An overview of Gregory Ulmer's thought by Victor Vitanza.
1. How do we not know we think, yet think?
It is equally deadly for a mind to have a
system or to have none. Therefore, it will have to decide to
Gregory Ulmer (a.k.a. 'Glue') has been for some time developing a theory of invention that would be appropriate and productive for those cultural theorists who have an interest in electronic media. (Invention, classically defined in oral and print culture, is the art of recalling and discovering what it is that one would think or say about a given subject. In electronic culture, invention takes on new ramifications). In his Applied Grammatology (1985), Ulmer moves from Derridean deconstruction (a mode of analysis that concentrates on inventive reading) to grammatology (a mode of composition that concentrates on inventive writing); that is, he moves towards exploring "the nondiscursive levels - images and puns, or models and homophones - as an alternative mode of composition and thought applicable to academic work, or rather, play" (xi). Ulmer focuses primarily on a theory of invention in terms of these images and puns, which would lay bare associational thinking, co-incidences and accidents, yet non-disciplinary meaning. His anti-method of invention, therefore, moves from a linear, discursive production of discourse to a non-linear, hypertextual/multi-media production.
In Teletheory (1989), Ulmer rethinks a theory of genre that would complement his grammatological theory of invention. (Here, we can see that a theory of invention is an incipient set of genres; a theory of genres, an incipient set of aids to reflection about writing). Ulmer does for cultural theorists what Hayden White in Tropics of Discourse and elsewhere does for historians, namely, invites cultural theorists and historians to reinvent "doing" cultural theory and history as they are "doing" them. One of the genres that Ulmer develops is "Mystory"/"Mystoriography" (with variations such as history, herstory, maistrie, mystery, my story), which he sees as a post(e)-pedagogy. Freud, for example, wrote a kind of mystory when he developed self-analysis, psychoanalysis, not knowing what it was he was "doing" while he was doing it. The process of discovery in mystory is proleptic, with the question forever arriving out of perpetually re-answering it. This is composing as discovery. This is writing what will have been. The tense is the future perfect. Hence, the paradox, which Lyotard refers to as "the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo) (Postmodern Condition, 81).
The genre of Mystory is especially appropriate now, for in many areas of cultural theory the subject (or the agent) that-would-presume-to-know what s/he is "doing" is no longer tenable. Another way of putting this is that whereas in a disciplinary age subjects-of-knowing were given ways of specifically "doing" work that would count as work, now in a non- or post-disciplinary age, subjects that do not know can nonetheless have a generic autobiographical protocol for writing (mystory) that can give birth to institutional practices for change. Ulmer does not have a substantial (sub-ject) life, and yet he does in the inventing of one or several lives woven together.
If I may give a quick example from the middle of Mystory: if we take my name Victor Vitanza, examine it carefully, etymologically and punningly, etc., we might get the following heuretic (grammatological) reading. Victor generally means "Conqueror." Vita signifies "Life." Anza signifies (in Italia) "Against." My family name, Vitanza (the sub-stance of my Being) and its possible meaning, when thus disclosed, became rather disconcerting. The very idea that my heritage was against life! However, when I recalled that my first name signified conqueror and put the full name together, "conqueror of death," I begin to feel much better. Does it all stop here? No. It only rebegins. (This form of analytic reading goes beyond mere deconstructive textual analysis, for it is grammatological, i.e., compositional in its emphasis). When looking at Finnegans Wake, which is against death, I discovered that Joyce had invented mystory before I was even born...as "Victa Nyanza" (558.28). 'Tis a name that is echoed throughout the wake, signifying the origins of the Nile and the two great bodies of water from which the Nile arises: Victoria and Albert Nyanza (558.27, 598.5-6). Freud has his Nile; V.V. has his. You, yours. And yet, there is the pun on "Nyanza" as No Answer (89.27) in disrespect to origins and in respect to proleptic (perverse, reversed) thinking. The Nil/e is "soorcelessness" (23.19).
The connections continue to resonate. (With these possible connections in mind, my writing is propelled from paradigm to paradigm. It's a matter of my connecting the linguistic dots and acoustical images of my/our lives and everything in them without predetermined sequential numbering. Knowing, knowledge, is up for grabs perpetually. So I have not only a deconstructive name but also and more importantly a grammatological name. You do, too!)
