The Po­ten­tial En­ergy of Texts [ ΔU = -PΔV]

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Craig dworkin

A dic­tio­nary would be­gin the mo­ment it no longer gave the mean­ing of words, but their labors. —Ge­orges Bataille1

In Ste­fan The­mer­son’s novel Baya­mus and the The­atre of Se­man­tic Po­etry, the ex­as­per­ated nar­ra­tor vents his frus­tra­tion with the lin­guis­tic ab­strac­tions of mod­ernism’s avant-garde. “I had been fed up,” he de­clares, with “ezra­poundaf­skinian jazz plus joyce plus dadamerz plus home­spun rach­mani­noff glos­si­tis.”2 Con­cur­ring with an anti-cratylian Re­nais­sance nom­i­nal­ism that “a rose, called by any other name, smells as sweet,” he then coun­ters the ethnopo­etic tran­scrip­tions, ne­ol­o­gisms, and port­man­teaux flaunted by sound po­etry with “lots of dic­tion, good avant-garde Diderot dic­tio­nary de­fined dic­tion.”3 Rather than free­ing words of “their se­man­tic weight and let­ting them loose on the ear-drums,” the nar­ra­tor in­stead at­tempts to in­crease their mean­ing­ful mass, “en­larg­ing their weight, spread­ing it on to a wider cog­ni­tive and af­fec­tive spec­trum.”4 By way of demon­stra­tion, he dis­trib­utes the “se­man­tic mass” of Li Po’s poem “Alone and Drink­ing un­der the Moon” with a metaphras­tic trans­for­ma­tion. The line “the wine among the flow­ers,” for ex­am­ple, be­comes “the fer­mented grape-juice among the re­pro­duc­tive parts of seed-plants.”5 This pro­ce­dure sim­i­larly am­pli­fies the swoon­ing sigh of the poem’s cli­mac­tic con­clu­sion—“drunk, we are united”—into a gar­ru­lous con­geries. Os­ten­si­bly equiv­a­lent in mean­ing, The­mer­son’s enu­mer­a­tion breaks the sat­is­fied spell of Li Po’s lan­guorously tri­umphant clo­sure with its su­per­fluity: “hav­ing the fer­mented grape-juice in our stom­ach / ab­sorb­ing it into our cere­bro-spinal fluid / par­a­lyz­ing var­i­ous parts of our ner­vous sys­tem with it / speak­ing thickly / un­able to main­tain equi­lib­rium / our vi­sion blurred and dou­ble / we get merged with one another cog­ni­tively and af­fec­tively.”6 The­mer­son’s nar­ra­tor con­tin­ues to ex­pa­ti­ate the poem be­fore wreak­ing the same ex­pan­sive ruin on the xeno­pho­bic bal­lad “Taffy was a Welsh­man.” Per­haps sim­ply de­light­ing in the dis­tor­tion of a once-fa­mil­iar nurs­ery rhyme, per­haps tak­ing a cue from the homony­mous sweet­meat’s meta­phoric abil­ity to be stretched to great lengths, and per­haps play­ing on the cen­turies-old stereo­type of the Welsh as “lo­qua­cious dis­sem­blers” speak­ing an un­in­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage in place of proper English,

The­mer­son’s nar­ra­tor lo­qua­ciously dis­sem­bles and dis­tends the orig­i­nal verse.7 Be­fore of­fer­ing these il­lus­tra­tive ex­am­ples, how­ever, he opens his lec­ture at the “The­atre of Se­man­tic Po­etry” with fig­ures that hint at the ul­ti­mate fail­ure of the very pro­ce­dure they seek to jus­tify. Each word, he ex­plains, “should have one and only one mean­ing... . They should be washed clean of all those di­verse au­re­o­las which de­pend on the con­di­tion of the mar­ket.”8 By way of ex­am­ples, he of­fers war and snow, words he feels to be es­pe­cially li­able to inex­act, sub­jec­tive un­der­stand­ing. To avoid idio­syn­cratic in­ter­pre­ta­tions shaded by per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, he pro­poses re­plac­ing war with “the open con­flict be­tween na­tions, or ac­tive in­ter­na­tional hos­til­ity car­ried on by force of arms” and snow with “mul­ti­shaped crys­tals, be­long­ing to hexag­o­nal sys­tems, formed by slow freez­ing of wa­ter-vapour.”9 Read­ers who re­call Carl von Clause­witz’s fa­mous de­scrip­tion of the cog­ni­tive weather com­mon to the un­cer­tain ter­rain of the field of bat­tle can see the link be­tween the three seem­ingly ran­dom terms. Clause­witz’s fore­cast for “the ter­ri­tory of un­cer­tainty” calls for fog, where even the den­sity of that mist is it­self un­cer­tain: “fog of a greater or lesser ex­tent.”10 From “di­verse au­re­o­las” to the fog of war to “vapour,” these at­mo­spheric con­di­tions of low vis­i­bil­ity all ren­der out­lines in­dis­tinct and sug­gest a neb­u­lous lack of fo­cus. In other words, they fig­ure the ex­act op­po­site of def­i­ni­tion: pre­cisely what The­mer­son’s or­a­tor is af­ter and pre­cisely what is lost in his sur­feit of se­man­tic di­lata­tion. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­vok­ing the two prin­ci­pal de­no­ta­tions of his key word—the ex­act state­ment of what a word means and the sharp ren­der­ing of a vis­ual form or out­line—the­mer­son em­pha­sizes the pol­y­semy that will ul­ti­mately doom his se­man­tic en­ter­prise.11 That same se­man­tic play, how­ever, of­fered hope to two writ­ers who saw a use for the in­her­ent slip­pages of metaphras­tic trans­la­tion. The­mer­son an­tic­i­pa­to­rily pla­gia­rized what the Oulipo would come to call “def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture,” a prac­tice first pro­posed by Que­neau.12 How­ever, whereas The­mer­son’s se­man­tic po­etry dis­placed each word by only one re­move, the Oulip­i­ans imag­ined an in­fi­nite regress of dis­placed def­i­ni­tions, each of which pro­vided fur­ther words for fur­ther def­i­ni­tional re­lief. Mar­cel Bén­abou ex­plains the rule as fol­lows: “In a given state­ment, one re­places each sig­nif­i­cant word (noun, ad­jec­tive, verb, ad­verb) by one of its def­i­ni­tions from a given dic­tio­nary; the op­er­a­tion is re­peated on the new sen­tence thus ob­tained, and so on.”13 René Étiem­ble was per­haps the first to rec­og­nize the po­etic po­ten­tial of such a pro­ce­dure, opin­ing, “Re­placed by the def­i­ni­tion given by an ingenious dic­tio­nary, ev­ery word of vul­gar prose be­comes the seed of po­etry.”14

