Gregory Ulmer, Internet Invention. New York: Pearson, 2003.
Gregory Ulmer's Internet Invention can be accurately described as a composition handbook for students working in
an increasingly visual culture--provided that one follows Ulmer in understanding the newfound prevalence of the image not as
a shift in the relative status of specific media, but rather as the ascendance of a particular set of signifying
rules. These rules readily accommodate the printed word while nonetheless
exploding the premises
of expository discourse that the academy continues to equate with the act of written composition. Indeed, the crux of
Ulmer's important and illuminating project could be said to reside in his distinction between pedagogical
technological potentiality: since the appearance of Applied Grammatology in 1985, Ulmer has sought to delineate
the growing epistemological deficiencies of our print-based educational apparatus in the face of its own digital-age
contexts. Yet in doing so, he has strived to avoid the easy conflation of discursive structure with technological means--an
effort that manifests itself, for instance, in Ulmer's persistent characterization of the academic essay not as the
inevitable legacy of alphabet technology, but rather as a particular form of "interface," a specific code developed by
Renaissance scholars as one means of harnessing the cognitive properties facilitated by the written sign.
In Ulmer's view, then, it is incumbent upon researchers working within the contemporary humanities disciplines to craft the
digital-age counterpart to the essay itself--a project entailing not only the development of specific technological
prostheses (for example, the extension of the print-based educational apparatus into such settings as the video production
studio or the networked learning environment), but also the conceptualization of altogether new forms of epistemological
code, the conceptualization, that is, of a specifically digital rhetoric that would accommodate any technological medium,
including paper and pen. On this matter, it is worth noting the case of the "mystory," the calculatedly post-literate genre
that Ulmer first fully adumbrated in his 1989 book,
Teletheory, and that he and his students at the University
of Florida initially performed in traditional (that is, un-wired) classrooms: the point of the mystory has always been to
think electronically regardless of the medium in use--that is, to augment the modes of inductive and deductive reasoning with
the use of conductive methodologies, the formulation of knowledge through the associative channels afforded by the
function of the signifier.
For Roland Barthes, it was of course the photographic "punctum" that best displayed the infusion of putatively
representations with individuated meaning and that demonstrated, in turn, the linking of discrete chains of knowledge
through the short-circuitry inherent to the signifying field. And in developing his own trope of "conductivity," Ulmer's
intent is to raise (or lower, as the case may be) this associative mode of knowledge-production to the level of academic
method. As such, the purpose of Internet Invention is not simply to facilitate the incorporation of sound and
image within the context of the expository text, but rather to cultivate
a post-expository method reflective of the
polyvalent conduction of meaning explored by Freud, Barthes, and Derrida and evident throughout the practices that comprise
the university's contemporary contexts. As Gerald Graff began to argue in the mid-eighties, advertising has now usurped the
university as the arbiter of cultural logic; Ulmer's contention, in turn, would be that academic writing lags behind
precisely because it has yet to allow for the metonymic sliding--the repetition of sounds, images, and letters
across otherwise disjointed contexts--that comprises the fundamental code of the advertising discourse as such.
In assessing Ulmer's commitment to the issue of pedagogy, it is already enough to observe the quotidian circumstances
surrounding the appearance of the book in question: handled by the educational division of Longman Publishers and featuring
the kind of companion website now more or less mandatory for college writing guides, Internet Invention is
indeed meant to serve as a student textbook. Even more indicative of Ulmer's investment, though, is the site of his
departure from received pedagogical practices: while Internet comprises a different kind of textbook, this
difference has little to do with its substitution of the webpage for the writing pad. Much more to the point,
Internet comprises a first-person composition manual (to paraphrase Ulmer himself), a revelation of
methodologies through the enactment of the institutional, conceptual, and personal problems that have spawned them. Hence,
while Ulmer joins a sizeable group of scholars in emphasizing the growing gap between academic discourse and the practices
that surround the contemporary academy, he stands out for his enactment of a distinctly post-expository method.
