From Mystorian to Curmudgeon: Skulking Toward Finitude

From Mystorian to Curmudgeon: Skulking Toward Finitude

2007-05-09

Marcel O’Gorman offers a candid account of what it means to introduce the computer apparatus into teaching in the humanities.

You will feel, if you transcribe the passage in this orderly fashion, that the rugged impetuosity of passion, once you make it smooth and equable by adding the copulatives, falls pointless and immediately loses all its fire. Just as the binding of the limbs of runners deprives them of their power of rapid motion, so also passion, when shackled by connecting links and other appendages, chafes at the restriction, for it loses the freedom of its advance and its rapid emission as though from an engine of war. (Longinus, “On The Sublime”, Chapter 21)

HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

HORATIO: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1)

Curmudgeonly Self-Indulgence

CURMUDGEON: [n] An avaricious, grasping fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl. [OE. cornmudgin, where -mudgin is prob. from OF.; cf. OE. muchares skulking thieves.]

How did I get here? Only five years ago I was mystoricizing with Greg Ulmer in sunny Gainesville. Today, in gray, sludgy Detroit, I am asking students to write academic essays that explain away their experimental work in HTML and Flash. What’s worse, the course topic I have chosen this term is finitude, human mortality. I am on the cusp of becoming radically un-hip, a curmudgeon. The curmudgeon side makes me say things like: ‘mystories are for navel-gazers.’ Indeed, that is the problem with assigning mystories to students during the winter months in Detroit. They use the genre - a discursive network (popcycle) of pop culture, critical theory, history, and autobiography - to engage in auto-psychoanalysis. They get mired in their own subjectivity, and produce work that is no more innovative than the nostalgic, self-exploratory essays encouraged in freshman composition classes. The curmudgeon also says things like: ‘hypertext is dead.’ There’s that finitude again. Where does this comment come from? Maybe, in part, from the boredom I sense when clicking through the directionless infinity of hypertext fiction. And, in part, from the way writers use digital nonlinearity as a way of masking poor writing skills. And, in part, from being overwhelmed by too much information, most of it worthless. Whatever the case may be, I am nauseated by the sense of nostalgia I feel when I look at the cover of George P. Landow’s Hypertext Theory. Hypertext theory, too, is dead. Even critical theory itself has been liquidated into a series of menu items in Photoshop and Dreamweaver. What comes next?

In an attempt to exorcise the curmudgeon - or at least examine him - I’m going to take this opportunity to engage in a little self-indulgent navel-gazing myself. Maybe I can rescue or at least revisit the sense of pleasure that I felt while composing the various Ulmer-inspired mystories and other heuretic exercises that I completed over the past decade. Perhaps, as well, I might be able to discover how I went from mystorian to curmudgeon in such a short time. My goal, then, is admittedly hermeneutic, which, I’ll admit, is heresy for a heuretician. Recalling a passage in Ulmer’s Teletheory (1989) (I will only recall Ulmer here, not quote him) I will begin by appropriating the mood of Hamlet as he pondered forensics at Yorrick’s grave. In sooth, I suppose there really is no appropriation here; as a scholar, I am always-already melancholic, always-already staring into the skull.

A Skull Session with Gregory “Golgotha” Skulmer

SKULLFISH: [n] a whaler’s name for a whale more than two years old.

The very first mystory I completed was an assignment in a critical theory class at Ottawa University, my first real course in theory, and the most difficult I have ever taken. The course was taught by a stern German, a specialist in Melville and Heidegger, who once told me that ‘no great philosophy ever came out of the south.’ And yet, he deigned to include Teletheory (written by a Floridian) on the syllabus. Each student was required to select a text from the syllabus and give a seminar-style presentation. Admittedly, I was somewhat intimidated by older PhD students in the class, and reluctant to make a selection at all. I was the last to choose, and the only text remaining was Ulmer’s. All that I can recall of this class is a series of befuddling seminars, which I felt were more akin to mathematics than literature. I can also recall the cigarette breaks, for which I stupidly braved the bone-chilling pain of a Canadian winter.

SKULDUGGERY: [n] verbal misrepresentation intended to take advantage of you in some way.

