OuLiPo and the Mathematics of Literature (you can purchase the physical or ebook here) retraces the historical foundations of this creative writing workshop’s interdisciplinary endeavor and analyzes the effect of the group’s mathematical methods on the reading experience. Three methodological frameworks are at play in this analysis. The first is historical, putting the Oulipo’s first thirty years of archival meeting minutes into a productive conversation with the scientific and mathematical literature that preceded the founding of the group. The second methodology is literary, taking the form of close readings and genetic criticism, analyzing textual, paratextual, and manuscript clues that serve as an enunciation of the compositional methods. Finally, this study makes use of digital humanities techniques, primarily through a project in exploratory programming to understand the Oulipo’s own computer science initiatives.
This study concludes that the Oulipo makes intentional use of mathematics, capitalizing on an image of the discipline that was popular in the postwar era and resulting in an influential body of experimental literature that invites the reader to participate in abstract, mathematical thought. This work has three main contributions to literary scholarship more largely. First, understanding the Oulipo’s mathematical methods and group culture can explain the group’s singularity among other twentieth-century artistic movements. Second, a more thorough understanding of the group’s interdisciplinary collaborations with mathematicians and computer scientists solidifies the group’s role as historical actor in the development of computer science, producing some of the earliest examples of digital humanities research and electronic literature. Finally, understanding the Oulipo sheds new light on disciplinary questions, suggesting that creative practices can bridge the divide between the humanities and STEM fields.
Quote from a review by Warren Motte: “…the vast majority of the claims that Berkman stakes in this volume involve considerations that are well founded. This is true even when she is working in long focus, encouraging us to think about the very idea of shape, for instance, or about the behavior involved in the act of counting.” (2)