A. James : « Anti-Chance and Aleatory Literature »


Alison James, « Anti-Chance and Aleatory Literature » in Réseau ALEA / ALEA Network [online], 2020 <https://hasard.hypotheses.org/2860>

“Human beings cannot imitate chance” (“L’homme ne peut imiter le hasard”), asserts the French writer Raymond Queneau, in a 1946 article that attempts to debunk the “myth of the documentary” as direct mimesis.1 Chance operates here as a boundary concept, defining a limit of thought, of human capacities, and of representation. Queneau casts it as an irreducible aspect of the real that cannot be recorded. Generally speaking, the claim that literature and art must banish chance have as their counterpart this idea that chance is the unrepresentable. Yet chance and design, as many have noted, sometimes seem to converge in their results. Controversies over the definition and role of chance are in fact at the heart of debates over artistic and literary creation in the twentieth century: splits within surrealism around the ideas of automatism or objective chance, the argument between Pierre Boulez and John Cage over aleatory methods in musical composition, Oulipian debates around formal constraint as “anti-chance,” modernist and postmodernist attacks on narrative teleology. On this last point, if the notion of chance is arguably bound up with narrativity in general (as a perceived disruption in the unfolding of causal chains), 20th-century narratives develop specific strategies for representing or dramatizing chance events, in dialogue with changing philosophical and scientific conceptions of contingency and causality (chaos, noise, indeterminacy). These are some of the issues being explored by the ALEA 20th-century team, which I co-direct with Sébastien Wit. Intertwining cultural history, narrative theory, and philosophy, we are exploring how notions such as risk, chaos, noise, and accident shape or are staged via narrative and poetic treatments of chance, from modernism to the advent of the digital age.

My own interest in chance was sparked in the first instance by the work of the experimental literary collective Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle/Workshop for Potential Literature). This group invents formal constraints—rules, structures, or procedures—for use in literary production. Although the Oulipo insists that its constraints work against chance (in opposition to the automatic writing of the surrealists), I was struck by the omnipresence of chance as a preoccupation in Oulipian works, and especially in the work of Georges Perec (1936–1982)—a major figure of twentieth-century French literature and the most accomplished and original member of the Oulipo. Not satisfied with relegating chance to the level of content (as an object of representation) or with accepting at face-value the Oulipian definition of constraint as “anti-chance,” I argued in my first book (Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo, 2009), that constraints in fact produce and stage chance at the level of the text’s effects. The full implications of this move are most fully and most poignantly realized in Perec’s works. Emphasizing the coherence that underlies the various dimensions of Perec’s project (autobiographical, novelistic, and sociological), I show that he uses formal and semantic constraints both as a spur to literary inspiration and as a means of exploring the tension between chance and determinism, fate and freedom, historical forces and human agency. Constraints become a means of managing but also of representing what Perec (who was orphaned at an early age by war and the Holocaust) calls the “inexorable”—that is, the inescapable contingency of our historical situation.

From a more philosophical point of view, my article “Reflets et représentations: Richard Rorty et Clément Rosset face à la littérature” (Littérature, 2007) considers how both Rorty and Rosset appeal to literary texts as evidence for their ontological conceptions of contingency (for Rorty) or chance (for Rosset). Expanding on another dimension of my first project, I have reflected further on the mobilization of chance as a poetic principle in the twentieth century, when writers and artists increasingly seek new methods of creation or ways of opening up the form of their works to unpredictable variation. These approaches include the use of stochastic processes (evolving systems of random variables) or combinatorial constraints (permutations of finite elements) to determine the ordering of elements in a work, as well as appeals to reader or audience intervention to shape a work in performance. My encyclopedia entry on “Aleatory Poetics” for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (4th ed., 2012) offers a synthetic account of these procedures, while I develop my analysis of some of these tendencies in the chapter “Randomizing Form: Stochastics and Combinatorics in Postwar Literature,” forthcoming in the Palgrave Handbook of Literature and Mathematics (ed. A. Jenkins and R. Tubbs). This essay offers a comparative study of three collective tendencies. In Stuttgart in the late 1950s, a group led by the semiotician Max Bense develops a project of generative aesthetics based on probability distributions, aiming to unite formal experimentation with scientific inquiry into language. During the same period, in New York and elsewhere, the indeterminacy favored by Fluxus artists and writers involves the use of chance operations to set the parameters of composition or performance. Modeling its practices in part on the axiomatics of the Bourbaki mathematicians, the Oulipo rejects stochastic models of “aleatory literature,” while turning to combinatorial algorithms as a locus of literary potentiality. Despite aesthetic divergences, notably between cybernetic/stochastic and combinatorial/enumerative approaches, these groups use mathematics and computation to push the possibilities of literary form beyond the limits of given conventions and authorial intentions. Used to model organized uncertainty, mathematics becomes a paradoxical signifier both of “anti-chance” and of the real. Thus, the turn to aleatory procedures transforms the literary work into an imitation and formalization of chance itself.


1 Raymond Queneau, “Le mythe du documentaire,” Labyrinthe 22–23 (1946): 28.


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