Chris Carter and Greg Ulmer dialogue through e-mails on the mission of the FRE.
The Florida Research Ensemble and the Prospects for an Electronic Humanities
The Florida Research Ensemble and the Prospects for an Electronic Humanities
In works such as Applied Grammatology, Teletheory, and Heuretics, Gregory Ulmer has rigorously advocated a shift from critical interpretation of culture to theoretically-charged cultural invention. His articulation of poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theories informs not merely a composite system of textual criticism but an expansive method of artistic creation. Ulmer’s theories of invention have vitalized his collaboration with the Florida Research Ensemble, a diverse group of artists and scholars who have worked for over ten years to counter the instrumentalist tendencies of new media. Instead of suggesting immediate ways to fix social problems, the FRE attempts to describe the psychological undercurrents of those problems through experimental text and interactive imagery. The Internet, which represents the FRE’s fundamental research area, serves both as the circulator of sublimated cultural drives and the medium for rendering those drives accessible to critical intervention. As a “prosthesis for a cultural unconscious,” the Internet according to Ulmer disseminates, even as it helps to construct, the desires of its users. It influences and is influenced by the evolution of cultural ideas as they travel through the “popcycle” - Ulmer’s term for the interplay of family, school, entertainment, and labor. Just as the popcycle fosters comforting illusions of personal liberation within free market society, so the Internet reproduces such costly “freedoms” at speeds hitherto unknown. Yet by raising deep-seated psychological drives to conscious awareness through the visual apparatus of the Web, the FRE formulates a potential mode of resistance. In uncovering the “repressed” of net-surfing culture, the Ensemble makes unspoken consumerist values available to deconstructive analysis.
Subjectivity, according to Antonio Negri in his “Twenty Theses on Marx,” is itself deconstructive. “Auto-valorization and sabotage are the double figure of one and the same subject,” he writes, “or better, they are the two faces of Janus, the gateway to the constitution of the subject” (160). Ulmer, while recognizing the capacity of capital to absorb the work of its critics, implicitly endorses Negri’s conjecture by locating the potential for subversion in creative (mis)uses of capital’s own advanced technologies of communication. Less militant than Negri but more self-consciously artistic, Ulmer attempts to undermine practices of domination by first theorizing, and then visually dramatizing, the repressions on which they are structured.
This process of sociopsychological demystification uncovers the possibility of alternative cultural logics. The FRE’s highly collaborative version of deconstructive subjectivity suggests new ways of collective being, ways that interlink various worldviews and disciplines in opposition to the laws of profit. The multidisciplinary Ensemble at once illustrates the corruption of the social interior and argues the insufficiency of solely personal change. Social healing requires collective critical action and long-term dedication. Without either the strength and diversity of numbers or the commitment to extended struggle, counterpower will be continually reabsorbed by capital. The work of the FRE is itself threatened by such absorption. Deeply sedimented cultural convictions persist even in the face of exposure, as conservative Web-users work to assimilate all contrary energies to their own sensibilities. Web-based forms of resistance either become commodified themselves or inadvertently prompt increasingly sophisticated technologies of oppression.
Yet the FRE represents the politics of hope, insisting that practices of poststructural psychoanalysis are constructive of new social arrangements as much as critical of existing ones. Insurgencies are often not fully contained by the regimes that spark them, and their dissident excesses suggest the “beyond” of the contemporary political economy. Deconstructive subjectivity, explains Negri, both destroys and reconstructs. As the FRE works to speed the destruction of instrumentalist approaches to technology, it contributes to the reconstruction of an Internet that privileges cooperative invention to commodity transfer. It is through such invention that the FRE aims to foster social health.
As a cultural theorist, Ulmer contends that conventional forms of social communication only partly realize the signification potential of the Internet, and he consequently fashions a counter-language that is at once graphical, parodic, and surreal. That counter-language informs the work of Ulmer’s “emerAgency,” a virtual consultancy that addresses cultural emergencies as effects of common psychological repressions. Whether considering the crises of Florida tourism in the early 1990s or the alarming number of national traffic fatalities, the emerAgency works less to offer solutions than to describe how the problems themselves suggest the interwoven and unconscious drives toward pleasure and death. Agency members describe such drives by means of image-intensive hypertexts that they collectively publish to the World Wide Web. The websites illustrate and interlink both the social allure and the terrors of established industries. Such sites depict no vacationing freedom without personal danger, no freeway flying without fatal collisions. As Ulmer himself explains, “No attraction without repulsion.”
