Reconstruction 9.2 (2009)

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The Genealogy of Electracy (An Interview with Gregory L. Ulmer)/ Alan Clinton


Alan Clinton: Assuming there is something we might call “the critical avant-garde,” how does your body of work, in your estimation, constitute part of such an avant-garde?

Gregory L. Ulmer: This usage would be a continuation of a metaphor that originated in the nineteenth century. The use of vanguard formations in military strategy was extended to describe radical politics, and then innovations in the arts. I argued in “The Object of Post-Criticism” (The Anti-Aesthetic, 1983) that with French critical theory the revolution in representation that transformed the arts at the turn of the twentieth century was similarly affecting philosophy (Derrida’s gram as the operator of collage-montage). The fundamental shift in modernism from reference (mimesis) to relation (structure) as the functional principle of all discourse is reflected in “structuralism,” and post-structuralism extends the work from questions of representation to metaphysics itself (more about this later).

The motivating insight of my career, beginning with that essay and continuing in the present, is that one of the few practices to have escaped this mutation in civilization is pedagogy. Pedagogy is a representation of knowledge, and the institution of schooling still (in the twenty-first century) performs as if this revolution (whose achievements are central to the content of the curriculum) did not apply to its own practices – as if teaching were a transparent window upon knowledge. It is not enough to point out this delay or late adoption by schooling of vanguard discourse, since School is intentionally designed to be conservative.

A more basic reason for this blindness to or refusal of the new worldview is that school is the institutionalization of literacy, and the vanguard innovations across the disciplines are features and symptoms of the emerging apparatus of electracy (beginning historically in the nineteenth century with the rise of the industrial city and the invention of new means of recording -- photography, telegraph etc.). School is in the position today of the Medieval Church, when the latter attempted to control the emergence of science, the direct product of literacy. A repeat of the scene between Galileo and the Church Fathers is not inevitable. So far, School is welcoming the equipment of electracy, just as modern religions adapted to the book form. It remains to be seen if School will be as open to the metaphysics of electracy. In any case, the purpose of my work is to point out this historical frame of apparatus shift, and to develop a practice (heuretics) by means of which academics may participate in the invention of the institutional practices of electracy.

AC: In Applied Grammatology and elsewhere you credit your discovery of Jacques Derrida to the fact that, in your research for a dissertation on Rousseau, you encountered the Rousseau “commentary” Of Grammatology. In Electronic Monuments, where there is an extended discussion of traffic “accidents”as part of a general American sacrifice, you tell an anecdote about how your choice of an undergraduate course in architecture was the result of your adviser hearing about your interest in Dasein as an interest in “design.” What role(s) does “accident,” or its potential variant, “chance,” play in your personal history, your scholarly interests, and your compositional methods?
GLU: For some time now I have understood my research and teaching in terms of the invention of electracy, which is to digital media what literacy is to alphabetic writing (an apparatus). The heuretic method, which orients this project by means of analogy with the Greek invention of literacy, has placed me in the seemingly absurd position of attempting to do for digital equipment what Aristotle did for writing. To mix historical analogies, in fact I am more like a John-the-Baptist for some future Aristotle of E. In any case, my current project, called “Flash Reason Against the Internet Accident,” extracts from Aristotle’s Categories and Metaphysics a poetics for creating an image equivalent.

The relevance to your question is that the shift from oral to literate metaphysics altered the Western worldview from understanding events in terms of Fate or Fortune or Destiny to a stance of Reason, Agency, and Will. The logic invented in the Academy and Lyceum was used to analyze the workings of Necessity, translated from the discourse of gods to that of principles and laws. Thus planning displaced praying (ritual) as the hegemonic mode of personal and public enterprise. This shift took some time historically. Machiavelli is the turning point into modernity, even more so than Descartes, just because he used the lessons of Reason where they seemingly did not apply, according to the Ancients: not to matters of necessity, but rather to matters of contingency, of ethics and politics, in which things could be one way or another, depending on chance, accidents, choice, circumstances. There could be no “laws” for such matters.

There is some confusion today about what is meant by the closure of metaphysics, at least for those unaware of grammatology. Metaphysics is a specific invention of literacy. Aristotle perfected and codified the category formation of the alphabetic apparatus, giving us the method of definition used to produce concepts. The most metaphysical object in existence is not “God” (that was an invention of orality), but the dictionary. Framing the world in terms of things, represented as concepts, determined Being as essence, those properties that make a thing what it is (primarily its function or purpose), with all other properties treated as accidents. What makes an entity a “horse” has nothing to do with whether it is asleep or awake, fat or starving, but its status as a quadruped mammal.

The turn against “essentialism” in recent decades is a symptom of the demise of literacy. Essentialism is not some sort of mistake, but the core of literate reason and method, guiding every detail of the apparatus up to our own time. Electracy supports a different metaphysics, working with image recording, whose operating logics are still being invented (a focus of my work as well). Image “categories” (a term under erasure) are holistic, gathered by means of mood, and thus rely upon what literacy classified as “accidents.” Image equipment (including database storage and retrieval) is capable of recording and organizing a seemingly infinite quantity of properties of a scene, deconstructing the old opposition between the sensible and the intelligible that was the guiding aporia of Greek metaphysics. Between the innovations of the vanguard arts (bachelor machines) and mathematical sciences (complexity) in the computer medium we have the raw materials with which to formulate the image category. Electracy is doing for Chance what Literacy did for Necessity.

The mystory (the pedagogy I introduced to test electrate principles for teaching) takes up the history noted above and tries it out in my own case (and with my students). The humanistic challenge to “know thyself” remains important in electracy, in that personal and collective identity are part of the apparatus, meaning that these behaviors are also invented. The “self” and the “state” are inventions of literacy. How will they be supplemented, if not replaced? The inquiry into identity experience in mystory is guided by Nietzsche’s aphorism, saying that life is the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance. I have found that characterization to be true. The idea is to understand the patterns that emerge in our experience, without relying on the readymade explanations of Fate or Reason (causality).

AC: Your work has continually invested itself in the promise that various artists may serve as models for new approaches to criticism, from Joseph Beuys and Sergei Eisenstein in Applied Grammatology to your direct collaboration with Will Pappenheimer in Electronic Monuments, to name just a few prominent examples. How did this abiding interest develop and what is its importance to “electracy,” the knowledge of how to communicate in a world experiencing the general shift from print to digital media?

GLU: Heuretics proposes to invent electracy by studying the invention of literacy and using it as an analogy guiding the poetics. The goal of course is not “media literacy,” anymore than the goal of literacy was alphabetic orality. The change includes the whole apparatus, which is not to say that orality and literacy disappear, but that there is a reorganization of the lifeworld to accommodate this new dimension of being. Understanding metaphysics through grammatology demystifies it, so we notice (Heidegger noticed), for example, that “category” originally was a juridical term meaning “indictment.” Aristotle borrowed the term from the vocabulary of the courts, to name the way definitions “accused” a thing of being what it was. This forensic state of mind is consistent throughout the literate era, whose most recent manifestation is the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) series on television. The Urstory at the end of literacy is neo-noir in mood and style.

Heidegger is a crucial thinker for heuretics, in that he returns to the scene of invention (see his Introduction to Metaphysics) and locates what he calls the Other Beginning, an alternative to the choice Aristotle made to reduce Being to the essences of things. Heidegger notices in the Pre-Socratics aletheia, the very coming and going of appearance (hence time), which is the ground assumed by things already there in the present. Heidegger proposes that art is the institutional practice where may be found the equivalent of “category” for this alternative metaphysics, that is, electracy. Art is recommended because of its concern precisely with accidents, those properties deleted from concepts. If concepts focus attention on the empirical or “literal” surface of things (what is ready to hand), art images manipulate this surface to evoke what may not appear because it is a feeling, an atmosphere of something more and other. This other order until now has been left not only to artists but to mystics and the mad. It has been most thoroughly theorized in poststructural psychoanalysis, named jouissance, a particular register of experience associated with the unconscious that electracy proposes to bring into ontology.

Heidegger’s name for the emergent dimension produced within a work of art was “Ort” (place). Derrida took up this thread with his interest in Chora (Space, Region, Nurse, from Plato’s Timaeus), as an alternative to Aristotle’s featuring of Topos. I introduced “choragraphy” to explore the possibilities of this suggestion from Derrida. Meanwhile, one implication of Heidegger’s proposal is that the invention of electracy requires the collaboration of experts in theory, art making, and computing. I have worked with artists in the Florida Research Ensemble ( since the early 1990s, and continue that collaboration today with John Craig Freeman, Barbara Jo Revelle, and Will Pappenheimer. For my generation electracy is probably achievable only by a team. The first fully electrate individuals are somewhere in K-12 right now. That said, School administration does not seem to understand the tendency of the mutation, whose grammatological principles have not been noticed. The arts continue to be eliminated from the curriculum, as was the analogies section from the SAT, while at the same time math and science (the flowers of literacy) are expanded. Education of the Right Brain (so to speak) is being left to Entertainment, and if that pattern continues School will gradually lose its monopoly on credentialing, since it will have ever less relevance to what makes people electrate.

AC: Your book Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video has been reissued by Atropos Press as Teletheory; Applied Grammatology, while it retains its title, is accompanied on Amazon by the parenthetical “correction” (E Theory from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys). Furthermore, it is interesting to see how relatively seamlessly a couple of essays written in the 1990s are updated in Electronic Monuments. These “updates” correspond to the claims you have made all along about Jacques Derrida—with respect to his significance for the field of new media. How was Derrida writing about the Internet in 1967; how were you writing about it in the 1980s?

GLU: This question opens up a line of grammatology that seems to be the least understood. The Internet is the meeting point of the three dimensions of the apparatus of electracy. It is a social machine, part technology, part institution formation, including the logics and rhetorics, the skill set needed to think and communicate with the equipment, and also the identity experience producing new individual and collective behaviors. Electracy dates from the nineteenth century, emerging within the industrial city. The three dimensions relate as a mutually interdependent matrix, each one manifesting a semi-autonomous genealogy of invention. Thus the equipment of the Internet follows the line from Ancient mnemonics (the memory palace pedagogy), Lull, Camillo’s theater, to Leibniz’s calculating engine, Babbage’s analytical loom, to Bush’s Memex, the Xanadu hypertext proposal, Berners-Lee and the Web.

That technological genealogy evolved in parallel with a reasoning practice up to Leibniz. What drove this pairing was the model of the Language of Adam (in one version), to simulate for humans the imagined mind of God, capable of Nous or immediate, total, transparent comprehension. The logic of the machine was affiliated with all manners of esoterism and magic, but with the rise of Enlightenment (science) the logic separated from the equipment line and went underground. Some of its manifestations subsequently include the esoteric Tarot, the rhetoric of the Unconscious in psychoanalysis, epiphanic poetics in modernist letters, and the spiritualist rationale of abstract painting.

It is possible for what I wrote in the 1980s (let alone Derrida’s work of the 1960s) to be “about” the Internet, in this frame of reference, since we are working with the genealogy of the rhetorical and logical practices, the metaphysics, of electracy, whose evolution is independent of the equipment. This is the part of grammatology that is nearly invisible, in that so many otherwise excellent commentators write as if the logic of new media could be induced from the features of the equipment. This is not the case, or only marginally so. The image metaphysics being created through an adaptation of vanguard experiments and poststructural theory is producing a “category” and an ontology that will apply to the equipment and organize its storage and retrieval procedures in whatever phase of development it has achieved at the moment the category becomes available. It may be Web 42.0, fully smart reality, but it will be structured by an imaging logos. This point is worth stressing since the implication is that the responsibility and opportunity for inventing the metaphysics (ontology) of the Internet lie not with the engineers and computer scientists but with the students of arts and letters.

AC: In addition to its investments in poststructuralism and new media, your work has always applied itself, more or less explicitly, to pedagogy. Your books strike one as the attempt to teach yourself something as well as suggest models (“relays”) to professors and autodidacts alike. Poststructuralism has been cast as one of the most opaque “schools” of thought in the age of theory. In contrast, you seem to be placing a bet on the fact that it is the pedagogical approach par excellence. What does poststructuralism desire to teach, in your view, and how?

GLU: This question gets at the motivation for the creation of mystory and the explicit autodidactic character of much of my work. Nietzsche (one of the master thinkers of poststructural theory) said that the test of a philosophy was whether one could live by it. That thought is what I have in mind with the “applied” aspect of my work. The deconstruction of philosophies of consciousness has been misunderstood as some kind of opposition or antagonism, which is not the case. Rather, the French reading of the Germans in the context of structuralism involves a fundamental innovation in the history of philosophy.

The Greeks introduced a distinction between pure and practical reason that persisted until Kant, providing the organizing aporia or enigma of Western thought. The fatal choice of the West, according to Heidegger, was the hierarchizing of this split in favor of pure reason as the most worthy mode of thought. This decision makes sense, historically, since what Aristotle invented was a procedure for determining true and false statements (the assertion), but ethics and politics (practical reason) were not really accessible to this level of control, but only to verisimilitude of what was likely relative to the beliefs and values informing everyday life.

The project of poststructuralism and perhaps of all modern thinking is to return to this beginning and take the other path, in order to open an ontology of practical reason. This project is possible for reasons only partly due to the equipment, and follows from both the death of God and the failures of Reason. As Laclau said, we have tried out just about every candidate possible with which to fill the slot of the universal, necessary for the function of measure (justice) adequate to our self-image as “human.” The slot is now vacant and we are working out a metaphysics of the empty universal. The ontological implication is that we make up reality in a non-teleological way (occupying what Deleuze called a plane of immanence). This is an ontology that correlates with the genome project and warnings about the Knowledge Accident (Virilio).

An immediate or more testable corollary of the above account is the commitment to the middle voice in contemporary literature and philosophy. When Derrida wrote his critique of “self” as grounded in hearing oneself speak, he did not stop with the negative exposure of the fallacy of self-coincidence, but outlined also a model of mediated identity experience. Differance happens in the middle voice, neither transitive nor intransitive, but a reflexive action. The mode of communication foregrounded in poststructuralism is that of encounter with oneself, as in Deleuze’s embrace of Spinoza’s conatus, and the call to experiment with one’s capacity for being affected. The project is an old one, inherited from Nietzsche (again), whose motto to become who one is (Werde der du bist) was adopted from Pindar.

Derrida’s persistent engagement with psychoanalysis is explained by this project, that goes by the name of the thought of the outside. The Kantian line gives it to us as the sublime, or along the data thread as information overload, the disenchantment of the world, the loss of the macrocosm. The distinction between pure and practical reason finally opened into an abyss with Kant, who proposed a new front, that of judgment (aesthetics) to bridge the divide. The importance of art to electrate metaphysics may be understood in this context as the tools for making this bridge. The bridge introduces a rearrangement of distinction as such (border, boundary, shape). The insight of psychoanalysis (whose relevance is that it is the best description available of the nature of the subject in electracy) is that the inside/outside system codified for literacy by Saint Augustine is being redrawn again, as it must be in each iteration of the apparatus. Lacan’s topologerie shows the inside-out (Klein Bottle) shape of identity today.

In short, poststructualism wants to teach us how to own or possess our own role in constructing reality (Heidegger’s Ereignis). The goal may be understood in contrast with the Cartesian removal of one’s being from the material order, producing a master/slave relationship between Man and Nature (the feminist critique of science). Descartes went so far in his separation of self/world that he assumed divine intervention was required to move from one moment to the next, at every moment. Poststructural auto-affection, rather, correlates with ecology and sustainability stances, in which every action upon the outside has direct consequences for the agent inside. I refer to this model of action as egency.

AC: Electronic Monuments, with its positing/positioning of the financial scandals of Enron et al as the twin to 9/11, the “internal” terrorism equivalent the “external” terrorism of al-Qaeda—to name one of many examples—might strike readers as your most overtly political, your most “radical” book. And yet, rather than throwing around terms like “revolution,” you view the task of the EmerAgency (an emergent body of electronic consultants) as taking part in such “square” activities as “policy formation” (102). What sort of politics is developing in this book, the EmerAgency, and MEmorials? How does it relate to or differ from radical movements that may be more familiar to the literate (as opposed to electrate) cultural studies scholar.

GLU: The project of electracy engages politics at the level of the big picture, the frame itself, and the very invention of the frame of reality. The ontology of practical reason proposes, perhaps paradoxically (or nonsensically) a becoming-necessary. So-called identity politics, for example, in the frame of grammatology, is understood as an effect or symptom of the shift in metaphysics relative to the apparatus. The critique of essentialism in identity is one manifestation of the critique of literacy as such. Essence is not absolute, but is a structure invented within literacy, as a means to think and manage Being. Identity formation, individual and collective, is as much a part of the invented apparatus as are the equipment and the logic.

The historical analogy shows that selfhood and the democratic model of the state are relative to the literate apparatus. The implication is not that they will disappear, any more than did the identity systems of orality (spirituality and tribe). However, they will be displaced, and subordinated to a new order of being. The politics of heuretics is to make explicit the manner and means of invention in this part of the apparatus as well. Nor is it a question of arbitrary creation, since, as Marx observed, people make their own history, but not just any way they want. The creation of electrate identities is well underway, most obviously in social networking sites, but not deterministic. The heuretic analogy suggests that the experience of being an image (the condition of electrate existence) may be studied in the lives of celebrities and stars. What happens to the images of celebrities in the spectacle maps the conditions faced by anyone’s avatar in the coming community.

Britney Spears was rated as the number one hit on the Web recently, so perhaps she is our Socrates (but almost any case could make the point: Martha Stewart, Princess Diana). The upskirt shot of Britney exiting a sports car on the way to a club (sans panties) is probably to us what Socrates demanding a definition from one of his interlocutors was to literacy. Both actions horrified their respective worlds, and that is important to remember (don’t forget Aristophanes’s depiction of Socrates in The Clouds that contributed to the latter’s bad image). In Britney’s defense, and as Socrates would tell you, it is not easy being the bearer of a new standard of identity.

The historical model predicts that there are some fundamental mutations in progress, that make our understanding of our opportunities for invention all the more important. What selfhood was to the Greeks, branding is to us. The collective form likely to displace the nation state is the corporation (as anticipated in some of our best cyberfiction). The point is that electracy does for the affective body what literacy did for the cogitative mind. Playing one’s avatar is for electracy what writing an essay is to literacy. We are coming out of a syncretic tradition all of whose branches condemned, suppressed, and demonized this affective body, which accounts for much of the seeming vulgarity associated with our commodified experience. As Agamben said in his brilliant review of image ontology (The Coming Community), the way forward must pass between the commodity and pornography, with the risk of the passage being the complete destruction of the historical bourgeoisie.

Argument was the discursive form for conducting politics in Aristotle’s time, and he wrote a rhetoric that guided educational and civic practice for millennia. My current project is the description of “flash reason,” an imaging practice capable of sustaining deliberative reason in the context of the Internet Accident, described by Paul Virilio. The threat is that an Internet public sphere is a contradiction in terms, that netizen participation in public policy formation is impossible in the conditions of dimension pollution (dromosphere) that render useless the linear procedures of critical thinking upon which modern democracies depend. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, what makes the flashing red neon sign so attractive is not what it says, but its reflection in the wet asphalt. The politics and ethics of heuretics respond to such provocations by inventing tools of thought and expression that make freedom possible in these new conditions. There is no guarantee of the outcome, but the opportunity is there if we are able to recognize it.




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