POETIC COMBINATIONS AND PERMUTATIONS:
WRITING IN THE PRE-COMPUTER AGE
At the root of what we call writing lays the practice of repeated combinations. The writer's work is permeated with combinations.
From the I Ching1 to Oulipo by way of the cento - a technique dating from Antiquity which consists in creating texts by patching together quotations of other writers - combinations have always haunted textual practices.
Poetry is the oldest literary genre to combine and switch elements: verses and, within these verses, letters.
In Classical metrical poetry, everything is measured and counted. The rondeau, the sonnet and the virelay are created by dividing verse into feet within a stanza. This Classical poetic method was the structure necessary for the flowering of expression. When the structure begins to weigh the poetry down like a yoke, the poem holds meaning only when it is pushed to its extreme limits, until poetry frees itself of this yoke and invents other constraints in order to express itself.
Raymond Roussel was one of the precursors who tacitly brought the group of writers who placed themselves under the command of writing rules into being.
Roussel wanted future writers to be able to profit from his textualisation procedures and revealed some of the mental operations which enabled him to write.
For example, out of the definitions of a single word:
"1st. Baleine (whale) à îlot (small island); 2nd. baleine (baleen) à ilote (helot); 1st. duel (combat between two people) à accolade (embrace, as when two adversaries are reconciled after the duel); 2nd. duel ("dual" as in Greek grammar) à accolade (typographical bracket); 1st. mou (spineless individual) à raille (here I was thinking of the raillery directed towards a lazy student by his comrades); 2nd. mou (lights of a slaughtered animal) à rail (railway line)."2
Roussel proceeds by associations.
He takes a word with two definitions (baleine) and then connects the initial meaning to another word with two definitions (îlot). The constraint lies in maintaining the connection between the two words. When the material is brought together, Roussel is able to write:
"[...] [T]he statue of the helot sculpted from corset whalebones rolling on the rails of calf's lights and carrying on its base an inscription relating to the dual form of a Greek verb."3
This is how Roussel opened the door to works in which the construction of the text is based less on a prior meaning conveying the author's intention than on operations carried out on the language itself.
OULIPO: ELEVATING WRITING RULES INTO A LITERARY GENRE
The OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle (Oulipo) was founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960. The group was made up of writers (Queneau, Arnaud, Bens, Duchateau, Latis, Lescure, Queval, Schmidt), mathematicians (Le Lionnais, Berge, Braffort) and foreign correspondents (Blavier, Chambers, Chapman, Duchamp), all of them interested in writing under constraints.
Raymond Queneau, with his philosopher's interest in mathematics and as an earnest encyclopaedist, had already written his entire Oulipian output before forming the theory when he founded Oulipo. The group became known in 1961 with Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a "handy" system for producing poems in the form of ten sonnets printed on sheets cut into fourteen strips.
The group's goal was to contribute to literary activity by offering structures taken from mathematics or by inventing "artificial or mechanical" procedures. They sought in this way to find alternatives to Classical poetry (Alexandrines, sonnets, etc.). Analysing existing work offered a well of experiences from which the Oulipians drank with delight: they resurrected the bygone work of Alexandrine poets, great rhetoricians (Jean Meschinot, 1490) and German Baroque poets (Quirinus Kuhlmann, 1660).
Oulipo showed the general public that writing could take the form of a game whose rules were based on the manipulation of textual elements.
In his text "Technique du roman", Queneau revealed the circular structure of his three novels Le chiendent, Gueule de pierre and Les derniers jours:
"It was unbearable for me to leave the number of chapters in my novels to chance.
Thus Le Chiendent has 91 (7 x 13) sections, 91 being the sum of the first thirteen numbers and its "sum" being 1 . . . as for 7, I took it then and still take it today as the numerical image of myself, because my first name, middle name and family name are each made up of seven letters and because I was born on the 21st (3 x 7).
Although the novel does not appear to be autobiographical, its form was fixed by these quite selfish motives and thus expressed what the content believed itself to be disguising."4
It is interesting to consider this last sentence for a moment and remark how the unsaid of the utterance takes shape in the form. The utterance exits the narrative to take shape in a larger space revealed by the constraint of writing, a sort of body double which supports and crafts the work. It is the metaphor which directs the delivery of the narrative meaning.
ALAMO AND "LITTÉRACIELS"
In July 1981, two Oulipo members, Paul Braffort and Jacques Roubaud, created a new group devoted exclusively to literature and computer technology.
This group, called the Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs (Alamo) includes Oulipians but is also open to other writers, teachers and scholars interested in linguistics, artificial intelligence or pedagogy.5
Alamo is continuing the work begun by Oulipo. After the arrival of computers, the group took a more scientific and pedagogical turn. Combinatory exercises gave way to substitution and filtering techniques and to modelling based on the latest computer technology.
