A Project for a New Consultancy

A Project for a New Consultancy

Gregory L. Ulmer

Joseph Tabbi and Gregory Ulmer discuss what intellectual work will be like in the new electracy.

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 to request an interview for the electronic book review. I wanted to see whether Ulmer’s ideas about electronic literacy (“byteracy”) could be of use in designing an online review of books and media. Also, since I happened to be organizing an ebr forum around Michael Bérubé’s article, The Politics of Selling Out, I thought that Ulmer might help me to extend Bérubé’s arguments to electronic economies. 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 public intellectuals on the Internet.

Ulmer and I conducted the discussion via email, from mid-October of 1995 through the end of February 1996. A lot of other things were going on in both our writing lives during those months. Ulmer had just returned from Australia, where he was involved in at least two other interviewing projects in diverse media, and participating in the electronic curriculum design of a Sydney-based university that’s going to be devoted entirely to a sustainable future. I was busy with the launch of ebr - a preoccupation which I allowed to seep into a number of my interview questions. From the start, the pace of the Q and A was irregular; Ulmer was scrupulous about answering every question, but not always at the moment when I’d asked it. He wrote: “What this email mode of interview lacks in coherence it makes up for in disorganization.” We decided to go ahead with a multi-part observation on the Bérubé article, and continue separately the conversation we had going. “These two will interact and echo,” Ulmer wrote, “but I like the idea of having two related but distinct discussions underway. 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 email “conversation,” something less improvisational than a MOO interaction, yet more fluid than a print essay. During the editing I began to regard the essay interview, or “eterview,” as a set of two parallel essays, composed simultaneously and in tandem by separate hands. I’ve tried to preserve some of the real-time multiplicity of our exchanges by interspersing occasional unedited email exchanges. The interview itself is a provisionally unfinished work with its processes still stirring and even showing through; at various points, it opens onto other conversations. Hypertext links will take readers to some of the projects that Ulmer is currently involved in, and there are also links to a new essay on his work by Victor Vitanza, written to order for this issue of ebr. Those readers who are following the Sellout forum, and who would like to get Ulmer’s take on Bérubé, can scroll down to the section, midway through, titled, comments on “Michael Bérubé’s selling out essay.”

question 1: the reinview

[joseph 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. As I see it, the interview is a genre now, a form that has been institutionalized in academia no less than in journalism. In what ways might hypertext reading and writing enable us to reinvent this genre? You say, early in Heuretics, 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?

[gregory 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 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.

Here we get to your question about the interview. What changes in the electronic setting? 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 (via choragraphy) onto byteracy by leaving up to the reader the construction of instructions for the electronic rhetoric (hyperrhetoric) evoked in the book. Writing online is not an act of communication.

What kind of work might an online interview generate? 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.

In practical terms, I had hoped that the reinview could become a consultancy. The point would not be for me to explain my intentions, etc. in Heuretics, but that a group might take up the project of choragraphy (also spelled chorography) and push it further, beyond the book, into the work of the reviewers. It would be a mutual engagement in which the group tested the value of choragraphy for themselves, with their own projects; my role would be to consult on that application, so the focus would be less on me and more on this collaboration. This plan did not materialize, one reason being perhaps the limitation of the reinview, which inevitably is centered on the author. Another limitation is the kind of time such work takes. I know in my own case that (following another one of the wise protocols of the list) I would spend most of a day composing my post offline, and then attach it in a Eudora post. Who has that kind of time? It was my book in question so I took the time and got a lot out of the experience. But what was in it for the reviewers? I thought the consulting concept might address that limitation, and that is the possibility I would still like to explore.

[jt] I’m glad you raise the issue of reviewing - since rethinking what this means is something I want to do, in public, right at the start, with ebr. I want to do my best to “cover” the body of your work, not for its own sake, but because your books can be imitated, and variations can be worked on them in the electronic medium. Like the Derridean model that has inspired many of your thought experiments, Applied Grammatology, Teletheory, and Heuretics can serve me as “generative forms for the production of another text” (Applied Grammatology xi). And the “other text,” in this case, will be ebr itself (insofar as the journal’s policy is influenced by your aesthetic).

