Category Archives: Oulipo

Seven Decades of TV Noir: A Short Introduction

Originally published in the Noircon 2012 Proceedings
Edited and Produced by Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and Jeff Wong
November 2012
Philadelphia, PA 

Introduction

It might be a bit surprising to note that the legacy of TV noir stretches back almost seven decades. That is nearly as long a history as its more celebrated competitor and inspiration, film noir. While the first films noir were shot between 1941-1945, as Ray Starman notes in his book TV Noir, the first noir TV series made their debuts in 1949 with Martin Kane, PI and Man Against Crime. Of course, there is a major and indisputable reason why TV noir came after film noir. While Hollywood was reaching the apex of its studio era in the 1940s, there were really no TV networks until 1947.

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But since 1949, noir has been a constant staple of television programming, generating hundreds of series and thousands of hours of viewing pleasure. Given its plentiful output, cultural impact, and historical legacy, it is likely that more people have encountered noir stories watching TV shows in their living rooms than by sitting in movie theaters. Yet in terms of scholarly and fan-based activities, there have been more books and festivals dedicated to film noir than TV noir. TV noir is often dismissed as “inferior” to film noir, and many fans of noir will tell you they don’t “watch television.”

These are my working notes to accompany the 2012 Noircon panel, “Crime in Primetime: TV’s Most Innovative Noir Series.” Both here and during the panel, I will make a case for reassessing TV’s contributions and innovations to the noir style and storytelling. Towards these ends, I will briefly lay out some of the major ways in which TV noir differs from its cinematic counterpart in terms of its forms, authors, and constraints, and some of the reasons why you should be watching some truly exceptional television series right now if you are a fan of noir.

1. The Forms

Noir and film noir appear on television in a myriad of ways from the replaying of classic movies to throwback skits on variety shows to “special episodes” of non-noir TV series. In this last instance, the noir style is mostly an excuse to shoot an episode in black and white, smoke cigarettes, and wear fedoras. In fact, the grisly crime stories that open many local nightly news broadcasts might be the most noir productions on TV. The pre-eminent form of TV noir is the one-hour prime-time drama. The one-hour drama is not actually a full hour. If you take into account the commercial interruptions and the station identifications, most hour-long shows are approximately 42 minutes long.  Each episode of a noir TV series is considerably shorter than the typical length of a classical film noir, which typically run between 90 and 120 minutes.

Another major difference from the movies is TV noir’s serial format. TV noir is ultimately about the series—depending on the era and the network that means anywhere between 13 to 26 episodes per season. Therefore while Hollywood movies clearly were an influential source for early TV, the bigger influence in the beginning was commercial radio. Television appropriated one of radio’s main programming strategies: the regular and predictable rhythm of a prime time schedule.

TV noir’s profuse output makes it harder to discuss these series in the same depth with which we can analyze films noir. It’s a matter of scope and scale. Consider Law and Order. Over its twenty year run, the original Law and Order series produced 456 episodes. That is an astounding narrative archive that would take almost two months to view in its entirety if you watched eight episodes a day (as seen in the chart that tracks the major characters over 2o seasons, from Wikipedia, below).  Such a large number of episodes also raises the difficulty of being a TV noir completist, i.e. the likelihood that you have seen every episode of a series. And multiply that problem by hundreds of series, and you can see the analytical difficulty of writing about and discussing TV noir.

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In terms of serial structure, each episode of a series can be a self-contained story, which can sometimes feel like a slimmed down (or for some, a watered down) version of a film plot with a rushed and frequently predictable resolution. Or shows can employ the concept of continuing storylines or story arcs to extend narrative events over multiple episodes. Story arcs can tell a more complex story that unfolds over dozens of hours of viewing. Some of TV noir’s most innovative shows have opted for this latter approach. Shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad use intricate story structures to achieve an almost novelistic storytelling depth that is simply impossible to attempt in a ninety-minute film noir. Long-running series have their benefits.

Having to generate a new noir story every week also meant that TV noir returned to its serial roots in pulp fiction and mystery magazines. There can be a thrilling vicariousness in watching a well-made TV noir because you establish a powerful connection with characters that can extend and deepen for years. But the ongoing run of a TV series can lead to challenges for writers who have to make sure the show’s major cast members survive the impending doom of the fateful noir universe, robbing many TV noir series of the narrative uncertainty that has certainly animated some of our best films noir.

