Lecture: On "Potential Literature"

Stephen Ramsay begins the second chapter of Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism with an explanation of the origin and meaning of the word algorithm. The world algorithm, he explains, comes from the name of Persian mathematician Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, the mathematician whose book Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) gave us the word algebra. In general terms, Ramsay tells us, algorithm means a method for solving a problem, but is today equated with computers as “a step-by-step method for solving a problem using a machine” (18).

There are three major ideas to take from this chapter, which, again, I know is not the easiest of reading. These concepts are:

  • pataphysics as a “science of imaginary solutions” (20);
  • science’s increased use of narrative as a mode to engage in thought experiment (22-23); and
  • the Oulipo as an experimental literary movement that sought to create potential literature by exploring how “imaginative meaning arises at the intersection of potentiality and constraint” (25)1

Ramsay gets underway by discussing scientist and novelist C. P. Snow’s well-known 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” in which Snow argues that the sciences and the humanities have two cultures that misunderstand each other, two distinct cultures that have the potential to both enrich themselves and society if only they would better understanding each other and combine their methods. In a real sense, Snow was arguing for a third culture, one that combined scientific thought and analysis with the “imaginative experience” of the humanities. Ramsay then goes on to suggest that an algorithmic criticism would fall within this third culture, a culture, he notes, that has been in existence since the start of the 20th Century.

One place we find this third culture is in the pataphysics of Alfred Jarry and his novel Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien. Quoting from the novel, Ramsay tells us that pataphysics is “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (21, Qtd. Jarry 193). The novel’s explanation of pataphysics explains that while science sees an object fall and pronounces that fall as the law of gravity in action “the law of the fall of a body toward the center,” pataphysics suggests that what we’re seeing instead is the “law of the ascension of a vacuum toward a periphery” with “a vacuum being considered a unit of non-density” (21, Qtd. Jarry 193). In other words, pataphysics imagines another force at work when an object falls: instead of gravity pulling an object in towards the center (the heavier body), pataphysics imagines a force pushing an object away from the periphery. Jarry, in the novel, suggests that scientific answers are shaped by the questions we ask. We see things fall toward the earth so we ask, “Why do things fall toward the earth?” which leads us to develop an explanation that presupposes that there is a force that pulls objects toward the earth. Understood in this way, we can ask the question “Why are objects pushed away from the periphery?” and then develop a theory that presupposes a force that pushes objects rather than pulls them.

What we find in this idea of pataphysics is the use of the imagination to explain scientific phenomena. In one sense this is no different than how physics is performed – we observe a natural phenomena and we try to explain it– except that pataphysics seeks to invent new solutions to things we have already explained. As a method it seeks to be as rigorous as physics, and one can easily imagine creating Newtonian-based physics experiments in which we seek to prove that there is a force that pushes objects away from the periphery so that they move toward the center. Seriously. Take your copy of Reading Machines, hold it about 5 feet off the floor, and let go. Do that repeatedly. Each time you do so, I predict that a force will push your copy of Reading Machines away from the periphery so that it moves toward the floor or ground beneath it. If your copy moves from the periphery to floor (the center – the earth itself being the center and the floor or ground being as close to the center as your book can get), then you have just proven the existence of a force that pushes objects from the periphery to the center. It worked? Huzzah! We are all pataphysicists now!

As Ramsay then goes on to explain, this isn’t as odd as you might imagine. We have, since the start of the 20th Century, see science rely more and more upon the use of narrative to engage in thought experiments (22-24). Quantum mechanics, particle physics, relativity, the model of 10th dimensional space (watch the video – seriously, it’s awesome), etc., these are all thought experiments, which physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a essential analytic tool. Ramsay briefly references both Maxwell’s demon and Schrödinger’s cat as two of the most famous 20th Century thought experiments. The important take-away here is that thought experiments of these kind are examples of scientists using the “imaginative experience” of the humanities to engage in scientific exploration.

And that brings us to Ramsay’s discussion of the Oulipo group, which we will look at more in-depth later this semester, but have now been exposed to with Raymond Queneau‘s “A Story as You Like It” and Paul Fournel‘s “The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play.” Rather than seek to create literature, Ramsay explains, the Oulipo sought to create potential literature, that is literature that came into existence as you, the reader, read it. They did so by imposing constraints in ways that create potential.