Those seeds were cul­ti­vated most care­fully by Ge­orges Perec and Mar­cel Bén­abou, who ex­ploited and en­cour­aged the ten­dency to di­ver­gent drift in sub­sti­tuted def­i­ni­tions. As the Oulipo Com­pen­dium ex­plains, “The goal of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in Def­i­ni­tional Lit­er­a­ture is con­sum­mated in a com­ple­men­tary method” known as “semo-def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture,” or LSD, a vari­a­tion that Perec and Bén­abou also re­ferred to as the “au­to­matic pro­duc­tion of French lit­er­a­ture,” or PALF for short, un­der­scor­ing a va­lence of au­tom­a­ti­za­tion and mech­a­niza­tion that—as we will see—serves as a lit­mus test for whether read­ers un­der­stand the fail­ure of their lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion as nec­es­sary or avoid­able. In Bén­abou and Perec’s apoth­e­o­sis, two quite dif­fer­ent sen­tences were to be trans­lated into their dic­tio­nary-def­i­ni­tion equiv­a­lents, and the process was to be re­peated, trans­form­ing the sense with each suc­ces­sive sub­sti­tut­ing it­er­a­tion. More­over, the in­evitable drifts, con­no­ta­tive al­lowances, and small mar­gins of se­man­tic play in­her­ent in the dic­tio­nary’s de­no­ta­tions were pre­cisely what per­mit­ted Bén­abou to “hy­poth­e­size, not with­out a cer­tain au­dac­ity, that the re­sults ob­tained will even­tu­ally, in­evitably, co­in­cide.”15 Not with­out a cer­tain au­dac­ity, he and Perec set out to equate “Work­ers of the world, unite!” and “The pres­bytery has lost none of its charm, nor the gar­den its sparkle.” It was to be their call­ing card to the Oulipo, gain­ing them mem­ber­ship in the young or­ga­ni­za­tion, even though they never suc­ceeded in coax­ing those sen­tences to­ward much ev­i­dence of a se­man­tic con­ver­gence.16 Bén­abou blamed the fail­ure on his own neg­li­gent lazi­ness, but, as David Bel­los sug­gests, Perec may have been haunted by the thought that they had in fact proven that the two sen­tences be­longed to fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent, in­com­pat­i­bly alien lan­guages.17 From the be­gin­ning, the di­rect im­per­a­tive of the Com­mu­nist ral­ly­ing cry and the re­fined ob­ser­va­tion—with its bal­anced cor­rel­a­tive con­junc­tions, gen­til­ity, and recher­ché vo­cab­u­lary—evince ob­vi­ous stylis­tic dif­fer­ences; none­the­less, they still might have been drawn from the same dis­course (one in which, for ex­am­ple, the speaker of the former would want to dis­man­tle the priv­i­leged ec­cle­si­as­tic ar­chi­tec­tures of the lat­ter). Bén­abou and Perec’s fail­ure to link them, how­ever, could have fur­ther proven that the sen­tences come not just from dif­fer­ent sub­ject po­si­tions, but from rad­i­cally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble ones. They may have demon­strated, in other words, that the sen­tences do not, in Lud­wig Wittgen­stein’s terms, par­tic­i­pate in the same lan­guage game. Or, as he sum­ma­rized in a mem­o­rable short­hand, “If a lion could talk, we would still not un­der­stand him.”18

What­ever the case, the in­abil­ity to stop the se­man­tic pro­lif­er­a­tion once and for all in a sin­gle, mas­ter sen­tence had been pre­dicted by Michel Fou­cault at pre­cisely the same mo­ment as Perec’s ex­per­i­ments with semo-def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture. Fou­cault pro­claimed,

PALF short-cir­cuits Ar­taud’s di­chotomy by us­ing the pedant’s dic­tio­nary as a means for mad­ness, lever­ag­ing a per­sonal con­straint against the co­her­ence of ex­pres­sive thought. Arthur Rim­baud tri­an­gu­lates Fou­cault’s mean­ing and Ar­taud’s mad­ness with his fa­mous call for the “dérè­gle­ment de tous les sens,” which trans­lates equally to “the dis­rup­tion of all mean­ing” and “the de­range­ment of the senses.”22 Fou­cault would call this “the stand­off of po­etry and mad­ness”—on the one hand, a po­et­ics in which the play of well-de­fined distinc­tions masks a lan­guage of re­sem­blances; on the other hand, the in­sane era­sure of those signs un­der the bur­den of simil­i­tude—“this in­sane game of writ­ing,” as Mau­rice Blan­chot quotes Stéphane Mal­larmé.23 Ad­her­ing to the rules of their sense­less game, Perec and Bén­abou fol­low that spi­ral­ing labyrinth of Ar­tau­dian rup­ture, hope­ful that they are not merely go­ing in cir­cles but mov­ing ever closer to the con­ver­gence of “Prolé­taires de tous les

Per­haps for the first time in Western cul­ture one finds com­pletely laid bare the as­pect of a lan­guage that can­not stop it­self, be­cause it is never en­closed in a de­fin­i­tive state­ment; it an­nounces its truth only in some fu­ture dis­course en­tirely de­voted to what it will have said. But even this fu­ture dis­course it­self does not have the power to halt the pro­gres­sion, and what it says is en­closed within it like a prom­ise, a be­quest to yet another dis­course.19

Or, in short: “Lan­guage con­tains its own in­ner prin­ci­ple of pro­lif­er­a­tion.”20 Decades ear­lier, An­tonin Ar­taud had phrased a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment in a state­ment re­lated to Michel Leiris’s ex­per­i­ments with trac­ing sub­ver­sive and sub­ter­ranean pas­sages through dic­tio­nar­ies:

From now on lan­guage has only one use: as a means for mad­ness, for elim­i­na­tion of thought, for rup­ture, as the uni­cur­sal labyrinth of in­san­ity, not a dic­tio­nary where cer­tain left-bank pedants chan­nel their spir­i­tual stric­tures.21

pays, unis­sez-vous!” and “Le pres­bytère n’a rien perdu de son charme, ni le jardin de son éclat.” Those two ger­mi­nal sen­tences, how­ever stylis­ti­cally dis­tinct and ul­ti­mately un­re­solv­able, are both far from in­ci­den­tal. Some­thing of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­lit­i­cal spirit of Com­mu­nism car­ries over to the op­ti­mistic ex­per­i­men­tal­ism of the po­etic project, which shares the same fun­da­men­tal goal as the Man­i­feste du parti com­mu­niste: to unite. (One can al­most hear Perec and Bén­abou urg­ing, “Paroles de tous les mots, unis­sez-vous!”) Though less well-known, the source of the other seed sen­tence is also sig­nif­i­cant. David Bel­los, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, at­tributes the line about the pres­bytery to Mal­larmé, though it orig­i­nates in Ge­orge Sand’s sec­ond “Let­ter to Mar­cie,” and comes to Perec—who would quote it again in La Vie: mode d’em­ploi— by way of its reprise in Gas­ton Ler­oux’s locked-room de­tec­tive novel The Mys­tery of the Yel­low Room, one of the se­rial “ex­tra­or­di­nary ad­ven­tures of Joseph Rouletabille, Re­porter,” a genre fic­tion prob­a­bly bet­ter known in France than his in­ter­na­tional hit Le Fan­tôme de l’opéra. 24 In Ler­oux’s ro­man policier, the tal­is­manic sen­tence func­tions as a kind of se­cret code. Both a mys­tery in it­self and the clue to solv­ing the book’s pri­mary mys­tery, it works for the epony­mous re­porter (and am­a­teur de­tec­tive) as a sort of open se­same pass­word, al­low­ing for the pas­sage from one level of ar­chi­tec­tural and nar­ra­tive en­clo­sure to another, even as the char­ac­ters who ut­ter it can­not fathom what the sen­tence it­self means. With its para­dox­i­cal re­quire­ment that a cham­ber be her­met­i­cally se­questered and its thresh­old nec­es­sar­ily crossed, the locked-room mys­tery is a nar­ra­tive ver­sion of a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem: a closed sys­tem that must try to ac­count for it­self. The var­i­ous ex­er­cises in def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture pose a lin­guis­tic vari­ant of this same prob­lem; they can be seen as ex­trap­o­la­tions of the re­al­iza­tion that words in a dic­tio­nary only point to other words, which are also in the same dic­tio­nary, ges­tur­ing to­ward other words, and so on, ad in­fini­tum. “One could, in ef­fect, con­sider the con­cate­na­tion of def­i­ni­tions as the au­ton­o­mous con­ver­sa­tion that lan­guage holds with it­self,” as Bén­abou puts it, ex­plain­ing else­where, “Lan­guage runs in a cir­cle, op­er­at­ing in a closed cir­cuit.”25 With those im­pli­ca­tions of growth and ac­tiv­ity, made ex­plicit in Bén­abou’s sense that when used for se­man­tic po­etry “the dic­tio­nary be­comes a liv­ing be­ing,” his state­ments re­call Fou­cault’s claim that “lan­guage con­tains its own in­ner prin­ci­ple of pro­lif­er­a­tion.” This may be what Perec was ac­knowl­edg­ing when he con­ceded, in the pre­am­ble to the LSD note­books, “One can only con­trol lan­guage by obey­ing it.”26 More­over, these pro­nounce­ments sound like lin­guis­tic ver­sions of what the physics pro-

fes­sor in Ler­oux’s novel in­tends to read be­fore the Academy of Sciences. The pro­fes­sor, fa­ther of the vic­tim, has writ­ten a sen­sa­tional pa­per on his new the­ory, the Dis­so­ci­a­tion of Mat­ter, a “the­ory des­tined to shake the foun­da­tions of all of­fi­cial sci­ence, which has so long been based on the fa­mous prin­ci­ple that noth­ing is lost and noth­ing is cre­ated.”27 An­toine-lau­rent de Lavoisier’s maxim, quoted in part by the pro­fes­sor, concludes, “Ev­ery­thing trans­forms.”28 Perec and Bén­abou might well have had Lavoisier in mind as their sen­tences con­tin­u­ally trans­formed, all the while ad­her­ing to a law of con­ser­va­tion for se­man­tics. Ler­oux’s hero ex­plains his pro­ce­dure as if he were de­scrib­ing Perec stand­ing be­fore his bat­tery of dic­tio­nar­ies: “I do noth­ing more than tran­scribe cer­tain facts on which some ex­cep­tional doc­u­ments in my pos­ses­sion en­able me to throw a new light.”29 Com­pet­ing with a ri­val de­tec­tive (the crim­i­nal him­self, as it turns out), the hero and his neme­sis rep­re­sent two dif­fer­ent the­o­ries of de­duc­tive method­ol­ogy, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween them hinges on the hermeneu­tic, and even the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal, vi­a­bil­ity of a closed sys­tem—whether any­thing may be le­git­i­mately “added to the ma­te­rial facts so far es­tab­lished” and whether sig­nif­i­cance should be given ex­clu­sively to the “ex­ter­nal signs” of a crime.30 In­deed, the re­porter’s coup-de-théâtre dis­course on method and the virtues of be­ing me­thod­i­cal rhyme nicely with Bén­abou and Perec’s own modus operandi of philo­log­i­cal track­ing through the dic­tio­nary to­ward a shared con­ver­gence. Rouletabille ex­plains that the course of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion led him to fol­low a se­ries of foot­prints, each ob­vi­ously re­lated but each also slightly dif­fer­ent from the next, grad­u­ally di­verg­ing in their paths but ul­ti­mately lead­ing back to the same, iden­ti­cal spot: the scene of the crime. Ler­oux then repeats the ba­sic con­tours of this scene when he de­scribes the two de­tec­tives (not un­like the two col­lab­o­rat­ing Oulip­ian po­ets) fol­low­ing two sets of par­al­lel boot prints un­til they lead back to the same lo­ca­tion. One set of prints was ev­i­dently made by a rough, hob­nailed worker’s boot, while the other in­di­cates a more el­e­gant, neatly sym­met­ri­cal pair of footwear—the per­fect fig­ures for the con­trast­ing quo­ta­tions from Marx and Sand se­lected by Bén­abou and Perec, re­spec­tively. The Mys­tery of the Yel­low Room fur­ther re­veals it­self to be a rel­e­vant in­ter­text on ac­count of its para­dox­i­cal fore­ground­ing of both an in­eluctable log­i­cal te­los as well as a se­ries of dis­tract­ing, di­vert­ing, non­sen­si­cal apo­r­iae. On the one hand, the plot fol­lows from a crime that must, by the end of the novel, have a so­lu­tion dis­cov­er­able by de­duc­tive rea­son­ing, while on the other hand, that plot’s mal­adroit ex­e­cu­tion lit­ters the story with il­log­i­cal leaps and im­plau­si­ble co­in­ci­dences. The novel

veers from trans­parency to de­ceit, mov­ing be­tween the twin poles of its ad­her­ence to, and its si­mul­ta­ne­ous fail­ure in, the genre of the de­tec­tive story. (One hes­i­tates to be un­kind, but Ler­oux was such a bad writer that the Sur­re­al­ists took him as a hero of ir­ra­tional­ity, an ab­sur­dist avant la let­tre.) Be­yond de­light­ing in the novel’s gen­eral pre­pos­ter­ous­ness, the Sur­re­al­ists would come to learn spe­cific lit­er­ary lessons from the gaps and de­coys pro­duced by Ler­oux’s mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of “man­u­fac­tured ev­i­dence and false trails.”31 More­over, as Jonathan Eburne has de­scribed the po­et­ics of Ler­oux’s novel, “the im­po­si­tion of logic is as me­chan­i­cal, and in­deed as solip­sis­tic, as the ‘sen­sa­tional ma­chines’ of [Ray­mond] Rous­sel’s pho­to­graphic writ­ing.” In­deed, the ma­chine was the fig­ure sin­gled out by Philippe Soupault as the hall­mark of Ler­oux’s in­ter­est to the avant-garde—an ironic re­la­tion to the rote for­mu­lae of the de­tec­tivestory genre that per­mit “the trans­for­ma­tion of pos­i­tivist de­scrip­tion into a kind of killing ma­chine.”32 Not coin­ci­den­tally, the two an­tipodes of te­los and apo­ria—which ram­ify at the lev­els of both Ler­oux’s plot (the de­cep­tive, mur­der­ous trick of the crim­i­nal and en­snar­ing trap of the am­a­teur de­tec­tive) and his stylis­tic ex­e­cu­tion of that plot within its os­ten­si­ble genre (the dogged ne­ces­sity of a log­i­cal con­clu­sion ar­rived at by de­duc­tive rea­son­ing)—are pre­cisely what de­fine the dis­cur­sive uses of the en­gine and the fig­ure of the ma­chine it­self. Most ob­vi­ously, ma­chine and en­gine con­note an­a­lytic rea­son­ing and an­a­lytic pur­pose. Be­yond re­fer­ring to any kind of com­pli­cated mech­a­nism with mov­ing parts, en­gine specif­i­cally de­notes a cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chine, as in Charles Bab­bage’s early-nine­teenth-cen­tury pro­to­com­puter, which was re­ferred to as a “dif­fer­ence en­gine” or “an­a­lyt­i­cal en­gine.” To­day, ac­cord­ingly, the word also means “a piece of hard­ware or soft­ware with a spe­cific com­pu­ta­tional func­tion; a pro­gram mod­ule which per­forms a par­tic­u­lar kind of op­er­a­tion.”33 The ear­li­est def­i­ni­tions for en­gine, how­ever, sug­gest a chain that slips to­ward some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: from “in­ge­nu­ity; art­ful­ness; and dis­po­si­tion” to “cun­ning, trick­ery: a plot, a snare, a wile.” These con­no­ta­tions re­in­force the de­cep­tive, false, il­lu­sion­is­tic the­atri­cal­ity of “stage ma­chin­ery” and the preva­lent early-mod­ern uses of “ma­chine” as­so­ci­ated with the the­ater and the means of its de­cep­tive tricks. In short, they sug­gest machi­na­tions, in the sense that also haunts the early, now ob­so­lete senses of the word ma­chine, an early syn­onym with en­gine in the sense of an “en­gine of war” or a “siege en­gine,” a mil­i­tary de­vice for cir­cum­vent­ing the con­straints of for­ti­fi­ca­tions. This mil­i­ta­rized, anti-ar­chi­tec­tural as­so­ci­a­tion of en­gine and ma­chine goes as far back as post-clas­si­cal Latin, and so all of these reg­is­ters, one should note, ob­tain in French as well. Con­tin­u­ing

from these senses of de­ceit and dan­ger, ma­chine, in the El­iz­a­bethan pe­riod and through­out the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, pri­mar­ily denoted “a scheme or plot,” and the word was used as a tran­si­tive verb mean­ing “to con­trive or plot the death or down­fall of a per­son; to plot against a per­son.” So Eburne’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Soupault’s in­ter­est in “a kind of killing ma­chine” marks a philo­log­i­cal re­dun­dancy by nam­ing a kind of ma­chin­ing ma­chine. In fact, the early id­iomatic senses and stereo­typed uses of en­gine are all in­iq­ui­tously neg­a­tive as well: evil en­gine, false en­gine, malengine (mean­ing an “evil machi­na­tion, ill in­tent; fraud, de­ceit, guile,” as the pedan­tic dic­tio­nary ex­plains). So the word car­ries both the senses of craft and crafty, of de­vis­ing and de­vi­ous­ness, schemes and schem­ing— cal­cu­lat­ing, in both senses of that word. The verb form cor­rob­o­rates; “to en­gine” means “to trick or de­ceive; to en­snare.” In sum­mary, be­fore be­com­ing com­put­ers and al­go­rith­mic pro­grams, en­gines are in­stru­ments of war, in­stru­ments of tor­ture, in­stru­ments of en­trap­ment: nets, snares, de­coys—gins, in a sense that de­rives aphet­i­cally from the Old French en­gin. These senses are all ob­vi­ously rel­e­vant to both the story and the method of a crime novel like The Mys­tery of the Yel­low Room, with its back­story of a crim­i­nal plot, fol­lowed by the nar­ra­tive ac­count of the de­tec­tives’ at­tempt to en­trap the cul­prit in turn—both of which con­sti­tute the plot of the au­thor, who fur­ther plots against in­quis­i­tive read­ers who might dis­cover it too soon. These senses of en­gine and ma­chine are also rel­e­vant to def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture, which “one can op­er­ate in the most me­chan­i­cal way,” and to PALF in par­tic­u­lar, with its iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a “pro­duc­tion au­toma­tique,” as well as to the fre­quent de­scrip­tion of pro­ce­dural po­et­ics as “text en­gines” or “writ­ing ma­chines.”34 More broadly, when Sol Lewitt ex­plains con­cep­tual art by stat­ing that “the idea be­comes a ma­chine that makes the art,” the fu­ture of con­cep­tual art and writ­ing opens out along two di­a­met­ric paths, de­pend­ing on how the rhetorical fig­ure of the ma­chine and the ghosts of its his­tory are un­der­stood.35 Lewitt, not coin­ci­den­tally, de­scribes con­cep­tual art in dis­tinctly pat­a­phys­i­cal terms with his pro­nounce­ment that “ir­ra­tional thoughts should be fol­lowed ab­so­lutely and log­i­cally.”36 His sig­na­ture white open cubes, in their var­i­ous math­e­mat­i­cal per­mu­ta­tions and se­ries, pro­vide a prime ex­am­ple; what­ever their scale, the rel­a­tive di­men­sions of the cubes al­ways strictly ad­here, with an ab­surd pre­ci­sion, to a mean­ing­less ar­chi­tec­tural ra­tio of 1:8.5 (that is, the open space be­tween the edges of a cube is 8.5 times the width of each edge). Lewitt elab­o­rates on this imag­i­nary so­lu­tion: “As with the white color, the 8.5:1 ra­tio was an ar­bi­trary de­ci­sion, but once it had been de­cided upon, it was al­ways used.”37 The pat­a­physi-