2. The Authors

Film has always tended to be identified as a director’s medium. First raised by the concept of auteur theory, directors are assumed to be the main creative driver behind a film. It is just not the same on television. An episodic TV show requires a unified look and similar directing style over multiple episodes, so it is important for directors to “stick to the script.” Even if a director wanted to get more visually adventurous, there is not enough time in pre-production to execute such ideas, and it’s the producers (not the director) who hire the creative personnel on the set. Even with such limitations, some well-known directors have been drawn to the small screen including David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Quentin Tarantino (episodes of CSI:), and Rian Johnson (an episode of Breaking Bad).

But ultimately, television is a producer’s medium. For example, name a director of a recent TV episode you watched. Did you draw a blank? Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t recall who directs a TV episode, because we conventionally attribute authorship of a TV series to a producer or show creator. Now name a TV producer. Who created Hill Streets Blues? The Streets of San Francisco? Law and Order? Breaking Bad? For most who have watched these shows numerous times, the names Steven Bochco, Quinn Martin, Dick Wolf, and Vince Gilligan would likely come to mind.

But Bochco, Martin, Wolf, and Gilligan (even when they also write entire episodes for their own series) tend to more in control of a team of writers who operate under the constraints of the show’s template. This point returns me to my essay about networked authorship for Noircon 2010, where I examined the role of multiple writers on a film noir script. My argument was that there was much cross-pollination among creative personnel in classical Hollywood and the writing behind many films noir might be best understood as the hybridization of shared interests in hard-boiled stories and creative exchanges rather than the work of single auteur. I used Strangers on a Train, and the roles of Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock as my example.

If we turn our attention to TV writing, the idea of networked authorship is its basic creative model—even more so than film. TV series must employ teams of writers and directors to meet the stringent production demands of producing between 13 and 26 episodes in a short time frame. This means that the show’s creator tends to be the creative hand that guides the overall evolution of the series, but separate writers are credited with individual episodes. Increasingly, some of our best noir TV shows have raised networked authorship to a new level. HBO’s The Wire might be one of the best examples. That show’s creator, David Simon, hired some of the best literary noir writers in the business to pen episodes, including George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. As a result, the quality of The Wire’s writing shines in that series. (Image from Time Magazine, by David Johnson, picturing Ed Burns, David Simon, and George Pelecanos in Baltimore, where The Wire is set)

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Moreover, like the Hollywood studio system that preceded it, TV noir can build new series on pre-existing literary properties. TV noir over its seven decades has been dominated by topical series that seem to be tireless retreads of “ripped from the headlines” stories, but TV noir can and has benefited from adapting hard-boiled literature. While one of the more prominent examples might be a show like the 1980s’ Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, consider a couple shows like Justified and Wallander. The first show, a hit on F/X, is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, and the latter show, a series from the BBC, is based on Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s internationally known police inspector, Kurt Wallander. While source material alone is no guarantee of quality when adapting for a new medium, Justified‘s writing has clearly benefited from a rule shared among the writing staff: when in doubt, WWLD? (What would Leonard Do?) (Image from NJ.com, Elmore Leonard with Timothy Olyphant of Justified)

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3. The Constraints

As we begin to consider the most innovative noir series in TV history, I believe we will find that the constraints of TV have fueled those shows in powerful ways. As Shannon Clute and I discuss in our book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth University Press, 2011) there are very good reasons to look at films noir as “constrained texts.” Moreover, some of our most creative noir films have consciously embraced constraints to reveal noir’s potential.

From its earliest days, the TV industry has been subjected to more constraints than the film industry. Part of this is due to the fact that TV was projected directly into our living rooms. Therefore, long after film noir shook off the most restrictive forms of censorship, TV’s versions of noir tales had to meet prime-time viewing standards on broadcast networks and depictions of sex, violence, and use of language were heavily censored well into the 1990s. In 1993 NYPD Blue could still use censorship constraints in its pursuit of quality storytelling. Blue (as the show was frequently referred to) intentionally stirred controversy with partial nudity and adult language that now seems tame compared to pay-cable outlet shows like The Sopranos, as in this clip of NYPD actress Charlotte Ross. But pushing against the constraints of broadcast standards did much to usher in today’s more complex noir series.

TV budgets were also historically lower than for films, so TV shows tended to be restricted to a few sets that got reused in almost every episode. Many TV noir sets can have the feel of a locked room mystery. Location shooting was typically too expensive, so TV began to reuse old movie studio sets in ways reminiscent of Poverty Row studio practices. But this constraint also became one of TV’s biggest contributions to noir. TV noir tended to seek a distinctive “locale” for exterior shots that would give the show a geographic identity and to differentiate series from one another. This moved TV noir stories beyond the urban environs of LA, New York, and San Francisco (though plenty of noir shows are still set in these cities). On television we get more noir than expected from sun-drenched locales such as Hawaii (a favorite destination of crime shows, such as Magnum, PI) or Miami (Miami Vice or CSI: Miami). We also get noir in some of the smaller regions of the US, as in Justified (with its great use of Harlan County, Kentucky) or Breaking Bad (and the emergence of New Mexico as a noir border crossing region)