The Oulipo began when Queneau sought to create his Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), which we will look at later this term. As Ramsay explains, Queneau wrote 10 sonnets that are intended to be recombined to create new sonnets. As discussed in last week’s lecture “The Medium Is the Mix,” surrealist, dadaist, Fluxus and other artists were already playing around with new forms of poetics such as collage poems, cut-ups, and fold-ins, and Ramsay makes note of some of this, in particular both Tristan Tzara and William S. Burroughs, which I also discuss in last week’s lecture. What Queneau did, however, was quite different in that Queneau imposed a rigorous constraint upon his work.

While Tzara would just pull words and phrases out of a hat and create a poem that way, and while Burroughs (and Gysin who taught him the cut-up method) would just combine snippets of text together, Queneau decided to work within the constraints of the sonnet form. Because the sonnet form requires a specific rhyme scheme and structure, one couldn’t simply grab any 14 lines from Queneau’s 10 sonnets and make a new sonnet. Rather, to ensure that the rhyme scheme and structure always worked – that is, to ensure that a true sonnet was always created – Queneau decided that the first line of any potential sonnet must come from the first line of one of his 10 sonnets, the second line must come from one of the second lines, the third line from one of the third lines, etc. Among other things, this means that Queneau had to write 10 sonnets that not only made sense on their own, but had to be able to properly rhyme across all possible combinations.

In order to figure out how to make it all work, Queneau had to enlist the help of a mathematician, and, the story goes, in their collaboration, the merging of the poetic and the mathematic, of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, the Oulipo was born. As Ramsay goes on to explain, various Oulipo members produced a number of techniques – techniques we’ll not only study later this term but play around with as well – that involve formal constraints to produce potentiality. Much of the Ouliop groups’ work involves mathematics and algorithmic constraints and they soon realized that computers themselves offered new ways of exploring, generating, and automating the process of creating potential literature. For instance, in “A Story as You Like It” and “The Theater Tree: A Combinatory Play” we find the precursors to hypertext fiction and interactive fiction. In addition to creating potential literature, members of the Oulipo group wrote a number of theoretical essays. When we formally look at Ouliop later this semester, we’ll not only explore Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, but we’ll read some essays including Claude Berge’s “For a Potential Analysis of Combinatory Literature,” Paul Fournel’s “Computer and Writer: The Centre Pompidou Experiment,” and Italo Calvino’s “Prose and Anticombinatorics.”

So, where does all this get us? For this week, it’s this understanding that there is a third culture, one that combines the scientific and the poetic/imaginative that has been used to produce serious science and serious art. In the long run, Ramsay is building his argument for and definition of an algorithmic criticism. (While chapter 2 is titled “Potential Literature,” chapter 3 is, appropriately, titled “potential readings.”)

In the short term, however, the focus on the Oulipo show us another way in which literature and the literary are responding to electronic and digital media. (Hayles discussion of electronic literature is another exploration of how our notions of literature and the literary are changing.) Last week, when we looked at remix culture and back to the pre-computer mixes and mashups (collage poems, cut-ups, fold-ins) of the surrealists, the dadaists, and Fluxus, we saw examples of artists “living with the living” as McLuhan calls it (which, again, is a repurposed quote from Michel Montaigne), new poetic techniques and experiments as a response to the rise of electronic media. While they embraced a sort of anarchic freedom, the Ouliop chose to go the route of the algorithm and impose even more constraint upon their art, and did so not simply to create art, but to create a multitude of potential art. In the case of one of Queneau’s works, that multitude of potential arts reached into the hundred thousand billion.

Stop and reflect on that for a moment. When we read Queneau’s sonnet sequence later this term, it is entirely possible for each of us to not encounter the same poem. We will all be reading the same work and we’ll almost certainly read some of the same lines, but each of us could read 20 different poems and potentially none of us read the same poem. And here’s the kicker: Queneau intended for each of these poems to exist for someone at some point in time. One hundred thousand billion poems. It’s estimated that if one had the ability to read one poem after another without stop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take one 200,000,000 years all hundred thousand billion poems. 

  1. See also the Academy of American Poet’s essay “Into the Maze: OULIPO“.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *