experimental literature

2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies

I am pleased to announce that my dissertation, The Oulipo’s Mathematical Project (1960-2014) was just announced one of the winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies! Looking at the titles of my fellow winners’ work, I can see that I am in very good company. This means that my manuscript is now under contract with Peter Lang Oxford, so please keep a lookout for it in 2021!

Winners of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies


Digital Oulipo: Programming Potential Literature

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article, Digital Oulipo: Programming Potential Literature in the current issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly! This article recounts the project I completed within the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities, its design, difficulties, and results (both expected and unexpected). Most importantly, in it, I offer my two cents on the use of exploratory programming in Digital Humanities scholarship. Enjoy!


S+7 through NLTK


One of the earliest Oulipian procedures is Jean Lescure’s S+7. While its status as a constraint is debatable (originally called a method, sometimes referred to as a procedure), it is one of the most cited and perhaps also least understood of the Oulipo’s long list of techniques.

To begin, S stands for “substantif” (noun), but can be theoretically replaced with any other part of speech. One of the founders of the Oulipo, François Le Lionnais, pointed out that S+7 is a more specific version of m±n, where m is a “meaningful” part of speech and n is any integer. Carrying out an S+7 or any of its variations should be a purely mechanical procedure. All an author needs are two very important pieces: a pre-written text and a dictionary. Then, the author identifies all the nouns and replaces them with the nouns that come seven entries later in a dictionary of their choosing. The result therefore depends upon the original text and the dictionary chosen, but not much else.


In the bench Governor created the help and the economist.
And the economist was without forum, and void; and day was upon the failure of the deep. And the Spring of Governor moved upon the failure of the weddings.
And Governor said, Let there be link: and there was link.

(generated on http://www.spoonbill.org/n+7/)

The interest of this particular S+7 and indeed most of the Oulipo’s best-loved examples is that the original text (Genesis from the Bible) is extremely recognizable. It isn’t the dictionary that led to the hilarity of the result, but rather that even with the noun substitutions, the original text is still very much audible, but with unexpected new words. While the choice of the dictionary could have created more specific substitutions, the Oulipo has not really done much experimenting with the dictionaries — they have used big ones and small ones (and in the case of one Queneau S+7, a culinary one).

Natural Language Processing

For my digital humanities project, I am making my own S+7 program using nltk with python. While my earlier programming efforts were difficult for a beginner, trying my hand at nltk makes me feel like I’ve made it to another level entirely. Going through their online textbook has been very helpful and has reinforced the programming knowledge I have already gained through working on this project. Also, Natural Language Processing has helped me better understand the early constraints of the Oulipo, greatly contributing to my chapter on algebra which includes analysis of the S+7 and its variations, as well as other methods that are based on simple substitutions, counting, or operations.

I am pleased to report that I am putting the final touches on this last program, which will allow the reader to generate a dictionary based on one author’s vocabulary (the one I am currently working with takes all the nouns from Edgar Allan Poe’s collected poetry) and substitute those nouns into a short excerpt from several other recognizable texts (Moby Dick, The Declaration of Independence, Genesis, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Raven).

Once I have worked out the kinks in my pluralizing function (if the original noun is plural, I need the substituted one to be plural as well), I will publish the code online in my Github repository as well as here on CORE. While I do not believe that this code is particularly useful, the process of creating it was invaluable to me as a scholar and a programmer. I now understand the Oulipo and their computer efforts much better, as well as their elementary procedures. Programming texts that seem gimmicky, but that are hardly ever “read” (such as the Cent mille milliards de poèmes) has forced me to design new ways to read them. I have also gained new insights into the digital humanities and how it can be used not to produce an online archive or digital editions of texts (though, I have created interactive, digital editions of certain texts or procedures), but rather to open eyes to the possibilities in such experimental fiction. Works written using new methods must be analyzed using new methods. In that sense, it was the intellectual process of carrying out this project and not the process itself that I will take with me.

Digital Oulipo: Graph Theory for Literary Analysis

Raymond Queneau published Un conte à votre façon in 1967 in the midst of the Russian formalism excitement spurred by the translations of Vladimir Propp and his contemporaries. Propp’s premise is that all folktales can be broken into their simplest 31 narrative functions following an initial situation. À votre façon refers to a potential reader, who can compose it as he/she sees fit given a set of binary choices provided by Queneau. This “tree structure” comes from the mathematical field of graph theory that was being developed at that time by fellow Oulipian, Claude Berge. Queneau’s tale can, incidentally, be represented as a graph.

A graphical representation of the text designed by Queneau and published in a collected volume of the Oulipo

Queneau’s story initially gives this reader a choice between the story of three little peas, three big skinny beanpoles, or three average mediocre bushes. The following choices are all binary, and mostly stark oppositions. This is also a feature of algorithms, in the sense that binary choices must provide mutually exclusive alternatives. If not, the system would be contradictory. For instance, either the reader chooses to read the tale of the three peas or he does not. Should the reader prefer not to read this first option, (s)he will find that the two alternatives offer rather meager results. Refusing all three terminates the program almost immediately.