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TV had a much more restricted image size. Compared to the “big screen,” early television sets were extremely small. The quality of the TV image could never compare to a film print (until extremely recently in the digital age, and still a digital print can’t match a well-struck 70mm Technicolor print). It was not even a fair comparison. TV in the 1950s was a blurry, pixelated, and electronically refreshed mess compared to the luxurious richness and dense visual field of projected film. And the technological indignities continued over the decades: TV developed color long after film, new sound technologies were slow to be adopted. Sometimes, with the rise of HDTV, we forget all that.

Visual personnel working on TV series have had much greater limitations in visual design and cinematography. This meant that until fairly recently TV was not focused on visual storytelling as much as narrative design and the growth or goals of recurring characters. A show like The Fugitive in the 1960s is a great example. Dr. Kimble’s four season pursuit of a one-armed man was used as a continuing story arc to find a creative benefit from episodic storytelling. Since TV, like film, constantly recycle narrative strategies, The Mentalist pursues a similar narrative structure with a serial killer named Red John.

Perhaps one of the best TV shows of all time is Breaking Bad (this is the TV series I will discuss on the panel, “Crime in Primetime”). The show’s creator Vince Gilligan is on record as being a fan of constraints, and mentioning that he has embraced constraints in the writing and design of Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s embrace of constraints can be seen in the final product. The show has a fairly small number of cast members for a show going into its fifth and final season. The show has played out over a restrictive time frame, roughly a year of action over the first four seasons. The show elegantly uses the “cold open” (a modern variant of in media res) to introduce visual metaphors and plot elements that engage the viewer into the complex world of Breaking Bad, as in the recurring and ultimately deeply meaningful motif of the pink bear in Season Two.

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And the show uses the character of Walt White—a high school teacher turned meth cook—to examine with an uncanny depth and human perspective the global reach of today’s decaying noir universe. And Gilligan does all this under the censorship constraints of AMC, a basic cable station.

Conclusion

What are the most innovative TV noir shows? I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of crime, mystery and noir drama on the small screen. For seven decades, TV has supplied memorable (and some not-so-memorable) noir programming that has advanced noir storytelling. But with shows like The Shield, Justified, and Breaking Bad, TV noir is in a period of renascence. Noir stories are becoming more complex and intricate. New technologies and higher budgets have allowed TV noir to expand its visual design. And long-form stories are becoming ever more elaborate in shows such as 2007’s Forbrydelsen (a brilliant Danish police procedural recently remade by AMC as The Killing–the image below is of the character of Sarah Lund from Forbrydelsen).

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Noir’s seventh decade is off to a great start.

Let the debates begin.

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Remix and Potential Criticism: CSA 2011 Talk

Here is the version of this paper I presented today at the Cultural Studies Association Conference 2011 at Columbia College Chicago. I am planning on revising this for publication. This version of the paper was crafted to fit into a 15 minute time slot so I try to hit the high points of my argument in just under 2000 words. As always, comments are most welcome, but I am most interested in where my argument is unclear or where it could benefit from expansion or concision. Thanks!

Epigram:

Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.”

–Harry Mathews

In the July 2005 issue of Wired Magazine, the sci-fi novelist William Gibson offered his take on remix culture in the essay, “God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut and Paste Artist.” In that piece, Gibson directly linked digital remix culture back to the 1950s and the Beat Generation, especially William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s technique of “cut ups.” In so doing, Gibson was conferring aesthetic cachet on a new set of disreputable practices by finding an older set of disreputable practices that have become respectable and tame over time. Besides glancing backwards for historical antecedents, Gibson also looked ahead: “We live at a peculiar juncture, one in which the record (an object) and the recombinant (a process) still, however briefly, coexist. But there seems little doubt as to the direction things are going.” (2005) For Gibson, the recombinant is marked by “appropriation” and “borrowings,” and its key unit is the “sample.” As he explains: “Everything I wrote, I believed instinctively, was to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” (2005) These notions—the “cut and paste” artist, the dominance of collage, and appropriation as creative act—exert a powerful hold on the critical and popular imagination and comprise a conventional litany on the pros and cons of remixing.  However appropriative collage is not the only method for deriving meaning from adjacent data.

