Illogic of Sense | The Gregory L. Ulmer Remix: Introduction

Illogic of Sense | The Gregory L. Ulmer Remix: Introduction

Darren Tofts

Darren Tofts and Lisa Gye introduce the collection of essays, appearing here in the electropoetics thread, from the Alt-x e-book The Illogic of Sense.

Lori Emerson:

Victor Vitanza reviews Ulmer’s Heuretics and contextualizes it in relation to Ulmer’s oeuvre.

Lori Emerson:

In 1996, for an early ebr special on intellectuals and the public sphere, Joseph Tabbi and Gregory Ulmer discussed “what intellectual work would be like in the new electracy.” How far their predictions held true, can be seen by comparing the old ebr with the current interface that features new essays on Ulmer’s work.

Lori Emerson:

Chris Carter’s ebr interview with Ulmer delves more deeply into how the FRE’s emerAgency incorporates heuretics into Web-based discourse. Ulmer’s attention to the consumerist tendencies of popular culture helps the FRE form a poetics that is at once oppositional and generative. Marc Bousquet in turn comments on Carter’s interview in “Teaching the Cyborg.”


Focus for now on the concrete experience of this story, as a simulation of a more abstract practice to be tested at another time. (Ulmer, 1990: 96)

Gregory Ulmer has been at the forefront of thinking about new cultural formations as the paradigm of literacy converges with digital culture. His work has, and continues to be, central to contemporary thinking about the future of writing, of schooling and paradigms of learning, the dynamics of creativity and the poetics of invention. A barometer and force of cultural change, Ulmer has taken the very notion of creativity into the 21st century.

As an educator, theorist and practitioner of experimental approaches to writing, Ulmer’s work has influenced a generation of students, academics and artists, whose work traverses the vectors of writing as it has merged with video, the computer apparatus and the Internet. His work incorporates cultural studies, informatics, cybernetics, post-structuralist theory and the avant-garde arts. Ulmer’s project demonstrates how all forms of knowledge and inscription (painting, dance, installation, literature, film) relate to writing and the convergent apparatus of alphabetic and electronic literacy.

Ulmer’s theoretical exposition of a transition from literacy to “electracy,” to use one of his many neologisms, enables us to glimpse and understand technological convergence as a scene of writing. For Ulmer, electracy is not the end of the literate paradigm, but rather an extension and re-definition of it. His theoretically informed coinages have given us a lexicon of convergence for the possibilities of writing beyond the book. Moreover, they gesture to what he has called ‘anticipatory consciousness,’ the intuition that the apparatus of writing entails a different kind of sense, an illogic of sense apposite to the age of hypermedia.

Terms such as applied grammatology, mystory, heuretics, post(e)-pedagogy, textshop, choragraphy, are offered as generative concepts for the making of new and experimental work, or what Ulmer has called ‘electronic rhetoric.’ Ulmer demonstrates examples of potential compositional practices that are unique to the composer and to the place or space of their invention. He always shows rather than tells, performing choral writing or making mystories, rather than explaining them. The concept of the finished work is always, in advance, unknowable, since the logic of invention, the illogic of sense, takes the performer and the performance in unexpected directions. Chance presides over choice, abduction over deduction, metaphor and metonymy fuse into the flow of syncopation and collage. Association and the audacious conduction of its threads guide the creative act as an ongoing process of discovery and assemblage. Whatever the finished work might be, it is ostensibly an archive of the creative act itself. Ulmer has never advocated the prescription of a method to be mimicked or simply emulated. Rather, his ideas are offered as a means for enabling others to make creative work of their own, to use his work as raw material for invention. It is this solicitation of invention that inspired this book. The eight authors assembled in this collection have each, in their own way, responded to the call of Ulmer, to treat his work as a relay rather than a model. They have been encouraged by his example to ‘turn to their own archives’ and discover their own inventio.

For the purposes of an Introduction to these essays, which also constitute an ebook published by AltX Press, the editors have interpreted Ulmer’s work as a contemporary re-make of the Rosetta Stone. Ulmer’s interest in the Rosetta Stone is multi-faceted and references to it recur throughout his writings, particularly to its ‘intertranslatability’ of different types of writing. Principally, he is interested in it as a kind of literary machine, or more appropriately a vehicle of literacy that unlocked previously lost knowledge of hieroglyphic texts. The key to the Stone of el-Rashid was its transliteration of the same Ptolemaic decree in different scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek). It was this understanding of the triscript that enabled Jean-François Champollion to crack the code in 1822 and revive the lost art of reading hieroglyphics, thereby opening up the ancient world to the modern age. In a similar application of method, we can situate Ulmer’s ‘popcyle’ (the interrelations between popular, explanatory and expert knowledge) as a triscript.

