Oulipo, Purposeful Constraints

Oulipo, Purposeful Constraints
Meeting of Oulipo in Boulogne. © Archives Pontigny-Cerisy

Starting from Roland Barthes, Haiku, and Shijo, the most striking character in those discussions was constraints/structure within practices. As I described in a previous post, those practices strictly follow specific rules that define the practice itself. For instance, Haiku follows word count or the main topic, season words. Thereby, the whole structure is under the restriction of 46 Japanese letters. Like a word puzzle, different combinations of letters create a particular meaning (or the other way around?) and generate surprise with common use but astonishment in the context.

In some sense, all human practices are constrained by boundaries or limitations set by society, biological structure, and economics, which bind phonetic sounds, colour palettes, and themes or topics of the practice. Likewise, video works are constrained by the pixels, digital colour palette, framerates, and the frame depending on the hardware of the computers or devices. Those constraints, however, are not intentional or part of practices but just a boundary of the action in a set. It would be more appropriate to call them ground than boundaries.

The frame, in painting practice, is not particularly strictly set as a ground of the work, but it has flexibility in size and ratio (or form). It might also be the intentional choice of constraint. Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle potentielle”) was a group of people investigated playfulness of intentional constraints.

Raymond Queneau (second from left) in 1952 with his son, Jean-Marie, and his wife Janine (far right). In between them are Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Oulipo was formed as an experimental group in France that gathered mathematicians, writers, and researchers who shared their interest in the systemic and playfulness of the writings. Unlike the other ideological, artistic, and experimental groups in France who lived meteoric lives, Oulipo thrived throughout the 60s’ structuralism and integration of political and public domain in the 70s.

As it passed the hurricane period of post-war and post-68, as avant-garde and Cahiers du Cinéma, Oulipo gradually shifted from the 60s to the start of the 70s, in crisis, from Raymond Queneau to Georges Perec. From the 60s to the end of the 60s, When Queneau and François Le Lionnais first formed the group, it was Semi-secret, but by the late 1960s, literary structuralism had already begun to evolve into something more mercurial, a shift. At the start of the 70s, there was a crisis, and concerns in the public domain started.

Do you want the Oulipo to continue its activities?
If yes, why do you think we are asking you this question?
Do you think a regeneration is possible?

When Queneau completes his form, he responds to the final ‘Any other comments’ question as follows:

‘The situation is not the same as it was ten years ago. A certain number of (para)Oulipian concerns are now in the public domain. (To be developed orally.)’Below from FO, MS-5 (‘Documents Queneau, relatifs à l’Oulipo, photocopiés au CIDRE, 1990’), f. 23. Quotes in Duncan, D., 2019. The Oulipo and Modern Thought, First edition. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 45)


Oulipo Meeting Log, Regular headings: Creation, Rumination, Erudition, Action

Co-founders Founded 1960
Nevertheless, while François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau will forever be identified as the group’s official founders or co-fondateurs, it seems that the idea for the Oulipo might not have originated with Le Lionnais.

First Move
In September 1960, a décade—a ten-day colloquium—was held at Cerisy-la-Salle in northern France. The conference theme was Raymond Queneau and the French language, and it was here that two of the attendees, André Blavier and Jacques Bens formed the notion of a secret society devoted to experimental writing.

As Blavier tells it:

‘one night, Jacques Bens and I were unable to sleep and had the idea of proposing to RQ and F. Le Lionnais a sort of secret society to promote the kind of literature we loved.’Quoted in Camille Bloomfield, ‘Histoire de l’Oulipo: Quelques jalons chronologique’, in Bloomfield and Lesage, pp. 29–38 (p. 31). The original appeared in the Belgian paper Les Wallons on 21 January 1995.

Raymond Queneau, famous for One of his main work “Zazie in the Metro” in 1959, was already a famous writer before Oulipo was founded,

New forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.

Although Oulipo’s founding was influenced by the idea from Bourbaki (an avant-garde group of mathematicians), Queneau’s relation can be traced from Surrealism as he was an active member of the surrealists, he gradually moved away from Andre Breton (founder of surrealism) and against it by claiming that the writing can be released by the access given to the unconscious in ‘automatic writing’. He believed in automatic writing -> to rules that facilitate the expression of self.

즉 저런 자동 writing은 대체로 결과물이 비슷하다. “무의식을 제약과 구조로 대체함으로써 신고전주의로의 회귀를 제정함으로써, 퀴노는 진정한 개인의 자아 표현을 용이하게 하기 위해 규칙이 필요하다는 것을 제안했습니다.”

