I would argue that the Oulipo, historically speaking, are not conceptual writers/artists—although it’s easy to see how that confusion has come about . . .
This is a very good question, one that I encounter all the time in discussions of Oulipo. Essentially, the idea of “constraint” very quickly expands to encompass virtually any kind of impediment/procedure one might perform in the service of literature. Virtually anything is “constrained” in some way, making a useful definition of what the Oulipo was doing hard to come by.
Helpfully, Jameson promises, to tackle one of the biggest gray areas: constrained work versus conceptual work.
What, then, distinguishes concepts from constraints? And why does that distinction matter? In this series of posts, I’ll try answering those questions, starting with what we mean when we call art conceptual.
In this first post, it seems that the most important distinction Jameson is drawing is that conceptual writing need not ever leave the conceptual plane. It doesn’t actually have to be made into anything. It inheres more in the idea of a work.
LeWitt was quite serious when he wrote in “Paragraphs,” “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” the line that’s become the mantra of conceptual art. Basically, a conceptual artist comes up with an idea (a concept), which is itself the artwork. The artist (or another person) may then execute the concept. If so, the work produced counts as a demonstration of the originating idea. But it isn’t the artwork per se; it’s more like a record or product of the execution.
I would agree with this, as well as Jameson’s further argument that
The conceptual artist, therefore, accepts whatever results occur as a result of implementing his or her concept. This is a very important point that really can’t be overstated. No changing your mind! No interfering!
A great example of this would be Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiemnt, which I discuss in The End of Oulipo? Bok is probably the most conceptual writer that I discuss in the book, and in The Xenotext Experiment he effectively gives up all opportunity to alter the results of his procedure: he feeds a string of text into a bacterium, and it produces the “writing.” Essentially this is where Oulipian constraint moves into conceptual art, a point that I discuss in the book.
Something that straddles the two would be a book like Oeuvres by Edouard Leve, whom I also discuss in The End of Oulipo? Oeuvres is simply a list of titles of possible works that someone might write. So it’s obviously conceptual, in a sense, but it’s also an execution of a certain idea: write a list of possible books.
In my opinion, something like Oeuvres is interesting for the way it partakes of both realms, revealing the hidden tensions of the middle ground. Oeuvres is one of Leve’s two untranslated books, though a translation of it is underway right now.
While I agree with a lot in Jameson’s blog post, I would not go as far as the conceptual writer Kenneth Goldmsith, whom Jameson quotes as saying:
One of the greatest problems I have with OULIPO is the lack of interesting production that resulted from it. While I like the idea of “potential literature,” it strikes me that their output should have remained conceptual — a mapping, so to speak; judging by the works that have been realized, they might be better left as ideas. On the whole, they embraced a blandly conservative narrative fiction which seems to bury the very interesting procedures that went into creating the works.
I can’t speak to Goldsmith’s opinion of Oulipo’s products, but I think literature requires execution, and if an idea is not actually executed it remains in the realm of conceptual art. That, of course, can be interesting, but does something very different from what literature does.
One of my favorite things I’ve ever heard Cesar Aira declare (which he did in an interview I conducted with him) that is literature must exceed the status of intentions. I think his books, which remind me very much of both Oulipian and conceptual texts, are a great example of this. He always starts with some sort of strange concept, and then he must fulfill it, as an author. This is his responsibility. Some of his products exceed their intentions and some of them don’t. The latter I find interesting, but regard as failures as experimental literature (though possibly successes as concepts, to the extent that they provoke and upset me). And, ultimately, when I find Oulipian texts unsatisfying, it’s usually because they’re either uninteresting as concepts, or poor executions of a good concept. And a few truly abyssal ones are both bad concepts and poor executions.
You Might Also Like:
More from Conversational Reading:
- Expurgated Footnotes from Many Subtle Channels From an interview with Daniel Levin Becker: 42 That’s right: Perec was an anticipatory plagiarist of Salt-n-Pepa. 207 Flarf is also related, temperamentally if not...
- Why Exhaustion? — Expanding on The End of Oulipo? I can think of at least two reasons why exhaustion is an interesting (and Oulipian) literary thing. (I get into both of these in varying...
- On Joining Oulipo by Accident From Harry Mathews’ excellent, engaging Paris Review interview. Is that when you found out about the Oulipo? MATHEWS I had first heard about the Oulipo...
- David Mitchell Likes Writing Constraints That and more in this interview/profile. The success has been a boon for Mitchell. He is already well into a new novel set on a...
- The Oulipo Periodic Table From a conversation between Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker and Chris Clarke, whose translations f new exercises appear in New Directions’ 65th anniversary edition of Raymond...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.