There’s something liberating in Vitanza’s conception of the reinview, and there’s something attractively selfless, generous, or perhaps simply realistic in the recognition that one’s work and one’s books have lives of their own and generate meanings that remain outside the author’s control. The electronic medium, I agree, can provide an excellent means of modelling and perhaps orchestrating the reception of a book, furthering its ideas in a space that is unconfined by the enclosure of a book’s covers. You wish to take the review “beyond the book, and into the work of the reviewers.” So do I.

At the same time, however, something in me resists this transformation from author to consultant. And while I am sympathetic to the “change in subjectivation” implied by the disappearance of both the author and the self, I’ve never been able to enter into group writing experiments with the same focused attention as when I enter into a strong narrative, or a coherent, authorially-guided argument. (I hope I’m not disqualifying myself for this interview by admitting so much at the start!) Perhaps what disturbs me about such ventures is that collaboration, rather than eliminating intentions, multiplies them by the number of collaborators.

One aspect of your work that I find particularly useful is your attempt to relate literary and technological practices to the institutions that enclose them - including the emerging electronic institutions that affect our work most directly. Along those lines, I have some questions concerning the difficulties grammatology has had in establishing itself as an institutional practice outside of Literature departments. I’ll hold onto these questions, however, until I’ve heard your initial response to Michael Bérubé’s essay on a related theme, “Cultural Studies and the Politics of Selling Out.”

Date: Fri, 1 Dec 1995 10:48:35 -0400
From: greg ulmer
To: jtabbi@uic.edu
Subject: interview

Hi Joe
I enclose my opening response to your questions. I have read the Bérubé and liked it quite a bit. I am sure I can find something to say about it. Do you want me to go ahead and post something or do you want to reply to this post and move in that direction…?
Assuming I still remember how to use Eudora…

comments on Michael Bérubé’s “Selling Out” essay
Gregory Ulmer

I like Michael Bérubé’s essay on the “politics of selling out,” which raises many of the questions that have concerned me in my exploration of an “applied” grammatology. I admire Bérubé’s ventures into the magazine article as well as his analysis of the complexities of the function of intellectuals. I believe that theory has a contribution to make to this issue. Applied grammatology is committed to action; the problem is - to what action? The issue is, to paraphrase the title John Cage gave to his journals/diary: how to improve the world without making things worse?

I will discuss the actions I have undertaken in a subsequent post. For now, I will address what I have learned from grammatology about the nature of the problem. Grammatology frames this question in terms of the apparatus (the interactive matrix of technology, institutional practices, and identity formation). In these epochal terms, the public sphere, democratic institutions, the nation state, the concept of privacy and the individual, are all features of a literate apparatus. Grammatology led me from my original interests in comparative literature into media studies (and ultimately to computing) because of the implications of the apparatus: as the matrix changes, civilization changes; the change is gradual, but total; the nature of the change is not determined in advance, but invented historically. I turned my attention first to video (and its institutionalization in television). My concern was not to break into magazines, but to understand the dynamics of the televisual (teletheory).

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is a concise statement of what is at stake: the nation state is an idea made possible and sustained by literacy: first created by high culture authors who crafted the vulgate into a specific vehicle of cultural values, and then by pop culture mass media, that allowed everyone in the group to stay on the same page, so to speak. As our civilization continues its mutation into an electronic apparatus, the theory suggests that different collective arrangements will emerge. Many of the political fights underway today are rearguard skirmishes over this institutional and identity shift. Of the three unities of the nation state - economic, geographic, and symbolic unity - almost nothing remains as a result of globalization.

One possibility, of course, is that everywhere will be America. Imagine fifty billion people (world population doubling every decade in the next century) and a balanced budget in one world society. None of our institutions as presently conceived will support such a prospect, nor even the material conditions of such a world. As I said, however, the theory of the apparatus suggests that in electracy there will not be nation states or humanistic individual selves.

Given this theory (it is given for my project) what is to be done? The task for intellectuals now is similar to the one undertaken at the beginning of the modern age - to take the new vulgate (world popular culture emerging in electronic media) and forge it into a discourse capable of supporting and extending the fullest powers of intelligence, both personal and collective. How? The function of theory is to help propose a way to answer this call for invention.