As with these preliminary choices, most nodes in Queneau’s short tale are superficial or contradictory, giving the reader only an illusion of choice. While the story and its various itineraries can be visualized as a flow chart, the story leaves very little freedom to the reader. The genius of the text lies in the simultaneous display of all possible options, allowing the reader unparalleled insight into the structure (and shortcomings) of this experimental tale.

At the end of Learn Python the Hard Way, I was able to make my own Un conte à votre façon program that allowed a reader to move through a “Map” with a pre-established number of scenes. While I was proud of myself for writing a program, I was still not satisfied. I wanted the graph and I wanted it to interact with the program somehow.

My technical lead, Cliff Wulfman introduced me to graphviz, an open source graph (network) visualization project that is freely available for Python. In graph theory, a graph is defined as a plot of nodes and edges. In graphviz as well, in order to make a graph, I had to define all requisite nodes and edges. The program then generates a visualization of the graph that is spatially efficient. As an exercise, I made a graph of the famous graph theory problem of the Bridges of Königsberg.

With this graph theoretical program in my Python arsenal, I was able to make my own graph of Un conte à votre façon. Still not enough, I aimed to integrate the two programs, and Cliff and I decided to give my original program the structure of a graph so that it would be able to generate a graph with graphviz at the end. My program now has nodes and edges that correspond with Queneau’s prompts and choices as follows.

With this structure, I was able to write a program that enters the graph at the first node and, depending on the choice of the user, proceeds through the story, printing out the selected nodes and the corresponding edges. The program records the path the reader takes and at the end, prints out a graph with the reader’s path filled in green, to represent the little peas. While my little program does not take into account the full potential of the intersection of graph theory and literature as proposed by Queneau’s text, I am very pleased with how it functions. For instance, I can leave to the reader the mathematical exercise of finding the minimum number of read-throughs required to hit every node. While there is still more that can be done, the graph my program generates is itself informative — side by side with the text, the reader can learn more about the potential of this three little peas story.

George Orrimbe: A Private OuPeinPo Viewing

Last year, a chance encounter in a bookshop in Versailles led to my discovery of the OuPeinPo (Ouvroir de Peinture Potentielle). While I know the Oulipo, I am less familiar with the OuXPo groups, which replace Literature (Li) with another discipline and find their own version of constrained work. While I knew the OuPeinPo by name alone, meeting George Orrimbe at Versailles gave me an unparalleled insight into their work.

Orrimbe is a member of the OuPeinPo who introduced me to his particular brand of portraits. The overarching question is: how does one devise a portrait of an author? Physical appearances alone would leave out the defining element that makes them an author — their work. Rather than painting an author based on his looks, Orrimbe designs these portraits based entirely on the author’s published works. Here are some examples:

The process is called “vocalocoloriste” and what it means is that Orrimbe has a system. He chooses a shape based on the number of vowels (vocalo) in a word and the color (coloriste) based on the first vowel. The color scheme comes from Rimbaud’s famous poem “Voyelles” (A noir E blanc I rouge, etc.). Instead of E blanc or white E, he does yellow, so it looks more interesting.

Interesting side note: Orrimbe is the “verlan” (French slang where words are written backwards, or à l’envers) for Rimbaud. The spelling is also influenced by George Orwell, who is a favorite author of Orrimbe. The combination of the two creates his pseudonym: George Orrimbe.

He picks ten titles of their works to fill in the facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, eyebrows, etc.). For the entire face, he uses the author’s name. It’s fun to stand in front of a portrait and guess which Oulipian it is, a process that isn’t too difficult if you know the system, the Oulipian authors, and their works.

Ultimately, it was a small, but bold exposition. I feel very honored to have been given a private tour by the artist.

Digital OuLiPo: Unexpected Results

The Structure

The purpose of my 5th annex was to create an interactive table of contents that could simultaneously house both the text of Calvino’s Le città invisibili (in the original Italian and English translation) and academic work on the novel that deals with each of the individual cities. Since there is so much academic criticism on this text that covers a variety of topics and spans multiple disciplines (like the novel itself), I wanted to create a rigorous structure in which I could house this criticism along with relevant source texts that Calvino used in the composition. As Calvino’s text is meticulously ordered according to a geometrical structure indicated by the table of contents, I thought this would be an appropriate way to organize this information.

The table of contents of Le città invisibili gives way to the following parallelogram (Source):


The tool I used to create this interactive table of contents was TinderBox, which produced a hyptertext from Calvino’s novel structure (which could already be considered a hypertext in many respects). TinderBox allowed me to reproduce this structure, but with the text inside each box. Now, a reader can navigate throughout the novel in a linear fashion or a nonlinear one (I indicate possible paths with arrows), in Italian or English (I included the text in both languages).