On the other hand, François Le Lionnais, an Amateur mathematician, has in mind the group of Bourbaki. (Jacques Roubaud, ‘The Oulipo and Combinative Art’, transl. Harry Mathews, New Observations 99, Jan/Feb 1994, p. 6.) As all literature is subject to ‘constraints’ and ‘procedures’, thus the goal of Oulipo is to explore and discover new possibilities for writing in this domain with the aid of computers and mathematics ^[Oulipo, Francois Le Lionais, ‘First Manifesto’]

What comes across clearly as Queneau lists the group’s members is that this is not a writer’s group in the ordinary sense. There are writers—Lescure, Duchateau, and Queval (not to mention Queneau himself )—but they are listed last, while Berge is introduced specifically as a mathematician, Schmidt as an academic historian, and Latis and Arnaud are identified by their role in the Collège de ’Pataphysique (in fact, Arnaud is a writer while Latis is a philosophy teacher).

The other main group member is Georges Perec, who is interested in exhaustion/constrained writing and conceptual exhaustion by using mathematics, solving riddles, and game quality in literature. He also directed the film Un Homme Qui Dort (1974)

Italo Calvino, famous for ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ in 1967, joined Oulipo in 1973; until then, he was a fellow traveller of Oulipo. For him, the Storyteller’s instinct is to rearrange and improve on a given theme. In The Uses of Literature: Essays, he notes, ‘[w]riting is purely and simply a process of combination among given elements.’ More about the relationship, read

‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ 1967

Main Concepts

‘The aim of Oulipo is to invent (or reinvent) constraints of a formal nature (contraintes) and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature.’ Roubaud
Relentlessly experimental, excessively avant-garde.

Their main concepts are constraints and potential. For constraints, their shift changed from making constraints -> playing against their own constraints – to looking for Potential. Those constraints generate various structure/forms/technique with three principles (Three principal methods stand out (Terry, 2019, 32)):

  • Strict constraints
  • Combinatorial literature
  • Techniques of transforming or ‘translating’ existing work

Lucretius’ Clinamen (swerve) aims to break the constraint to make room for movement. Spontaneous deviation, small changes in atomic structure, and, therefore, constraints can potentially give rise to literature, even creating new possibilities for literature, whose real existence is virtual, in the future. -> Potentielle/Potential. However, the word “constraint” connotes a negative meaning; thus, Ian Monk proposes the terms ‘structure, form, or technique’ instead of constraints → Ian Monk’s interview → Ian Monk, ‘My Life with the Oulipians’, in

Noncharacteristic Struggle and Shift

They have been around sixty years, globally bigger and more profitable than ever, yet their greatest hits are many years behind them → Rolling Stones paradox. ^[ Read more in https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/february/at-the-bnf] Their immersion in the intellectual currents of their time related to:

  • Cybernetics
  • Structuralism
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Translation theory

However, there are an anxious to position Oulipo. In fact, so embedded were the Oulipo within the broader intellectual scene that at times the group struggled, even among themselves, to make the case for what was unique about their identity.

Arnaud in his ‘Prolegomena to a Fourth Manifesto’ makes a telling claim about the 60s:

‘Academe, in the Oulipo’s first decade […] had just begun – in France at least – its infatuation with Surrealism and psychoanalysis. In the higher spheres, structuralism applied to analysis and literary creation had begun to consolidate its dogma’. (Arnaud, ‘Prolegomena’, p. xiv.)
  1. Structuralism, sobriety and ribaldry
  2. Infatuation with Surrealism and psychoanalysis
“Oulipian writing—from the 1960s and 70s, at least—as a creative participation in a variety of prominent intellectual debates.”

The difference between the Oulipo and the structuralists was more one of tone or attitude than of method, concluding that ‘the [structuralists] enveloped themselves in a ponderous sobriety that rendered them impervious to Oulipian facetiae’. (Arnaud, ‘Prolegomena’, p. xiv).

  • Two cohorts of the Oulipo
    • unconscious-as-letter versus unconscious-as-meaning;
    • procedural versus constrained writing;
    • syntactic versus semantic Oulipo;
    • an autonomous language versus the authorial subject

All with the intention of overlaying another opposition on top of them—that of two cohorts of the Oulipo: its first members and its second wave. It is important to stress that this is a loose mapping: […] ideologically, ‘second wavers’ (although Roubaud’s suggestion that the group’s second Perecquian era began in 1969 is useful). The shift is not confined to the Oulipo but rather follows a wider intellectual pattern, loosely a movement from structuralism to post-structuralism.

First Wave/Queneau

The first wave is based on the syntactic Oulipo (Le Lionnais)

  • syntactic
  • psychoanalytic (Lacanian in the 1950s)
  • surrealism (Rejection of the surrealist movement)
  • Bourbaki
Creating a literature machine is not the same as authoring every work the machine may produce. Rather, an external, secondary agency is being conjured up by means of the interplay between the system of the flipbook and the syntax which determines that an utterance will be cogerent even if no-one has yet uttered it.

