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Notes on Proceduralism, Part 1 – Walter Abish

In the chapter of his book, Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction, devoted to what he calls American “proceduralism,” Joseph M. Conte makes further distinction between proceduralism and mere structural formalism. Whereas the value of the latter—common to all literary writing observant of formal/generic conventions—is largely based on its conformity with the rules of the form/genre, the former consists in “the adoption of a rigorous and efficient design in advance of the composition of a work of literature as proceduralism.” Proceduralists, then, “invent forms without knowing the precise manner of text that will be generated” and “welcome a degree of indeterminacy in literary production and do not confuse the value of the text with its conformity.”[1] Conte places the American proceduralists—most prominent among whom are Harry Mathews, Gilbert Sorrentino and John Barth—within the 1970s American avant-garde surfictionists.[2]

The necessary components of a procedural text, in Conte’s account, are invention, constraint, generation and synergy – and it is with reference to Marcel Bénabou’s essay on “Rule and Constraint” that the latter is distinguished from the former, analogously to the formalist x proceduralist distinction. Whereas “rule” is inherent to all literary production, “constraint” takes the prescriptiveness a step further, achieving a degree of difficulty that is exceptional, forcing the system out of its normal functioning. The paradox, here, is that “what appears to be an unnecessary and deliberate restriction on the writer’s practice can actually serve to liberate the writer from conventional means of expression and the tyranny of having to invoke some personal font of inspiration.”[3] Hand in hand with this sense of liberation comes the principle of synergy – opposed by Conte to the notion of “design” which “produces a text with little more than a one-to-one correspondence to the effort expended,” the system tending “toward an unpromising steady state.” Synergy, on the other hand, arises when “the complex dynamical system initiated by the constraint has the capacity of exceeding authorial control,” and when “the unpredictable nature of the language system” results “in a creative autonomy, a generative text that far exceeds the enumeration of its preordained structure.”[4]

The Oulipo group,[5] even though primarily Francophone and France-based, is an international movement, as its membership features Italo Calvino and Oskar Pastior, an Italian and a German, respectively, while also featuring the British and American writers, Ian Monk and Harry Mathews. Despite making a point of basing their lives and literary activities in France, both Monk and Mathews have functioned as translators/propagators of the group’s works in the Anglophone world, as mediators between the two linguistic cultural spaces. For, to be sure, there have been—particularly in the US of the 1970s—writers formally unconnected to the group who have, however unwittingly, still displayed interest in Oulipian procedures. A case in point is a work on which Mathews’ co-edited Oulipo Compendium bestows the appellation of one of “the most remarkable Oulipian works by an author not belonging to the group”[6] – the first novel by Walter Abish (*1931), Alphabetical Africa (1974).

The reason for this special status is the compositional method—and the constraint—governing the text’s form and style. Exploring the “idea” of Africa literally from “A” to “Z,” this novel’s opening and closing chapters consist wholly of words beginning with the letter “A,” and the intervening forty-nine chapters gradually accumulate (from A to Z) and then repress (from Z to A) words beginning with each of the remaining twenty-five letters of the alphabet. The other rule observed throughout stipulates that every chapter begin with the letter which is being “added” in the first, accumulative half, and then “omitted” in the other, repressive half of the text. For Mathews, this method—of Abish’s own devising—is Oulipian “both in its axiomatic simplicity and in the extent to which it determines both the ingenious narrative and its beguiling linguistic texture.”[7] The determination, here, is significant, for indeed the restraint determines the narrative—chiefly dealing with two murderous jewel thieves pursuing their perfectly proportioned, promiscuous partner throughout Africa—to an unprecedented degree, the form being—to a large extent—the content, the medium being the message. If in the first chapter, the narrative consists largely of lists—“Africa again: Antelopes, alligators, ants and attractive Alva” who is “apprehend[ed] anatomically, affirmatively and also accurately”(AA, 1)—then with B comes temporal distinction—“Before African adjournment, Alex, Allen and Alva arrive at Antibes” (AA, 3)—and it isn’t until the ninth chapter that interiority can enter into the narrative together with the introduction of the first-person pronoun: “I haven’t been here before. I had hoped I could hire a car, but I can’t drive. I have been awfully busy finishing a book about Alva” (AA, 21). As the first list shows, the combination of alphabetical constraints and the difficulties entailed in representing Africa as conforming to Western orthodoxies give rise to a narrative that often reads like a comic tour through the “dark” continent: through an Africa of the images, stereotypes, prejudices, and fantasies of Western imagination; one of “antelopes, alligators, ants.” However comic in this thoroughly self-referential game of constraint, Alphabetical Africa is also a highly difficult, arduous text, where the amount of what is unsayable vastly surpasses and haunts what can be said most of the time.

This obsession with the ability of linguistic forms to construct the familiar and to neutralise the uniquely unfamiliar does, in Tony Tanner’s words, achieve “some distinctly novel effects, as the text moves from constriction and gradually expands until it seems to have achieved a new kind of freedom.”[8] The main relationship, however, is not a dual one—author and the alphabet at his disposal—but a triadic one: author, alphabet, and Africa. However Oulipian in its making, it would be a mistake to dismiss it together with Tanner (and perhaps Mathews) as merely “a one-off book” based on “an interesting experimental idea” which “produced certain unusual effects.”[9] For, Abish’s treatment of the inherently thorny issue of European (Abish was born in 1930 in Vienna and did not become a US citizen until 1960) representation of a strikingly non-European experiential framework is replete with political import. Claire Fox has drawn powerful analogies between Abish’s work and that of his clearest precursor in terms of subject matter, Joseph Conrad, arguing that both “have demonstrated that ‘Africa’ is an image constructed in language, but they have also demonstrated that writing itself is creation,”[10] while Anthony Schirato has emphasised the twofold nature of language in Abish’s understanding, both as “an ontologically empty system of reproduction” and as “discourse full of references to its connections with the world outside.”[11] As Katalin Orbán has powerfully argued, what saves Alphabetical Africa “from being merely a tour de force by The Incredible Rubber Author” is “the grim relevance of its machinery to its colonial subject,” or in other words, “if Abish’s language keeps pointing to itself, that ‘itself’ would be thoroughly different without an ‘Africa,’ however alphabetical in its appearance in the text.” [12] As Orbán shows, it is the colonial subject matter that provides the textual demonstration of the culpability of any systemic apprehending and structuring.[13] Here, it should be noted that the last chapter recounts a long list of alternative options, finally concluding on “another awareness another awakening another awesome age another axis another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet” (AA, 152). As Orbán points out, it is no accident that “another alphabet” rather than “another Africa” is put in the final position in this list, it is significant in positing “otherness and language in relation: the problem at the core, yet farthest out of reach.”[14]

Due to its discursive preoccupation and decidedly experimental character, Alphabetical Africa certainly qualifies as a tour de force in Oulipian constraint writing. Abish’s other famous novel, How German Is It (1982), deals similarly to Alphabetical Africa with questions of visibility and concealment and the representation of the two – only this time the framework is not postcolonial, but post-Holocaust. Abish’s short stories, particularly In the Future Perfect (1977) are further concerned with familiarity, otherness and constraint (even though, here, one of the narrative viewpoints, reduced to its visual, scopic component) and oftentimes treat language as both a barrier and an opening (cf. the last short story, “Language Barrier”). Neither of these, however, quite repeat the same intensity of the language effect developed in his first novel. His 1990 experimental text, 99: New Meaning, even ceases to be even remotely Oulipian in embracing chance and textual collage as its procedural and compositional method. It consists of ninety-nine segments by as many authors, each line, sentence or paragraph appropriated from a page bearing that same, says Abish “mystically significant number 99,”[15] – thereby reminiscent of William Burroughs’ cut-ups.

David Vichnar

[1] Joseph M. Conte, Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002) 76.

[2] “Proceduralists share a penchant for “blatant artifice” in literature with other practitioners of metafiction. They are allied with the surfictionists, especially in the use of graphical typography and the manipulation of textual space that one finds in Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It or Ronald Sukenick’s Long-Talking Bad Condition Blues. In this regard proceduralism is always antimimetic, a contrivance that disturbs a reader’s willingness to become absorbed in the regime of representation” (Conte, Design and Debris, 83).

[3] Conte, Design and Debris, 83-4.

[4] Conte, Design and Debris, 84.

[5] The subject proper of Chapter VI.

[6] Oulipo Compendium, eds. Mathews & Brotchie, 45.

[7] Oulipo Compendium, eds. Mathews & Brotchie, 47-8.

[8] Tony Tanner, “Present Imperfect: a Note on the Work of Walter Abish,” GRANTA 3: New American Writing, eds. William Buford & Pete de Bolla (Spring 1979): 66.

[9] Tanner, “Present Imperfect,” 67.

[10] Claire Fox, “Writing Africa with Another Alphabet: Conrad and Abish,” Conradiana 22.2 (1990): 125.

[11] “There is in Alphabetical Africa, a play between, on the one hand, the notion of textual discourse as nothing more than the product of a system that is capable only of reproducing that system and is, therefore, ontologically empty, and, on the other, a notion of discourse as being full of references to its connections with the world outside language and of its dealings and relationships with politics, colonialism, and exploitation” (Anthony Schirato, “Comic Politics and Politics of the Comic: Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa,” Critique 33.2 [Winter 1992]: 136).

[12] Katalin Orbán, Ethical Diversions – The Post-Holocaust Narratives of Pynchon, Abish, DeLillo and Spiegelman (New York & London: Routledge, 2005) 79.

[13]Alphabetical Africa would collapse without Africa just as promptly as it would without the alphabet; nevertheless, by choosing the alphabet as master structure and by focusing on letters and words as the primary analytic elements, Abish’s text keeps restating the question of otherness in linguistic, philosophical and ethical terms much broader than African colonial exploitation” (Orbán, Ethical Diversions, 80).

[14] Orbán, Ethical Diversions, 81.

[15] Qtd. in Oulipo Compendium, eds. Mathews & Brotchie, 45.

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