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?


  1. 1) Excellent summary/elucidation! I really think that more people would have had a stellar time if we had all read your summary in advance. (Time travel?)

    3) Like I told you, my favorite part was the meta-theme of randomness and unexpectedness brought about by his random numbering of points. What does that say about electracy, I wonder?

    V) Every time he said "entelechy," I pictured the "intellikey" that my wife uses to get into buildings at Rollins. Didn't get a chance to mention this to Ulmer!

  2. Ha ha. I'm sure he would embrace the entelechy/intellikey puncept! I think the random numbering of points was a sort of literate imitation of electrate phenomena like hypertext (that is, to attempt to replicate the constant and random assault of images, sounds, ideas, etc.--but he had to do it in a linear way, since reading is an oral/literate function). But I want Zardash to be real.

  3. " In other words, declares Ulmer, Black Swans are communication to us from our machines.."
    The divination mention ties into Ulmer's reading of Chinese History; the YiJing (Book of Changes) and Daoism. He brings up daoism in his textbook, and I've seen him talk about the origins of writing in China being for the purpose of establishing divination rituals. The thing is, either he doesn't really know what he's talking about, or he's deliberately leaving out key aspects of certain concepts and practices, and only using what fits into his preconceived theory. I still like him, but at times he's off. Yeah, divination was important, and writing did serve to preserve practices, but it had a lot more to do with establishing/'creating' ancestors and keeping track of an expanding family tree and pantheon of gods and spirits. This was for divination, yes, but the writing aspect was tied to creating ancestors...there's a lot of scholarship on this, and I'm not going to try and summarize it here. Chinese History is pretty awesome though, I recommend studying it. Why is this important? It's an example of him making a clear assertion about something--in this case the reason Chinese people invented their writing system--that is just well, askew and shaky, yet he presents it as though it's firm and then keeps building upon it. He does it a lot. A LOT. Also, this notion of "our" "machines" communicating with us...cmon; the main reason it's irksome is that he essentially takes the divination aspect out of Chinese tradition, leaves out among other aspects their very interesting notion of "Heaven", and replaces it with "our machines." I think Ulmer has a lot of interesting things to say. He's worthy of hearing out, and has some things to offer. I'm just advocating that the reader recognize that he's kind of an oddball (who isn't?) and isn't the most reliable historical/scholarly reference--and it must be said, because, frankly, he IS compelling. I'm still studying him, and have a ways to go. Still, he seems to kinda...I don't know...he kinda puts himself and his theory at the center of the universe, so to speak. I say this because of the way he presumes to speak in authority on such diverse areas... but it's not fully formed, his understanding...and the way he tends to pick and choose what to include..and more importantly what to leave out...Anyways, I aint a hater. i like Ulmer.

  4. Hi Logan,
    yeah, even that may have a lot to do with the structure of electracy. With information coming at us at the rate it does, we all pick and choose, either consciously or unconsciously. I don't think Ulmer would claim to be a scholar of Chinese history/philosophy, and I'm sure that many of us, when we get away from our central disciplines, might stray from the point as seen from within the outlying discipline. Nonetheless, your point is well-taken. Thanks!