In suggesting that unconscious repulsion intensifies rather than undermines desire, the emerAgency complicates enormously the process of social healing. Problems resist instrumental fixes because we misrecognize the impulses behind them. By more carefully theorizing those impulses, the FRE makes possible not a rapid exorcism but a critical awareness of the underside of desire. Such awareness can potentially lead to renewed ways of acting and interacting, new social policies, and more sophisticated approaches to the cultural “emergency.” The FRE’s psychoanalytic method supplements but does not displace the instrumentalist tactics of more conventional consultancies. As a “supplement” it reveals the incompleteness of those consultancies. The FRE’s cultural work, enriched by a highly graphical language and intricate theoretical rationale, provides subtlety and indirection where instrumentalism fails.
The cultural faith in quick-fix prescriptions suits capital’s need to efficiently conceal its emergent difficulties. Since the FRE seeks to reconceptualize problems rather than cover them over, it runs counter to dominant forms of consulting while diverging from prevalent modes of Internet communication. The very unorthodoxy of the emerAgency informs an indirect critique of conventional consultancy, while simultaneously opening a space for resistant practices of invention. In Ulmer’s vocabulary, this is the space of “heuretics.” As described in his text of the same name, heuretics
contributes to what Barthes refers to as the “return of the poetician” - one who is concerned with how a work is made. This concern does not stop with analysis or comparative scholarship but conducts such scholarship in preparation for the design of a rhetoric/poetics leading to the production of new work. (4)
In the following interview, Ulmer describes how the FRE’s emerAgency incorporates heuretics into Web-based discourse. His attention to the consumerist tendencies of popular culture helps the FRE form a poetics that is at once oppositional and generative. While matching the anti-instrumentalism of such radical theorists as Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) and Herbert Schiller (Culture, Inc.), Ulmer contributes to the development of a social ethic based on non-hierarchical collaboration, image-based reason, and non-Western alternatives to binary systems of thought. In the interview, as in his work with the FRE, Ulmer evades the strict scheme of problem and solution, opting instead for a serial meditation on the internet’s potential to map the terrain of cultural “psychogeography.”
Carter: Greg, I’d like to discuss your participation in the Florida Research Ensemble’s Web-based “Imaging Florida” project. In an online essay about that project called “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality,” you suggest that the FRE’s advocation of an inventive, electronically-interactive experience of Florida represents an important alternative to forms of tourism based on mere observation and consumption. Linking the FRE’s promotion of creative and participatory tourism to the Greek philosopher Solon’s notion of travel as theoretical endeavor, you argue for Florida “solonism” as a means of continually re-imagining the state’s cultural identity. Why have you and the FRE chosen the Internet as a forum for posing solonism against more highly commercialized forms of tourism? In light of the Web’s uncommon facilitation of commercialism, the “Imaging Florida” project seems significantly non-conformist both in its deployment of Web technology and its alternative conception of travel. What might the relationships be between the solonism proffered by “Imaging Florida” and practices of Internet engagement?
Ulmer: What I enjoy about e-mail interviews is their “serial” nature. Your question initiates a certain direction in our dialogue, and my reply will not be complete or final. I will start to answer the question, but in an improvisatory and partial way. I don’t like posts that are too long, even if they will be strung together into an “essay” eventually. The rhythm of the series will be one of more or less shorter installments, following an associative curve that may or may not constitute an “answer.” It may take me several posts to answer one question, nor do you need to wait but should feel free to add further questions or requests for clarification, in a sense attempting to direct or redirect the series.
I will start by providing some context. The Florida Research Ensemble (FRE) orginated at the University of Florida in the late 1980s as a group of colleagues with a common interest in electronic media. Current charter members include myself and William Tilson, a professor of Architecture. Also active are Barbara Jo Revelle (a creative photographer) and Will Pappenheimer (videographer), both in the Fine Arts Department. I am the theorist for the group. Simon Penny (now at Carnegie Mellon) was a charter member, and John Craig Freeman was our digital artist until he moved to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Not that one must be at/in Florida to work with the FRE. Craig has applied the FRE agenda to his new setting, and we have “affiliations” with colleagues at several locales in the U.S. and abroad.
Forming the FRE grew out of dissatisfaction with the old “reading group” approach to collaboration. I had always participated in one reading group or another, organized around theory. The practice is familiar: an interdisciplinary group of scholars would agree on a list of books, usually works of French theory, and we would meet regularly to discuss and argue. I learned a great deal from these sessions, and if anything they died of their own success, in that the groups tended to become too large. The chief source of dissatisfaction, however, was the homogeneity of the group. There was plenty of disagreement at the meetings, but finally we all were scholar-critics, each working individually on our separate books.
The FRE gave me an opportunity to shift from talk to action, or rather from argument to production, and from individual to collaborative work. Our organizational principle is not that of the reading group but of a “creative team,” with each member bringing a different specialized talent to the table. Each of us knows something about the others’ areas of expertise, enough to facilitate communication. The “ensemble” structure means that there is no hierarchy; we work by consensus. Our meetings are motivated by cooperative work on specific projects addressing a fundamental research problem. The products or fruits of the process (whether undertaken individually or as a group) take many forms: article, interview, exhibition, conference talk, video tape, CD-Rom, website, university course, grant application. The name of our research problem may be defined in a word - the Internet.
An important feature of the Internet is the potential connection it creates across all existing institutions and discourses. There is already a flow or circulation of ideas and “memes” through the “popcycle” of modern institutions - Family, School, Entertainment, Work (specialized expertise). I might have more to say about this popcycle later. For now the point is that the Internet potentially is a prosthesis for augmenting and raising to self-consciousness this circulation, which in heuretic terms is the key to the creativity of a society. The FRE goal is to develop a practice - a rhetoric - to realize this potential.
One lesson of the avant-garde and experimental arts, especially the lesson of its failures, is that it is not enough to invent new forms. Forms must be part of institutional discourses in order to survive and become functional. The FRE approach to inventing a practice for the Internet, then, is deconstructive: we enter into the process of invention (heuretics) by intervening in an existing institution. Keeping in mind that the Internet itself is an institution (meaning that it has an infrastructure with administrative entities managing sets of laws and codes), we chose consulting as our deconstructive vehicle, since it already is a principal means by which expertise created within the academy is delivered to sites of need in other institutions such as government and business. Our entry into consulting began with a project in my graduate seminar to establish a virtual consultancy - the emerAgency.
The emerAgency is influenced by systems art and conceptual art and their experiments that considered social and cultural processes in aesthetic terms, eliminating the barriers separating art forms from political and ethical realities. The single most important example of such art is the Free International University created by Joseph Beuys, which included among its activities a proposal to the European Union for attempting an artistic solution to the troubles in Ireland. This example of course exists in a context of arts efforts throughout the twentieth century to bring art out of the museum institution and reintegrate it as a practical part of everyday life. The FRE continues this effort, based on our understanding of digital technology, which is that the aesthetic and emotional powers of the arts are fundamental to the “skill sets” of electracy.
I need to go into more detail about how the emerAgency actually works. In the immediate context I’ll just note that the justification for a “virtual” consultancy, related to this systems and conceptual heritage, is that in a post-industrial information economy, we are in a condition of “speed” (Virilio). Ideas circulate freely apart from objects, without grounding necessarily in conventional “firms” and “agencies.” Information on the Internet has gone off the “gold standard” of literate proof. Or to use another historical (grammatological) analogy, we are in a moment similar to the one in the history of the alphabet when it was realized that the letters could circulate without being attached as labels to objects. In short, the Internet is profoundly rhetorical in nature, operating on a multi-valued logic that includes not only the true and the false but also the secret and the lie. Or, to put it another way, the Internet is the prosthesis for that part of thought, mind, intelligence, that has been theorized in terms of the “unconscious.” Poststructural psychoanalysis provides a readymade rhetoric-poetics for an image-based reason.