cal un­der­pin­nings of Lewitt’s prac­tice have been largely ig­nored, but Ros­alind Krauss picks up on the pri­macy of that as­ser­tion and comes all the way to the verge of iden­ti­fy­ing its pat­a­phys­i­cal tenets with­out ever quite men­tion­ing Al­fred Jarry’s name ex­plic­itly. With an echo of Jarry’s def­i­ni­tion of ’pat­a­physics as the “sci­ence of imag­i­nary so­lu­tions,” Krauss reads Lewitt’s open cubes and line draw­ings, along­side Sa­muel Beck­ett’s per­mu­ta­tional syn­tax, as the an­swer to a false prob­lem:

It is the iron­i­cal pres­ence of the false “prob­lem” that gives to this out­burst of skill its spe­cial emo­tional tenor, its sense of its own ab­so­lute de­tach­ment from a world of pur­pose and ne­ces­sity, its sense of be­ing sus­pended be­fore the im­mense spec­ta­cle of the ir­ra­tional. For Lewitt’s gen­er­a­tion a false and pious ir­ra­tional­ity was seen uni­formly as the en­emy of art . . . . [I]t was an ex­tra­or­di­nary decade in which ob­jects pro­lif­er­ated in a seem­ingly end­less and ob­ses­sional chain, each one an­swer­ing the other—a chain in which ev­ery­thing linked to ev­ery­thing else, but noth­ing was ref­er­en­tial. To get in­side the sys­tems of this work, whether Lewitt’s or Judd’s or Mor­ris’s, is pre­cisely to en­ter a world with­out a cen­ter, a world of sub­sti­tu­tions and trans­po­si­tions nowhere le­git­i­mated by the rev­e­la­tions of a tran­scen­den­tal sub­ject.38

Krauss’s recog­ni­tion of the ten­sion in post­war art be­tween ir­ra­tional pro­ce­dures and de­odor­ized sur­faces is as­tute, but I quote at length to jux­ta­pose her ma­chinic de­scrip­tion of that art with the writ­ing of def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture, in which lan­guage (to re­call Fou­cault’s de­scrip­tion) can­not stop it­self. Like the art­works she out­lines, the words of Bén­abou and Perec’s project are mo­ti­vated in end­less and ob­ses­sional chains, each an­swer­ing the next with their se­ries of de­no­ta­tive equiv­a­lences, un­til each new sen­tence has cou­pled a chain of in­clu­sive link­ages in which noth­ing is ref­er­en­tial be­yond the hori­zon of the dic­tio­nary’s lem­mas. The twin facets of this seem­ingly end­less move­ment are the very poles that have de­fined the mod­ern con­cep­tion of the ma­chine, with its dou­ble-edged prom­ise and threat. On one side, that move­ment is re­lent­less, fo­cused, and sin­gle-minded, but the ob­verse is dizzy­ingly ec­cen­tric (“a world with­out a cen­ter”); sim­i­larly, the pro­ce­dure of def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture is re­lent­lessly de­ter­mined, but each stage of its re­sults is sub­se­quently shunted by fur­ther trans­po­si­tions and sub­sti­tu­tions—a

per­pet­ual mo­tion ma­chine that is also some­thing of a Rube Gold­berg ma­chine. Ac­cord­ingly, in­ces­sant per­sis­tence and in­evitable di­ver­sions, the two paths that fork from Lewitt’s pat­a­phys­i­cal art, are the same that fol­low from his as­ser­tion that “the idea be­comes a ma­chine that makes the art,” be­cause they fig­ure the two mod­els of the idea of the ma­chine it­self. On the one hand, the ma­chine would seem to of­fer the per­fect fig­ure for rule-fol­low­ing: mind­less rep­e­ti­tion; uni­form reg­u­lar­ity; an­a­lyt­i­cal per­fec­tion; cease­less ef­fort; and ef­fi­cient, sin­gle-minded te­los. Or, as Lud­wig Wittgen­stein puts it more ab­stractly:

The ma­chine as sym­bol­iz­ing its ac­tion: the ac­tion of a ma­chine—i might say at first—seems to be there in it from the start. What does that mean?—if we know the ma­chine, ev­ery­thing else, that is its move­ment, seems to be al­ready com­pletely de­ter­mined.39

This sym­bol­iza­tion would be true for en­gine as well, with its et­y­mo­log­i­cal ties to the Latin in­ge­nium (an in­her­ent qual­ity or char­ac­ter), or what “seems to be there in it from the start.” On the other hand, how­ever, as Wittgen­stein goes on to note,

We talk as if these parts could only move in this one way, as if they could not do any­thing else. How is this— do we for­get the pos­si­bil­ity of their bend­ing, break­ing off, melt­ing, and so on? Yes; in many cases we don’t think of that at all.40

