Two Cohorts of the Oulipo
Viewing the group through the lens of their relationship with Surrealism, this chapter looks historically at the way that the Oulipo’s own conception of their activities changed during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It begins by describing Queneau’s role in the Surrealist movement in the 1920s, and his subsequent long-lasting dissatisfaction with the Surrealist approach to authorial inspiration. In a radio interview of 1962, he mocks Surrealism’s adherence to the cliché of the tortured artist, contrasting it with the brisk simplicity of Oulipian procedures for preparing texts where the very notion of an author comes close to being wiped out. A few years later, however—after the group began to extend its membership in the late 1960s—the Oulipo’s second wave began to speak in terms in which the author-subject is rehabilitated. These members view constrained writing exercises as a way of ‘radically outwitting’ their own repressive mechanisms to produce works of self-expression which would not have been possible without the constraint: a formula that has more in common with Surrealist automatic writing than many in the group would admit.
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