I’m not sure that I completely grasped what Ulmer was up to in Teletheory, but I knew one thing for certain: I wanted to make a mystory. What’s more, I wanted to make a mystory on my computer, which at the time was a 640K portable unit with no hard drive. While this proved impossible, I did manage to gain access to a 386 in the office of a friend who worked for Corel. He not only loaned me the machine, but, after listening to my design goals, he also introduced me to Freelance Graphics, a presentation software package whose market value was destroyed by PowerPoint. Using Freelance, I created a mystory with a specific timeline that scrolled across the screen in about three minutes. I learned simultaneously how to “do theory” and how to work in Freelance Graphics, both of which I approached as an amateur.

SKULKING: [adj] marked by quiet and caution and secrecy; taking pains to avoid being observed. See also: dodging, escape, evasion.

By the time it came for my seminar on Teletheory, the snow was melting. I remember the Proustian flash of smelling spring as I walked to class, which I had arranged to hold in a computer lab. I loaded my Freelance “slide show” into a 486 equipped with an LCD projector panel, and sat nervously as text blocks and images scrolled by, leaving my classmates as befuddled as they had left me during their own presentations. After the last words scrolled by, the professor asked me to explain what I had created, but I couldn’t. I suggested that my mystory, which integrated Teletheory itself into the popcycle, was intended to be a stand-alone, a performance piece designed to create ‘an effect’, provoke discussion. ‘An effect?’ asked the professor. ‘I’m not sure what you mean.’ Neither was I. I didn’t really understand what I had created, and I had no particular goal in mind when creating it. I was working blindly, gluing together various snippets of discourse without any particular direction except that offered by the film-like sequencing effects in Freelance. During the summer term, I was often berated for this performance, and labeled mockingly as ‘a mystorian.’

SKOL: [n] Fortran pre-processor for COS (Cray Operating System).

Just recently, I discovered a fragmented copy of this mystory on a diskette and loaded it into my abandoned Pentium II. The “show” flew by so quickly that it was nearly impossible to read the text. Advances in processing speed have rendered the mystory unreadable, even on a Pentium II.

Gibberish: A Digital Hiding Place for Pomo Sapiens

SCULLER: [n] someone who skulls (moves a long oar pivoted on the back of the boat to propel the boat forward). See also: oarsman, rower.

I abandoned Freelance Graphics when I enrolled for a second M.A., this time in Creative Writing, at the University of Windsor. A computer scientist, with whom I was discussing Eastgate’s first beta version of StorySpace, introduced me to HTML and the World Wide Web. What he showed me seemed much more flexible and robust than StorySpace, which at the time could only embed images as black and white bitmap files. I spent my year as a Creative Writing student assembling infinite hypertext networks of critical theory quotes in which nearly every word was “hotlinked,” as we said back then.

SCULD: [n] Goddess of fate: Future. See also: Norn.

My education in theory, then, was classical, acquired by a word-for-word transcribing of “the masters” from print to screen. Longinus himself would have approved of this method, which also describes how I learned HTML, “stealing” code from the web pages of others.

This writer shows us, if only we were willing to pay him heed, that another way (beyond anything we have mentioned) leads to the sublime. And what, and what manner of way, may that be? It is the imitation and emulation of previous great poets and writers. And let this, my dear friend, be an aim to which we steadfastly apply ourselves. For many men are carried away by the spirit of others as if inspired, just as it is related of the Pythian priestess when she approaches the tripod, where there is a rift in the ground which (they say) exhales divine vapour. By heavenly power thus communicated she is impregnated and straightway delivers oracles in virtue of the afflatus. Similarly from the great natures of the men of old there are borne in upon the souls of those who emulate them (as from sacred caves) what we may describe as effluences, so that even those who seem little likely to be possessed are thereby inspired and succumb to the spell of the others’ greatness. (Longinus, “On The Sublime”, Chapter XIII)

In the end, I learned more about writing - primarily, how to maintain a complex sequential argument - by transcribing Barthes and assembling HTML code than I did in all the workshops I attended in grad school. While I did write my share of short stories - all conventional fiction - my M.A. project was a hypertext entitled “Gibberish,” in which I ironically applied postmodern theory to a number of paintings by the Windsor artist Stephen Gibb. I sent a link to an early version of the project to Greg Ulmer, along with a diskette containing the mystory I had created in Ottawa. Ulmer suggested that I apply to the University of Florida’s PhD program.

