Oulipo and Constrained Universes of Expression

Yesterday I discovered Derik Badman’s weblog MadInkBeard (via Languagehat), which he started in April this year, “to discuss the idea of formal constraints (mostly in writing, but also in other media) as well as offer explanations and examples of various constraints.” He writes that his interest began with discovering “the (mostly French) group called the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle).” He continues:

To put it as succinctly as possible the idea of the group is to create new forms of literature for the possible use of other writers. It’s not about creating new literature qua literature, but about creating forms for new literature. Now using the words “form” is pretty damn open, and that is something that I need to work on thinking through. Basically, the Oulipian concept involves “formal constraint”, voluntarily chosen constraints on the process of writing [...], in many cases this involves starting with a base text that is then transformed through constraints.

Aah, constraints. I was vaguely familiar with Oulipo after Håkan mentioned it in passing in one of our email conversations1. But I never looked into it. I spent the morning looking through the MadInkBeard archives, and I really like this.

A year ago, I began to think about things as being “constrained universes of expression.” I felt that the constraints were very important for all kinds of human expression. Everywhere I looked, I saw expressive universes governed by constraints: in literature, television series, movies, poetry, architecture, and urbanism; in the philosophy of science; in the games spontaneously invented by small children; in music and painting; in software architecture and design; in sports, in dramaturgy, and in cooking. Derik Badman writes that

There are a number of spin-off groups from the Oulipo for various types of work (painting, comics, math, music, cooking, etc.) but not one for film (that I am aware of). The closest thing is the former [?] Dogme 95 [...] group which has a “Vow of Chastity” they used detailing the constraints they would work in for a “Dogme” film.

The Dogme 95 example is interesting, because I felt that the constraints (although not new, but perhaps more explicit than was the case for the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers?) had contributed to an increase in the number of movies made in Denmark. Take haikus or limericks for example. Here, the constraints are simple and obvious, which must be an important reason behind the popularity of the forms.

Perhaps Dogme 95 didn’t actually cause a boom in filmmaking, but there is something about the emergence of new subgenres – which are governed by a new set of constraints (explicit or implicit) – and how they seem to experience a boom sometime during the first stage of their emergence. Genre theory seems to consider constraints in terms of the conventions of genres, but I am yet to find something about the effect of conventions upon the speed of the emergence of new genres.

We need constraints. Improvisation, “free” creation (writing or whatever), isn’t completely free-form. The constraints are always there, in the form of aesthetics, limitations of space or time, or of the medium (technological limitations). It’s impossible to conceive of creation without any form of constraints. What I find interesting with Oulipo is that they made explicit something which always occurs: the “use” of constraints for human expression. I look forward to following this weblog.

Here are a bunch of my posts on constrained universes of expression:

1 Yesterday marked the first anniversary of our email exchange. Congrats, Håkan!

The above was posted to my personal weblog on June 22, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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