Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Keywords & Snippets


Constraint-based writing or procedural writingComposition that involves following some kind of rule or system of rules. For instance, the N+7 method takes a source text, and replaces every noun with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary. Lipograms are texts which avoid using a certain letter. Some procedures might be deliberately difficult or impossible to follow: e.g. Kenneth Goldsmith's "attempts" to print out everything on the internet, or record every little movement his body makes.

Then again, all writing is constraint-based in one way or another. Le Linnais: “Every literary work begins with an inspiration (at least that's what its author suggests) which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures that fit inside each other like Chinese boxes. Constraints of vocabulary and grammar, constraints of the novel (division into chapters, etc.) or of classical tragedy (rule of the three unities), constraints of general versification, constraints of fixed forms (as in the case of the rondeau or the sonnet), etc. [...] Must one adhere to the old tricks of the trade and obstinately refuse to imagine new possibilities? The partisans of the status quo don't hesitate to answer in the affirmative.”

Question: what other constraints? Constraints of language, ideology, culture? Money, economics, time, space? Class, gender, race, sexuality, age, ability?

Aleatory writing or aleatoric writingA writing process which includes chance and randomness. Famous examples include the cut-up method of Tristan Tzara and William Burroughs, which involve chopping up bits of existing text and mixing them together. See Tzara's How To Make a Dadaist Poem. (Question: why does Tzara use the word "gently"?) Then again, all writing involves chance procedures in one way or another.

Generative literatureA composition which incorporates automated processes (e.g. a computer algorithm). Then again, all writing involves automation in one way or another.

Ludic writing. A composition which incorporates some element of play. Then again ...

Oulipo. A loose group of mostly French writers interested in constraint-based writing. Oulipo was founded in 1960 and has continued in one form or another until today. François Le Lionnais (one of the group's founders) says about constraints: "Most writers and readers feel (or pretend to feel) that extremely constraining structures such as the acrostic, spoonerisms, the lipogram, the palindrome, or the holorhyme [...] are mere examples of acrobatics and deserve nothing more than a wry grin, since they could never help to engender truly valid works of art. Never? Indeed. People are a little too quick to sneer at acrobatics [...] At the other extreme there's the refusal of all constraint, shriek-literature or eructative literature. This tendency has its gems [...] Between these two poles exists a whole range of more or less constraining structures which have been the object of numerous experiments since the invention of language. The Oulipo holds very strongly to the conviction that one might envision many, many more of these."

Oulipo was also founded with the aspiration to perform practice-oriented literary criticism. François Le Lionnais: "The analytic tendency investigates works from the past in order to find possibilities that often exceed those their authors had anticipated [...] The synthetic tendency is more ambitious: it constitutes the essential vocation of the Oulipo. It's a question of developing new possibilities unknown to our predecessors."

Potential literature. A term associated with the Oulipo group. Oulipo aren't just interested in writing within existing structures (and maybe nudging them, by a process of gradual evolution, into new structures). They're also interested in creating completely new structures through which completely new literature can be made. François Le Lionnais: “But can an artificial structure be viable? Does it have the slightest chance to take root in the cultural tissue of a society and to produce leaf, flower, and fruit? [...] One may compare this problem - mutatis mutandis - to that of the laboratory synthesis of living matter. That no one has ever succeeded in doing this doesn't prove a priori that it's impossible.”

N+7. Another well-known technique -- or perhaps method, or form, or potential literature -- associated with Oulipo. Pick a source text, and replace every noun with the seventh noun following it in the dictionary. Here it is automated. Of course there are many variations. You don't even need to use a dictionary: you could use any long text and hopefully discover all the words you need using the find function on a wordprocessor or web browser. (Questions: what will the difference be between n+3 and n+7? What differences will be generated by using a long dictionary or a short one? By using a novel instead of a dictionary?)

LipogramA text composed without the use of a particular letter. One of Oulipo's most famous constraints. E.g. Perec's A Void is a novel written (& translated) without the use of the letter "e."

RecuperationThe process by which potentially disruptive literary and artistic works, cultural and social phenomena, and other things, are absorbed by the very power structures they seek to oppose, and end up supporting them (although they may also modify them). In particular, things that at first appear to be opposed to capitalism, or at least different to it, end up integrated with capitalism. Some obvious examples include things like the commodification of the image of Che Guevera, or the surveillance of youth culture and of artists by people who work in advertising, marketing, and product development.