Here, though, we must proceed by way of caveat: the revelatory act in question has less to do with the kind of personal
agency espoused by Peter Elbow than with the retroactive effect denoted by Lacan as the mechanism of capitonnage;
what's to be revealed to the student of Ulmer's digital pedagogy is the instantaneous linking of public and private modes of
experience through the repetition of signifiers across conceptual contexts. In Internet Invention, this form of
revelation, as it were, is demonstrated through the same mix of popular and personal discourses that has marked Ulmer's
previous books (with topics ranging from Derrida to Elvis to Ulmer's boyhood in Eastern Montana). In this case, however,
these fragments serve to guide the student's movement through a four-step cycle of "career," "family," "entertainment," and
"community." Through various exercises interspersed amongst the aforementioned mosaic (the complexion of which is
unabashedly mediated by Ulmer's ample formulations of both the principle of conductivity itself and the forms and methods by
which it might be exploited), the student is directed toward the production of four correlative websites.
Significantly, this progression is to be driven not by the employment of subtending concepts but rather through the
recognition of isolated, trans-contextual details (through the circulation, that is, of the gram, the signifier removed from
the presumption of fixed subtending meaning). The hoped-for result is the production of a "widesite," a constellation of
text and image derived through the aforementioned succession and used, in turn, as a themata in the formulation of
professional problems. In one of Ulmer's many personal examples, the sound of the steel guitar links the country-western
music of his boyhood Montana to the hybrid pop music of the contemporary African continent (the sound in question having
traveled to both locales from its origins in the Hawaiian method of slack-string guitar tuning). The resulting connection
affords Ulmer an idiosyncratic structuring of the various problems
connoted by the disciplinary concept of postcolonialism.
In this manner, Internet Invention mounts an epistemological formalization of the generative use of
extra-disciplinary patterns that researchers of intellectual creativity have ascribed to the work of innovative thinkers in
every field. Here, then, resides the site of Ulmer's intended break: despite its delivery through the familiar interface of
the expository text, Internet Invention asks the student/reader to perform a distinctly extra-expository
blending of word, sound, and image, a gesture that does not usurp the writing of literate discourse so much as enlist it in a
process otherwise obfuscated through the academic espousal of expository knowledge production.
As already suggested, Ulmer's project rests not so much upon the
putative obsolescence of literate epistemology as on
the mobilization of methods previously excluded by the pedagogical extolling of expository ends. And as such, the difference
between the subtending presumptions of the academic essay and the generative code inherent to the "widesite" cannot be
plotted temporally. Media theorist Rita Raley makes a similar point in a productively different manner: in her analysis of
the widespread endeavors to discern between (analog) text and (digital) hypertext, Raley notes that any attempt at the binary
classification of the two (in terms of their material or ontological differences, for instance) already signals the default
invocation of a decidedly analogical method. Alternately, then, Raley formulates the distinction in question through a
conceptual inversion of sorts: beginning with the notion of the textual object as that which bespeaks its disciplinary and/or
methodological foundations, Raley characterizes hypertextual production as that for which the condition of textuality has
simply become prerequisite. As Raley puts it, the analog/digital divide can be said to exist strictly as the
precipitate of the movement from the one to the other--with the caveat that it is precisely this anchoring of
meaning upon its own anamorphotic trace that defines the hypertextual experience as such.
Where this inversion becomes illuminating with respect to Ulmer's project is in its implicit formulation of analog
representation as a foreclosure of sorts, as a deviation from the "baseline" condition of the hypertext. Within Ulmer's
oeuvre, this same conceptual reversal becomes evident in his
frequent references (particularly in his earlier works, such as
Teletheory and Heuretics) to the modern suppression of metonymic methods of knowledge production.
It is not simply that Ulmer advocates a digital-age return to the pre-literate use of poetics; rather, the point not to be
missed (a point that Raley can be said to illuminate by way of analogy) concerns Ulmer's differentiation between method and
potential--his realization, in other words, of the delimited status of the expository code relative to a range of
potentialities that was already inherent in the era of literate discourse.
What this analogy underscores in turn, however, is the internal horizon of the mystory itself, the lacuna of Ulmer's
pedagogical narrative. For once we differentiate between rhetorical interface and technological potentiality, then why
wouldn't we want to locate this split within the literate apparatus itself? In other words, having learned from Ulmer the
importance of distinguishing between epistemological method and material specificity, why should we necessarily look to
generic alternatives to the essay? Shouldn't conductive knowledge-formation be expected to function within the form of the
modern essay despite this form's pedagogical subordination to the fantasy of exposition?