Date: Mon, 7 Jan 1996 20:23:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Joseph Tabbi
To: Greg Ulmer
Subject: Re: eterview–cont. berube1

We were about to discuss Bérubé, were we not? I find it interesting that your comments so far relate mainly to Bérubé’s closing argument, and that you diverge markedly from his (albeit tentative) call for a return to a sort of nationalism. The reason for this divergence isn’t hard to find: nationalism in the U.S. is clearly motivated by the dominance of transnational markets, whose corporate leaders have no direct civic or social responsibility, and hence small professional interest in preserving a public sphere. National leaders at least are responsible to a “public” (if such an entity can be said to exist today as more than a media invention) whereas the designers of the electracy are, for the most part, as yet, responsible only to stockholders.

For you, globalizaton is less strictly an economic phenomenon; it involves primarily the creation of an “electronic apparatus” that is displacing not only the nation state, but the literate apparatus on which democratic nations are founded. Democracy is being replaced by an electracy, and resistance (of the sort that developed in a democratic, literate context) is irrelevant now. One has little choice, therefore, but to sell out in Bérubé’s sense of the term. But what would it mean to sell into an electracy?

The Internet certainly looks to me like a natural place for doing cultural work, and if the Internet is commercialized, then academics and writers on the ‘net certainly are left with small choice. Which is not to say that we need to give up on ethical commitment or get in step with the Fortune 500 program (to paraphrase one of Bérubé’s respondents). You suggest that cultural work will no longer be sponsored by institutions (such as English Departments?) which are grounded in literacy, but that such work will participate in and help to inform an electroliterate “world popular culture.” I await your elaboration…

Bérubé commentary continued
Gregory Ulmer

Quandaries of Poststructural Consulting
I apologize for reviewing so much familiar ground, and at the same time for asserting in shorthand: I seem to be determined to fill in as much context as possible, mainly because even though the epistemology within which I am working suggests that attempting to influence policy is misplaced energy, I am committed nonetheless to a Project For a New Consultancy (which I hope to be able to describe eventually).

Quandary #1 - Progress?
I am trying to get to my point of agreement with Bérubé’s desire to bring critical theory into contact with policy making. To get there I have to first account for at least a shorthand version of the epistemology within which I am framing the agreement - applied grammatology (AG). AG is a contradiction in terms, in principle, since it falls within a poststructural theory of the apparatus, which puts it outside the pale/pail of both humanism and marxism.

The desire to influence policy indicates a continuing belief in the enlightenment project and in the possibility of progress in some form or other. It could be nothing more than the resigned view that if the rest of the society is going to function according to rationalized planning, then we ought to try to have input into those plans. The enlightenment crisis, including the loss of faith in progress, is based on the discontinuity articulating nature and culture. The history of progress shows the fundamental unforseeability of the consequences of our collective actions. Science is based on the ability to predict and control outcomes. This frame of reference emerged only recently and even more recently became dominant over the frame of fate or destiny (and then only in some parts of the world). The most optimistic view of planning might be that science gets it right most of the time, but the irrationality of individuals and institutions makes it difficult to execute the truths of science in an efficient way. One of the most amazing events of this decade, from the pov of poststructuralism, is the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Economics to the U of Chicago prof who demonstrated empirically that emotional factors prevent individuals from making economic decisions that reason would seem to dictate. We all know the Gulag solution to such recalcitrance (take the example of the Soviet solution to the refusal of the landed peasants to agree to the Stalinist policy of collectivization).

Quandary #2 - Problem
Within the apparatus of literacy, from Plato to Bérubé (?), the difficulty of the enlightenment project has been conceived as the opposition between dialectic and rhetoric (to put it in those terms). Policy making might be posed as a 2-step process: to find the truth; then to persuade others that what you know to be true really is the case. As we all know, since rhetoric included the possibility of separating truth from persuading (making it possible to persuade in the absence of truth), rhetoric or sophistry was condemned. The goal was to prove by demonstration alone (logos). This goal was achieved by modern science, in which the persuasion is precisely the reproducibility of the proof. Or so it was claimed. Recent work has shown that science as an institution retained and practiced rhetoric throughout its history. Moreover, the legibility of pure logos depended upon the formation of specialized experts, knowledge ninjas, capable of communicating in the invented languages of proof. The social issue of policy making is relative to these special conditions of discipline formation.