Bourbaki was ‘a sort of mathematical surrealism’, ‘When the Oulipo was conceived, Bourbaki provided a counter-model to the Surrealist group.’ Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Roubaud, ‘The Oulipo and Combinatorial Art’, trans. by Harry Mathews, in Mathews and Brotchie, Oulipo Compendium, pp. 37–44 (p. 38)

This is despite Roubaud elsewhere calling Bourbaki ‘a sort of mathematical surrealism’. Jacques Roubaud, ‘Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau’, in Motte, Oulipo, pp. 79–96 (p. 80).

Second Wave/Perec

Often in these writers’ work, the attacks against the Surrealists remain, but a distinction must now be drawn between an attack on inspiration itself and an attack on its supposed source in the unconscious.

If the first is based on syntactic 통어적, the second wave is Semantic 의미론 (late) Oulipo. Most importantly, it was the period of rehabilitation of the author-subject. Finding authorial voice and coaxing it into expression against the allure of the commonplace and the resistant force of psychoanalytic repression and a reversal of the Freudian

  • Unconscious ≠ interpolation made from ruptures or disturbances of ordinary discourse
  • Unconscious = ordinary discourse disturbs the unconscious


Oulipo’s method examples are:

  • Jeux de Mots (wordplay)
    • Pun/Homophonic translation. the fondness of Oulipians for the method is (…) undeniable: Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, Michèle Métail, and Georges Perec – not to mention founder François Le Lionnais and the illustrious advance plagiarist, Raymond Roussel – have all exploited homophony, some extensively. // Mathews and Brotchie, Oulipo Compedium, p. 154, quoted in Duncan, D., 2019. The Oulipo and Modern Thought, First edition. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY.
    • Plagiarisms
    • lipogram, Text is written without the use of certain predetermined letters
  • Kick-Starts
    • I remember
  • Ordering combination

Those methods are, in some sense, shared by different group in France as O’Pray writes:

“[i]n the end, all of these nomenclatures – avant-garde, underground, experimental, modernist, independent – share some sense of outside-ness, of marginality, of independence”.

Pre-war Avant-garde

O’Pray writes that “[t]he film avant-gardes that emerged in the 1920s remain a potent influence to this day. They form part of probably **the most creative period of twentieth-century avant-garde activity across the arts and are the indisputable models of avant-gardism.” More in, Europe avant-garde (1924-8) Collapsed in 1930s and moved to America, American avant-garde (1928-32)
“[t]he collapse of the avant-gardes in the 1930s in Europe was due to a complexity of factors – internal exhaustion, lack of resource and money, state antagonism and the rise of social-realism in the response to burgeoning fascism and Marxists-socialist ideas.”

40s avant-garde departed from the European pre-wars. Artists found themselves compelled to leave their homes for the U.S.

  • Postwar
    • situationist
    • Lettrists
“the early work of Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren made in the mid-1940s was crucially different to most European work, especially in its attempt to deal with the self by using mythical themes and images, and the film-maker as narrative protagonists, as was influentially the case in Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Anger’s Fireworks (1947).”
  • Cinema -> experimental art ^[Renata Jackson, The Modernist Poetics and Experimental Film Practice of Maya Deren, (1917-1961), Studies in History and Criticism of Film, v. 5 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002)]
    • Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
    • experimental art challenged Inevitable linearity, narrative
Grice writes that “[t]he inevitable linearity of the film is used to explore a symbolic space which is not resolved as a causal narrative.”

Laboratory than Movement

The most different character between Avant-garde and Oulipo is political detachment, especially from the early twentieth century avant-garde movements

The idea of being a laboratory from which structures and forms emerge is more important to Oulipo than being a movement in the traditional sense.

James writes that:

“[u]nlike other literary groups of the twentieth century […], it avoids adopting positions in political debates and keeps a sceptical distance from contemporary intellectual trends.”

Albert-Marie Schmidt’s early description of the group in the Protestant weekly Réforme offers us some insight when he calls them ‘a secret laboratory of literary structures’. Quoted in Arnaud ‘Prolegomena’, p. xiii. The original appeared Réforme on 2 February 1963.

Oulipo focuse on the investigation than literary production.

Raymond Queneau even goes as far as to deny that his sections rimantes are literary works in themselves—they are merely the products of investigations:

‘No. No. Oh no no! For example, when I treat one of Mallarmé’s poems in this way, I don’t suppose I have made a literary creation. I produce an example of potential literature but not a literary work in the proper sense. No, no, no. I don’t think it is at all creative. It is much more modest, what we’re doing’
‘Non. Non. Ah non! Par exemple, quand je traite un poème de Mallarmé de cette façon-là, je n’estime pas que j’ai fait une création littéraire. Je fais une expérience de littérature potentielle, mais non une uvre littéraire à propre parler. Non, non, non. Je ne pense pas qu’il s’agisse du tout là de création. C’est beaucoup plus modeste, ce que nous faisons’.(Charbonnier, Entretiens, pp. 146–7.)