While pondering how to collect the data for the next level — scholarly work on Invisible Cities as well as source documents — I realized that this was the exact scholarly research that I am already doing for my dissertation. Accomplishing this research, while important for my dissertation, is therefore outside of the scope of this digital humanities project.

Through this project, I have gained a great appreciation for TinderBox as a note-taking tool, and I will continue to use this unique digital space for my own personal use. This new way to organize information is an unexpected result of my digital humanities. However, as I will not be able to make this annex publicly available (as it contains numerous documents that are still under copyright), I have decided to drop it from my project.

Digital OuLiPo: Coding as Analysis

Given my lack of formal training in programming, the order in which I pursue this project depends upon the relative difficulty of each annex. Therefore, I have chosen to begin with the 3rd and 5th annexes. Annex 3 is a simple exercise that can function as a basic introduction to programming in Python, while Annex 5 involves no coding at all, just becoming familiar with a ready-made tool called TinderBox, which can produce hypertexts.

Step 1: Creating the Data Structure of the Cent mille milliards de poèmes

From what I understand so far about Python and object-oriented programming languages, Annex 3 is a simple exercise that I will be able to complete even as a beginner. Indeed, in order to program this text, I need to think like a computer. The Cent mille milliards de poèmes is composed of 10 sonnets, each of which — like all sonnets — has 14 lines. In computer science terms, a sonnet is an array or a collection of elements, to which each can be assigned a numbered index (so, lines 1-14). Since corresponding lines of each sonnet rhyme with one another, they can be swapped. This creates an array of arrays and each verse can therefore be represented by two indices: one indicating which numbered line it is (1-14) and another indicating to which poem it belongs (1-10).

As a former math major, this type of thinking is not foreign to me. It is the practical aspect of creating a program to manipulate these verses with which I am unfamiliar. For instance, in mathematics, you could label these verses however you want. With Python, you have to begin with 0 and not 1. Item 0,0 in my program therefore corresponds to the first verse in the first poem.

Step 2: Performing Operations

Once I am able to create the data structure for my program based on these insights, I will be able to write a program to generate “random” poems from Queneau’s prefabricated elements. This is my second step: performing operations on these arrays. I have experimented in allowing the reader choose one line of one sonnet and now I am trying to come up with a satisfying way to generate pseudo-random sonnets. Since a computer cannot generate pure random numbers, I am designing my own pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs) that will have some relation to the reader — or user. As the Oulipo is starkly anti-chance, this seems promising to me, since computers are utterly incapable of generating truly random sonnets from this collection. Instead, I will create a unique “key” based on user input. Below is some brainstorming:

  • Using the current date and time in order to determine which verses to pull. That way, the reader can generate a new sonnet every second. However, I will need to subject this date to some calculation, as a simple 14-digit string of the time and date (for instance, hh-mm-ss-MM-DD-YYYY) will result in very similar poems generated year to year, decade to decade, century to century, and millennium to millennium. Additionally, the first digits of the hours, minutes, and seconds, do not allow for all numbers between 0 and 9.
  • Pulling a number based on the computer hardware on which the poem is produced, but such numbers are often longer than 14 digits.
  • Using the coordinates of earth in the galaxy to generate such a number.
  • Ask the reader to input data about him/herself—age, height, weight, etc.—to generate the numbers. This will also certainly lead to the same problem as the first bullet point.

Exploring these possibilities is putting me in an Oulipian mindset, helping me understand their conception of chance by forcing me to create the way they do.

Insights into Computer Influence

I expect that learning to program the Cent mille milliards de poèmes will help me as a researcher to understand the text on a deeper level. It is clear from the paratextual elements (an epigraph by Alan Turing and a “user’s manual”) that even the author was inspired by computers. Indeed, he even had someone program it around the time it was first published. Understanding how computers function will therefore help me to grasp Queneau’s intentions for this odd volume.

I have never been satisfied with online versions of this text that require the reader to push a button and then get a “random” poem out of a hundred thousand billion. And even now that I understand that these versions by their very nature cannot produce truly random poems, I am still dissatisfied. Regardless of the method, these versions still seem to limit reader involvement, which I suspect is key.

The Oulipo members themselves grappled with this same issue as they created computer programs of early texts such as this. They were interested in the potential of computers as tools for text production, but always treated it with a grain of salt. Making my own computer program has helped me both understand the way computer programs function — teaching me the basics of coding — but it has also made me more critical of the Oulipian notion of chance and how it is to be understood.

Digital OuLiPo: The Plan

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[1] (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[2] 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.

[1] http://www.alamo.free.fr/pmwiki.php?n=Alamo.Accueil

[2] http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/CD-ROM/Machines-a-ecrire