From the point of view of AG, the arrangements described above are relative to the literate apparatus (as I keep saying). To note just two features of the arrangements that indicate what is at stake: the concept of problem - the formulation of experience in terms of problems posed such that a discourse exists within which a solution may be found. Every dimension of literate experience is couched within our discourses in terms of problems with solutions (from bad breath to bad death). Humans have always experienced difficulties, just as they have always told stories (the stories were about these difficulties). What changes when the apparatus changes is the civilizational framing, form, attitude, v-v problem and story.

The premise of AG is that in electracy our civilization will not understand itself in terms of problems with solutions.

next: Quandary #3: communication

Date: Mon, 22 Jan 1996 22:18:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Joseph Tabbi
To: Greg Ulmer
Subject: Re: the cultural politics of the gift (3 questions)

Your most recent entry reaches me along with several essays responding to Bérubé’s piece. Among the various responses, including yours, I notice an overall discomfort with Bérubé’s n/r/ationalist politics, not to mention a resistance to his eloquence. Some of the respondents seem to go out of their way to avoid eloquence in their own response. It’s as if these mostly academic writers have realized that intellectual rhetoric, and “writing literate arguments,” won’t get you very far in political debates, which scarcely ever take place in anything like a “public sphere.”

But (like Bérubé) none of the respondents despairs of political activity per se, which is a nice change from the usual pomo/left paralysis. One or two people have useful things to say about the role that “theory” might play in keeping the activist - the “public intellectual” - honest (so long as theory itself can be tested now and then against hard political actualities). In your responses, you have begun to provide a conceptual “framework” for influencing policy. I’m interested in knowing just how theory might be pressed into service, into providing an aleatory, gift-based alternative to a rationalist politics based on a cause and effect model.

1. How might the cultural politics of the gift differ from the politics of selling out, in practice?

2. Could you, perhaps, offer a list of things an intellectual ought to try doing, pragmatically speaking? How does one go about setting up shop as a consultant in the new electracy?

3. How might the notion of an intellectual “forum” (such as the one I’m conducting around Bérubé’s essay) be reconstructed in an electronic environment? If we’re to eschew rationalist debate, on what terms can we enter into productive formal conversations?

More questions soon,
Joe ———–

Bérubé commentary continued
Gregory Ulmer

Quandary #3–communication

My approach to this commentary has been to construct a grammatological frame for assessing the options available for meeting Bérubé’s goal of bringing critical studies knowledge to bear on policy making. Bérubé’s decision to work within the mode of journalism, the magazine medium, makes perfect sense in the apparatus of literacy. My response, however, is to reconsider this decision in the light of the shift in our apparatus from literacy to electracy. I am basing my speculations about the nature of electracy on a poststructuralist epistemology.

…A further quandary for the poststructural consultant wanting to influence policy using the electronic media has to do with the dissolution of the communications model organizing language practices in electracy. One thing continental and anglo-american theorists agreed upon in literacy was that language exchanges were founded on a contractual economy with its assumptions of sincerity, efficiency, cooperation, and the like (viz Grice or Habermas). The practices of truth telling strictly enforced this contract using the rules of argument as a standard. Our public discourse maintained its ties with the classical Greek models (Aristotle) long after they were subordinated or abandoned in other areas. Fiction narrative was devoted to a display of situations in which the contracts of exchange were violated. The narrative ended with the restoration of the contract.

In electracy the economy of language moves away from an exchange controlled by contracts towards a mode theorized thus far in terms of the gift or the remainder. Theories of the gift indicate a renewed role for chance and all manner of aleatory factors in language. The linguistics of the gift favors all those elements of natural language suppressed in the grammar of literacy. The new grammar is being theorized as the remainder (viz Lecercle, The Violence of Language for a good summary of the remainder).

The forces motivating these shifts and inversions, these deconstructions, are pragmatic, having to do with the fit between natural language, the new technologies, and the emerging institutions of electracy. In the future of learned discourse, writing literate arguments is going to go the way of writing in Latin.

Next: the Popcycle (finally).