The third book of Ulmer is the one that I am most concerned with, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (I see the book as the lost locus of three, which ends or rebegins with three, as in the counting system of one, two, and three-as-"some-more," i.e., as excess). This book more than the others carefully defines in terms of a theory of invention how "to play" on the road to Serendip(ity), while confessing ignorance of knowing what the rules of the game are. The "rules" are often referred to as the "impossible." Therefore, Ulmer's is "a Discourse against Method" (12) un/just as Paul Feyerabend's is. But "against" here paradoxically means not only contra to but also along side.
Heuretics calls for a return of "a rhetoric/poetics leading to the production of a new work" (4). (Rhetoric and Poetics in their battle with traditional philosophy have been the 2,500 year old straw wo/man! Hence, the return of the politically suppressed). But as an anti-methodology, heuretics is not concerned with critique or with "what might be the meaning of an existing work?," but with "a generative experiment: Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?" (4-5). In other words, as Ulmer explains, heuretics does not critique ludic discourses for not being political but calls for them to invent a (non-reactionary) politics (5). The principle of invention, then, is not that of saying what something is by virtue of what it is 'not,' but by way of affirming heretofore unacceptable connections. Heuretics is heretical (or her-ethical). Historically, women have been defined in terms of their lack of a masculine signifier, the phallus. Ulmer's principle of invention, however, is an economy of thinking without reserve (lack), which would be a leap out of Oneness and binaries to threes-as-excess (see Derrida 258-60). Such a locus of thinking, reading, and writing fundamentally negates all the basic principles of (masculine) logic.
2. An anti-model of how we will have thought:
For me the number three is important, but
simply from the numerical not the esoteric point of view: one is
unity, two is double, duality, and three is the rest. When you've
come to three, you have three million - it's the same thing as
One of the invidious tests in the academy for whether a notion or a practice has any value is whether or not it can be generalized (is generic, accountable) and whether or not it is transferable (codifiable, teachable). All of Socratic and Platonic thinking (dialectics) deals with the central question of whether or not something (justice, piety, virtue, rhetoric, etc.) can be taught. If not, then, it is a mere knack, irrational, and thus left to the forces of chance. I would hope that we are far from being ruled by this kind of thinking. Not all knowledge is objective; much is personal knowledge, as Michael Polanyi says: We can know a great deal more than we can articulate. Not all knowledge is to be determined by physis or nomos but also by kairos, which as Eric C. White reminds us is a principle of "spontaneity and risk" (20). (Risk, we will ever return to!)
Ulmer, as I suggested, situates himself in the paradox of saying Yes twice to the text of his problem: to having a method (accountability) and not having a method (being unac count able). This is his heretical act of negating the principle of non-contradiction and thereby allowing for the return of the excluded third. Ulmer may at times count from 1 to 10, but at other times he counts by way of 1, 2, "some more" (excess).
When accountable in his unaccountability, he gives us what he calls CATTt. (If you click here, you will see Ulmer's pictorial representation of CATTt). The acronym stands for
C = Contrast (opposition, inversion, differentiation)
A = Analogy (figuration, displacement)
T = Theory (repetition, literalization)
T = Target (application, purpose)
t = Tale (secondary elaboration, representability)
Ulmer boldly opens his book with the unfolding of this anti-method. (There is no way that I can summarize Ulmer's particular explanation that is a brilliant performance. This is where exposition fails. You will have to read the opening pages yourself. And then you will be hooked. Your curiosity will only bring life to the CATTt and yourstory!) But I can point to a few generalizations about the heuristic. Contrast is intended in a Sophistic sense; that is, it functions as the second part of Dissoi Logoi, arguing in a perverse fashion for the opposite. When the dominant discourse becomes a Cartesian Discourse on Method, for example, then someone like an Andre Breton can develop an anti- or counter-Cartesianism, or Surrealism, a " 'false discourse on method' that would be [however] not just contrary to Descartes but completely different" (Ulmer 14). It is this pressing of the anti-method that can remove us from the simple opposite, or binary, out and beyond to something novel. Ulmer explains:
The strategy is heuristic, employing several ad hoc rules that require continuous decisions and selections (there is no 'algorithm' for this exercise). The chief such rule is to read the Discourse at the level of its particulars - its examples, analogies, and evidence - rather than at the level of its arguments. The antimethod will break the link between the exposition and the abstract arguments that provide the coherence of the piece...Accept Descartes's particulars, that is, but offer a different (for my exercise, an opposite) generalization at each point, to carry the examples elsewhere, to displace them. The idea is to strip off the level of argument and replace it with an opposite argument that should in turn be made similarly coherent (secondary elaboration). (12)
In this way, Ulmer is able to say Yes to the text twice (both Descartes and Breton). The Dissoi Logoi approach, however, is not limited to arguing, for what CATTt stresses is poetizing. Again, while Freud was developing (collaboratively) his notions of psychoanalysis, say with Dora, he on occasion spoke of being "hysterical" himself. Confused, he found himself writing fiction, poetizing (his guesses, his filling in the mise-en-abyme) while simultaneously writing within the so-called scientific protocol that his colleagues demanded he follow. Freud says Yes to the text twice. (Unfortunately, he did not say Yes to both the Oedipal theory and, now more importantly, the Seduction Theory. CATTt would have invited him to practice such an affirmation of opposites and to search for third options).
By itself, the acronym of five conceptual starting places, CATTt, looks as if it overlaps with a number of other rather conventional sets of topoi, for example, Aristotle's 28, Cicero's 16, Kenneth Burke's Pentad (perhaps his four master tropes, which Hayden White uses), or Kenneth Pike's and Richard Young's tagmemic nine-celled matrix or any variation of it. However, Ulmer's intention for its usage is very different. Whereas heuristics, or inventional procedures, focus more on topoi as arguments instead of tropes, Ulmer's intention stresses the latter over the former. (As Ulmer progresses in his discussion, he introduces the term Chora to better suggest what the word tropes cannot since caught in the binary of topos/trope).
As I have said, Ulmer's is not a conventional argumentative thinking and writing; his is a grammatological approach to thinking and writing, which emphasizes picto-ideogrammatic, aesthetic representations. Writing intuitively. The CATTt is the perverse side of Aristotle and perhaps should be seen also as an extension of Aristotle's Poetics, but with the perverse addition of comedy over tragedy, so as perhaps to reach for a tragic-comedy, or joyful pessimism. Ulmer's purpose - as I understand it - is not exclusively in support of the Left or the Right or what is far Left of what is humanly possible. Like a Sophist, he supports that which is not being said, the weaker argument or the supplementary notion, but with the purpose of passing out of the binary to excess. Ulmer introduces CATTt as a "modest proposal" in support of many methodologies, but especially those outside the dominant discourse: "to invent an electronic academic writing the way Breton invented surrealism, or the way Plato invented dialectics: to do with 'Jacques Derrida' (and this name marks a slot, a passe-partout open to infinite substitution) what Breton did with Freud (or - why not? - what Plato did with Socrates)" (15). Such a proposal stands diametrically opposed to the academic protocol of writing (linear, hierarchical, cause/effect writing), which is bolstered by traditional heuristics.
Ulmer's proposal looks toward "the logic of cyberspace" (hypermedia). Such a place (wherever it might be) can for certain be colonized as if it were a product of Euclidean typographic culture. Links might be made in terms of High Scholastic trees. The new logic is nonlinear, non-Euclidean, and is anti-tree, but rhizomatic. The choice of the former or the latter is not our choice in many ways, for the medium (hypermedia) as the message will change the conditions for writing, opening up new possibilities. The orientation toward product does become one of process, and perpetually so. But process is not to be studied for the establishment of a product. Process, situated in the future perfect, is everything.
The movement from orality to literacy is now rushing on to a third place, what Ulmer refers to as electracy. And academic writing will have changed. Ulmer, in the midst of this change, is inventing practices that will invite us all to disengage in an unkind of writing practice that we are "inventing while [we are] inventing it" (17). The paradox and the avant-garde! Ulmer would have us practice "hyperrhetoric...which is assumed to have something in common with the dream logic of surrealism" (17). It is "a new rhetoric...that does not argue but that replaces the logic governing argumentative writing with associational networks" (18) Yes, those of us familiar with writing in the new media can easily understand that Ulmer is talking about Hypertext (extended texts) the way that George P. Landow, Jay David Bolter, and Richard A. Lanham have most recently. And yet, Ulmer would go beyond. And has.
Ulmer speaks of "chorography (the name of the method that I will have invented)" (26).
3. Some More ("Esperable Uberty"/Xcess)
Dexter: Oh yes, yes, yes!
Sebastian: Funnier than that?
Dexter: Oh, absolutely. Yes.
Dexter: Now on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I don't Know is on third... Abbott and Costello
Item: Ulmer's notion of place (the Where?), as I have suggested, is 'the thing' that has been systematically excluded. He, like Kristeva and Derrida before him, returns to Plato's Timeaus, and specifically the discussion of the three kinds of nature: Being, Chora, and Becoming. The excluded is the Chora. The excluded third, or middle (muddle)....
In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is
Item: The Chora is neither male nor female, but third genders. It is the twisting, turning, folding of cyberspace. It is multimedia. And it has a totally new reconception of memory. The Chora is the impossible. CATTt can only be a stand-in for this impossibility. Ulmer writes: "My problem, in inventing an electronic rhetoric by replacing topos with chora in the practice of invention, is to devise a 'discourse on method' for that which, similarly, is the other of method" (66).
The key in great part is the new concept of memory. Ulmer explains that Chorography as a practice corresponds to recent developments in computing such as "connectionism." Opposed to the classical concept of memory as storing information in some specific locale from which it may be retrieved, "connectionist designs of computer memory" are not stored at any specific locus, but in the myriad relationships among various loci (36). (It's worth repeating: Not in but among). Entitlement has gone to the computer, if it can still be called entitlement. And it entitles while it perpetually disentitles. The bits and bytes, though numbered, are not as we keep touting in commonsensical ways predetermined according to algorithmic connections. At least, not in hypertext and hypermedia; from a 'traditional' perspective, many scattered possible readings or con-fusions are possible in multimedia environments. Hence, Yes is the answer to every possible question concerning every possible connection. The 'traditional' grammars and laws concerning coordination and subordination no longer hold in multimedia. Multimedia are entries into possible worlds. Yes, we have arrived to find ourselves 'as if among' the strange lists in Borges's Chinese Encyclopedia (see Foucault xv).
Space has changed. "In short," Ulmer says, "the change in thinking from linear indexical to network association - a shift often used to summarize the difference between alphabetic and electronic cognitive styles...is happening at the level of the technology itself" (36). As hardware and software change, so institutions and disciplines similarly change. And so does the thinking and writing that gets generated in and by them. If this sounds farfetched, let us not forget that the medium is the message. And if we are not aware, let's understand that there are students in classes today who not only have watched a lot of television (which Ulmer sees as not a problem, but a cure) but also have never written or typed anything on paper but only on a monitor. (Ulmer does not write elegies for Gutenberg). And more potentially interesting, there are graduate students today who have seldom, if ever, stood in front of human beings in a classroom when they teach, but communicate for the most part to and with their students by way of on-line discussion lists or MOOs. In fact, many of these student teachers do not see themselves as "teachers" but as "facilitators." The medium teaches.
And yet, how is one to write by way of the Chora, when apparently there is no way? Ulmer muses:
An important aspect of chorography is learning how to write an intuition, and this writing is what distinguishes electronic logic (conduction) from the abductive (Baker Street) reasoning of the detective. In conjunction the intuitions are not left in the thinker's body but simulated in a machine, augmented by a prosthesis (whether electronic or paper). This (indispensable) augmentation of ideological categories in a machine is known in chorography as "artificial stupidity," which is the term used to indicate that a database includes a computerized unconscious. (37-38)
Item: I would point us now (for the sake of identification and then contrast on the way to excess) to Charles Sanders Peirce's notion of thinking, namely, to his cryptic phrase "esperable uberty." What can this wording possibly mean? Thomas A. Sebeok suggests that esperable "must mean 'expected' or 'hoped for' " (1). And uberty, "rich growth, fruitfulness, fertility, copiousness, abundance" (1). Sebeok continues:
[Peirce] explained that it should be one of the two principal aims of logicians to educe the possible and esperable uberty, or "value in productiveness," of the three canonical types of reasoning, to wit: deduction, induction, and abduction (the latter term alternatively baptized retroduction or hypothetic inference). It is the uberty, that is, the fruitfulness, of this last type of reasoning that, he tells us, increases, while its security, or approach to certainty, minifies. (1)
The classical doctrines of certainty (formal logic) and probability (informal logic) progressively give way to possibility or, better put, chance in the sense of hazard or accident. "A throw of the dice does not abolish hazard." As we move conceptually and experientially toward the third (abduction, chance), so we move toward greater risk but with greater payoffs. Paralleling the three doctrines of certainty, probability, and accident, and the three Peircean logics, are three aids to reflection: algorithms (which find the one correct answer), heuristics (which invite several reasonable answers), and aleatory procedures (which disengage by way of a throw of the dice or randomness).