1/0

SKULL AND CROSSBONES: [n] emblem warning of danger or death. See also: black flag, emblem, Jolly Roger, pirate flag.

What frustrated me about Ulmer’s seminars was not the lack of direction, a lack of those predictable assignments that are the whipping boys of heuretics, but the fact that, in Ulmer’s terms, we were in class ‘to do theory, not art.’ In other words, our goal was not to make things that look pretty, but to work with ideas, to invent methods, even if our goal was to invent a ‘picture theory.’ Isn’t it possible, I thought, to achieve a more holistic combination of theory and aesthetics? William Blake, for example, invented relief-etch printing, a method - inspired by his own distaste for mechanical engraving techniques - which he outlines in visionary detail in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The problem was that not one of us in the seminars was trained as an artist. We were all English majors working with the tools at our disposal. We couldn’t draw or paint, but we could certainly steal images off the Web and manipulate them.

SCULLION: [n] a kitchen servant employed to do menial tasks.

My opus mystorius as a student of Ulmer’s was a hypertext I ended up calling 1/0 based on the recurrent pattern of 1 and 0 or I and O shapes that serendipitously appeared in the images I had chosen for the project. 1/0 uses a popcycle to explore/explode the issue of racism that I encountered as a Canadian living in the Southern United States. Included in the popcycle is the work of William Blake, particularly the “Little Black Boy” engraving from the Songs of Innocence.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereav’d of light.

1/0 played a central role in my dissertation, which amounts to a lengthy explanation that I wish I could have offered four years earlier to my theory professor at the University of Ottawa.

The 4fold Vision

SCULP: [v.t.] to sculpture; to carve; to engrave [Obs. or Humorous].

Something about the materiality of Blake’s work, his holistic interweaving of philosophy, art, and technics, suggests a fruitful model for thinking about discourse in the electronic apparatus. After graduating from the University of Florida, my primary obsession was to invent a new mode of academic discourse by drawing on William Blake as a “media exemplar.” I devised an assignment for my students entitled The 4Fold Vision, which is an image-rich modification of the mystory form. Rather than drawing on verbal puncepts as a method of interlinking modes of discourse, The 4Fold is glued together with visual puns motivated by the schematic shapes in Blake’s art: the arch, the inverted U, the circle, and the spiral.

SKULLCAP: [n] rounded brimless cap fitting the crown of the head. See also: beanie.

When I introduced the assignment to my E-Crit students, the response was one of befuddlement, and the results were varied. Among graduating seniors this term, this assignment stands out as the one that had the greatest impact on their formation as media critics and designers. A 4Fold Vision completed by Amy Ruud, one of the first E-Crit graduates, traces the ‘O’ shape through the film Dogma, the Berlin Wall, Baudrillard, Blake and her friend’s brain tumor. Her animated gif captures the schematic essence of her 4Fold, but what impressed me most was the “justification” that she wrote to accompany her project. I had never before required students to write a justification of their work in experimental critical theory. At this point, I realized that écriture had to remain central to E-Crit. I began assigning lengthy essays in my classes.

Necromedia

SKULL, THE PLACE OF A: See GOLGOTHA: [n] a hill near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

In the winter of 2001, I began investigating a pattern of coincidental relationships that I had noticed between death and media technology. These included Watson’s gallows telephone, Marey’s chronophotographic rifle, and the first human ultrasound, which took place in the disused turret of a B-29 bomber. Technology’s greatest end is for military uses, for the destruction of human beings. Technology renders bodies immobile and redundant. Technology promotes ghost industries and fantasies of immortality. I invented the term “necromedia” to describe this seeming collusion between death and media technologies. Soon, necromedia scenes appeared everywhere: in American Beauty’s elision of gun and video camera; in Vanilla Sky’s Coltrane hologram and cryogenic dreaming; in Ringu’s lethal and ghostly VHS tape.

