Winter 1997, Volume 14.1
The Art of Gluing: An Electronic Interview with Gregory Ulmer
Joseph Tabbi (Ph.D., U of Toronto) teaches in the English Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is the author of Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (Cornell UP, 1995) and the co-editor of Reading Matters: Narrative in the Media Ecology (Cornell UP, 1997). He is also the editor of ebr, electronic book review (http://www.altx.com/ebr).
Gregory Ulmer describes his current work, not as scholarship or critical writing, but as a "project for a new consultancy." And it was partly for advice that I initially contacted Ulmer, when I was designing an online review of books and media, the electronic book review. I wanted to see whether Ulmer's ideas about electronic literacy ("byteracy") could be of some practical use. I reasoned: the professor who in the eighties conceived a project to televise Derridean theory, and who is now working to computerize it, ought to have something to say about the role of intellectuals on the Internet.
Ulmer and I conducted the discussion via e-mail, from mid-October of 1995 through the end of February 1996. From the start, the pace was irregular; Ulmer was scrupulous about answering every question, but not always at the moment when I'd asked it. He wrote: "What this e-mail mode of interview lacks in coherence it makes up for in disorganization…. This multi-versation is an aspect of MOOing that I enjoy very much (due to lag and limits of attention one tends to enter into more than one conversation with the same person!)."
Over time, though, another result was produced by our e-mail "conversation," something less improvisational than a MOO interaction, yet more fluid than a print essay. I've tried to preserve some of the real-time multiplicity of our exchanges by interspersing occasional unedited e-mail exchanges. The online version, available by pointing a web browser to www.altx.com/ebr, opens the interview further, through hypertext links, to some of the online work Ulmer is currently involved in, to scholarly essays on Ulmer's work, and to an ebr forum on the cultural politics of selling out, to which Ulmer contributed.
A professor of literature at the University of Florida, Gregory Ulmer has been working for some time to support the transition of the academy from literacy to electracy. The opening of the networked writing environment in the IBM computer lab at the U of Florida, fall of 1994, has given him and the graduate students he works with a chance to introduce postmodern theory into an online setting. He has started an online project called Electronic Learning Forum (http://www.elf.ufl.edu), and is a participant in the TicToc conversations at the University of Illinois-Chicago, both of which address problems of "Teaching in Cyberspace Through Online Courses." He is the author of Applied Grammatology (Johns Hopkins, 1985), Teletheory (Routledge, 1989), and Heuretics (Johns Hopkins, 1994), and he is presently writing a handbook of online teaching.
question 1: the reinview
Tabbi: I'd like to begin talking about the purpose of this interview, and how best to conduct it so as to make use of our electronic medium. You say, early in Heuretics (1994) that the aim of criticism should be to guide "a generative experiment: Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?" What sort of work do you suppose might be generated by an electronic interview?
Ulmer: Victor Vitanza and a group of his colleagues associated with the online part of the journal PreText have been experimenting with a form of the electronic interview they call the reinview—a hybrid of the book review and the interview. They have tried this with several books/authors, with Heuretics/Ulmer being one of the trials. A small group of people on the list agreed to read the book and pose questions to me. The list is quite complex in its organization, being actually a collection of different sublists devoted to different aspects of rhetoric. The reinviews are conducted on one of the sublists, and follow a set of protocols, including the requirement to work cooperatively. You will recognize that requirement as one of the operating assumptions of the Socratic dialogue that distinguishes it from eristics: cooperation among friends, rather than combat among enemies. Flames are not prohibited as such but they are directed to a different sublist, to which the participants in the reinview may or may not be subscribed.
I enjoyed doing the reinview. However, what actually occurred and what I had hoped for were not the same thing. What appealed to me about the form is that it used the electronic medium to actualize what is the practical condition of the book review: the principal (and perhaps only) reader of a review is the author of the book being reviewed. A common feature of the review is the impression on the author's part that s/he has been misunderstood. For example, what has always bothered me about the reviews of Teletheory (1989) was the way the reviewers usually dismissed the final chapter, the experiment, the mystory: "Derrida at the Little Bighorn." The interesting effect of electronic mediation is that it does leave everything else in place (the circumstances of print literacy). The reinview is not simply a chance for the author to set the reviewers straight about intention, meaning, or anything else.
Tabbi: What changes in the electronic setting?