Aphorisms which briefly announce general truths capture them well. The mechanism has two components: a "mould", or one or more sentences in which some elements have been replaced by "hollows", and a system of "lexicons" whose entries can be used to fill the "hollows". Using existing texts, some elements - words or groups of words - are substituted for other occurrences chosen from lists prepared in advance. The difficulty lays in determining which system will be used to indicate to the machine which part of the lexicon provided to it to look for. To do so, the group marks words and hollows with "attributes" which make it possible to subject the substitution to precise syntactic, semantic and stylistic constraints.
Since the Alamonians are not all computer technicians, it was decided to perfect an "author language" to design combinatory systems for producing texts; the program came into being in 1984-85, and it was with this program that "littéraciels" (a contraction of "littérature" and "logiciel", software) were composed.6
The goal is to provide real, pre-programmed constraints that the writer has only to employ, beginning with the trite and working up gradually to complex levels and finally to the composition of pre-structured plots.
VARIATIONS IN SYSTEMATIC COMBINATIONS: TOWARDS AUTOMATIC POETRY GENERATION
Different kinds of combinations can be classified according to their degree of complexity: partial, limited, complex, the mould technique; writing formulae and matrix writing are two such kinds. The variety of combinable elements and the combination technique used create a glaring risk in the overall (factorial) combination: the risk of illegibility. The illegibility of a text goes hand in hand with its intelligibility, which varies in inverse relation to the information given: the more new information there is, the more difficult it is for the reader to project it onto his or her previous knowledge and understand it.
"If a message is completely original, in the sense of pure combination, it is nothing more than a perfectly unpredictable and thus disparate assemblage of all the signs in the repertory. Viewers have nothing to do, they are submerged, they give up. But if, on the other hand, the message is completely intelligible, if it is completely banal and exactly what was expected, it is entirely without interest, because the viewer already knows what it contains."7
The years 1984-85 were a turning point in French creative activity. Computer-assisted literature - the product of a convergence between literary practices and mathematical theories - became autonomous and sought its place within literature. Saussurian linguistics, which studies the systematic organisation of the language, as well as structural linguistics and Chomsky's generative grammar were the scientific prerequisites to the automatic generation of texts. Thanks to these sciences, the formal work of literature is made visible. Writing is a form of work, a work of composing which can take increasingly abstract forms, including the modelling of a mechanical text. Authors such as Jean-Pierre Balpe have grasped this fact and have profoundly renewed the poetic genre of literary variation.
Balpe8 identifies four expressions in literary forms: the rule, the constraint, the program text and the programmed text.
Writing rules and constraints are among the procedures authors impose on themselves when composing in order to obtain their objectives. Rule-based writing on the Web can be the application of rules leading to a stylistic exercise (such as 2002: a Palindrome Story in 2002 Words, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie) or constraints applied by a writing collective such as Jacques Tramu's Echolalie (Tramu is a participant in Oulipo's Lundi de l'Oulipo meetings), an "anonymous" site made up of Prévertian-style inventories whose goal is to bring together all finite lists with fewer than 666 characters and 666 lines.
The wiki site Echolalistes, begun in May 2002, regularly adds to these "Perecian" lists by means of on-line collective contributions. It includes such inventive treasures as the ListeDeWares.
The poet and publisher Philippe Bootz9 has devised a similar classification system by distinguishing combinatory literature published in print form from computerised algorithmic literature.
What is different about the latter is the inaccessibility of its rules for constructing surface forms.
In algorithmic literature, readers can only manipulate the work with the interface offered to them, whereas in combinatory literature in print form the author often provides readers with the rules of the writing constraint used while offering them other rules for reading the text.
The most eloquent example of this is no doubt Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes.
Readers of the book-like arrangement themselves create automatic sonnets by rearranging Alexandrines printed on strips of paper.
In program texts, spatio-temporal rules engram the reading.
The text is the sole property of the author, who devotes considerable time to foreseeing the possible ways in which the work can be read.
Hyper literature can be included in this category, in the sense that the hypertext is a form of electronic text bringing together two things:
Hence those sites where the author plays with access to the text, such as Dawn, in which Alan Sondheim plays with the amount of time a text is displayed as it appears and disappears over photographs filing by in a slide show. Millie Niss affords multiple readings of the fragments found in The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh.
Reiner Strasser takes the reader's mouse clicks into account in what is shown on the screen in In the White Darkness.
This category of kinetic works make use of both the temporal and the multimedia dimension. Movement is at the heart of the poetic work in the sense of plays upon the materiality of the text and the signifier (the way the image appears, animation, and deformation in the texts of Sophie Calle's Vingt ans après).
The reader's task is performative, as in Natalie Bookchin's The Intruder.
- computer technology (connecting and storing information based on published or calculated links which structure static or dynamic data),
- and a method of communication (in which publication supposes artistic work when it is left to the author; the writer's challenge is to manage the varied and changing choices offered to the reader.
Programmed texts are different from program texts in that the author leaves the direct creation of the text to algorithms.
The author comes face to face with meta-literature by programming literary forms.
For Balpe, generativity is present when an automatic device produces an infinite amount of data in the eyes of the reader.