Date: Mon, 29 Jan 1996 22:15:01 -0600 (CST)
From: Joseph Tabbi
To: greg ulmer
Subject: Re: the public sphere in an electracy

I like the way you historicize the concept of the public sphere. After all, the modernist public sphere may only have existed for a decade or two in the 18th century (and later in a handful of English cafes). If we allow the modernist model to pass into history, perhaps we can better imagine its reconstitution in an electronic context.

Right now, ebr is poised precisely between journalism and education, disciplines which you say are battling with one another for ascendancy in the electronic regime. How are we to position ourselves so as to become a conduit for various discourses? The old forms are pretty hard to break free of, even in the assigning of books for review. It’s hard to find someone who can speak, not as an evaluating peer, and not as an expert making ideas accessible to a popular audience, but as a writer among writers, who was once a reader among readers (before composing the review).

That’s the ideal I’m after.

Bérubé commentary concluded
Gregory Ulmer ———–


The grammatological approach to consulting uses the theory of the apparatus to formulate a plan of intervention in the public sphere as it is being reorganized within electracy. The decline of the public sphere in this context means the transformation of the public sphere from one apparatus to another. The assumption is that there may be a public sphere and a democratic society in an electrate civilization, but there is no guarantee: the practices for such a thing must be invented and disseminated in existing or new institutions (as happened with literacy).

The details of policy formation and dissemination addressed by Bérubé reflect the nature of literate institutional history. Specifically - the development of specialization and expertise apart from the general population; the establishment of an epistemology (since Plato) requiring both knowing-how and knowing-that (craft and meta-craft). A major factor in the rise of journalism has been the need for a mediating form to popularize knowledge (in which the experts address the general public) and to allow circulation of knowledge across the divisions of expertise (Habermas notes the role of middlebrow magazines in disseminating ideas from one expertise to another, in a condition in which an expert in one field is a layperson in all the others).

The instrumentalization of the life world diagnosed as the cause of the decline of the public sphere is a feature of ignoring the nature of the apparatus. Technology is only one part of the apparatus, which includes as well institutional practices and individual subject formation. The challenge to education in electracy is to invent a new dimension of education beyond the current arrangements (general education leading to specialization). The history of the apparatus indicates that the old apparatus is absorbed into and repositioned in relation to the new one. General and specialized education will persist in electrate education, realigned v-v the new technologies.

In the language fields the shift in apparatus suggests an opportunity/challenge to redress at least some of the aspects of alienation caused by the givens of modernity. Literate/modern apparatus organizes all aspects of the lifeworld via analysis, breaking wholes into singular compartments. The compartments operate as if they were autonomous, and the necessity of synthesis, while recognized, is assumed to take place elsewhere. E.g., we experience this in education: the smorgasboard of choices assumes the synthesis takes place (magically) in the student’s head. What happens in fact is the internalization of compartmentalization alienation.

Compartmentalization alienates because it is impossible to grasp the whole (grasping the whole is not the same as seeking a totalizing or absolute control, although the desire for the latter is motivated by the alienation of the literate apparatus).

The promise of the new technology - multimedia equipment globally interlinked - is that a wholistic thinking is possible in electracy. For the potential of the new medium to support wholistic thinking to be realized requires the invention of a new institutional practice of writing. I have tried to theorize the conditions of this opportunity in my various publications in terms of the popcycle. The popcycle names the basic institutions of discourse inhabited by modern people. The 4 primary discourses are Family, Entertainment, School (k-12), and Discipline. 2 related institution/discourses that may take priority in certain cases are: the Street and the Church. Each institutional discourse has its own logic, form, mode of proof, preferred medium, sphere of influence. In modernity these institutions are kept strictly separate and are related in terms of a ranked hierarchy. This arrangement is a necessary feature of literacy.

In electracy the equipment makes it possible to bring all the practices currently functioning in each of the separate discourses into contact in one shared medium. What is needed is a practice - the institutional raft - that allows persons to write and reason with all their discourses simultaneously. My work with mystory and chorography addresses this need. Where my work crosses with Bérubé’s is in the movement outside and across the borders currently dividing the compartments/discourses. Part of inventing the new practice includes the consultancy that must be created to educate the population moving into electracy. The assumption is that the sharp divisions separating laypersons from experts will diminish in electracy. The movements associated with direct democracy are in principle the ones most relevant to the capacity of the new apparatus.

Specifically, the potential of the equipment/practice to support wholistic thinking in the sense defined in the popcycle - thinking that brings discipline knowledge into immediate intelligibility with the discourses of daily life - create the conditions of a new public sphere. In this scenario education and journalism come into direct competition; one or the other is likely to be vastly expanded at the expense of the other.

My own experience with the practicalities of the new consultancy is limited to a few trial projects conducted with the Florida Research Ensemble. I have described a specific project in some detail in a catalog essay that is available online, either on my homepage, or in PMC (in a somewhat shorter version). The new consultancy locates that part of a given institutional practice that involves learning in any form relevant to that institution. Our pilot effort addressed tourism and the goal was to design a series of monuments and their related sites as tourist destinations that would support the wholistic thinking we say is a feature of electracy. The sites are to be hybrids integrating all the entertainment features of tourism with all the knowledge critical theory possesses about the formation of national identity. A vacation visit to the site would result in an immediate direct insight into the symbolic and ideological effects and consequences of one’s individual behavior at a collective level.

The FRE got as far as the conceptual design of several monuments, and the presentation of these ideas to several members of local economic planning councils, chambers of commerce, and the like. These individuals were enthusiastic about the potential of our designs - if actually built - to attract more tourists to our area.

end of official commentary

Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996 15:51:26 -0600 (CST)
From: Joseph Tabbi
To: greg ulmer
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. All but one or two of the Sellout responses have arrived, and it’s taken me some time getting them marked up and ready for Web distribution. 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 other 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. Our respective notes to one another are more like interruptions of ongoing activities elsewhere. In my case, the interruptions are helping me to think through what I’ve been doing all along: organizing the Sellout issue, or (more generally) trying to establish review policies and a protocol appropriate to online editing.

I’m actually finding the pace of our eterview to be congenial - closer to the speed at which I would compose an essay rather than conduct a conversation. (I myself never seriously thought of occupying a “public” role for much the same reason that I chose academia over journalism: I write slowly.)

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. For the most part, though, I’ll stick to this mode of interviewriting, and continue to think with you in the margins of your books and alongside your formal response to Bérubé.

More in a moment,

Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996 17:07:04 -0500 (EST)
From: Greg Ulmer
To: Joseph Tabbi
Subject: Re: interviewriting

Hi Joe
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). email 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…
Greg ———–

question 2: systems alignments

[jt] I’m reading your most recent installments with interest and increasing illumination. In a way, you seem to be playing Lyotard to Bérubé’s Habermas: you are less confident than Bérubé 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. Your “public” intellectual fits neither of Edward Said’s categories: S/he is neither a priest standing outside the culture nor a spokesman for marginalized factions, who would “speak to power” without colluding in it.

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? Possibly systems theory, which circulates through much of Lyotard and is (I’d venture) an under-recognized element in Derrida’s thought (see, for example, Christopher Johnson’s System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida). Would you be willing to align grammatology with any of the work going on now in systems theory?

[glue] 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 post-pedagogy. General Systems theory has much in common with structuralism: very useful, but in need of the post.

[jt] I ask you to situate yourself v-v systems theory because, like you, its recent proponents try to create terms for practical action without falling back on technocratic habits and assumptions. Cary Wolfe (one of the contributors to the Sellout forum) and William Rasch have recently characterized systems theory as an alternative to the “representationalist” habits and assumptions that have traditionally supported social and political theory (including those “representations of the intellectual” examined by Said and Bérubé). Critiques of enlightenment rationality, realism, and positivism, have removed the ground from theory, and with the collapse of the representationalist framework, left-liberal academics have lost confidence in theory’s ability to inform cultural “practice” in any direct way, on any but a “local” scale. Still, Wolfe and Rasch argue, the “loss” can be converted to a political gain, if the Left (or the Right, for that matter) can enlarge the frame of reference. “Local” needn’t mean that one simply shrinks the field of representation, so that one ends up being able to speak only for oneself, in the interests of one’s particular class, race, gender, or professional identity. Rather than falling back on defensive self-representations (the fragmented “identity politics” that cripples the Left nowadays), people hoping to be effective politically need to break the habit of representation altogether, reconsider the terms of their own local affiliations, and decide how best to interact with institutions in one’s vicinity and outside the usual orbit of one’s familiar discourse.