Allow me to hazard a dis/connection here, as I already have throughout this review. Note how each of these groupings are in threes, or form a triplicity, or lead to a trilemma. As Peirce moves toward threes he hazards the possibility of risking everything to gain everything. He hazards the loss of rationality. He and others move, I would think, toward reintroducing the excluded third or middle term. (The principles of logic are identification, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle). With the return of the third comes the possibility of the return of the repressed/suppressed, unnamely, all that which has not been considered canonized thinking. All that which has been excluded for the sake of meaning! Esperable Uberty! But Peirce does not venture that far from meaning with his speculative rhetoric.
Ulmer makes clear (215-19) that the present-day technology that establishes the conditions for chorography and the paralogic of conduction risks an even greater return or loss than Peirce's abduction could ever hope for. Esperable uberty has been and is continuing to be exponentially refolded to third (rhizomatic) relationships. As Ulmer points: "Here is a principle of chorography: do not choose between the different meanings of key terms, but compose by using all the meanings (write the paradigm)" (48). And while doing so, write, unbeknownst to yourself and others, new paradigms that might generate still other paradigms, saying Yes to everything...
The dream that I pursue is to see the dying
tree of philosophy bloom once again, in a blossoming without
disillusionment, abundant with bizarre thought-flowers, red, blue,
and white, shimmering in the colors of the beginning, as in the
Greek dawn, when theoria was
beginning and when, inconceivably and suddenly, like everything
clear, understanding found its language. Are we really culturally
too old to repeat such experiences?
Item: What follows from this discussion of the first 50 pages of Heuretics are 200 pages of some of the most brilliant performances that begin with Ulmer's mother sending him "some clippings from my hometown newspaper about preparations for the centennial celebration of Montana's statehood" (49). In themselves, these pages function as paradigm after paradigm of writing the accident, from which colleagues and students might work, that is, play. Glue (Ulmer) begins practicing connectionisms among Parc de la Villette, the Columbian Exposition, Disneyland (Epcot Center), Ziegfield Follies, an excursion on the etymology of "folly," Miles City, saloon/salon (this is more of the Paris-Miles City axis), to Poe's "The Black Cat," to CATTt, and into the next chapter, which begins with Atlantis and thereafter rhizomatically folds and refolds. He connects the dots together but in unexpected ways. As I say, it's brilliant and you have to experience it yourself. In my estimation, Glue gives - the Chora gives - us (without entitlement) a dreamwork that suggests "the dying tree of philosophy [might just] bloom once again...with bizarre thought-flowers, red, blue, and white." (Ulmer's homepage [or theoria /spectacle] is decorated in red, blue, and white. You should browse that impossible, yet possible way and see what else...he will have been practicing).
[Joseph Tabbi interviews Gregory Ulmer in A Project for a New Consultancy, eds.]
Derrida, Jacques. "From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve." In Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978: 251-77.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1973.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Lyotard, Jean François, and Jean-Loup Thebaud. Just Gaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Sebeok, Thomas A. "One, Two, Three Spells U B E R T Y," in The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce. Ed. Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988: 1-10.
Ulmer, Gregory L. Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Vitanza, Victor J. "Threes." In Composition in Context. Ed. W. Ross Winterowd and Vincent Gillespie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994: 196-218.
White, Eric Charles. Kaironomia: On the Will-to-Invent. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.