Category Archives: Potential Criticism

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!


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)

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.