As a former math major who is now completing a Ph.D. in literature, the term “digital humanities” certainly appealed to me. Indeed, in my own research practice, I attempt to use unconventional tools to examine an experimental writing workshop called the Oulipo. With this in mind, I decided to embark on a project with the Center for Digital Humanities @ Princeton, which I hope will teach me basic concepts of exploratory programming as well as create an interactive addition to my dissertation work.
Below is a summary of my initial expectations for this project, which I intend to complement with periodic blog posts in the hopes of inspiring other academics (or even amateurs) to pursue their own projects. The description that follows is a modified version of the initial proposal I submitted this month, however I expect that much will change, as the process of learning to code is already forcing me to refine my original goals and nuance the scope of the project.
Chapter 1: Set Theory
The first chapter of my dissertation deals with set theory, a late 19th/early 20th-century mathematical development that attempted to replace the original foundations of mathematical study (the number) with a new language of “sets,” or collections of objects, called “elements.” Set theory was popularized in France by an odd, semi-clandestine group of former École Normale Supérieure mathematics students that published under the pseudonym of Nicolas Bourbaki starting in the 1930’s. This group’s influence extended beyond mathematicians in the period following World War II, including the Oulipo. The focus of my first chapter is to examine the extent of this influence and understand exactly what how the Oulipo has applied set theory to literature, as well as what distinguishes this work from other movements of the time that were influenced by Bourbaki such as structuralism.
With this in mind, I have decided that my first digital annex will view texts as sets of words or perhaps other elements. By choosing canonical texts (in both French and English) and creating an interface that will allow the reader to experiment with basic set theoretical operations, such a reader can learn to treat literature mathematically. An obvious example of such work would be to allow readers to find intersections in vocabulary, for instance examining the common words in plays by Racine and Corneille. This prefabricated humanities computing would also serve as an introduction to a specific brand of digital humanities scholarship for scholars.
Chapter 2: Algebra
In this chapter, I understand algebra broadly as the mathematical discipline dealing with mathematical symbols and the rules for manipulating them, including basic counting, arithmetic, elementary algebra, number theory, and abstract algebra. For the annex, I have chosen the canonical Oulipian procedure, Jean Lescure’s S+7, in which one takes a text and replaces every noun (S=substantif) with the noun that is found seven entries later in a dictionary of the author’s choice. My program will allow the user to experiment with the S+7 on individual texts, as well as with the procedure itself. Some potential avenues: replacing S with another part of speech (verb, adverb, etc.); applying a more generalized S+n and seeing how the difference in n’s changes the result (including an S-7 function for readers to verify the validity of Oulipian S+7s); changing dictionaries; etc.
Chapter 3: Combinatorics
Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics dealing with the study of finite or countable discrete structures. Central to the Oulipo and its aesthetics, the study of combinatorics deals with questions of probability and entropy, which helps us understand the Oulipo’s insisted opposition to chance.
My third annex will be a digital edition of Raymond Queneau’s first Oulipian text, the Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), which allows a reader to permute the corresponding verses of 10 pre-written sonnets in order to create 100000000000000 (or one hundred thousand billion) new ones. In Queneau’s original paper edition, the reader has the freedom to select certain poems, adding a pedagogical intention to the text. Unlike the electronic versions that the Oulipo created in the 1960s and 1970s and other amateur versions available on the internet, I hope that my version will restore some of this original freedom to the reader of this constrained text.
Chapter 4: Algorithms
The fourth chapter of my dissertation deals with algorithmic literature, written with computers in mind and often reformatted for computers. In its early years, the Oulipo experimented formally with computers, creating interactive electronic editions of various texts. However, this early interest in technology eventually waned and disappeared entirely in 1981 when a tangential group known as the ALAMO (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs) was created by computer scientist Paul Braffort and mathematician Jacques Roubaud. In 2004, the Oulipo released a CD-rom through Gallimard with interactive computerized editions of several of their texts. Essential to my fourth chapter is understanding the nature of these early examples of proto digital humanities work and why the Oulipo abandoned them.
The fourth annex will consist of an electronic version of Un conte à votre façon (1973), a choose-your-own adventure tale of three little peas in a pod. While several online editions already exist, there are improvements to be made regarding the reader’s involvement. As this text is inspired by computer programs and therefore by algorithmic flowcharts and graph theory, I want to integrate my program with the graph corresponding to all the possible nodes of the story, which will allow the reader to understand various “glitches” that occur in Queneau’s “program.”
Chapter 5: Geometry
This chapter deals with geometry, which comes from the Greek for “measuring the earth.” Since the mathematical discipline deals with abstracted space, how does one reconcile this with the physical space in which we live. This becomes a central problematic in two Oulipian texts, both of which exhibit geometrical structures indicated by the table of contents: Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (1971) and Michèle Audin’s Mai quai Conti (2014). Both of these authors meticulously organize their novels according to geometrical structures in an attempt to reconcile the messiness of their topics with the regular design.
In Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili, the Italian author organizes a fragmented and incoherent collection of theoretical prose poems according to a rigid mathematical figure (a parallelogram). However, the philosophical and theoretical content of each of the pieces does not seem to correspond with the crystalline structure. My fifth annex will take the form of an interactive table of contents for Calvino’s novel, where one can enter into the text from any angle, allowing for multiple readings that lead to various conclusions, as the author indicated he wanted in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium.