The emerging field of “software studies” in the humanities provides an opportunity for scholars affiliated with computers and writing to delve more deeply into the computational dimensions of digital rhetoric and writing. To demonstrate how to develop an approach related to software, I introduce the work of a mid-twentieth-century research group known as the Oulipo, whose members used mathematics to explore the hidden potentials in rhetoric and writing. By associating the Oulipo's use of mathematics with the emergent field of “software studies,” I demonstrate how writers can combine numerate and literate methods of writing in order to discover new, hybrid forms of textuality as well as new methods of writerly invention. The Oulipo’s mathematical approaches to writing offer scholars in computers and writing a method of engaging with the study of code in the humanities.
This project is divided in three parts. In the first, I introduce the Oulipo and the call for the study of software introduced by Lev Manovich and Matthew Fuller. In doing so, I point out a key obstacle to the study of software in the humanities—the lack of engagement with numerate thought and expression. In a field such as computers and writing, which, considering the numerical basis of computers, could be called numbers or (mathematics) and writing, the lack of scholarly engagement with numerate thought is a blind spot. Especially due to the growing interest in “software studies,” which includes an explicit engagement with computational methods, numerate and literate forms of writing must be combined. In the second part, I introduce an experimental form of text popularized by the Oulipo called a boule de neige or snowball. In addition to an overview of the textual form, I explain both how the Oulipian snowball contributes to visual rhetoric and how to study it as a numerate object. In the third part, I offer a detailed explanation of the computational dimensions of three snowballs. The goal of these studies is to show how a study of computational forms of writing leads to new approaches to both text and invention in computers and writing. All of the code for the three software studies is available as “freeware” (under the GNU General Public License) in the Downloads section.