Excerpt: 'The End of Oulipo?: An attempt to exhaust a movement' by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito
January 22, 2013
From The New Inquiry:
One of the things the Oulipo claims sets them apart from other avant-garde groups is that their movement isn’t meant to be political. And yet strong Oulipians, like Raymond Queneau, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec, have wanted to interrogate the world we live in, largely through a disruptive use of language and a more conscious approach to the everyday world. Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro (1959) turns the map of Paris inside out; his heroine comes to the see not to see the sights but to see the Metro, and the sights she does see are all scrambled up, one swapped out for another (“Look! The Panthéon!!!” “No, no, and no, isn’t the Panthéon.”). Mathews has said that in titling his strange second novel Tlooth (1966) he aimed to disturb the very act of reading itself in order to “undermine any . . . hope of certainty that there may be in reading the text.” Perec, for his part, called for his readers to find what is significant in the quotidian: “Question your tea spoons,” he exhorted readers of “The Infra-Ordinary”.
Le Tellier doesn’t seem to want anyone to question anything. When he looks in his tea spoons all he sees in them is his own concave, upside-down reflection. Like the Surrealists he tends to see women as ciphers and archetypes—a sexism that’s latent in French culture (and avant-garde culture) in general. If Le Tellier were a writer on his own, this would be less important to point out; who has time to keep tabs on every single male chauvinist writer? But the Oulipo is menaced by the reactionary bourgeois element Le Tellier represents. This may be to some extent unavoidable; many avant-garde groups have seen their once revolutionary ideas appropriated by the mainstream, where they lose their trenchant edge. The Oulipo’s loopy experiments have indeed come to seem like reasonable literary experiments. But if the Oulipo hopes to avoid exhausting its potential, it is up to its members to stay outside of the mainstream, writing from the margins rather than from the comfortable center of official culture. If an Oulipian leaves the workbench and settles into a comfortable armchair, his worldview narrows, and his work’s potential diminishes.
A vulnerability to sexism was coded into the Oulipo’s DNA from the outset.Daniel Levin Becker describes the evolution of the group from Queneau’s day to our own as a change “from an environment where a bunch of gentlemen sat around discussing Literature to one where a bunch of dudes sat around talking lipogrammatically for the sport of it”. Quick French lesson: an ouvroir, Oulipo is short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literatureArnaud tells us, “once denoted a shop . . . in which the master cobblers of Paris displayed their wares and pursued their trade.” This title indicates an emphasis on craft, on the made (and potentially anti-realist) quality of a work of literature. It also points up an element of trade associated with an ouvroir, where things made to be sold. Until around the 18th century, ouvroir could refer to “that part of a textile factory where the looms are placed; or, in an arsenal, the place where a team of workers performs a given task.” In this way the Oulipo identifies itself as a much more grounded endeavor than other manifesto-driven avant-garde groups like the Futurists, the Surrealists, or the Situationists; in the ouvroir, we work with our hands, with tools. There is also, it must be pointed out, a distinctly masculine whiff to all of this—master cobblers creating and plying their wares, belonging to guilds, building a network of power founded on male camaraderie.