But recuperation can also be a lens for examining all kinds of processes and events. Might we think of the post-war consensus and the welfare state compromise as a recuperation of working class socialism? Might we think about the domination of the contemporary internet by a few giant commercial companies -- Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft -- as a kind of recuperation, especially after the cyber-utopian discourse that swirled around the internet in its early days? What about mindfulness practices, and their uptake in corporate settings, with the aim of making workers more productive? If the term recuperation is applied flexibly, it might be associated with certain parts or aspects of capitalism, or with other power structures that are somewhat independent of capitalism. For instance, we might want to think about how the history of feminism reveals a struggle with distinctive recuperative capacities of patriarchy.

A working assumption of this series of workshops is that the formal experiments that produced some of the most interesting results in the poetry of the Twentieth Century are now fairly thoroughly recuperated. As literary scholars, it's important to historicize the aesthetic and political experiments of the past: to pay attention to what they were responding to, what they were attempting, and what they could hope for, as well as what they achieved. But as writers in 2016, we should recognize that the maneuvers dreamed up by Oulipo, and countless other avant-garde movements, with the intent of taking the world apart and building a better one, now form part of the everyday fabric of online sociability.

Two ideas that are closely related to recuperation are cultural appropriation (i.e. the use of elements of a minority culture by members of a majority culture, in the face of politicized opposition to such useage) and manufactured dissent (i.e. when some system of power encourages or generates certain forms of criticism or resistance which, because they are relatively easily dealt with, may fulfill the function of stabilizing that power-system in the long term. See for instance regulatory capture of regulatory or audit agencies by commercial entities).

Question: is the concept of recuperation itself recuperated?

Question: can recuperation be unevenly distributed? For instance, unevenly distributed across different geographies and different cultural contexts?

Détournement (lit. "turnaround" or "reversal"). A political and artistic practice proposed in the 1950s by the Situationists, roughly as a counterpart to recuperation. Détournement involves taking existing cultural productions (e.g. film, newspaper articles, posters, broadcasts, even clothes) and altering them and/or recontextualizing them for partisan propaganda purposes. Détournement can sometimes involve critiquing or ridiculing the original, perhaps bringing to the surface what it 'really' meant, but it doesn't have to. The Situationists don't think they're inventing détournement, just giving the practice a name and systematizing it a bit.

Marcel Duchamp drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa is vaguely the kind of thing they're talking about. Bertolt Brecht's radical re-staging of Shakespeare is a bit warmer, but still doesn't go nearly far enough. Going 'far enough' doesn't just mean trying to be more shocking or confrontational.

Debord and Wolman: "It is, of course, necessary to go beyond any idea of scandal. [...] Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. [...] It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of those fragments in any appropriate way [...] It is the most distant detourned element which contributes most sharply to the overall impression, and not the elements that directly determine the nature of this impression."

Debord and Wolman also suggest four laws:
  • The distortions introduced in the detourned elements must be as simplified as possible, since the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.
  • Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply.
  • Détournement by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective.
  • It is the most distant detourned element which contributes most sharply to the overall impression, and not the elements that directly determine the nature of this impression.
Question: what does the last one mean?

Debord and Wolman also remark: "[i]n itself, the theory of détournement scarcely interests us. But we find it linked to almost all the constructive aspects of the presituationist period of transition. Thus its enrichment, through practice, seems necessary."

Occasional poetryPoetry which is composed for a particular occasion.

Site-specific artworkAn artwork created to exist in a particular place.


Proust on novelty: “Moreover the quality, always rare and new, of what he wrote was expressed in his conversation by so subtle a manner of approaching a question, ignoring every aspect of it that was already familiar, that he appeared to be seizing hold of an unimportant detail, to be quite wrong about it, to be speaking in paradox, so that his ideas seemed as often as not to be in confusion, for each of us finds lucidity only in those ideas which are in the same state of confusion as his own. Besides, as all novelty depends upon the elimination, first, of the stereotyped attitude to which we have grown accustomed, and which has seemed to us to be reality itself, every new conversation, as well as all original painting and music, must always appear laboured and tedious. It is founded upon figures of speech with which we are not familiar, the speaker appears to us to be talking entirely in metaphors; and this wearies us, and gives us the impression of a want of truth. (After all, the old forms of speech must in their time have been images difficult to follow when the listener was not yet cognisant of the universe which they depicted. But he has long since decided that this must be the real universe, and so relies confidently upon it.)” Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove (1924)

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