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Digital Oulipo: Programming Potential Literature

Using electronic versions of Oulipian texts to disrupt any traditional linear modes of reading and challenge the reader to construct their own text.

Through this project, I designed pedagogical, interactive digital versions of various experimental texts that I discuss in my dissertation on mathematics in the OuLiPo (Workshop of Potential Literature, founded in Paris in 1960). The three annexes I created correspond with my second, third, and fourth chapters of my dissertation, complementing the critical analysis. The first deals with algebra and operations on basic units of language, focusing on the S+7 method, which replaces every noun (substantif) with the one that comes seven entries later in a dictionary. My program allows the reader to experiment with the method itself, carrying out the method using specific dictionaries generated from the collected works of certain authors. The second annex is an electronic edition of Queneau’s famous Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961) that allows the reader to generate pseudo-random poems from the 1014 proposed by Queneau, based on his/her age, location, and computer. The third and final annex programs Queneau’s interactive, choose-your-own-adventure story, Un conte à votre façon (1967). Through this example, the reader can experiment with graph theory and learn about the mathematical possibilities of this simple, yet elastic tale, as my program generates a particularly interesting graph corresponding to the various paths available in the story and the specific one the reader has taken.

Oulipian texts challenge traditional notions of reading. The reader no longer passively absorbs the text written by another, but must play and construct by himself if he wishes to get anywhere at all. The topic of my dissertation examines the various mathematical aspects in play in Oulipian production and answers this fundamental question: how does the addition of mathematical thought change the reading experience? By offering the reader of my dissertation with electronic versions of Oulipian texts, that reader can learn firsthand how such texts disrupt any traditional linear mode of reading, and also enjoy a ludic introduction to various mathematical principles. Through the act of designing these electronic editions myself, I have gained a better understanding of these texts and how they operate, as well as a practical introduction to digital humanities and computer programming.

Read more about the project here. 

  • Project Director
  • Natalie Berkman

  • Technical Lead
  • Clifford Wulfman


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