The triscript structure will be used as a method for introducing Illogic of Sense. All scholarly texts are palimpsests, archives of their authors’ engagement with and intertranslations of the discourses of academic inquiry and everyday life. They are also provisional, written out of the context of a specific time and place in the author’s life; or what Ulmer describes as their ‘personal periodic table of cognitive elements, representing one individual’s intensive reserve.’ (Ulmer, 1989: vii) This relation between living and artificial memory is rhetorically woven within a space, or chora, of significance to the composer (hence choragraphy). The provisionality of chora and its emphasis on unforeseeable processes of discovery and association, echoes the contingent nature of the Rosetta Stone itself, which is a product of chance operations, in this case accidental breakages and damage over time (a big hunk of quartz, it is, in the Duchampian sense, definitively unfinished). Residing in the British Museum, The Rosetta Stone is a remainder, an irregular fragment of a larger, monolithic stela that once featured a rounded lunette at its peak. It is both the memory of a whole and an archive of its fragmentation. As with the compiled elements of any choragraphic inscription, the Rosetta Stone is a found artifact, a discovery that yielded various processes of invention, the most famous being the techne that enabled scholars to read Ancient Egyptian culture as a code. Perhaps less well known, until now, is its intimation of the present volume in the title of the actual text featured on the Rosetta Stone itself, known historically as the Memphis Decree.

This first section of the Introduction is written in the explanatory register, describing the context of the project and discursive framework of Ulmer as subject. The second section (popular) draws on the editors’ encounters with Ulmer and is anecdotal in tone. The third section of the triscript deals with expert knowledge and presents brief descriptions of the assembled essays. These are not so much summaries as overdubs, the layering of multiple tracks, as in a process of audio-visual editing. They add a further stratum of disciplinary writing to the authors’ inscriptions, extending as well as enframing them in Illogic of Sense. And perhaps, in the context of this place, this scene of writing, they too are best considered as fragments, chips off the old block.

Darren Tofts.
Fragments, or the year I went back for the chocolate

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To: Darren DTofts@buster.swin.EDU.AU
From: Greg
Subject: re: Re: Address
Date: Tuesday, April 12, 1994 at 8:52:46 am EDT
Certify: N
Forwarded by:
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Hi Darren
about the shared ‘heuretics’ - I jumped a bit when I saw it in your essay, and I took it as a sign that the time is right for this supplement-alternative to hermeneutics. I used it in teletheory, but spelled ‘euretics.’ The reviewer for the press complained that the name evoked something vaguely urinary (which i thought was ok, in the line of Diogenes - the scandal of urine in the academy). Heuretics has just now appeared in the states, and is supposed to be published simultaneously in England.

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The post-critical essay, especially in its heuretic form, is useful only insofar as it dramatizes a process of engagement with concepts, texts, practices, contexts. As an exemplar of a postmodernized pedagogy it can also have benefits. (Tofts, Kinnane & Haig, 1994: 257)

Thomas “Phenomenon” Young began working on the Egyptian script in 1814. In the same year Jean-François Champollion wrote to Young, then Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, requesting a cast of the Stone. Both Young and Champollion worked from facsimiles in their respective efforts to decipher the elusive code. Copies, in the form of papyrus scrolls, engravings and the official French Description de l’Égypte (1809), stood in for the real thing. The Stone had commenced its historical duplication and dissemination.

In 1999 the British Museum staged a major exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. It was called Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. This included a new installation of the Stone in an upright position, which restored its grandeur as a monumental stela. A fine volume was published by the British Museum Press to accompany the exhibition. Rigorous, serious and authoritative, the assembled essays and exegetical chapters represented the best traditions of epigraphic scholarship. An appendix featured a translation of the Demotic text by R.S. Simpson, author of Demotic Grammar in the Ptolemaic Sacerdotal Decrees (Oxford, 1996). The final lines of text offer an astonishing insight into the conception of the triscript and the very foundations of literacy:

[…] and the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing … (Simpson in Parkinson, 1999: 200)