Ulmer: My comments on this change are based more on my theories about byteracy (electronic literacy, which I also call computeracy and electracy) than on what happened in my reinview. In byteracy intention is subordinate to pragmatics. Reviewers complained that Teletheory was still a book, despite talking about videocy. I still had intentions when I wrote Teletheory. Heuretics is a book also, but one that opens onto byteracy by leaving up to the reader the construction of the electronic rhetoric evoked in the book. Writing online is not an act of communication.
Tabbi: Going back to my initial question, then: if we're not communicating, what are we doing? What kind of work might an online interview generate?
Ulmer: I think of such an interview as a consultation. It is not a spectacle or expression in which an author presents a show or package of information to an audience. Rather, it is a collaboration, with all parties including in the rhetoric the collective register of language and culture. Perhaps you can see the assumptions of this approach: the change in technology is also a change in institutional practices and (and here will no doubt be the point of controversy) a change in subjectivation. The reason intentions don't matter online is not only because the technology permits a different relationship to information, but because intentions are projections of individual selves, and subjects formed in an electronic apparatus will not be constructed in terms of self. Flamewars are a symptom of selves out of place, and will disappear along with the subordination of literacy to byteracy.
Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996 15:51:26 -0600 (CST)
From: Joseph Tabbi <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: greg ulmer <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: interviewriting
Good to hear from you! My own silence, these past several days, has been largely due to the work of organizing *ebr2*. Eventually, I'd like to have a set publication schedule that will allow me and a small staff to take care of technical matters without thinking about them (like playing music); at this still early stage, though, I'm figuring each thing out as I go.
So there's a weird rhythm in this online mode of interviewing, where days go by before we hear from one another: You have a holiday visit from your mother in Montana; I have matters to attend to at *ebr*; a system goes down at one end and, when it comes back up, we've gotten ahead of each other. We don't "converse"I've never met you or spoken to you, and I would not recognize your voice if you called me on the phone. We've scarcely exploited the medium's capacities for real-time exchange. What we seem to be settling on—and I'm not sure whether we're misusing the medium or discovering its hidden possibility—is a mode of conducting interviews in which both parties are *writing*. We could hardly be said to be "communicating," and I take this (in the spirit of your earlier remarks) to be a good thing, more or less. Refreshingly, you seem to have as little interest in answering a direct question as I have in asking one. (My heart was not really in it, I confess, when I proposed a series of rapid-fire questions in my last post.) There are still a few things left I'd like to know, however.
More in a moment,
Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996 17:07:04 -0500 (EST)
From: Greg Ulmer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Joseph Tabbi <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: interviewriting
good reflections on the odd pace of electronic gifts
In my classes we purposely explore how to let the different speeds of the different tools support one another: web page is most deliberate (but still open to change, unlike the fixity of print). E-mail in the middle, with regular give and take; MOO interactive in real time, improvised (although the improvisations may take place in more fixed *digs*). Alignment and tuning may take place later, eventually
Tabbi: Could you deconstruct Glue for me?
Ulmer: One of the first things that fascinated me about Derrida was the theory of the signature. The relation of the proper name to individual historical experience was an obvious place to test some of the poststructural claims about the place of chance, (non)motivation of language, and the like. The experiments that led to mystory and choragraphy began with the exploration of my own signature. Notions of fate have given way to the constructed subject; but still the proper name provides an anchor, a ground upon which identity may constellate.
In Glas Derrida devotes considerable attention to the phenomenon of agglutination, and speaks of the gl and the glu. This theory resonated with the phrase used by peers to tease me in grade school (generating Elmer's Glue from Ulmer). My interest in arts using collage equaled my interest in theory: the art of collage has been defined as the art of gluing. One negative review described Applied Grammatology as sticking to Derrida like glue.
My initials are G.L.U. + the French silent e. The properties of glue are suggestive of my concern with group formation, with a certain kind of community creation. I have not done a full examination of the vehicle. I use glue online, usually in a MOO setting, but also in e-mail. Students often remind me about how glue is made. I have not thought about the implications of that yet.
question 2: influences
Tabbi: Since Derrida, have you encountered any thinkers, in the U.S.A. or elsewhere, whose influence on you has been comparable? Would you say that there are many other scholar/writers whose orientation complements your own? (If so, would "media theory" be a fair description of what such people do?)