Carter: Whether favoring the FRE’s collaborative invention to traditional reading groups or preferring Joseph Beuys’s social activism to museum display, you clearly value the material consequences of theoretical endeavor. The heuretics of the FRE, for example, suggest attempted interventions in the material practices of Florida tourism and in the production of cultural identities. I’m excited by the Ensemble’s recommendations that state visitors seek out the abject and forgotten spaces within the landscape, explore those spaces’ relationships to larger social failures, and imagine ways to heal both cultural and environmental wounds. Like Beuys, Florida “solonists” (creative philosopher-travelers) can begin to acknowledge previously repressed wounds and treat them with what you have called “the aesthetic and emotional powers of the arts.” How might working to transform the psychogeography of Florida through artistic intervention suggest an approach to Web travel? Furthermore, if the Web is the “prosthesis” for a cultural unconscious, what practical bearing might poststructuralist psychoanalysis have on the informatics of resistance?
Ulmer: At the time of the formation of the emerAgency the crisis facing the State of Florida concerned tourism. The State government hired various advertising agencies as consultants to help repair the damage to the image of Florida caused by a string of murdered tourists, not to mention the “vice” image of Miami in general. The challenge for the FRE was to come up (uninvited) with a program that would be an Arts and Letters practical alternative or (more deconstructively) supplement to the conventional propaganda campaigns produced by the paid consultants. “Solonism” was the working term for this alternative: promoting a new dimension of tourism based on the ancient practice of “theoria.” Solon served as a “theoros” - one of a group of citizens sent to investigate places and events and report back to the State with an authoritative account. This group or theoria combined the functions of theory and tourism - a “high” or “critical” travel of a kind flexible enough to include everything from the journey of the Magi to find out the meaning of the star in the East to the wandering pilgrimages of Basho to the old shrines and legendary sites of Japan (the haiku in his journals have been compared to tourist snapshots). Solon is the one Plato credits (in Timaeus) with bringing back to Athens the story of Atlantis told to him by a priest in Egypt.
The general goal of Solonism is to introduce into conventional tourism certain features that raise awareness of the contribution that entertainment in general and tourism in particular make to the formation of national identity. There is a strong didactic element in many tourist sites as it is, that provide a point of departure for a deconstructive practice. Tourists moreover already use the Internet to gather information and make arrangements, and our program addresses real as well as virtual travel destinations. Indeed, the FRE’s first effort as a theoria was to propose to a county economic council an idea for a tourist attraction - a proposal for an electronic monument that could function not only conceptually but that literally was buildable. The planning councils in North Central Florida are always trying to figure out how to attract more visitors to their area, and we proposed that they construct a Florida extension of Mount Rushmore (a monument initiated as a way to attract tourists to the Black Hills). “Florida Rushmore” proposed to project a digitally generated hologram of a sixty-foot head (the Rushmore scale) into the Devil’s Millhopper sinkhole, a State Geological Preserve near Gainesville, Florida. Using the compositing software developed for finding missing children, and the mystorical design principles that I worked out in Teletheory and Heuretics, the head displays the “superego” of a different visitor every fifteen minutes. This spectacular display is contextualized by a museum exhibit that records the history of tourism in a way that educates visitors about how a community creates and invents its identity.
Although the economic planning council was in fact intrigued by the proposal, saying that it would probably be a bigger draw than the Dakota version, we did not follow up. A model for the kind of local institutional political work needed to realize such a plan is available in the “wrapping” projects undertaken by Christo. Instead we spun out a series of proposals for an electronic monumentality, using a practice called the MEmorial. The psychogeographical theory informing the consultancy suggests that what Solonism should add to the tourist attraction is the tourist “repulsion.” No attraction without repulsion. Again, conventional tourism already frames as attractions certain kinds of places and events that might be considered “repulsive” - sites of crime and disaster for example. The MEmorial is an Internet asterisk placed on existing monuments and memorials. It may include a “peripheral” - an electronic device located at or near a monument that symbolically extends its functionality. The related Internet site develops this new dimension, which is to extend the acknowledgement of public mourning and commemoration to activities and behaviors of loss and destruction confined to the private sphere of individual one-at-a-time disasters. The first MEmorial addressed traffic fatalities by proposing to place a peripheral at the Vietnam Wall on the Mall in Washington D.C. (or at the scaled-down replica in Pensacola). The peripheral consists of a computer and printer, printing out the names of fatalities as they occur around the nation. The goal is to help visitors understand that the slaughter on the highways is a sacrifice on behalf of a fundamental if abject value. The ideal value of “freedom” is lived abjectly through the private automobile.
