Potential Typography and the Oulipo

Chums! Pals! Life-long enemies with whom I shall only meet briefly before the painful end!

This week I picked up a copy of Many Subtle Channels, a book in which Daniel Levin Becker investigates the not-so-secret and almost-famous gathering known as the Oulipo. They’re a group of writers, poets, and mathematicians that are interested in two things: potential literature and constraints in writing. For example, one of the members of this illustrious group, Georges Perec, once wrote a novel without the letter “e”. That might sound daft but try and write a sentence without the letter “e” for a moment and you’ll find it’s much more difficult than it looks.

Besides the odd constraints that many of the writers follow in their work, it’s that first point that caught my attention, that “potential literature” thing. Daniel writes:

Potential literature is both the things that literature could be and the things that could be literature. Potential literature is language; potential literature is life. Nobody’s ever been entirely, definitively clear on what potential literature is, and this is to everyone’s advantage. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, as they say, your chances of finding it are excellent.

Levin Becker later writes that potential literature is “about finding ways to let the world entertain you, even when it’s not trying.” And so the group is of course fascinated by limitations and word play, peculiar turns of phrase and methods in which to make writing unabashadly weird with a combination of mathematics and pure, unadulterated wit. Not that these experiments always work, mind you. I love that Levin Becker criticizes the group’s work when it isn’t entertaining. But it’s not really about whether the writing works or not. It’s about being weird. And messing about in a sandbox where no-one can tell you what literature is or isn’t.

I also like this bit where Levin Becker notices that we all read and write within a constrained framework:

…writers are constrained whether or not they acknowledge it—not just by the strictures of poetic forms like the sonnet or haiku, but also by the conventions of their chosen genre, the format in which they publish, even the grammar and lexicon of their native (or adopted language). Embracing a set of carefully chosen rules is meant to focus the mind so narrowly that those obscure pressures and preoccupations fade, revealing paths and passageways that one would never notice without the blinders.

On that note of language blinding you to certain things, here’s an off-topic ramble: there’s this one section of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem that reminds me of this. Here’s an extract from the English translation by Ken Liu:

The scent of the woods on the wind was familiar to her, and she was familiar to the wind.

Isn’t that a weird thing to write in English? I don’t believe any English speaking writer would personify the wind quite like this in a novel.

But anyway, here’s an even more off-topic and fragile connection between what I’m reading and what I’ve noticed on the web recently: I think the exciting thing about variable fonts right now, more than a year after the technology began to be supported in browsers, is that the territory is still ripe for exploration. It’s encouraging us to explore a sort of potential typography where letters can be manipulated just like a liquid and in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Even quite frankly if the letters are illegible and the whole experiment is an ugly disaster.

Yet there’s potential here. This new typography might be unlike any other, with rules and constraints that we must find.

And then, of course, break.