These two as­pects of the ma­chine—its in­eluctable, re­lent­less rep­e­ti­tion and its propen­sity to­ward in­evitable er­ror and er­ratic fail­ure—are nicely nar­ra­tivized in one of the vi­gnettes that make up John Cage’s lec­ture “In­de­ter­mi­nacy: New As­pect of Form in In­stru­men­tal and Elec­tronic Mu­sic,” writ­ten just as Perec was be­gin­ning his in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the au­to­matic pro­duc­tion of French lit­er­a­ture:

One evening I was walk­ing along Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard, noth­ing much to do. I stopped and looked in the win­dow of a sta­tion­ary [ sic] shop. A mech­a­nized pen was sus­pended in space in such a way that, as a mech­a­nized roll of pa­per passed by it, the pen went through the mo­tions of the same pen­man­ship ex­er­cises I had

learned as a child in the third grade. Cen­trally placed in the win­dow was an ad­ver­tise­ment ex­plain­ing the me­chan­i­cal rea­sons for the per­fec­tion of the op­er­a­tion of the sus­pended me­chan­i­cal pen. I was fas­ci­nated, for ev­ery­thing was go­ing wrong. The pen was tear­ing the pa­per to shreds and splat­ter­ing ink all over the win­dow and on the ad­ver­tise­ment, which, nev­er­the­less, re­mained leg­i­ble.41

The open­ing cat­achre­sis sig­nals the pun­ning spirit of Cage’s seem­ingly sin­cere, naive rec­ol­lec­tion. By stop­ping, he be­comes like the pen and pa­per in the win­dow in front of him: both “sus­pended in space” and “sta­tion­ary,” with the sta­tionery, iron­i­cally, in fran­tic mo­tion. “Sus­pended be­fore the im­mense spec­ta­cle of the ir­ra­tional” and fas­ci­nated by the scene of a lit­er­al­ized écri­t­ure au­toma­tique, Cage then me­chan­i­cally re­it­er­ates the words mech­a­nized and me­chan­i­cal, echo­ing four times in a sin­gle sen­tence and spoil­ing his prose with ex­ces­sive rep­e­ti­tion. But that rep­e­ti­tion al­lows him to en­act as well as to de­scribe the writ­ing process he ob­serves (a process that is it­self an ex­ces­sive rep­e­ti­tion of the drills that taught him to write in the first place). Be­hind its anec­dotic tone, Cage’s writ­ing of the scene of writ­ing is care­fully per­for­ma­tive. His sketch also fore­grounds one of the key tropes of the mod­ern machi­nal imag­i­na­tion. Since the nine­teenth cen­tury, won­der at the ma­chine’s feats of rep­e­ti­tion have been bought at the cost of a fear that it might not stop, and Cage of­fers a tame and com­i­cal ver­sion of the Vic­to­rian para­noia that the same ma­chines that seemed to work so tire­lessly—pro­pelled by hid­den, her­met­i­cally con­tained, in­ter­nal pro­cesses of com­bus­tion—might never stop work­ing at all, re­sult­ing in run­away trains, steam en­gine ex­plo­sions, and the specter of un­stop­pable au­tom­a­ton jug­ger­nauts.42 Cage’s scene of in­scrip­tion de­scribes a de­cid­edly mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of writ­ing not merely on ac­count of its un­der­scored mech­a­niza­tion and opaque ma­te­ri­al­ity, but be­cause it ex­hibits a par­tic­u­larly mod­ern con­cep­tion of the ma­chine. As Michel Ser­res has ar­gued, the ide­ol­ogy of ma­chines in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, when me­chan­i­cal de­vices were un­der­stood pri­mar­ily as tools for trans­fer­ring and trans­form­ing ex­ter­nal forces, ceded to a nine­teen­th­cen­tury imag­i­na­tion of the mo­tor as an en­gine with in­ter­nal pow­ers of its own, cir­cu­lat­ing with a the­o­ret­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity by ex­ploit­ing dif­fer­ences within ther­mo­dy­namic sys­tems and con­sum­ing pre­stocked stores of fuel.43 The tex­tual mech­a­nism of Perec’s def­i­ni­tional pro­ce­dure ac­cord­ingly op­er­ates as a specif­i­cally mod­ern en­gine by lo­cat­ing its mo­ti­va­tion