Ulmer: The only influence on me that comes close to that of Derrida is Gilles Deleuze. I do not teach much Derrida for the simple reason that John Leavey is my colleague at U of Florida and he teaches lots of Derrida. Our approaches to Derrida are quite different, but still there are so many things that need attention I don't want to duplicate reading lists. Robert Ray, Director of Film Studies here, is an extraordinary person. His new book from Harvard, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, is heuretic. We work closely together, including working with many graduate students. It is a long process, but the work of some of our students is just about to appear in print (forthcoming books from Minnesota Press by Craig Saper and Camilla Griggers). A former student, James Michael Jarrett (at York branch of Penn State) has a brilliant book circulating. A bit too experimental for the presses he has shown it to so far. I have seen some of the readers' reports which show what a junior experimenter is up against. It is amazing to me how much ordinary mediocre conventional scholarship is approved for publication while Jarrett's amazing manuscript, albeit with a few problems, so far has not been picked up.
Tabbi: What about your work's influence?
Ulmer: Most of the interest in my work seems to be coming from the Fine Arts and Architecture. With Heuretics some folks in Rhet-Comp have taken an interest. I have long maintained that grammatology is an important and practical way to do Rhet-Comp and I have advised my students to apply for such jobs (without success so far). Meanwhile, the Derrida specialists tend not to notice my work. An exception would be Peggy Kamuf, who invited me for a talk at USC. A conference in England recently was entitled Applied Derrida! (but I was not invited). A big conference gathered most of the American Derrideans at U of Alabama (not including me). Fair enough, because I do not see myself as Derridean in that specialized sense. Nor am I worried about the passing of the theory boom or the displacement of Derrida as the favorite scandal. The French reread of the Germans undertaken by Derrida's generation (which is what poststructuralism amounts to in terms of intellectual history) is one of the most amazingly rich bodies of insights and possibilities that I know of in the history of Western thought. Its materials have scarcely been touched by the work done thus far. Other fashions will most certainly arise (have already arisen) but I expect to continue learning from those theorists for some time to come.
question 3: systems alignments
Tabbi: I'm reading your most recent work on the "public intellectual" with interest and increasing illumination. Particularly telling is your reaction to Michael Bérubé's argument that people in the field of cultural studies need to address their work more directly to issues of public policy. In a way, you seem to be playing Lyotard to Bérubé's Habermas, although you are less confident than any of these social thinkers in the efficacy of rationalist problem solving, because you would rather not engage the bureaucratic, administered culture on its own terms (even to reform it). You conceive of the intellectual's public role as something grounded in local action, a consultancy that speaks (not to "power" directly, but) to individuals in and outside the academic system, who are looking for methods of invention that are adequate to the new technologies at our disposal.
If these are fair descriptions of your differences from current models of left intellectual work, is there a disciplinary field that you would align yourself with more fully? Media studies? Systems theory?
Ulmer: The original draft of Applied Grammatology included a chapter on cognitive psychology and systems theory. I threw it out because I realized those approaches were too rationalist, too tied to the traditions of the philosophies of consciousness in their epistemologies, to be useful for poste-pedagogy. General Systems theory has much in common with structuralism: very useful, but in need of the post. Tabbi: Perhaps one thing that your work offers (which systems theory does not) is a thoroughgoing consideration of the role played by the unconscious in our experience of institutions and discursive systems of various sorts. Also in creativity. As I understand it, for you the unconscious is a field of private correspondences that should be explored and expanded for its own sake, as a way of discovering one's own narrative ("my-story") in institutions, in history, even in the frivolities of chance.
Ulmer: My notion of the unconscious is actually not that much different from Frederic Jameson's political unconscious. That is, my understanding of this notion comes from the whole postructuralist account of the Symbolic Order (the mental internalization of Institutional discourse). Such a notion displaces any hard binary between public and private. At the same time, the grammatological frame suggests that the social and utopian desire that has contributed to the invention of computing has to do with the need for a tool capable of supporting the unconscious. The internet computer is the prosthesis of the unconscious (allows individuals and collectivities to write as well as be written by the unconscious).
