Reading Potential: The Oulipo and the Meaning of Algorithms

  1. 1. Mark Wolff

    Hartwick College

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Recent efforts to reconceptualize text analysis with
computers in order to broaden the appeal of humanities
computing have invoked the example of the Oulipo, a group
of writers in France that invent 'potential' ways to create
literature using rigorous formal constraints. Rejecting the
practice of using computers as tools for objective, empirical
research with texts, Stephen Ramsay envisions an algorithmic
criticism that transforms texts for "the purpose of releasing
what the Oulipians would call their 'potentialities'" (Ramsay
172). Stéfan Sinclair has developed HyperPo as a web-based
tool for helping scholars read and play with texts using
procedures inspired by the Oulipo. The idea of playing with
texts using computers is pursued further by Geoffrey Rockwell
who calls for the creation of web-based playpens where scholars
can experiment with tools and discover the potentialities
inherent in the practice of humanities computing.
Although there are similarities between the activities of the
Oulipo and the new approach to computer-assisted literary
analysis, the development of tools for the express purpose of
encouraging scholars outside of humanities computing to play
with texts does not follow the model of Oulipian research into
potentialities. For the Oulipo, the invention of procedures for
playing with texts is not necessarily a means to greater
engagement with literature: it is its own end, an intellectual
activity that invites application but does not require adoption
by others as an indication of success. According to Raymond
Queneau, one of the founding members of the Oulipo and author
of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes,
The word 'potential' concerns the very nature of literature; that is,
fundamentally it's less a question of literature strictly speaking
than of supplying forms for the good use one can make of
literature. We call potential literature the search for new forms
and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.
(Oulipo 1986, 38)
Queneau makes it clear that what the Oulipo does relates to but
does not constitute literary creation. Writing is a derivative
activity: the Oulipo pursue what we might call speculative or
theoretical literature and leave the application of the constraints
to practitioners who may (or may not) find their procedures
useful. According to François Le Lionnais, another founding
member, a method for writing literature need not produce an
actual text: "method is sufficient in and of itself. There are
methods without textual examples. An example is an additional
pleasure for the author and the reader" (Bens 81, my
The Oulipo did not articulate a clear statement explaining
potential methods for reading literature, but we can extrapolate
a definition from how they described their efforts to invent
methods for writing literature. Potential text analysis is less a
question of interpreting literature than of supplying algorithms
for the good use one can make of reading. Producing exemplary
interpretations with algorithms is a secondary consideration.
It follows that the interpretation of texts using a computer
should not be in and of itself the objective of the new
computer-assisted text analysis. The objective should be the
invention of algorithms that scholars may (or may not) use,
according to their own interests. The potentiality (as opposed
to the reality) of computers as tools for text analysis implies
that scholars engaged in the derivative activity of interpreting
literature may not find such methods useful.
When the Oulipo formed in 1960, one of the first things they
discussed was using computers to read and write literature.
They communicated regularly with Dmitri Starynkevitch, a
computer programmer who helped develop the IBM SEA CAB
500 computer. The relatively small size and low cost of the
SEA CAB 500 along with its high-level programming language
PAF (Programmation Automatique des Formules) provided
the Oulipo with a precursor to the personal computer.
Starynkevitch presented the Oulipo with an "imaginary"
telephone directory composed of realistic names and numbers
generated by his computer. He also programmed the machine
to compose sonnets from Queneau'sCent mille milliards de
poèmes. In both cases the Oulipo was impressed but did not
believe these computer applications had 'potential'. What
worried the Oulipo was the aleatory nature of computer-assisted
artistic creation: they sought to avoid chance and automatisms
over which the computer user had no control (Bens 147-148).
In 1981 the Oulipo published Atlas de littérature potential
where they described some of the computer applications they
devised for reading literature. Their early experiments included
machine-assisted readings of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes
and Queneau's Un conte à votre façon. The algorithms used to
read these texts provided a certain degree of interaction between
