Reconstruction 5.1 (Winter 2005)
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Gregory L. Ulmer. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003. 352 pages, paperback. ISBN: 0321126920.
<1> With the passing of Jacques Derrida, the obvious questions in conferences, articles, and books will be asked and answered with a variety (one hopes) of answers, mostly centered around the question of "Whither Derrida?" These questions should take on an especially poignant and nuanced aspect given Derrida's theoretical interest in specters, since he now is a specter and, as he might argue, always was one. This last point suggests the relevance of Greg Ulmer's book Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy, which, as is fitting given the radical untimeliness of the Derridean specter, was asking this question long before there was any hint of Derrida's imminent spectrality. In the nine years between the publication of Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994) and Internet Invention, Ulmer has more and more explicitly practiced what he has been preaching since the late 1970s: that Derrida is popularizable, and that he is popularizable precisely because of his sensitivity to shifts in the technologies of writing. Contrary to the technophilic instrumentalists who claim that writers like Derrida have somehow been superseded because their theories have now been "demonstrated," or "realized," in the technology of computers, Ulmer has from the beginning insisted (as has Derrida) that deconstruction and grammatology were always an exploration of the status of writing as a technology. Ever since Of Grammatology (1967, trans. 1976), Derrida was speaking of notions like "writing beyond the book" not merely in a messianic or theoretically speculative sense, but with a full awareness of computer technology (envisioned in 1936) and related disciplines such as cybernetics. Ironically, it is the instrumentalists who show an ignorance not only of Derrida's own oeuvre, but of technological history itself.
<2> The first obvious affinity one will notice between Derrida's oeuvre and Ulmer's latest book involves both writers' love of marginalia realized in the form of competing modes of discourse. After admitting (first to himself, then to us), "I have been trying to write this book since I started teaching with computers in the Networked Writing Environment at the University of Florida (1994) and was never satisfied with the results" (xii), Ulmer tells us of his realization that one mode of writing was not adequate to his task. In a spirit similar to Derrida's Glas (1974), which initiated the method of juxtaposed columns (one on Hegel, one on Jean Genet) whose style and content are radically distinct, Ulmer divides his text into various "subgenres":
- Studio: An integrated set of assignments and exercises for website authoring, supported by readings, descriptions, and models based on important works of literature, art, popular culture, and critical theory.
- Remakes: In the tradition of rhetorical meditation and arts improvisation, these sections demonstrate how to use the methods of image reason by bootstrapping electracy out of existing classics of arts and entertainment.
- Lectures: Scholarly discussions on the background, context, and rationale for the project and assignments, to share the logic of the pedagogy with students and instructors, in order to invite them to participate in the invention of electracy.
- Ulmer File: Acknowledging that this textbook expresses the pedagogy of an individual rather than a disciplinary consensus, these sections describe and demonstrate my own performance of the assignments, adding to the background on how the pedagogy evolved, not as a model but as a "relay" to orient further work.
- Office: Informal comments, asides, clarifications distributed throughout the chapters, of the sort one would find in email, frequently-asked-questions files, or instructors' manuals, especially addressed to beginning students.
- Companion Website: Correlated with the table of contents, the companion website features student websites composed in my classes, with analysis, commentary, sample email discussions, and step-by-step instructions for the assignments. (xiii-xiv)
Of these subgenres, the categories "Studio," "Remake," and "Ulmer File" strike one as the most deliberately provocative in terms of their titles and format. The term "Studio" aligns electracy (literacy in the electronic age, a term designating a set of competencies yet to be invented) with art and architecture as dominant modes rather than literature. "Remake," for its part, alludes to perhaps the most universally denigrated film genre in order to poke serious fun at pedagogies still clinging to such outmoded terminology as "originality," "inspiration," and even "plagiarism," all terms which, not coincidentally, are now more intertwined with traditionally capitalist notions of "ownership" and "property" than with pedagogy per se, which should be oriented toward sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it. Finally, "Ulmer File" acknowledges Nietzsche's observation that there is no such thing as authoritative philosophy, that all knowledge amounts to different genres of memoir, yet turns this observation on its head by overtly using personal history as its own source of knowledge.
<4> The use of personal history has proved a cornerstone of Ulmer's own writing as well as his pedagogy. His designation of the genre "mystory," however, which is supplemented by Internet Invention's concept of the "wide image," problematizes the personal by acknowledging its circulation through the "popcycle," or the various discourses of career, family, entertainment, and community (roughly based on and extending Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" essay). The "wide image" becomes the guide through all these arenas, a recurring "gram" or set of "grams"which can be anything from a name (as in Derrida's work with the signature), to an image, a gesture, etc. Anything one can cite and as Derrida would have it, anything can always be cited may serve the researcher in his or her goal of integrating experiences which the capitalist system has pulverized into seemingly unrelated fragments. Ulmer reanimates the now ossified mantra that "the personal is political" by providing it with a methodology.
<5> I used the term "researcher" in the previous paragraph to suggest how Ulmer's pedagogy ultimately levels the playing field between student and teacher, affirmed by Ulmer's invitation of both subject positions to "participate in the invention of electracy" (xiv). The old model of accumulating knowledge has been replaced by a set of strategies for navigating a world in which only computers are capable of approaching anything even resembling an exhaustive accumulation of information. We are all researchers, writing memoirs for public consultation. The style of Internet Invention also allows it to be enjoyed by those of us who still retain the designations of professor and student, in other words, by both professors and students, whichever category we happen to fall into at a given moment. The combination of Ulmer's breadth of knowledge (he was trained in comparative literature and classics) and his associative methods provides a wide range of liberal citation, a stylistics of "unlikely bedfellows" that will be new to both the jaded professor and the bright-eyed undergraduate. Ulmer has been asking himself the question "Whither Derrida?" for thirty years, and his many answers to this question, revolving as they do around Derrida's intimate relationship to new media, will be indispensable for latecomers to this séance.
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