We can pursue this point further by way of a quick return to Ulmer's core impetus. As Ulmer suggests, one of the best
rationales for the widesite is the growing need for a means of knowledge
production that would effectively mime the
postapocalyptic condition of ruin in which we now operate. In delineating his method, then, Ulmer takes as one of his
models Freud's schematization of the dream mechanism--that is, the psychoanalytic theorization of the linking of latent and
manifest fragments (or ruins) through the purely associative interactions of visual and textual signs. In the aforementioned
case of the disciplinary problem of postcolonialism, for instance, Ulmer's point is that his investment in the issue derives
not from an objective survey of the global cultural-historical landscape but from the conductive linking of discrete contexts
through their confluence within polysemic signifiers ("I hated the piles of rocks at the Sand and Gravel plant, but I loved
the new rock music on KOMA that we could hear in Montana at night" ). In Ulmer's
words, it is the metonymic pursuit of the signifying thread that leads to conceptual epiphany.
Here, then, lies the essence of Ulmer's crucial contribution. In conclusion, however, the trajectory of his most recent
offering can be both corroborated and qualified through a consideration of our academic responses to the public crisis of the
9/11 attacks. As we now know, attempts to place the attacks within pertinent historical contexts merely tended to feed the
hegemonic fantasies that our various historiographical expositions sought to dispel (as evidenced, for instance, by the
backlash against Susan Sontag's New Yorker commentary). But consider, in turn, Seattle journalist Charles
Mudede's chronicling of African-American reactions to 9/11. Throughout the wide range of views represented within Mudede's
September 2001 article, one begins to recognize a recurrent expression of anger toward the attackers' disregard for the
domestic victims of American policy. In other words, the position that emerges in Mudede's piece effectively
circumvents the false choice between patriotic solidarity and global sympathy--and it does so through
the generative "revelation" of a new chain of knowledge.
Mudede's article is entitled "Black Flag," a nice example of conductivity in and of itself. But one could argue that the
epistemological significance of the position described in Mudede's narrative becomes clear only once it is read
say, Martin Luther King Jr.'s proclamations of a violated American dream. King's strategy was to invoke the American way
itself as the context for a new articulation of its own antagonistic failure, its own intrinsic incompleteness. As such,
King's rhetoric further exemplifies the tenet of generative epistemology, the associative linking of fragmentary "ruins" toward
the intervening reformulation of public issues.
The point, though, is that in doing so King merely mobilizes the very form of logic that afforded the emergence of the
national community in the first place: the predication of new discursive fields upon their own lacuna, upon a
purely intrinsic antagonism. Here then, it perhaps becomes necessary to augment the mechanisms of condensation and
displacement with the function of the impossible "navel" that Freud posits as the anchor of the dream structure itself: in
the seminal case of the emergence of the French republic, for instance, the experience of nationalism erupts precisely as a
generative expression of its own incompleteness. Likewise, in Raley's analysis of the
comparative status of digital representation, it is precisely this retroactive emergence of the trace that becomes
recognized as the zero-degree of the hypertextual field itself--with the important caveat that it is this "field," as
it were, that comprises the logical foundation of the modern episteme as such. With respect to the implementation of
Ulmer's project, the above juxtapositions underscore the possibility of recognizing conductivity as a function that already
subtends the modern act of writing. In light of Ulmer's own demonstration of the distinction between electronic thinking and
electronic media, then, the continuation of the project enacted in Internet Invention appears too important to
remain displaced onto the anticipatory form of the mystory. In the immediate future, the range of the widesite might
well be gainfully extended to the domain of the freshman research paper.
Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature
University of Minnesota
COPYRIGHT (c) 2004 BY Charles Sheaffer.
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1. This formulation of the generative basis of nationalist discourse is derived from
chapter three of Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy. London: Verso, 1985.
Mudede, Charles. "Black Flag: The Black Response to America's Tragedy." The Stranger. 25 Oct. 2001. 14 Dec.
Raley, Rita. "Reveal Codes: Hypertext and Performance." Postmodern
Culture 12 (2001). 26 Nov. 2002 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pmc/v012/12.1raley.html>.
Sontag, Susan. "Talk of the Town." The New Yorker. 24 Sept. 2001: 24.
Ulmer, Gregory. Applied Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
---. Heuretics: the Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
---. Internet Invention: from Literacy to Electracy. New York: Pearson, 2003.
---. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video. New York: Routledge, 1989.