Tabbi: So the unconscious becomes a psychological formation associated with writing and especially with print literacy; but now the "ghost" is leaving the body and going into the machine. It's my understanding that your recent presentations (which I haven't observed first-hand) take this style of reasoning further, offering a "logic of the jump" more appropriate to the new electronic literacy, or the electracy. Here's what one participant wrote about your presentation (should I call it a performance?) at the Harvard English Institute:
[Ulmer] says he has made a personal commitment to following the jumps wherever they lead—that is, whenever he has an intuitive sense that he ought to go to B or R or Z from A, he does, without worrying about whether it makes (logical) sense. In his presentation, he enacted this technique as well as talked about it, going from slide guitar and Hank Williams to Carmen Miranda (à la his piece in Landow), to Kubla Khan and why he, Ulmer, in Florida, is destined to link up with Coleridge. Most folks there were scratching their heads, as you can imagine. Not quite the sort of stuff the English Institute is used to." (N. Katherine Hayles; post to the UCLA NEH seminar on electronic textuality, September 1995)
Reading this description suggests to me all kinds of things about the role of intuition in moving across, moving around in, and possibly keeping clear of, institutional systems and discursive boundaries. Could you say something about how you arrived at this anti-method (a systematic non-system) of presenting your ideas? Ulmer: Teletheory helped me understand the need for counter-intuitive thinking (Feyerabend). The place of CONTRAST in the CATTt is essential to recognize the contribution of existing normative ideas to innovation or thinking differently. Heuretics starts on the path of imagining post-methodthinking in which the procedures of PROBLEM SOLVING, interrogation, detective semiosis, narrative hermeneutics, are in the position of CONTRAST. They still play a guiding role, in the form of do not thus. The chorographer cannot help but start within a narrative hermeneutics, knowing all along that what must be found is the magic gift, the place to operate the heuretic code that jumps out of INVESTIGATION. So far, no heuretics without hermeneutics, but. Such is the deconstructive aspect of heuretics (including a CONTRAST).
Tabbi: How—and to whom—does one present the results of such investigations? Is it your intention to circumvent scholarly modes of "publication" altogether? Your reputation, after all, what gives you the freedom to pursue such experiments, emerged as a result of academic book-writing. Will the book have a place in what you're working on now?
Ulmer: I have been puzzling over what to do with all the research I have done since Heuretics. The theories of choragraphy formulated there have proven very productive in my experiments, some of which have found their way into course design. I decided recently that my top priority is a textbook aimed at couching choragraphy in the most accessible way possible as a basic rhetoric for electracy. Many folks coming through Gainesville to check out our wonderful computing facilities have spoken with me about what place if any a book has in relation to the new media. My word to them has been: NoseRom (an electronic alternative to the handbook). There is still a place for the book proper in the mix, and I would like to write one.
Tabbi: Other projects?
Ulmer: A couple of things in Australia, where I visited just last August [of 1995]. Darren Tofts in Melbourne has been e-viewing me also, for a piece he is writing for the journal World Art. He is working with the talk I gave at the Power Institute of Fine Arts in Sydney, plus my responses to a series of questions. He is especially interested in extrapolating choragraphy to the fine arts.
Also in Australia, some e-mail and fax exchanges with Cameron Tonkin and Tony Fry, among others, of the EcoDesign Foundation. They are conducting an international competition on behalf of the Future Generations University—a joint Japan-Australia initiative for a new University devoted entirely to a sustainable future. The site is north of Sydney, but the scope of the institution is meant to be global. The design must address not only the site but also curriculum and administration. While I was in Sydney we talked about the electronic dimension of such an institution, and these conversations have continued. I have been thinking about trying to put together a design team to enter the competition.
This collective dimension of the apparatus has been important to several of my online projects. Last fall I gave a talk in Hamburg, Germany, at a conference called Interface 3. In collaboration with the Telematik Work Group (Hamburg based art students, www.hfbk.uni.hamburg.de/TelematikWWW/TelematikWWW.html ), I developed a net experiment called Show Your Fetish, www.hfbk.uni.hamburg.de/interface3/participants/ulmer/fetish.html . I also taught a course that invented fetishturgy as a poetics of homepage design. This work will continue in my graduate seminar next fall, and in further collaborations with the Telematik Work Group. I have brainstormed these ideas in the slow-paced modest listserv that I moderate (which you should join!). Invent-L. Post to LISTSERV@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU saying SUBSCRIBE INVENT-L.
Tabbi: I will.
Date: Tu, 27 Feb 1996 17:22:22 -0600 (CST)
To: firstname.lastname@example.org (greg ulmer)
From: Joe Tabbi <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: print publication of the ebr interview
I enjoyed your last set of responses; indeed, I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from the entire interviewing process. By Thursday, I should have finished the editing. When it's ready, I'll put the whole thing up at one of the university's public domains, so that you can go over the copy. At that time, we can patch up any areas that still require transitions, smoothing out, closing touches, etc.
In the meantime, I have news. A friend and close colleague, Michael Wutz of Weber State University, is putting together a special issue of WEBER STUDIES on (of all things) narrative in the new media ecology. He'd like to use a version of our interview as part of this media special. You could expect an honorarium.
Would you be interested in having the interview reproduced in the WEBER STUDIES special? Such print/screen collaborations seem to me very much in the spirit of the new media. Also, I've seen some of the essays that Michael has collected, along with his list of contributors. It should be a strong volume.
