To understand the Oulipo’s forays into computer science and more importantly, why they abandoned them, I designed and carried out one of the inaugural projects of the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities. The goal was twofold: first, through exploratory programming, I intended to create interactive, digital annexes to accompany my doctoral dissertation; more importantly, I hoped that by attempting to reproduce the Oulipo’s own algorithmic efforts, I would gain similar insights into the nature of “Potential Literature” and be able to understand why the group abandoned such efforts after the 1970s.
This article describes the content, development, and results of my project. For each of my three Python-based annexes, I offer a historical survey of the Oulipian text or procedure discussed within and the Oulipo’s own proto-digital humanities experiments; then, I will talk about my own experiences as a coder-researcher, what learning Python has brought to my project, and how my exploratory programming offered me a new kind of critical reflection. Establishing these annexes forced me to learn to code, a type of work that does not only produce digital texts, but also helped me to reflect on the notion of chance in a more nuanced way. Finally, coding has allowed me to better understand the Oulipian mentality concerning this sort of digital experimentation.