conceptual writing’, to the extent that ‘popularity’ is an appropriate term to characterize such a marginal field, is largely owed to the work of Kenneth Goldsmith. Originally trained as a sculptor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Goldsmith became increasingly interested in Duchampian word-play (for example making a 300 pound sculpture of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book) and eventually devoted himself to solely text-based work. Later, as the founder of UBU web and a Senior Editor at PennSound, Goldsmith established himself as the preeminent champion and archivist of conceptual writing.

In much of his more recent work, Goldsmith has produced enormous volumes of text that are almost the literary equivalents of Andy Warhol films. For example, in ‘Day’, Goldsmith retypes the text of the daily NY Times newspaper from left to right, making no distinction between different columns, stories, or advertisements. The result is a document that estranges its source text while remaining entirely faithful. Hidden within the mass of text are strange and totally unexpected conjunctions and abutments of language, many of the most exciting of which only the most dedicated reader would both slogging his way into. Still, these moments of chance beauty exist, they may and must, and so are tantalizing. The pleasure of this text comes from the adventure of the search and from the thought of the text not-yet-read as much as the reading experience itself.

Texts like ‘Day’ also provide excellent examples of the fruitful combination of aleatoric and constraint practices. Another example of such combination is Goldsmith’s book ‘The Weather,’ a text entirely composed of the transcriptions of one minute weather reports given over the course of a year. ‘The Weather’ uses the aleatory to highlight the structure and repetition of received language, thereby using the aleatory to perform an analogous critique to Queneau’s of surrealism, despite the fact that Queneau saw his critique as precisely a critique of the aleatory. Of course, the kind of aleatorics by way of chosen source text that we see in ‘Day’ and ‘The Weather’ are reminiscent of, albeit not identical to, the N+7 method. That is, insofar as they are variations on selection and copying as a means to produce text, these texts can be seen as descendants of N+7. However, Goldsmith does not manipulate his source texts, he simply re-frames or re-situates them, an act very much in the Duchampian line of Oulipian practice.

Goldsmith terms his acts of copying-writing acts of ‘uncreativitity’- a response in part to the sheer volume of creative work being constantly produced. This naturally resonates with our earlier discuss of copyists, Bartlebys, refusals; of potential writing as also always potential non-writing. Such a reading is appropriate to the work and even asked for. However, it is not a total reading, as Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative’ projects still possess interest as texts, even if, as noted earlier, they are not always constructed in such a way as to invite a thorough reading-through in the manner of a conventional work.

Take ‘The Weather’. By all rights, a simple transcription of weather reports ought to be a dull, unenjoyable, and uninformative read. However, as the literary theorist and critic Marjorie Perloff argues in her essay “Moving Inspiration” On Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Weather’, the text is neither so simple nor so boring as it seems at face value. For one thing, the book is structured in 4 parts, each section conforming to a season, in such a way as to produce a “classical narrative” arc.(Moving Inspritation) Another important choice that Goldsmith makes is to copy the weather reports at his whim rather than keep to a strict schedule of transcription. This choice, in combination with his decision not to date the entries, serves to abstract the text and keep it from reading as purely historical record. Perloff notes an almost science fiction-like quality in the decontextualized, strangely personal, stammering and semi-scientific reports. That is to say, as Goldsmith has framed them, these transcriptions possess a genuinely literary quality.

Perloff makes her point about the evocative value of the text by citing a “passage [that] nicely exemplifies the powers of “mere” transcription, mere copying, to produce new meanings. From the perspective of the weather forecaster, Iraq is experiencing some “good good weather”-good visibility, no doubt, for bombing those targeted sites, and not too much wind. The risk of “blowing sand” is slight. After the reference to “a little rain in Baghdad,” the “we” shifts back to the New York area, as if the Baghdad rain or wind were merely a brief diversion from everyday life in the Tri-State area where it’s a nice average day with temperature in the forties and a chance of rain.” (Marjorie Perloff, from “Moving Inspiration”: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Weather’)

As the above passage indicates, ‘The Weather’, though sourced from New York, is invaded by the narrative thread of invasion. By a purely fortuitous chance, Goldsmith’s ‘Weather’-copying period coincided with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As were weather-bulletin listeners during that year, ‘The Weather”s readers are given a weirdly sterile and weather-centric account of the war. This intrusion of a war narrative adds a compelling and powerful layer to the text. Perloff utilizes a staple of Oulipian theory, the clinamen, to explain how ‘The Weather’ draws much of its force from the instrusion of the Iraq War narrative. She write that, “[i]n the wake of such “consumer minimalism,” as Goldsmith calls the mode of these one-minute weather reports, those sound bytes that “take our most complex, life-sustaining environment, and simplify it in a way that either aids or abets your commute” (email 14 July), the poet need provide no moralizing on the horrors of war; the actual discourse of the day says it all. The Baghdad thread is thus the clinamen that gives the “classical narrative” of The Weather its piquancy.” (Moving Inspiration)


‘The Weather’ is available online HERE.