It is here that Solonism transforms into consulting. The psychogeographical theory suggests that the empirical, instrumental methods of conventional social and natural sciences are not adequate for comprehending the cultural and personal dimensions of public policy problems. Neither liberal theories of individual responsibility nor Marxist theories of social construction can account fully for the annual sacrifice of forty to fifty thousand dead on the roads. J. G. Ballard’s Crash (and the Cronenberg film) open up the further dimension of repulsion/attraction of the death/pleasure principle that informs emerAgency consulting. The instrumentalist object (the wrecked car) neglects the fact (in our theory) that the car or any object in a disaster is also “das Ding,” the Thing of the unconscious, or a fetish, the “little other” (“objet petite a” - Lacan) which is the car-in-me, the metaphysical car if you like, the extimate automobile of the death “drive” (to speak in a Freudian shorthand). To the extent that policy issues include not only objects of knowledge but also objects of desire, the Arts and Letters disciplines must be involved in any consideration of “solutions.” The MEmorial practice does not claim to have better knowledge than the instrumentalists. Rather, to make a MEmorial is to perform the emerAgency slogan: problems B us: it is to experience and bear witness to the reason why instrumental solutions frequently fail (or why their outcomes are often other than expected). The “pothole” is in me, in every citizen, and it is a pothole that no amount of blacktop can ever fill. Or, to be more optimistic about the educative prospects of Solonism, once there is a collective holistic grasping of the connections between the two kinds of objects, then the society may make new kinds of policies.
Carter: The cultural attraction to the Internet resembles the attraction to the automobile in that both technologies support illusions of unfettered mobility and self-determination. The comfort provided by such illusions exacts a high price: thousands of people die on the highways, while thousands more experience and/or sanction varied forms of exploitation in online spaces. Though the high number of fatal car accidents should perhaps give rise to a critical awareness of our travel habits, we tend to repress the dangers in the interest of preserving the fantasy of personal freedom. On another level, it may be the repressed risks themselves that perpetuate our dependence on automobiles. Might the same be true for the Internet? If the net simultaneously feeds our desires for mobility and for the private indulgence of dangerous fantasies, its doubly powerful appeal perhaps accounts for the cultural tendency to downplay the social inequities pervading internetworked discourse. While some online spaces support the re-imagination of social relations, much webwriting serves to intensify the economic, racial, and sexual injustices that pre-existed the Web. As it works to widen the chasm between rich and poor, facilitates anonymous harassment, and further marginalizes groups who have limited electronic access, it magnifies deeply entrenched social problems. Problems B Us. In targeting the Internet as a research subject, does the FRE address its repulsive uses as well its attractive ones? Is every MEmorial, while an inventive look at cultural psychogeography, also a critique of Web-based instrumentalism? Do MEmorials exist that depict the Internet itself as a problem representative of its users?
Ulmer: There are considerable risks and dangers as well as opportunities associated with the emergence of electracy. The grammatological analogy suggests that the institutional and identity formations that organize our society now - the democratic nation-state and individual selfhood - are relative to literacy. Not that they will disappear in electracy, any more than did the apparatus of orality within literacy (religion and the experience of spirit). The new technology is being institutionalized in the practices of Entertainment (within a capitalist economic model), which in turn is producing new experiences of identity and ultimately new kinds of behavior. We have to be able to imagine a society that commits itself to a mode of conduct that fully meets its needs for survival and happiness but that is unrelated to religion or science.
The question for educators is how best to respond to or participate in this paradigm shift. Critique is useful up to a point, as a means of analysis, but is fundamentally limited by its literate nature. As Walter Benjamin noted, it is not what the moving red neon sign says, but the fiery pool reflected in the pavement. His point was that advertising has replaced criticism as the discourse most effective in an era of an image apparatus. The reflexivity inherent in critique produced the insight that a text-based epistemology has only limited access to the image. The strategy of “resistance” must be considered in the context of the seemingly limitless capacity of capitalist entertainment forms to appropriate and commodify the countercultural and subcultural styles mounted against the society of the spectacle. It is not that “resistance is futile,” but that the Western preference for confrontation may have to be modified by non-Western alternatives, such as the Chinese traditions of indirection and manipulation, developed for non-democratic conditions. W. J. T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory is an important book for the way it marks the pictorial turn that has replaced the linguistic turn of twentieth-century theory. Digital imaging and the Internet are to electracy what alphabetic writing and the book/library were to literacy.