I understand your conception of an electronic consultancy as a way of institutionalizing a disciplinary practice between discourse systems, beginning with the circulation of signs among the four systems of what you call the Popcycle: discipline, school, family, entertainment. To be honest, these are four nets that I’d just as soon fly past. You, yourself, in “The Miranda Warnings: An Experiment in Hyperrhetoric,” intuit something slightly different from any of the institutional networks that contain you: a concept of “justice” (347). When you propose the term “justice,” you don’t ask that it be made a part of the institutional network; justice is rather something that you intuit from within the constraints of school, entertainment, family, discipline. Justice, then, is not something that can be fixed rationally; it is, and (if it is to be effective) it must remain, unconscious. Hmm…

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. As I understand it, for you the unconscious is not an impersonal ideological formation that keeps us in thrall to institutions (as in Jameson’s “political unconscious”); rather, it 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. Put another way, one could say that the mystory doesn’t come from within the self; it discovers itself in the various texts that compose it.

[glue] My notion of the unconscious is actually not that much different from 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 internetcomputer is the prosthesis of the unconscious (allows individuals and collectivities to write as well as be written by the unconscious).

[jt] 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 (a 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, 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?

[glue] Teletheory helped me understand the need for counter-intuitive thinking (Feyerabend). The place of CONTRAST in the CATT is essential to recognize the contribution of existing normative ideas to innovation or thinking differently. Heuretics starts on the path of imagining post-method - thinking 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).

[jt] 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?

[glue] 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.

Meanwhile, there is the project for Creating an Electronic Community I mentioned - the local initiative to get the different levels of schooling collaborating in this new dimension (online), with a new function (invention). The slow pace of development of this consultation is frustrating but reflects the nature of collective processes.

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 Telematic Work Group (Hamburg based art students) I developed a net experiment called Show Your Fetish. 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 Telematic 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.

[jt] I will.

question 3: action

[jt] You write: “Everything happens through institutions,” and “politics begins within one’s own institutions.” I can accept this. One reason I wanted to discuss Bérubé’s piece with you was so that we might extend the sellout theme to 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.

[glue] 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.

[jt] 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 unenforcible (given the difficulties of controlling international traffic, for example), there are other elements in the telecommunications bill that will surely affect the long-term construction of any electronic apparatus. As Wired section editor Todd Lappin writes (in this week’s Nation): “Lost in the shuffle has been any meaningful discussion of the concentration of mainstream media power, not to mention the idea of universal access to online resources - both of which amount to censorship of another type altogether.”

Such considerations, I think, should be of concern to scholars as well as net activists. The completion of a truly world wide web - perhaps the quintessential embodiment of corporate capitalism - also has a great potential for cultural homogenization. And even if such electronic domains are not capable of being policed, they certainly threaten any residual autonomy we might once have derived from the culture of print literacy. Do you regard this prospect (of total connectivity) as merely the persistence of the print apparatus, with its “total compartmentalization, sequestration, segregation, disjunction into analytical atoms of every domain of practice.” 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? And if that’s mere romanticism or wishful thinking on my part, what forms of resistance to networked sameness do you see emerging within the WWW?

[glue] 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 B. Anderson). 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. At this point I have suggested that at this crude early cyberpidgin consists American popular culture of the 1950s plus a constellation of States of Mind (Mood Atmospheres) from a number of Non-European civilizations. Justice, for example (as in “The Miranda Warnings”). 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 differences 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.

[jt] But even a grammatologist has to make a living! I’ve been pressing you about the difficulties that grammatology has had in establishing itself as an institutional practice outside of English departments. 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? Can you recognize any functioning models (since psychoanalysis itself has been under more or less vicious attack these days from all sides) that might be of use in establishing an electronic disciplinary structure? A space outside of the university (and preferably not at Microsoft, either) wherein an intellectual can actually practice the new electronic arts, and perhaps make an independent living doing the sort of consultant-work you’ve set out in a number of posts?

[glue] 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.