Monday, 2 August 2010

A new angle on choice and constraint




I am due to appear on a BBC World Service radio discussion programme as one of three people willing to talk about ideas. Sheena Iyengar is one of the other two. So I looked her up and she gives this very nice 20 minute inaugural lecture on choice. One of the points she makes is about constraint, an idea I have been pursuing regarding poetic form. I know the lecture is playful and introductory rather than in depth and detailed, but you can see the ideas dangled in front of you and understand that they are just strings waiting to be pulled to see what might be at the end of them - or indeed, perhaps more interestingly, along them.

She gives the lecture in the context of business - which is not where I expected it to be coming from, though the commercial aspects are obvious.

I know twenty minutes is long for a YouTube clip but this has considerable charm and a great deal of intelligence.




7 comments:

litrefs said...

Some quotes in response to particular remarks by the speaker, then some extras.


"obliged to be free" ("we ... have no choice but to write in free verse", Bly, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Harper and Row, 1990)

"Something to set you apart but not too strange" - ("Order can be maintained on a large scale while allowing local variation and surprise. The idea of establishing a norm from which one can profitably deviate also goes back to the Greeks")

"Given too much choice, end up using simpler criteria" ("Once we recognize that the frenetic drive to innovate via revolt has bankrupted so many twentieth-century avant-gardes, it is not surprising that we should now encounter a broad upsurge in constraint-based art", Baetens and Poucel, "Poetics Today", 30:4, p.622). They went to to write "authors and readers of constrained writing have a strong predilection to work in groups", which might be true.

When Margaret Boden pointed out that "At the heart of creativity lie constraints" she asked "How can one distinguish creativity from (mere) novelty?" and suggests that "To justify calling an idea creative, then, one must specify the particular set of generative principles - what one might call the conceptual space - with respect to which it is impossible", adding that "The constraints of music, complex though they are, are more amenable to definition than those involved in literature. Here, many rich conceptual spaces have to be negotiated simultaneously. ... It is not surprising, then, if [computer programs that generate literature] are not as impressive as some musical programs are"

She added "The constraints of music, complex though they are, are more amenable to definition than those involved in literature. Here, many rich conceptual spaces have to be negotiated simultaneously. It is not surprising, then, if literary programs are not as impressive as some musical programs are."

When writers think "outside the box" what chance is there that readers will have the same box in mind? It partly depends on the source of the constraint. 1) From within - is creating a constraint (inventing a new form) an act of creation? 2) A known form - e.g. a sestina (shared knowledge; something readers should recognise) 3) Tacit - writers can be unaware of the contraints they're working under - sometimes readers are more aware of these constraints than writers are

You don't have to remove all constraints to get more elbow room. You can 1) Add (maybe by transfer from another medium). A fugue from music can be transferred to literature. 2) Remove one constraint. SF removes some constraints, though it's often suggested that only one major counterfactual should be introduced, the rest of the story proceeding realistically from this. 3) Negate - going from "poems must rhyme" to "poems mustn't rhyme". 4) Relax (even Shakespeare's sonnets don't all have 14 lines). 5) Modify (the sestina form can be extended so that it's not based on 6-line stanzas)

George S said...

Thank you, Tim. That is, as I am growing to expect from you, a properly learned and intelligent response.

A few, quick points in no organised order:

I suspect that '[T]he idea of establishing a norm from which one can profitably deviate..' goes much further back than the Greeks, to the very cradle - in fact literally the cradle. The rocking and then the hesitation that makes the child laugh. This idea of the primitive and essential then leads to some other thoughts.

The point of the constraint, I personally feel, is to produce internalised techniques of improvisation, not so that one produces a wholly unfamiliar text which strikes us with its novelty, but to lead us back to the familiar by routes that help us re-experience them, as new. I want to be able to talk about love, fear, attachment and loss and all the archetypal rest, pretty well as they exist in what I assume to be the general human field of experience, at the deep level of dream if you like. I think the common patterns of life are what join us to each other, but that language, as it decays, reduces them to increasingly meaningless commonplaces. The things are not commonplace in themselves - it is the relationship of language to them that makes them appear so.

