Monday, March 28, 2011

Gregory Ulmer, Electracy, Divination, and More

My excellent professors at USF (Moxley & Santos) were able to get the incomparable Gregory Ulmer to come to campus last week, and I was able to make it to Tampa (for once) to attend his speech and subsequent meeting with grad students. Last semester in Santos' New Rhetorics class, we read Electronic Monuments, and at the time, I was really puzzled by Ulmer's connection of rhetoric and divination. My response to this puzzlement was to write a paper that I sort of like.  So, this blog is my comments on Ulmer's comments as heard through Electronic Monuments and the paper that I wrote.

Ulmer is interested in "heuretics," which he defines as the logic of invention, but I wonder about the term "logic" in this definition. The inclusion of divination in rhetoric reminds us that logic is only one (small) tool in the rhetorician's toolbox. In the "electracy" (the electronic environment that has succeeded literacy as the cultural milieu of the 21st century), all avenues of invention must be explored. Ulmer listed "Black Swan" events, those rare and unpredicted disasters such as 9/11, Katrina, and the BP spill, as potential sites for rhetoricians to work. Consultants failed to predict these events; "emerAgents," electrate consultants working pro bono (such as Ulmer himself) should begin to use rhetorical tools, including divination, to provide solutions that traditional consultants have not been able to provide.

The gift of rhetoric to the world was that deliberative reason made citizen participation possible. What happens to deliberative reason in the electracy? For one thing, citizen participation is more possible than ever, but as citizen voices become more numerous, it is potentially more difficult to be heard. For another, "truth" has a small and uncertain niche in the conversation. (witness repeated calls for the birth certificate which has been produced ad infinitum, or, more universally recognized, the special task force that reassured Hitler that Jews indeed were human). Ulmer hopes that electracy could be used to bridge orality and literacy (as he broadly defines them, orality perpetuates a religious worldview/metaphysics, while literacy perpetuates a scientific worldview).

Electracy has allowed (forced?) people to experience ourselves differently, as we construct our identities not only traditionally, but online. Freud used the term unheimlich to describe the uncanny; the result of alienation, the uncanny is the result of making public that which should be secret. The electracy allows for, indeed almost requires, the revealing of Too Much Information, resulting in a near-global sense of the unheimlich, a translation of the ancient Greek concept of Nemesis. Nemesis is "the fatal," that end which cannot be escaped. This brings us to the entelechial question within electracy. For Aristotle, the entelechy (ultimate end) of humanity was happiness; for the early Church, salvation and union with God. Literacy proposed evolutionary humanism, a gradual improvement of the human condition; unfortunately, the tail end of the era of literacy, as embodied in postmodernism, questioned not only humanism, but the existence of any telos (entelechial goal) whatsoever. This is one question that has yet to be resolved for electracy: does it have a goal, or is it characterized by complexity (no telos, only emergence)?

One notable characteristic of electracy is that it removes the element of time. Like the firehose of the twitter stream, information comes at us so quickly that there is no time to process it; Ulmer thus identifies epiphany as the epistemology of he electracy. Here lies a key tie-in with divination; divination is the making of meaning from apparently random images and ideas as they present themselves to the electrate individual (if I were discussing  literacy, I would call this individual a reader, but we need a new verb to indicate the characteristic activity of electracy). In other words, declares Ulmer, Black Swans are communication to us from our machines; it is up to the newly electrate individual to learn to "read" and respond to these communications. Ulmer credits Baudrillard with defining the methodology of the electrate as figurative; again, meaning must be "read" in to signs/symbols. Thus the world becomes a location for the making of meaning, of metaphor, of poetry, of epiphany. Rather than the solitary epiphany of the modernist poetry, though, the electracy calls for a collective meaning, shared through the electrate apparatus.

Can't get enough Ulmer?

Friday, March 11, 2011

I went to a conference this week on Information Fluency.  Before I submitted a proposal for the conference, I didn't really know what information fluency was; I thought it was probably synonymous with information literacy. After doing some reading, though, I discovered that information fluency combines ideas from information literacy, critical thinking, and technological literacy.  The conference meshed perfectly with my sort of newly emerging identity as half-fish, half-fowl (that is a librarian/rhetorician).  Although I did attend a couple of sessions on information literacy, I also heard some outstanding presentations on new media and our students.

Some ideas that I came away with wanting to follow up on:

  • Wonder wheel

  • Personal geography: we all construct an "internet" that we feel at home in.  This idea meshes with my ideas on sources and place, so as I revise for ACL, this may well find its way in.
  • Ambient Findablility

  • New Media Reader

There will be more-- these are just from my notes from the first two days.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rattling my Bars

This week I had a chance to change my life.  A situation occurred (see Meeting the Dragon) that resulted in what appeared to be a fork in my road, a chance to stay on the path I'm on or to veer off in another, very appealing direction.

Boy, I was tempted.  I woke up happy for a couple of days straight thinking about all of the choices that were suddenly open to me.  There was a little skip in my step. I sounded out a couple of friends, my boss, and my most trusted advisor.  I prayed.

Suddenly last night, I had a revelation.  I get bored when I have a week of vacation.  If I didn't have this job that I love/hate, I would probably drive my poor family mad.  Even though I come home frustrated plenty of nights, I come home feeling good plenty of nights too.  I have a job that always challenges me, since even when I think I've seen everything, something I can't imagine comes up and I get to figure out how to handle it.  I work with the best folks in the world. I have the opportunity where I am to make a difference, sometimes.  I realized that even with the door to the cage wide open, I don't need to run through it.  Sometimes the cage is actually the sanctuary.