Oulipo (or OuLiPo), the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle, was founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in the fifties. Its project is to invent methods of generating literary texts, whether by operating on already-written texts or by formulating constraints under which to write new works. Georges Perec was the virtuoso of the group. His novel La disparition does without the letter e; he later wrote Les revenentes (I’ll let you figure out the constraint). The sole American member is Harry Matthews, author of The conversions, Tlooth, and The sinking of the Odradek Stadion, which are well worth reading.
Search engines lend themselves to Oulipesque exploits. In the spirit of Oulipo, and after a long day of writing, I came up with the following.
Chain Link (5-3 Version)
- Start with a five-word phrase on whatever web page you happen to be looking at.
- Search on the last three words of the phrase. Put the three words inside quote marks so that they will occur in sequence on the pages you find.
- Copy from the page a five-word phrase starting with the three words in step 2.
- Search on the last three words of the five-word phrase copied in 3.
The piece ends if you get stuck on a page, or whenever you feel like stopping.
Here’s an example. I started with a phrase from Emiratio.
This starts off well. But dullness sets in with the phrase “education and entertainment” (wouldn’t you know?). Once I reached the Clowns for Hire page I was stuck.
Chain Link (m, n) probably doesn’t work if n is greater than 4. A five-word phrase, unless it’s a cliche, is likely to be a hapax. It may appear on a lot of pages if it occurs in an oft-cited quotation, but the words following will then almost always be the same. One could also try searching on the first n words of the m-word phrase, and build from right to left. The following is a left-to-right Chain Link (6,2).
Using an advanced search you could add a side constraint, e.g. that all the web pages you find include the word ‘philosophy’.