This weighty tome was complemented by an array of merchandise, from scarab beetle pencil cases and mock Egyptian jewelry, to cartouche coloring books and postcards of the higher gods. But by far the most striking item in the British Museum shop that stood out amid this overwhelming spectacle of pop was the Rosetta Stone chocolate; a 100 gram block of milk chocolate with almonds and raisins. But this Rosetta Stone chocolate transcended kitsch. It was an emblem of the malleable intertranslatability of history and popular culture. To this day it remains unopened and un-tasted. It has passed its use by date (28th April, 2001) and sits on a bookshelf in my home as a monument to the commercialism of antiquity. I intend to endow it with the auratic grandeur of the Rosetta Stone itself by keeping it immersed and untouched in its casing; a postmodern age mastaba to be plundered at another time. I can feel something that might be bas-relief hieroglyphics on the surface of the chocolate through the outer covering of stiff paper. Or perhaps it is a cartouche of indeterminable import, or worse, a curse awaiting anyone who gazes upon it. But these tactile impressions remain vague, undecipherable and mysterious. For all intents and purposes, it is the Rosetta Stone as it was found and excavated by M. Pierre François Xavier Bouchard at Fort St Julien on the west bank of the Nile in 1799. Its secrets once again concealed, it awaits its Champollion and his avatars, as well as unknown feats of invention to come.

On that visit to the British Museum in 1999, for some reason I find now unfathomable, I failed to actually buy this sublime block (perhaps it was the £3.99 price tag). On a return visit to London in 2000 I made a pilgrimage to the British Museum in the hope that this stellar object would still be available, no doubt made more precious by the passing year. To my absolute delight I found it in a basket of remaindered items.

Lisa Gye
Lost in Translation

My first encounter with Ulmer’s work in 1992 coincided not only with my first academic appointment but also, as I have only lately discovered, with the release of the Rosetta Stone®. The Rosetta Stone® is a piece of software that claims to be able to teach users a new language without recourse to “tedious translation or memorization.” “With Rosetta Stone, learning a new language is easier than you ever imagined,” the manufacturers assert. This is, they say, because of the trade-marked “award winning” technique of Dynamic Immersion™ employed by the software. Unlike the partial plinth of antiquity, this Rosetta Stone® lets you crack the code of not one language but thirty!

Despite the disdain with which the Rosetta Stone’s® makers treat memorization and translation, they comprise two key principles of computing. Yet, while computers have undoubtedly excelled at memorization, precise translation has always been difficult. The use of computers for translation can be traced back to the late 1940’s when Warren Weaver, an American scientist working at the Rockefeller Foundation, in a letter to cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, proposed using cryptographic techniques, statistics and universals of language to mechanize the translation process. This led to the publication of a memorandum entitled “Translation,” which he wrote in July, 1949. This memorandum was the single most influential publication in the early days of machine translation.

Weaver’s memorandum argued that a simplistic word-for-word translation approach had grave limitations. He argued that any form of machine translation needed to take into account the following four factors: that the problem of multiple word meanings could be countered by examining the immediate context of any communication; that there are logical elements in language; that cryptographic methods were possibly applicable; and that there may also be linguistic universals.

At the end of the memorandum, Weaver emphasized the importance of the fourth factor with what is one of the best-known metaphors in the literature of machine translation:

Think, by analogy, of individuals living in a series of tall closed towers, all erected over a common foundation. When they try to communicate with one another, they shout back and forth, each from his own closed tower. It is difficult to make the sound penetrate even the nearest towers, and communication proceeds very poorly indeed. But, when an individual goes down his tower, he finds himself in a great open basement, common to all the towers. Here he establishes easy and useful communication with the persons who have also descended from their towers. (Weaver, 1955: 18)

Machine translation still falls a long way short in terms of an accurate rendition of a face to face exchange, as anyone who has used Babeliser or Babelfish can testify. Getting language and those that use it out of the towers and into the basement has proved to be more difficult than Weaver believed it could be. Take, for example, Simpson’s translation of the final lines of the Demotic text of the original Rosetta Stone:

[…] and the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing … (Simpson in Parkinson, 1999: 200)

Run it through Babelfish, from English to French to German to Japanese and back to English and you get the following translation:

If and with the stone whose 1 stela which coronation are done are hard, the letter is written, the letter of writing and Greece of rule and the document.

While not strictly accurate in terms of sense, there is a kind of poetry to this. Computers may not be able to accurately translate yet but they are capable of the most remarkable transformations by bringing together the seemingly disparate determinate elements in unexpected, aleatory ways. These transformations are still a kind of translation in the sense of things (ideas, words, bytes) being borne across from one realm to another. It’s just that in the process they become something other, something unexpected.

