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 Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

The second shortest answer is that pretty much every time someone proposes to do something new and cool, his or her excitement is punctured by the refrain Georges y avait pensé, meaning that Perec had totally thought of it already. (Jacques Jouet, who became an Oulipian in 1983, the year after Perec’s death, has a funny little memoir about how quickly this became maddening.)

A well-meaning, but ultimately unhelpful, answer is that there’s a mock periodic table (the table queneleieff, which is viewable in the 1981 anthology Atlas de Littérature Potentielle and maaaybe in the Oulipo Compendium?) that lists the forms and constraints the Oulipo had used thus far by scope, i.e. phoneme-based, letter-based, word-based, etc. I’m pretty sure, however, that there’s no chronology associated with it.

Corollary to the first and shortest answer is that I think a chronology like the one you describe is understood as the work of scholars studying the Oulipo, not by the Oulipo itself (and I count myself in both camps). Not that the group shirks the responsibility to do so—despite the Georges y avait pensé thing above, most Oulipians are thoroughly versed in the pedigree of Oulipian techniques. And let’s not forget that the Oulipo has been archiving its paper trail for over 40 years, even though like, only six people in the world have ever seen those archives. In theory someone could trace, in an annoyingly inefficient way, the lineage of something like the sardinosaure—but that this seems to be the sort of thing scholars build careers on arguing and confabulating about, whereas for the group it’s potentially more of a pit of theoretical quicksand that might prevent actually getting anything new done. This is complete speculation by this point, by the way.

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