The Oulipo and Modernism: Literature, Craft and Mathematical Form

Cartwright, D. 2019. The Oulipo and Modernism: Literature, Craft and Mathematical Form. PhD thesis University of Westminster School of Humanities

TitleThe Oulipo and Modernism: Literature, Craft and Mathematical Form
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsCartwright, D.

The Oulipo is known primarily for the use of formal constraints in writing. The constraint is an arbitrary application of rigorously defined formal demands (often
drawn from mathematics) in the process of literary or poetic composition. The group was founded in 1960, and their remit was limited to the formulation of constraints rather than literary texts. There is thus no literary theory proposed by the Oulipo, and little in the way of critical interpretation of their methods in terms of its wider significance to the condition of art in the period of their emergence. Their approach is often counterposed to the Surrealists: where the Surrealist response to the conditions of rationalised modernity attempted to explore the unconscious, the non-rational and chance, the Oulipo’s use of constraints is consciously determined and resists the passivity of chance. The counter-model to the Surrealists for the Oulipo is the mathematical collectiveNicolas Bourbaki. Bourbaki’s rigorously abstract axiomaticmathematics provides the formal prototype of the most abstracted rationality for the Oulipo to use as compositional structures. The Oulipo also bear an ambivalent relation to structuralism, but where structuralism tends towards a descriptive identification of ‘deep structures’ of signification, the Oulipo instead deploy structures as historically-specific compositional material.
This thesis proposes to read the practice of the Oulipo as a production of the ‘new’ through a form of construction as ‘craft’ that is itself receptive to critical interpretation.
It contends that the Oulipo can be seen to offer a distinctive trajectory among the various responses to what Adorno identifies as a crisis of art’s autonomy in the latter half of the twentieth century; in other words, that they pursue an alternative modernism. I argue that the Oulipo’s use of arbitrary rigidified logical structures in literary composition is categorially alien to the latter’s concept, and thus that it forms a kind of resistant material which must be worked with. This model of skilled engagement recalls, in self-consciously paradoxical ways, the outmoded concept of craft which provides an alternative to, on the one hand, the post-romantic idea of artistic freedom, and on the other, full subsumption by technological procedure, maintaining a refracted instrumentality in the logic of method that yet resists pre-determination.

PublisherUniversity of Westminster
Publication dates
PublishedAug 2019
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

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