Ulmer’s work demonstrates to us the way that computers, by distributing rather than storing memories, allow for a recombinatory poetics that favors illogic over logic, ambiguity and surprise over clarity and surety. This must be why the makers of the Rosetta Stone® eschew translation in favor of immersion. They recognize, like Ulmer, that the computing interface functions more effectively ‘by means of pattern making, pattern recognition, pattern generation’ (Ulmer, 1989: 36) and that we can no longer expect to be able to control illocutionary force - ‘to preserve intact the intent of the author during the event of communication’ (Ulmer, 2002: 113) - as we could during the era of print. Our translations do not compute. And in terms of the Latin translation of translation (trans, cross … latus, to bear), this is our cross to bear - to learn not what things mean, what we make of them, but rather what can be made with them.

Essay Overdubs

It is important to stress at the outset that the following texts have not been written according to an Ulmerian formula or prescription. As indicated previously, Ulmer’s work is an invocation to invention, an essay on method designed to inspire others to pursue acts of invention. The only common feature among them seems to be the application of what Ulmer has called ‘compilation scripting,’ a structural language that eschews beginnings, middles and ends, and instead prioritizes the organization of different kinds of material by juxtaposition, analogy and thematic extension. It is an appropriate logic for an age contoured by recombinant media. The following observations can be read as liner notes to an eclectic compilation album of mixed-media works. The texts themselves must, of course, be read at maximum volume.

Niall Lucy’s The King and I: Elvis and the Post-Mortem enacts a kind of writing that weaves critical and theoretical speculation, rock journalism, hagiography and autobiography. A sustained speculation on the question of identity and its other, or in this case mistaken identity and its fetish, Lucy’s text engages with the problematic relations between originals and copies, origins and destinations. In this it is an incursion into writing and subjectivity, with its problematic interplay of presence and absence finding its analogy in the author’s chance identification as a reluctant successor to a dead King. The post-mortem of Lucy’s title elicits not only suggestions of activity after death (be it pathological examination, resurrection or hallucination), but also invokes all postal systems of transmission and the signals they are capable of circulating. The reliability of their reaching their destination, as well as the cultural fallout of their issue, is indeterminate. Consequently, the author succumbs to Niallism and is driven to the edge of apocalypse: the King is dead. Long live the King.

Jon McKenzie’s StudioLab UMBRELLA traces the relations of influence and mentorship. A former student of Ulmer’s, McKenzie’s autobiographical reflections on his time spent with him studying at the University of Florida reveal the true meaning of what it means to follow someone else’s example. The pupil/aspirant and teacher/sage cross the road in search of a King, an amalgam of an entire mythic tradition of quest narratives. During this conversation much wisdom is imparted. Its application is no mere copy, but rather an original creation that extends those ideas into new formations. McKenzie’s StudioLab is one such formation, an approach to pedagogy that adopts a collective practice akin to performing in a band or being a member of a guild. This multi-spatial approach to learning suited McKenzie’s challenge of teaching an electronic performance course at New York University. In a subsequent volume to the present one, we should not be surprised to see McKenzie cast as Old Lodge Skins himself, leading his student into uncharted territory.

Linda Marie Walker’s Surface to Surface, Ashes to Ashes (Reporting to U) is an involved meditation on the concept of the interface and its relation to place. For Walker the interface is a way of conjoining place, or chora, and subjectivity. She is interested in the strangeness of the everyday, of that with which we are surrounded. Implicitly, she is fascinated by how this is perceived by another person within interfaced situations. This other person, this unidentified U, is at times anonymous, unknowable, an ambiguous presence on shifting ground, which is there, always not here. At times it is unmistakably Ulmer, who is also you, intimate yet distant, in acts of exchange. Writing for Walker is the fragile yet capable medium of this exchange, the provisional sign of the desire to supplement presence, to enable U to see what she sees, and vice versa.