In this paper, I argue recombinatorial remix explores the “potentiality” that exists inside all texts. Rather than focusing on “appropriation,” “borrowing” or even “artistic pilferings” (all of which have a history of practice as long as art itself), I will examine how formal, restrictive, and mathematical approaches to recombinatorial play are transformative and creative in an Oulipian sense. Texts remixed under constraint are experimental and playful in different ways from “cut and paste” works.  Traditional uses of “sampling” or “borrowing” or “pilfering” overemphasize the creative role played by randomness and chance by focusing too much attention on the aleatory dimension as the key remix aesthetic. The abundant references to Dadaism and Surrealism, e.g., in remix culture attest to a framing of the remix as an heir to “automatic writing” and “exquisite corpses.” If we generate a remix through aleatory mechanisms, the resulting “information” will be dependent upon chance operations.

I argue that such approaches ignore the rich legacy of creative works that have focused on potential of another kind. In this other approach, “potential” is generated from formal, mathematic logics, rules of mean and variation, and restrictive and constrained artistic modes. One group in particular, the Oulipo, has been at the forefront of this conscious investigation into potentiality.

The Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir du Litterature Potentielle, roughly translated into English as “Workshop of Potential Literature.” The Oulipo is a group of French writers and mathematicians whose creative work and research focuses on “all writing that [is] subjected to severely restricted methods.” (Mathews 205) Some of the better-known members of the group include the writers Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

The Oulipo focuses on “creations that create” more than “created creations.” These “creations that create” are characterized by the use of formal, artificial, even mathematical constraints that are determined before the act of writing begins. The Oulipo believes that constraints help writers “escape that which is called inspiration.” (Lowenthal, xii) Lowenthal continues that Raymond Queneau, one of the founding members of the Oulipo, thought that “the typical act of inspiration draws from limited resources. Rather than restricting the possibilities of creation, [Queneau] argued, the use of artificial structure–mathematical and otherwise–opens the way to a vaster range of potential creation.” (xii) This idea of “potential” creation was specifically defined against Surrealism and very different in its operations from the technique of “automatic writing” or the random combinations of Burroughs’s cut-up texts.

Oulipian works reveal what they mean by “severely restricted procedures.” Georges Perec wrote A Void, a lipogrammatic novel, where he did not use the letter “e.” Italo Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a book made up of ten first chapters of imaginary novels. But Raymond Queneau might have written the most famous work of potential literature, his poem A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It is a 14-line sonnet with a twist: there are ten alternate lines for each line in the poem. [the previous link brings you to a digital version of this poem] Even though there are only 140 total lines of poetry, the potential of the poem is spectacular. It has been determined that it would take more than a lifetime to read every possible version of the poem. Therefore, most of the meaning of the poem lies in a “potential” state, waiting to be remixed.

It is worth noting that most remix artists would probably not identify themselves with the Oulipo or their legacy. But DJs and remix artists frequently have more in common with Georges Perec’s conscious use of constraints than William Burroughs’s chance-driven chains of meaning. For example, let’s look at DJ Freelance Hellraiser’s 2002 musical mashup, “A Stroke of Genie-us.” This song popularized the ‘A versus B’ mashup. In this song, Freelance Hellraiser took the musical track from Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and recombined it with the Strokes’ vocals from “Hard to Explain.” The resulting mashup is not a random compilation of the two songs, but a seamless integration of the two competing musical styles into a new mix. To accomplish this new work, Freelance Hellraiser restricted himself to the limited resources of the “A” text and the “B” text.  This is much more in keeping with lipogrammatic constraint than the random rearrangement of the “cut-up.” In fact, the pop-worthiness of “A Stroke of Genie-us” would not have been accomplished if Freelance Hellraiser randomly compiled snippets of the music and the lyrics together. The success of the mashup is in its conscious and organic embrace of its constraint.

DJ Dangermouse extended the A vs. B mashup on a grand scale when he created The Grey Album. Like “A Stroke of Genie-us” Dangermouse’s choice of title self-reflexively puns about the constraint. Dangermouse remixed Jay-Z’s acapella version of The Black Album with musical samples from The Beatles’ White Album—creating that collision of opposites, The Grey Album. The ‘A vs. B’ mashup follows the logic of what the Oulipo call “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a lipogrammatic constraint that forces writers to compose a story using a limited set of alphabetic characters. Moreover, the “A vs. B” mashup is—in an Oulipian sense—a “creation that creates” and can be used just like the sonnet form is by both professional and amateur poets. “A Stroke of Genie-Us” and The Grey Album spawned numerous remixes, mostly from amateur remixers. The Grey Album inspired remixes using the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, Metallica, Radiohead, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

So far I have focused on how ‘formal constraint’ is another way to approach the ‘potential’ of remix culture. But there is another dimension at play here: the role of the reader (or the listener or the viewer or the interactant). The use of constraints to generate potential texts leads towards “potential criticism.” A fuller demonstration of “potential criticism” can be found in my forthcoming book The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, which I co-wrote with Shannon Clute. The book will be published this Fall by the University Press of New England.