Grammatology adds to this pictorial turn the suggestion that the Internet is the prosthesis of the unconscious mind-body. The implication is that the repressed of the bourgeois worldview (the WASP hegemony, the Protestant spirit of capitalism) will return online. Fantasy is becoming self-conscious, an explicit element in our discourse, manifested in the sex and violence of popular culture. The goal of psychoanalysis, stated in the slogan “where Id was shall Ego be,” is being realized at a collective level in the new apparatus. This effect is dangerous of course but also an opportunity for a more sane civilization, depending on how we respond collectively to the possibility of being able to write the unconscious. As Giorgio Agamben says in The Coming Community, “advertising and pornography, which escort the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the unknowing midwives of this new body of humanity.”
A difference between virtual and actual travel, notable in this context, is that dreamwork, the omnipotence of thought, and the laws of magic are to a virtual reality what the laws of physics are to our material reality. It is time to take another look (as the arts were doing throughout the twentieth century) at the pre-scientific practices of oral civilizations as a resource for inventing electracy. That William Gibson, inventor of the term “cyberspace,” turned to Voodoo possession as a metaphor for post-human or cyborg experience of memory (in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) is a sign of things to come. The key point here is that the new forms and practices will be hybrids, expressing a syncretism of the Judeo-Christian- Greco-Roman West with the Afro-Caribbean Black Atlantic. Hence, capitalist “possession” and Voodoo “possession” literalize what for Marx was only a metaphor: the commodity fetish. This literalization of a fetish economy in our rationalized secular lifeworld is similar to the conversion of Rome to Christianity. The consequences are not predictable. That there is reason for optimism, however, may be seen in the Ken Burns’ nineteen-hour documentary on Jazz currently showing on PBS. It remains to be seen what will come of the transfer of wealth to a few African-Americans (among others) currently taking place in the sports and music branches of Entertainment, equivalent to the moment of the robber barons (the Carnegies and Rockefellers). This perspective suggests that the problem of “access” cuts both ways. “If you don’t shake,” as the title of one of Buddy Bolden’s signature songs goes, “you don’t get no cake.”
This is where heuretics comes in, as an alternative to or supplement of hermeneutics. Heuretics uses theory to invent new practices and forms, as distinct from the hermeneutic use of theory to interpret existing works. The motto of educators, especially those charged with responsibility for literacy, should be the one Basho suggested for poets: the point is not to follow in the footsteps of the masters, but to seek what they sought. What Aristotle and the other inventors of literacy sought were the practices that made the technology of alphabetic writing useful and accessible to their community. Our responsibility is to do the same for electracy. “Accessibility” is a hot political and ethical issue. Again, the grammatological analogy reminds us of historical process. Like the Heraclitean river, the digital apparatus is different each time it is statistically sampled. The historical lesson is that access is relative and takes time, and must take into account the whole apparatus. Thus for example the technology of pen and paper is extremely accessible, but the institutional practices of reading and writing - the methods of logic, research, the essay and the like - are not so accessible. A pen costs less than a dollar but the community invests billions each year in the public schools that teach how to use the pen (with limited success). Meanwhile, over eighty-five percent of the public school districts in America are wired. The question now is the one Nietzsche posed: who will teach the teachers?
We do not yet have the practices of electrate discourse. Or rather, the materials of electrate rhetoric, logic, poetics, are dispersed throughout the history of Arts and Letters forms, but have yet to be integrated into an electrate equivalent of general literacy. A study such as Walter Ong’s Literacy and Orality indicates what to expect: electrate people will reason, tell stories, and make images, but they will do so in a way different from oral and literate peoples. The only determined aspect of this difference is the inevitability of the change. One way for educators to influence the change is by inventing and promoting the practices that adapt the purposes of learning (for expertise, citizenship, and self-knowledge) to the new apparatus.
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—. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
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