Craig Saper, in The Two Ulmers in e-Media Studies: Vehicle and Driver, ingeniously interprets Ulmer as an object of study, as both a vehicle and driver of signification. Ultimately Saper’s goal is to offer a critical approach to understanding Ulmer’s work, particularly in relation to its historical development. How he does this is an act of invention that adapts Ulmer’s peripatetic ‘philosophy over lunch’ motif (also glimpsed in Jon McKenzie’s piece) as a way of analyzing Ulmer as Ulmer analyzes his subject matter. Written in the style of a school handbook, Saper’s discussion takes the reader through a series of lessons. There is guidance and didacticism, but this is complemented by dramatic cues and prompts that require a more active, performative engagement with Saper’s assemblage of ‘intellectual montage.’ In following his leads and making connections, the reader will make their own journey and get to know the two Ulmers.

Rowan Wilken’s Diagrammatology takes its lead from Jacques Derrida’s maxim that deconstruction ‘is inventive or it is nothing at all.’ From this provocative non sequitur Wilken sets himself the challenge of theorizing the unrepresentable in relation to the architectural model of the diagram. Likening his project to poetic thinking, Wilken is interested in a way of thinking that is diagrammatic. This challenge builds upon the infrastructure of literacy itself, since it posits that conception is as much an act of construction as it is a scene of writing. Drawing on Ulmer’s use of Derrida’s ‘choral grid,’ Wilken proffers a heuretic interpretation of diagrammatic thinking that is concerned with discovery and prospecting rather than proof and exactitude. This interface between speculative thought and the diagram’s will to representation, allows Wilken to take his inquiry into the broader technocultural discussion of the relations between actual and virtual states of being.

Marcel O’Gorman’s From Mystorian to Curmudgeon: Skulking Toward Finitude offers a candid account of what it means to introduce the computer apparatus into teaching in the humanities. O’Gorman mixes memory, anecdote and theoretical speculation in small, measured lexias that resemble possible entries in some as yet unwritten Dictionnaire d’Ulmer. This provides a rudimentary navigational guide for the reader to explore his sense of exhaustion with the infinitude of hypertext as a compositional mode. The allure of hypertext as unbounded territory prompts a very personal account of the relations between the body and technology, the things we forget and have forgotten during all the years of our prosthetic techno-embrace. For O’Gorman, mystories may bear the traces of the electrate paradigm. But they are always, to use a very Beckettian phrase, frescoes of the skull.

Teri Hoskin’s Soliciting Taste: how sweet the lips of salted bream approaches the question of writing and design, of writing as design. The phrase, as chance would have it, is Hoskin’s creative principle, as she is interested in the interplay between design (of thought, writing, visuality) and accident (intuition, inspiration, intrusion) as a compositional mode. The motif of the moire pattern, as an inevitable condition of the scanned image, captures for Hoskin the precarious balance between will and interference in all creative and conceptual pursuits. Hoskin deftly uses hypertext to enact Ulmer’s contention that the electronic apparatus is the perfect vehicle to dramatize poststructuralist thought, since it is a matter of solicitation, of invoking the possible. Hoskin makes inventive use of the charged, poetic force of the aphorism to create a matrix of solicitation, of unexpected paths and divagations.

Michael Jarrett’s On Hip-Hop, a Rhapsody revels in the possibilities of appropriation and sampling. Jarrett is interested in the creative potential of the ready-made, the inventive suturing of available culture. Rap and hip-hop are his ostensible subjects and he wants to take us on a journey to encounter their valences as a historical compositional strategy. An appropriator himself, Jarrett does what he says, shows what he tells. Jarrett develops a stream of inspired consciousness that links the epic story-telling of the classical rhapsodists, the art of memory and its mnemonic devices and contemporary hip-hop freestyling. Out of this jagged wall of sound, Jonathan Swift, erstwhile Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, emerges as Grandmaster Rapp, the godfather of hip-hop.


Simpson, R., (trans) “The Demotic Text of the Memphis Decree on the Rosetta Stone,” in Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London: British Museum Press, 1999).

Tofts, Darren, Kinnane, Ray & Haig, Andrew, “I owe the discovery of this image to the convergence of a student and a photocopier,” Southern Review, Special Issue on Teaching the Postmodern, (1994): 252-260.

Ulmer, Gregory. Teletheory. Grammatology in the age of video (London: Routledge, 1989).

—.”Theory Hobby: ‘How-To Theory,’” Art & Text, (37, 1990).

—. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994).

—. “Reality Tables: Virtual Furniture” in Tofts, D., Jonson, A. and Cavallaro, A., Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (Cambridge, Mass.:M.I.T. Press, 2002),110-129.

Weaver, Warren. “Translation” in Locke and Booth, (eds.) Machine Translation of Languages (New York: Wiley, 1955), 15-23.