In conversation with Mickaël Mottet of Angil & Hiddntracks : :

A few months ago I stumbled upon this lovely album by “Angil and Hiddntracks” called Oulipo Saliva. The album was put together (one gets the sense it was built instead of recorded) under a great deal of constraint—avoiding the use of the letter “e,” avoiding the musical key of E, a restriction to mostly woodwind instrumentation excepting, for instance, the use of an old untuned piano.

I would certainly recommend it, as it’s a carefully crafted piece at every level. If you are interested in hearing more samples, here is their myspace page.

With experiments like this, results can be either gimmicky or a wonderful surprise. They are, in this case, pretty dazzling. I wrote a small piece about it and Mickaël must have had a google alert set up for his name, because he dropped me a message and then graciously agreed to have an email conversation with me about his music.

Here’s the text: I think you’ll find that Mickaël is an uncommonly sharp, crafty, and friendly musician. I’ve let him know that I will be posting this here, and that you may be commenting on it. So, if you have anything to say, make sure to say it

Continue reading ‘In conversation with Mickaël Mottet of Angil & Hiddntracks : :’



From the draft of my thesis: Beginning #47- MASTURBATION

When deriding playful literature, word games, punning, acrostics and the like, it is not uncommon for people to use the term ‘masturbatory’. I’m reminded of a scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character hears a work of art dismissed as ‘masturbation’ and replies, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Perhaps in this lineage of playfully (yet not unseriously) taking up arms against derogatory usage, Harry Matthews wrote an entire book devoted to descriptions of self-love.

“Singular Pleasures” is in many ways a classically Oulipian text. The book is structured as a series of short (paragraph long) entries that each narrate an act of masturbation. Every entry in the book follows a series of rules which involve mandates to include the masturbator’s age, gender, location, and chosen method. I suspect there is some kind combinatoric pattern or device used to determine the details of each, but I am not entirely sure.

The triumph of Singular Pleasures is that its form and subject fit each other perfectly. Masturbation is essentially a process of repetition and variation, a mechanical and redundant act buttressed by a series of shifting fantasies. Like the act described, the scenes in SP are alternately (simultaneously?) erotic, dull, depressing, and enlivening. The mechanical nature of the construction feeds the production of Matthews’ self-interested self play about playing with one’s self.

The book also demonstrates another key characteristic of play (self and otherwise). In a number of the scenes, masturbation figures as a shared activity. For example Matthews describes a man and woman who no longer enjoy sex with each other, but have realized that they love mutual masturbation. They travel frequently and in each place they visit, they each find an emblematic local implement to aid their masturbation. In another scene, a man takes his pleasure watching his younger and more attractive partner masturbate at close range. These examples and others demonstrate the potential of play, even self-play, as exciting and pleasure-giving for an observer. Singular Pleasures also shows the potential for play by one to incite and entice play by another. Such a description can quite obviously serve to characterise the functioning of Oulipian works, as they can invite, impress, and participate in a communicative transmission with their readers.

Beyond the masturbatory and the self-pleasuring as subject, there is the masturbating subject. We should note here the practice of masturbation-writing, which, although technically outside of the ken of the Oulipo, maintains a strong a connection with Potential Literature. I’m writing specifically here about one of Kathy Acker’s favored writing practices, which consisted of masturbating and then ‘writing at the point of orgasm.’ At first blush, this kind of practice is wholly an-oulipian, in that it is a writing that comes from the surrender of voluntary control. The ecstatic climactic moment being of course the moment of the body’s victory over the conscious subject, it would seem that Oulipo proper would quickly reject ‘writing at the point of orgasm’ as an heir to the already-rejected Surrealist practice of automatic writing. Still, as I will argue elsewhere, situational, physical and especially body-centered constraints do maintain an important (if under-appreciated) relationship to Oulipian use of textual constraints.


‘Onanism’, which literally refers to the non-procreative spilling of sperm by the biblical Onan, has come to be a fairly common synonym for ‘masturbation’. Onan, and masturbation by extension, is condemned for the selfish act of spilling seed without intention of that semen being (re)productive. To Woody Allen’s “What’s wrong with masturbation?” the critic might say, “You are being too selfish in your love.” And yet such as response fails when put up against the Oulipian (and Acker-ian) conception of masturbation, in which the practice is indeed generative, productive, and sharing; not a mere spilling of seed but a spreading of love.