The digitised virtual text offers new possibilities for experimentation; it is even possible to program its emergence. The constraint of mental writing is thus taken out of the text in algorithms; here, it takes the form of a motor for generating literary texts. The author models an abstract object manipulated by precise semantic and syntactic rules. He or she then feeds the automaton and selects and classifies lists, designs dictionaries, chooses vocabulary and delegates the power of composition to the machine.
The novel Trajectoires, which combines chance with writing and programming constraints, is emblematic of the genre in the way it connects the restraints on its calculations to generativity: 24 days, 24 characters, 96 pages. Using one of the 12 letters of the word "trajectoires" or a number from 1 to 24 designating a day, web surfers click and generate a text introduced by an animated sequence. The texts are not pre-written, but the sentences combine in real time, using 96 automatic and interactive writing software programs. Quotations taken from literary texts serve as epigraphs throughout the work. A genealogical tree is gradually created under the reader's eyes, materialising the characters encountered. An image fragment, preceding the title of a generated text, can be downloaded by the reader. By placing these image files end to end, the reader discovers the face of the guilty parties. This, moreover, is not the only form of manipulation made available to readers, who can identify themselves and become part of the community of Trajectoires readers, who communicate amongst themselves about the work in a forum on the site.
The poetic generation of texts produces its own genres, in which pastiche is well represented.
Mel Vadeker's Poétron is an example.
After Bernard Magné, Rodrigo Reyes presents his simplified generators; in 2000 he founded Charabia.net, a web site for the automatic generation of random texts with three text generators. Today, the site has 183. The site specialises in humorous literary games.
The spatio-temporal staging of texts on the screen has led us to poetry and its numerous plays on the signifier.
Poetic practices run through and combine the four forms we have just been described.
Noteworthy examples include Andreas Müller's For All Seasons and his letter trees as well as Neil Jenkins' Exquisite Copse, which generates branches of word trees for the success of the visual programming.
Spatialist poetry, visual and animated poetry and sound poetry are rejuvenated and transformed in computerised media.
Sometimes, nothing more than a text's phonemes remain, as in the work of Alexandre Gherban.10
Today, generation has become a part of many digital works.
From the concept of the program text (as Perec employed it in his organisational chart "L'art et la manière d'aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation" ("How, irrespective of sanitary, psychological, climatic, economic and other circumstances to stack the odds in your favour when approaching your Head of Department with a view to requesting an increment")11, we have moved on to that of the programmed text, a text produced by a program.
This concept of the program is what the authors Philippe Bootz, Alexandre Gherban, Tibor Papp, Jean-Pierre Balpe and Antoine Schmidt have brought to the group Transitoire Observable around the concept of "programmed art and literature".
But is it still literature?
1 : The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese text for divination made up of 64 signs. Its divinatory system is based on eight trigrams, each of which is composed of a combination of three broken or unbroken superimposed lines. Combining two trigrams gives hexagrams which can be combined in seventy-four different ways.
The I Ching's precise origins are unknown, but the collection of signs known as I can be dated to 1500 B.C.
They were used by soothsayers of ancient China's royal families. The consultation method using achillea sticks was perfected around 1100 B.C. and the book as we now it today is virtually the same as it has been for more than two thousand years.
2 : Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, ed. and trans. Trevor Winkfield (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1995), p:7.
3 : Ibid.
4 : Raymond Queneau (1937), "Technique du roman", in Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, 1994, p:29.
5 : Initially, the group was composed of Simone Balazard, Jean-Pierre Balpe, Marcel Benabou, Mario Borillo, Michel Bottin, Paul Braffort, Paul Fournel, Pierre Lusson and Jacques Roubaud. They were later joined by Anne Dicky, Michèle Ignazi, Josiane Joncquel, Jacques Jouet, Nicole Modiano, Héloïse Neefs, Paulette Perec and Agnès Sola (Jean-Pierre Balpe and Pierre Lusson stayed for only a year or so).
6 : Three "littéraciels" have been designed and are being used in writing workshops in high schools, universities and neighbourhood cultural centres in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, Sommières, Saint-Quentin, Sarrebrück, Niort, Liège, Toulouse and Bordeaux in France. They are also used in the United States by Alamo-USA (Marvin Green, Gerald Honigsblum, Robert Wittig, et al.), in Italy by Teano (Marco Maiocchi et al.) and in Geneva by Infolipo (Ambroise Barras).
7 : Abraham Moles, Art et ordinateur, Tournay, Casterman, 1971, Paris, Blusson Editeur, 1990.
8 : Jean-Pierre Balpe, Règles, contraintes, programmes, 2005.
9 : The journal alire, published by Mots-Voir.
10 : gherban.free.fr.
11 : Georges Perec, « L'art et la manière d'aborder son chef de service pour lui demander une augmentation », dans Enseignement programmé, n° 4, décembre 1968, Hachette-Dunod, p. 44-66.
(Translated from French by Timothy Barnard)