in­ter­nally. As Bén­abou ex­plains, PALF “sup­presses the ex­ter­nal cri­te­ria of lan­guage in fa­vor of in­ter­nal lin­guis­tic con­straints.”44 He con­tin­ues, clar­i­fy­ing: “The very def­i­ni­tion of au­toma­tism im­plies that some­thing labors dili­gently un­der its own steam” to such a de­gree that “au­toma­tism re­quires a rig­or­ous con­struc­tion which car­ries in it­self the prin­ci­ple of its own move­ment.”45 An­i­mated by its own in­ter­nal pow­ers, mo­ti­vated by the dy­namic al­ter­na­tion be­tween con­ti­gu­ity and con­ti­nu­ity and the reser­voir of the dic­tio­nary’s ac­cu­mu­lated se­man­tic fuel, “the dic­tio­nary be­comes a liv­ing be­ing, since it op­er­ates by mov­ing from ad­ja­cent to in­ces­sant.”46 Fou­cault, as we have seen, sim­i­larly lo­cates an en­gine-like agency in lan­guage it­self, with its own in­ner prin­ci­ple of pro­lif­er­a­tion: “Words cease­lessly re­new their power of strange­ness and the stores of their con­tes­ta­tion.”47 That move­ment, for Ser­res, arises from both ma­te­rial and semi­otic changes of state: “Move­ment is ef­fected by dif­fer­ences in the state of things and by the cal­cu­lus of signs.”48 In Ser­res’s anal­y­sis, all mo­tors are the me­chan­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of some dif­fer­en­tial, and they op­er­ate through the dy­namic ten­sions be­tween dif­fer­ence and equiv­a­lence.49 In def­i­ni­tional lit­er­a­ture, the cal­cu­lus of signs moves be­tween iden­tity and in­com­pat­i­bil­ity, mo­ti­vat­ing the tex­tual en­gine by means of the po­ten­tial en­ergy gen­er­ated by the gap be­tween rev­ersible equiv­a­lence (the se­man­tic con­ver­sion pre­sumed by the ex­change of a word for its de­no­ta­tion) and en­tropic dif­fer­ence (the drift and play of con­no­ta­tive im­pre­ci­sion; homonymic rup­tures; the wan­der­ing stray from id­iomatic syn­tax). In the pas­sage from “In­de­ter­mi­nacy,” Cage con­fesses that he de­lights in what is “go­ing wrong,” but go­ing wrong—as Wittgen­stein re­minds us—is in fact part of the proper op­er­a­tion of ma­chines. Re­call­ing one of T.E. Hulme’s frag­ments, in which the critic pro­claims “the grit in the ma­chine” to be “the fun­da­men­tal el­e­ment of the ma­chine,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Gu­at­tari sim­i­larly the­o­rize that not only does “break­ing down be­come part of the very func­tion­ing” of ma­chines, but that mal­func­tion is in fact the es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the ma­chine: “In or­der to op­er­ate, a ma­chine must mal­func­tion.” 50 And here is where we can be­gin to see the fur­ther con­ver­gence of the con­cept of the ma­chine and the con­cept of ’pat­a­physics. The no­tion of the cli­na­men—a chance, atelic dis­rup­tion—be­came a key tenet of Jarry’s pat­a­phys­i­cal doc­trine. Jarry’s terme de métier de­rives from a Lu­cre­tian un­der­stand­ing of the machi­nal pre-so­cratic uni­verse, in which

bod­ies are car­ried down­ward by their own weight in a straight line di­rectly through the void, at un­fore­see­able mo­ments and in un­pre­dictable places they swerve a bit.51

In Ser­res’s anal­y­sis, this atom­ism al­ready con­tains the seeds of the twi­light of me­chan­i­cal ma­chines and a brave new mod­ern world of en­tropy and tur­bu­lence.52 That non­lam­i­nar tur­bu­lence, ini­ti­ated by the cli­na­men’s min­i­mal dis­rup­tion of the atoms’ ver­ti­cal fall and play­ing out in the un­map­pable ed­dies of fluid me­chan­ics, trans­forms noise into a new or­der of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, gen­er­at­ing mean­ing from the in­ter­play of co­her­ence and chaos:

There is the vast data set and the cli­na­men, that’s all. The noise of the cas­cade, in the spray’s chance dance of myr­iad droplets, and that in­cli­na­tion, from high to low, which pro­duces move­ment. And which makes mean­ing—be­cause it is the mean­ing of move­ment—in the crush of signs.53

Lu­cretius de­scribes, in essence, an ab­stract model of the ma­chine on two counts: a per­pet­u­ally gen­er­at­ing struc­ture of dif­fer­ence (void and mat­ter, lam­i­nar and non­lam­i­nar flow, uni­for­mity and sin­gu­lar­ity, de­ter­min­ism and stochas­tics, lin­ear monotony and Brow­n­ian white noise) in which the di­a­met­ric dif­fer­en­tials are them­selves ex­actly what we have seen to be the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of the fig­ure of the ma­chine—uni­form repet­i­tive per­fec­tion and the in­evitable mal­func­tion­ing de­range­ment of its parts “bend­ing” and “break­ing off.” The ma­chine of Lu­cre­tian na­ture con­trasts the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of the uni­form rain of prime atoms, per­fectly alike in their lin­ear plumb, with the dis­rup­tion wrought by the oc­ca­sional er­rant swerve—in­evitable but un­pre­dictable—of an out­lier break­ing off and bend­ing from the or­thog­o­nal for no pre­dictable or ex­ter­nally mo­ti­vated cause. Bén­abou un­der­stood that swerve to be “pre­cisely the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect, to my mind, of the def­i­ni­tional method,” be­cause the un­pre­dictable er­rancy “in­tro­duces, into the too-tightly reg­u­lated play of def­i­ni­tion, the pos­si­bil­ity of a slight drift, which is rem­i­nis­cent of the prin­ci­ple of the cli­na­men.” 54 It is the per­sis­tence of that cli­na­me­natic drift, I would sub­mit, which keeps the Oulipo—with its roots in the Col­lège de ’Pat­a­physique—from be­com­ing a too-per­fect par­ody of it­self.

Spe­cial thanks to Katie Price, Stefanie So­belle, and John Heon, along with Stephen Bury, Linda Klieger Still­man, John Brewer, and Steve Hin­dle. They all gave me op­por­tu­ni­ties to think about and present ear­lier ver­sions of the ar­gu­ments here. Un­less oth­er­wise noted, trans­la­tions are mine.

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