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Research groups

25 May 2023 - 25 May 2023

1:00PM - 2:30PM

Hallgarth House and online via Zoom

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A staff and postgraduate research seminar.

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In this paper, Dr Kaye Mitchell discusses what has been decried as the ‘masculinist tendencies of most constraint-based writing’ (Elkin and Esposito, 79), in order to identify – and complicate – the gendering of the critical language around experimental writing, which tends to read cognitive and conceptual practices as ‘masculine’ and to associate the feminine with more ‘embodied’ experimental practices. Their own approach aims both to challenge this narrow view of constraint as a ‘masculine’ strategy, and to unpick the corollary narrative of unconstraint in women’s experimental writing (i.e. its association with flux/flow/spontaneity/illogic, etc.). In the first part of the paper, they consider the historical debates around gender, constrained writing, and the Oulipo – including Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s feminist performance critique of the Oulipian constraint, ‘foulipo’. In the second part of the paper I offer readings of Christine Brooke-Rose’s 1968 novel Between and Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (1986; tr. 2015).


In Between, questions of gendered embodiment and identity are inextricable from that novel’s particular ‘constraint’ – the omission of the verb ‘to be’. Brooke-Rose’s novel goes beyond mere conceptual inventiveness in its representation of the female body as translating ‘machine’; the (apparent) rigorous formalism of the linguistic or grammatical constraint in fact facilitates an attention to bodies. In Sphinx, the constraint (the total omission of linguistic markers of gender) produces what Dennis Duncan describes as Sphinx’s ‘profound corporeality’ (2019, 154), rendering desire as ‘carnal’. The constraint in Sphinx stimulates also a linguistic excess, due to the unavailability, in French, of certain verbs; while the multilingual punning of Between repeatedly takes us back to the sound and feel of words – and thus, by extension, to the body.


In these texts, gender itself emerges, in different ways, as a ‘constraint’ – a fraught,  rule-governed practice – while the figuring of desire and the body via the use of constraints works to complicate gendered notions of desire as excessive/unconstrained and of the female body as that which always overflows its boundaries. Finally, both novels raise questions about translation as both an embodied practice and as itself ‘a form of writing under constraint.'