the user and the machine but did not reveal unforeseen
potentialities. Some members of the Oulipo formed ARTA
(Atelier de Recherches et Techniques Avancées) and ALAMO
(Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les
Ordinateurs) to explore computer-assisted writing, but the
Oulipo itself has not further pursued methods for reading texts
with machines.
This is not to say the Oulipo abandoned the idea of potentialities
in reading. There are at least two examples of original algorithms developed by Oulipians for reading texts. The first
is Harry Mathews's Algorithm, which consists of combinatoric
operations over a set of structurally similar but thematically
heterogeneous texts. These operations generalize the structure
of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes and allow for the
production of new texts. Mathews notes that the algorithm
works not only with letters, words and phrases but with entire
works, entire oeuvres, entire literatures, entire worlds. Creating
a computer program based on this algorithm ( <http://bu> ) is
relatively simple, but its interest does not lie in its application.
According to Mathews, the aim of the algorithm "is not to
liberate potentiality but to coerce it" (Oulipo 1986, 139). A
'new' reading of a text (or a reading of a 'new' text) through the
algorithm is not the objective. The use of the algorithm is
meaningful in that the apparent unity of texts can be dismantled
by the algorithm and give way to a multiplicity of meanings.
Mathews invented a system of constraints that illustrates what
deconstructionists have maintained for decades.
The second example is Raymond Queneau's matrix analysis of
language, published in Etudes de linguistique appliquée and
discussed at length during one of the Oulipo's early gatherings.
Using principles of linear algebra, Queneau devised a
mathematics of the French language that could describe the
structure of texts and provide statistical "indices of an author's
style that may be interesting, for they escape the conscious
control of the writer and doubtless depend on several hidden
parameters" (Queneau 319, my translation). Queneau himself
provided analyses of a number of short sample texts. His ability
to apply the algorithm to lengthy texts was limited, however,
because he did his calculations 'by hand': he did not use a
computer. With the availability of part-of-speech taggers such
as Helmut Schmid's TreeTagger, it is easy to use a computer
to perform a matrix analysis of any text written in French ( <h
tml> ). Matrix analysis may prove useful for authorship
attribution in combination with other techniques, such as the
use of Markov chains proposed by Khmelev and Tweedie.
Queneau, however, expressed greater interest in the algorithm's
mathematical properties: he proved several theorems on the
behavior of matrices and identitified similarities between them
and the Fibonacci series. The members of the Oulipo were
intrigued by matrix analysis but looked forward to the creation
of poems written in columns and rows rather than the
transformation of existing poems into matrices (Bens 236-237).
Mathews and Queneau offer two algorithms we can
operationalize with computers for literary analysis, but the
interest of the algorithms lies not in what they help us see in a
given text but in the way they invite us to play rigorously for
play's sake. Oulipian constraints on reading are better
understood as toys with no intended purpose rather than as tools
we use with some objective in mind. These procedures for
making sense of texts provide for their own interpretation: they
are not instruments for meaning but reflections on meaning
Bens, Jacques. Oulipo: 1960-1963. Paris: Bourgois, 1980.
Khmelev, Dmitri V., and Fiona J. Tweedie. "Using Markov
Chains for Identification of Writers." Literary and Linguistic
Computing 16.3 (2001): 299-307.
Oulipo. Atlas de littérature potentielle (1981). Paris: Gallimard,
Oulipo. Ed. F. Motte Warren Jr. A Primer of Potential
Literature (1986). Trans. F. Motte Warren Jr. Normal, IL:
Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
Queneau, Raymond. Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Paris:
Gallimard, 1961.
Queneau, Raymond. "L'Analyse matricielle du langage." Etudes
de linguistique appliquée 3 (1964): 37-50.
Queneau, Raymond. Bâtons, chiffres et lettres. Paris:
Gallimard, 1965.
Ramsay, Stephen. "Toward an Algorithmic Criticism." Literary
and Linguistic Computing. 2003.
Rockwell, Geoffrey. "What is Text Analysis, Really?" Literary
and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 209-219.
Schmid, Helmut. TreeTagger - a language independent
part-of-speech tagger. Institute for Natural Language
Processing, University of Stuttgart. Accessed 2005-03-03. <h
Sinclair, Stéfan. "Computer-Assisted Reading: Reconceiving
Text Analysis." Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2
(2003): 175-184.
Starynkevitch, Dmitri. "The SEA CAB 500 Computer." Annals
of the History of Computing 12.1 (1990): 23-29.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None