Think it over. And let me know your thoughts on the proposal.
question 4: action
Tabbi: You write: "Everything happens through institutions," and "politics begins within one's own institutions." I can accept this. One reason I wanted to correspond with you was so that we might consider the institution that affects your work and mine most directly—namely, the Internet itself. In the long run, the political fights of today may prove to be "rearguard skirmishes," as you say. Yet they're bound to have real effects on the speed with which we evolve toward an electracy, and on the human pain and further cultural dislocation that such evolution must entail. One would like to think that the transition could be made in such a way that certain ideals of the old print order—freedom of expression, public access to online information, justice, even good old bourgeois privacy—could be preserved in the process.
Ulmer: I don't want to say too much about left intellectuals, except to recommend Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason. The left intellectual is by definition bourgeois. The fate of the intellectual in revolutionary politics is either to be rounded up and massacred, or put to work in the service of a propaganda machine. The model of power relations in society assumed by Critique has been brought into question, for example in the writings by Foucault among others. The questioning of the grand metanarratives of emancipation, of resistance, now emerge as of a piece with the other features of the apparatus of literacy, including subjectivation in the form of individual autonomous selfhood.
It is extremely difficult to suspend our belief in selfhood, which is the corollary of problem-solving. The project of grammatology, however, is to attempt an assessment of what is to be done as thoroughly as possible in the terms given by the apparatus frame.
Tabbi: But what sort of apparatus will we be given? How do you feel about the cybernetic hygiene passed into law four days ago? Even if the Decency Act turns out to be unenforceable (given the difficulties of controlling international traffic, for example), there are other elements in the telecommunications bill that will surely affect the long-term con struction of any electronic apparatus. Is it not conceivable that print itself, and the culture of literacy, might function as a pocket of resistance to cultural homogenization—with the literary book gaining value precisely as a thing apart, a medium whose semi-autonomy can withstand even the digitalization of text?
Ulmer: In grammatological terms the web is not a site of homogenization in a bad sense, nor is there any need for resistance (that model of power is irrelevant to what is happening). The web has the potential to be to a global socio-political formation what print literacy (literature and journalism) were to the Nation-State (viz. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities). My current web work involves the invention of cyberpidgin: a new vernacular syncretic discourse supportive of collective organization across the boundaries of different civilizations (Western/Other). I have lectured and published a bit on this project, and started some Internet versions of it. Obviously this is not something that one person may do. Nor is it at all clear what sort of post-national organization might emerge, if any. Grammatology is not a totalizing or totalizable world view. Rather, it says to me locally in my own circumstances: what is needed in the conditions coming into formation is a discourse practice capable of supporting dialogue across the differends of a postcolonial global world.
Popcycle: It will do itself. The theory indicates that the consultant puts this gift in circulation without expectation of return.
Tabbi: But even a grammatologist has to make a living! I have been thinking of a passage early in Applied Grammatology, where you cite Derrida on the need to establish a new "discipline" in order to do the work of grammatology (11). Derrida points to psychoanalysis as an example of an extra-academic discipline that institutionalized a new domain of knowledge (the "science of Freud's name"). This was in the late sixties, when it was not yet clear where (or if) deconstruction would find its institutional accommodations. Could you speculate as to why, in the time since, grammatology has failed to create a space for work outside of academic institutions?
Ulmer: I have no wisdom to offer about making a living. The matter of the institutionalization of the new apparatus involves in principle an economic dimension of spectacular proportions. I am thinking of the invention of school by Plato as the institutionalization of alphabetic writing. I expect that school in its current configuration and social function is not adequate to the potential of electronic technology (any more than is entertainment). Economics may be the site of the greatest crisis of invention we face. One dynamic is the commodification of everything (why not including grammatology?). At the same time, the link between job and income resources seems to be weakening.
When I was young, after doing some traveling, testing the bohemian thing a bit, I concluded that the university was the only institution within bourgeois civilization that offered any freedom of thought. My expectation was simply to disappear into the opaque veils of higher learning and survive. Much more could be said on this question. I will just add that I started my really serious work AFTER tenure, both because I was not far enough along in my understanding to do it any sooner and because I no longer had to worry about whether or not it got published. My books on grammatology have been experiments. I do what the theories suggest is possible. That you and others find the work relevant and productive is evidence of some kind that our academic practices still live, have some life in them (others might draw a different conclusion). So I appreciate your interest and I have enjoyed our exchanges. I look forward to our continuing collaboration.