Systemic writing or generating is:

“the classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Raymond Queneau, Le Voyage en Grèce, 94, quoted in Jacques Roubaud, ‘Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau’, in Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, ed. and trans. Warren F. Motte Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 87.Raymond Queneau

Systemic writing follows:



  • Analytical tendency in Oulipo, analysing past to discover already-existing constraints
“research into the literature of the past to find the constraints governing them”


  • ‘Essential vocation’ of Ouliopo, invention of new constraints
  • Invent or discover new potential instead of constraints
  • Well known poetic form, ‘elementary morality’

Noulipo (Now-Oulipo)

English Speaker, a series of ripples emanating from a conference held in Los Angeles at CalArts’ REDCAT theatre in the autumn of 2005.

“we were [ . . . ] interested in the way formalist practice can be used to investigate questions of politics, including issues of race, class and gender. From this perspective, the n in n/Oulipo stands for now, the new, and the not-only-formal.”Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim, ‘ “Séance”, “n/Oulipo”, “Impunities”, “Feminaissance”, & “Untitled” ’, Jacket 2

Researchers who examine the legacy of Oulipian constraint-based writing among Anglophone writers who emphasise the political would generate considerable friction.


Tangerine (2015) directed by Sean BakerTangerine (2015) directed by Sean Baker

Katja Waschneck notes similarities between Ouvipo and Dogma 95 film, both of them uses certain constraints in filmmaking. Examples of Dogma 95 films are The King is Alive (2000) by Kristian Levring, Outside of any group examples are Tangerine (Baker 2015), and Victoria (Schipper 2015).

  • Victoria: visual-technical constraint -> one shot, hand-held camera, liberated visual field.
  • Tangerine: structure-technical constraint -> iphone cinema

The Five Obstructions (Leth and von Trier 2003) has a complicated relationship with constraints being a documentary that both records the process of working with constraints as well as its outcomes.


  • Ouvipo: ErrE (2012) by Julien Saves: Using a time frame of 3:33 for ErrE
  • Ressasser (2012) by Julien Beaunay: Contraints
    1/ The work produced shall loop between the first and last images of the film.
    2/ The duration of the work shall not exceed 5 minutes.
    3/ Prohibition of the selection of more than 3 actors for lead roles. However, they can play several roles in the same work.
    4/ Prohibition of exceeding the number of 30 rotated planes.
    5/ The idea of chaos, breakdown or any reference to something “broken” must appear in the work to remind the Broken entity. This must also be fully justified in a narrative manner.
    1/ The duration of the work shall have a palindromic structure. (Ex: 2 min12 / 3 min33 / 4 min54…))
    2/ The number of planes mounted in the video shall be in the form of a palindrome of figures. (Ex: 11/22…)
    3/ If there is a title to the work in question, it shall be in the form of a palindrome of letters. The same shall apply to any textual and/or nominal indication.
    4/ Any dialogue in the film shall have been written in the form of a palindrome.
    5/ Any sound, music and/or sound atmosphere shall also be thought of in a palindromic form.
    More information on this exercise:
    What is OuViPo?: lab-broken

Outside of Oulipo

Christian Bök: with a polemic tone, against ‘artistic innovation that has been co-opted by capitalism, ‘new’. His main concept is Crystallography



  • O’Pray, M. (2003) Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions. London: Wallflower Press (Short cuts, 17).
  • Le Grice, M. (2009) Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age. 1. publ., reprinted. London: bfi Publ.
  • Curtis, D. (1971) Experimental cinema. New York: Universe Books.Consenstein, P. (2002) Literary memory, consciousness, and the Group Oulipo. Amsterdam: Rodopi (Faux titre, 220).
  • Monk, I. (2007) ‘My Life with the Oulipians’, in C. Wertheim and M. Viegener (eds) The Noulipian Analects. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press.
  • Bloomfield, C. (2017) Raconter l’Oulipo (1960-2000): histoire et sociologie d’un groupe. Paris: Honoré Champion éditeur (Littérature de notre siècle, 64).
  • Andrews, I. (2020) Chance, Phenomenology and Aesthetics: Heidegger, Derrida and Contingency in Twentieth Century Art. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Elkin, L. and Esposito, S. (2013) The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement. Winchester, UK Washington, USA: Zero Books.
  • James, A.S. (2009) Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press (Avant-garde & modernism studies).
  • Duncan, D. (2019) The Oulipo and Modern Thought. First edition. Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press.