SKULL: [n] the bony skeleton of the head of vertebrates. See also: axial skeleton, bone, braincase, head, jaw, jugal bone, mala, malar bone, orbit, orbital cavity, os, os sphenoidale, os zygomaticum, sphenoid bone, zygomatic bone.

I began taking very seriously Katherine Hayles’ suggestion that we learn to accept and celebrate our finitude. She was echoing Heidegger’s concerns about technology and being, but without the luddite and fascist associations that have made Heidegger inconvenient for media critics.

We now name that challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve: “ge-stell” (enframing). We dare to use this word in a sense that has been thoroughly unfamiliar up to now. According to ordinary usage, the word Gestell (frame) means some kind of apparatus, e.g., a bookrack. Gestell is also the name for a skeleton. And the employment of the word Gestell (enframing) that is now required of us seems equally eerie, not to speak of the arbitrariness with which words of a mature language are so misused. (Heidegger, 1977: npn)

How do we celebrate our finitude when, all around us, others are celebrating their capacity to be placed on call as cybernetic standing reserve? After teaching a few courses on necromedia, it occurred to me that the sprawling hypertext projects I was assigning encouraged only a drive toward infinity, a resistance to finitude. I was hoping to provoke the opposite of that resistance, an acceptance and celebration of finitude.

Running (Posthu)Man

SKULL SESSION: [n] a practice match; teaching strategy to an athletic team. See also: grooming, preparation, training.

A few years ago I ran my first marathon. I took up running to relieve work-related stress, provoke creative thought, and to alleviate the chronic back pain that resulted from sitting for several hours a day in front of a screen. Since then I have been running trail races only, primarily 50K ultra marathons. Over time, my necromedia course morphed into a design studio on running, based, of course, on a concept I developed while running. The studio is not only about running in the strictly biomechanical sense, but also in the various metaphorical outcroppings of the word, which provide a vehicle for discussing the impact of media technologies on time, space, and the body. I have asked students in the class to develop Flash movies that will play on a laptop cable-hacked into a treadmill. The heartbeat and speed of a runner or walker will power these movies. My own movie, entitled DREADMILL, revolves around the increasing immobility of our culture (Detroit was named “America’s fattest city” this year). It draws heavily on the necromedia concept, and combines graphics, text, clips from Hollywood film, and talking heads. I now realize that I have moved away from the infinitude of hypertext, and am turning back toward the genre of my first mystory.

SKULL: [n] [see {school} a multitude.] a school, company, or shoal. [Obs.]

Jeff Rice, a colleague of mine (also a former student of Ulmer’s and “cool” theorist), noted that the DREADMILL project is very Ulmerian in nature because it draws on an outrageous, perhaps surrealist premise: ‘you need a treadmill to teach a media studies class.’ I hadn’t considered this perspective, which Jeff was quick to offer in rebuttal to my recent threats about abandoning the Florida School and hypertext for Blake and artists’ books. What I do know is that the concept of putting a treadmill in an English Department classroom and wiring it to a laptop is emblematic of what I see as the future of Humanities research in a culture driven by technological efficiency. This interdisciplinary project, which involves the cooperation of faculty and students in E-Crit, Engineering, Architecture, and English, places the Humanities back at the core of higher education. In opposition to the techno-scientific focus of the contemporary university, I would propose a program not in humanities computing, or even in human/computer interaction, but in humane computing, a program that puts both the body and mind, with all their finite limitations, in a holistic relationship with the development of new technologies.

Post-Run Cooldown

Just recently I discovered that I suffered a stress fracture in my left hip, a result of obsessive training, combined with long races that are beyond the limitations of my biomechanical abilities. I will require a hip replacement in the near future, which will qualify me as a literal cyborg. I wonder if, at that point, I will begin to reconsider the emancipatory potential of cyberspace. In any case, it will make for a great mystory on becoming un-hip.

Bibliography

Blake, William.”Little Black Boy” Songs of Innocence (1789) in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

The William Blake Archive (March 22, 2004).

Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays Translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977).

Hyperdictionary (March 22, 2004).

Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Longinus, On the Sublime Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. (Cambridge, 1899), Peitho’s web (March 22, 2004).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet (1600).

Ulmer, Gregory L. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (New York and London: Routledge, 1989).