A dispatch for our annals on constraint. On A VOIDing “E”.

This is a truly fascinating bit of music: Angil and Hiddntracks, during a post-gig discussion, thought about writing a bunch of songs for almost only woodwinds for want of focusing on that woodwind sound, also stipulating that all songs should avoid a grouping of chords particularly difficult for alto saxophonists to play. Angil runs with this–going two jumps out (changing (for this album only?) to “Angil,” and his supporting band to “Hiddn Tracks”), and shying from (mostly, ignoring his (frankly, sad) slipping on six or so grammatically-hard-to-avoid words) lyrics in violation of his organizing standards. So, this fun, this passing thought, quickly turns into a spry OuLiPo constraint, involving gaming both musical and linguistic. Lastly, as if this wouldn’t satisfy his compulsion to play, Angil bought a piano from a closing clothing shop (a liquidation) and, thinking that tuning it would probably ruin his fun, built all his songs on and around this bizarro-carnival thing (though his piano is commonly (and annoyingly) said to ring out with a “Tim Burton” sound), his band following suit, strictly and assiduously avoiding all violations.

So, in summary: a skillful dodging of constraint violations both musically and lyrically. Additional constraint and difficulty coming with his thrift shop bizarro-piano. A fascinating album, AND, might I add, a joy to own. Dazzling. A charming work of art with a sound of its own. Music for sad birds, an aviary symphony.
Worth looking into, I would say.
Angil and Hiddntracks – Oulipo Saliva


Raymond Queneau: Official Honorary Ghost Island Corpse

Recently, while reading Raymond Queneau’s ‘Pierrot Mon Ami’, I came across a mention of the city of Tataouine, Tunisia. Naturally, for those of us who have a great fondness for lasers and a high level of social awkwardness, this name cannot help but lead us immediately to thoughts of Star Wars. Tatooine is, of course, Luke Skywalker’s home planet.

My first though was to make sure that Queneau wasn’t borrowing the town’s name from the film. He wasn’t. ‘Pierrot’ was written some decades before Star Wars was shot. A bit of research confirmed that Tataouine (also spelled Tatooine) is in fact a city in Tunisia. Not only that, George Lucas actually filmed parts of the original Star Wars on location in Tunisia and liked the name Tatooine so much that he wound up using it for the film.

And so, in thanks for this bit of knowledge, I am proposing the category of Official Honorary Ghost Island Corpses. The first of these will be, naturally, Mr. Queneau


Announcement of Status:

Raymond Queneau is known for many things. His most popular work, ‘Zazie and the Metro’, was also in many ways his least characteristic. It’s quite good, but it is not the reason we honor him today as Ghost Island’s First Official Honorary Ghost Island Corpse.

We will leave Zazie’s charms aside; that is we will look past popularity and towards reverence. Without doubt, Queneau is most revered for his role in the founding of the OuLiPo group and, in conjuntion with this, his book ‘100,000 Billion Poems’, which constituted the first instance of what has been called ‘combinatoric literature’. In this work, Queneau wrote a series of 10 sonnets in which each first line could work with each second and third and fourth etc. so that eventually these 10 sonnets contain within them 10^14, or 100,000 billion poems. It is quite literally impossible to read all of these poems even if one were to dedicate his life to the task. In fact, it has been conjectured that with this single book, Queneau more than doubled the amount of written material in the world. It is in many ways a physical embodiment of a Borges story, and like Borges’ work, the power comes as much from the concept as from the content of the work.

Besides these feats, Queneau was also a fantastic novelist, an accomplished amateur mathematician who delivered papers at serious mathematical conferences, and a key literary theoretician who championed a kind of materialist language and form conscious writing against the pure functioning of ideological structures evidenced in practices like Surrealism’s ‘automatic writing’ as well as against aleatoric systems of composition. He believed deeply in recognizing the structures within which a person is working and acting voluntarily to define and play within and against those structures. This thought is in many ways the basis of the the OuLiPo group and sees its genesis in ‘Odile’, Queneau’s semi-autobiographical novel about his involvement with the Surrealists. Odile is also one of the most beautiful short novels I have read in a long time.

And so it is with a tremendous pleasure and debt that we here today bury a simulacrum of dead Mr. Queneau on southern side of our highest mountain. His body, virtual as it is, will decompose and become one with our soil and from it will sprout a very odd tasting fruit and several types of iridescent vegetables.


(Aside: My own feeling is that aleatoric methods, when chosen and understood as such, can themselves work well as a sort of voluntary constraint and thereby retain value as a practice.)


I am also very much enjoying ‘Pierrot Mon Ami’

July 2020