Oulipian Harry Mathews states at the beginning of his essay “Mathews’ Algorithm:” “Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.” (Oulipo 1973, 105) Mathews continues: “the resultants derived from these texts can be used to two different ends: either the ‘analysis’ of the texts put in play, or the creation of a new work” (1973, 105). As we have seen, with DJs Freelance Hellraiser and Dangermouse, the resultants of remixed texts are ‘the creation of a new work.’ What might not be as readily apparent is how these resultants operate as an ‘analysis of the texts put in play.’ Here it is important look more closely at how producing texts under constraint is both a creative and an auto-exegetical act, which explains why Mathews begins an essay about his recombinatorial algorithm with a discussion of “potential reading,” and claims it makes manifest the duplicity of texts produced through constraint.

Shannon Clute and I have identified three crucial elements to constrained textual productions: (1) intertextual allusions to other texts; (2) self-reflexive punning (often marked by quirky humor); and (3) formal mathematical logics that allow the text to explore and ultimately map its own typology. Taken together, these elements literally enact potential reading and reveal the duplicity of texts.  In my previous work on mashups and remix culture, Chuck Tryon and I began to develop the idea of critical digital intertextuality. Here, I extend my investigation into intertextuality by seeing it alongside self-reflexive punning and formal restrictive logics that together form ” a geometry of auto-exegesis.” In other words, texts written or produced under formal constraint can literally “read themselves.”

These three crucial elements are a particularly rich vein of creative work for scholars of remixes to explore. As Georges Perec notes in his Afterword to A Void, citational art, i.e. texts under constraint that contain intertextual allusions, honor and mimic traditions of punning and plagiary with longstanding roots in French Literature, going as far back as the 15th century and the work of Rabelais. Moving our frame of reference from 20th century artistic innovations, Perec identifies key characteristics of recombinatorial play within the humorous pun-filled plagiarism of stories like Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel and Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.

Examples of video mashups can illustrate this point. Consider mashups like “Vote Different” using Hillary Clinton’s video embedded in an Apple Macintosh Commercial, “Endless Love” featuring a musical duet between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, or “Shining,” a remixed trailer for Kubrick’s The Shining as a romantic comedy. While all three remixes are quite different, they each form a geometry of auto-exegesis via intertextual allusion, self-reflexive punning, and the use of formal constraints. Moreover, they confirm Mathews’s main point that potential readings through remix have the ‘charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.’ These three remixes are quite duplicitous: they subvert the meanings of their original source texts, and do so using quirky humor and self reflexive punning driven by restrictive procedures. Moreover, self-reflexive punning and humor are not supplementary to the remix, but an outcome of what Perec calls ‘citational art.’ Quirky humor and self-reflexive punning are how texts remixed with other texts pleasure themselves under constraint.

In conclusion, we can identify remixes that engage even more thoroughly in artificial Oulipian constraints, as in Lenka Clayton’s remix video, “Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet.” In a remix such as this, the power of potential criticism demonstrates a potential political dimension as well. Using a constraint quite popular among Oulipians—the alphabetic list—Clayton reorders every word of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address in alphabetic order. The resulting twenty minute video is a new recitation of the State of the Union, literally word for word.  Through the use of alphabetic constraint, Clayton’s video enacts a potential reading of the State of the Union. Unmoored from their original semantic positions, the individual words are rattled off as a list that reveals the latent, even hidden, meanings of Bush’s speech. Clayton’s work demonstrates that potential criticism can move beyond playful combinations of pop culture and investigate and reveal the latent meanings and duplicity contained in the texts that constitute our civic and political lives. Clayton’s video calls to mind what Jacques Roubaud has said about Raymond Queneau’s “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems:” Its constraint is rather elementary, but its potentiality is spectacular.” (2004, 100-101; trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Works Cited:

Gibson, William. “God’s Little Toys,” Wired Magazine 13.07 (July 2005) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html

Lowenthal, Marc. Raymond Queneau: Stories and Remarks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Mathews, H. Oulipo Compendium. Trans. and eds. by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, London: Atlas Press, 2005.

Oulipo. Oulipo: La littérature potentielle. Saint-Amand: Editions Gallimard, 1973. Trans. Shannon Clute.

Perec, Georges. La disparition. Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

––––––. A Void. Trans. Gilbert Adair. Boston: Verba Mundi, 1994.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Perecquian OULIPO” Trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel. Yale Studies, 105, Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec (2004): p. 99-109.