The creation of a new form is indeed an act of creation once the receiver recognises it as a form. At the same time, certain forms become too familiar as forms, so tend in themselves towards commonplace. The new form however, still depends on recognition and reconnection with the pattern of human experience in this or that context, and the old tired form can be revived through sheer energy of imagination. It is just that that gets harder. Very hard now, I suspect, to write good heroic rhyming couplets. Tony Harrison did it through energy, switches in diction and surprising enjambments. Hard to follow that. But I am sure it can be done.

The idea of negating seems a little too easy, since rhymes are far rarer than non-rhymes. I suggest something far more restricting - such as no use of the letter E, as has already been tried, of course. Constraint suggests a degree of restriction too.

Anonymous said...

I love her voice, she sounds like a bird singing.

litrefs said...

[T]he idea of establishing a norm from which one can profitably deviate..' goes much further back than the Greeks, to the very cradle - yes, and to continue her theme, it means that people are interested in fashion accessories, clothes labels, little logos, etc. I think I read somewhere that attention to such detail is what helped drive natural selection
The point of the constraint, I personally feel, is to produce internalised techniques of improvisation, not so that one produces a wholly unfamiliar text which strikes us with its novelty, but to lead us back to the familiar by routes that help us re-experience them, as new.. Baetens and Poucel (who I quoted before) wrote that "Constraints are not ornaments: for the writer, they help generate the text; for the reader, they help make sense of it". They can act as something to cling to while navigating the unfamiliar. They can be an attention-redirection mechanism so that by the time readers realise where they are, it's too late. Approaching Trafalgar Square down unfamiliar side-streets, it becomes a new experience

George S said...

They went on to write "authors and readers of constrained writing have a strong predilection to work in groups", which might be true.

Do they cite any evidence for that? Or reason? It seems highly unlikely to me.

George S said...

She does sound as though she is singing. On about 2:15 she says, 'You intend them to' and the way the 'you' modulates into 'in', then into 'tend' is practically a bird's whistle.

Sh'e quite spellbinding, I think. I love the facial expressions too. If her text were less interesting I think I'd find the combination of voice and face almost distracting.

litrefs said...

Do they cite any evidence for [team work]?
Here's some stuff, and some other quotes on the freedom/constraint theme. The mag's online via (at least some) Univ libs. The article's fairly narrowly literary - I imagine there's material about having too many choices in various disciplines (Italian party politics, for example)

They are often drawn together by their shared refusal of the traditional literary circles that delegate the institutional aspects of literature (those that have to do with the decision to publish or not to publish, with the efforts made to market the text, with the willingness to enter into a dialogue with the critics and the readers, etc.) to a special type of intermediaries, namely, publishers. New forms of literary community are thus coming into being through the field of constrained writing. In this regard, the field influences the literary system much more dramatically than any other new "-ism"

various constrained writers are very keen on collaborating with readers, who, in turn, are invited to take the initiative in the work’s conception.
Once again, in the case of the Oulipo the working techniques of the group are published and disseminated to their audience members, each of whom can collaborate with others in writing workshops, and each of whom are encouraged to reuse any and all Oulipian constraints. This orientation toward collective and collaborative writing has been slow but progressively developed, and it clearly illustrates part of the fundamental social philosophy of the group.

To begin with, one of the most widely
accepted axioms within the field is that the notion of constraint cannot be
disassociated from the symmetrical notion of “freedom” (for a historical
survey of this problematic link, see "Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo", Alison James, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009).


Much of the theoretical work by Perloff (e.g., 1991) has, via close reading,
convincingly refuted the traditional rejection of constraints in the
name of "freedom." The very idea that "freedom," in its traditional and stereotyped definition of absence of any internal or external restraint (e.g., shame or political censorship, respectively), is the best way to produce innovative, creative, original, or even personal work should be seriously questioned.