Here, Hear Ulmer (Or, U Might Learn Electracy, Really)

Today professor Ulmer visited University of South Florida to give a talk on electracy and have a discussion with our graduate students. I had the pleasure of introducing Professor Ulmer. Here’s my introduction (I have some notes from the talk that I will post tomorrow).

Here Hear Ulmer, or U Might Learn Electracy, Really!

I consider it an honor and a pleasure to introduce Professor Gregory L. Ulmer.

Professor Ulmer visits us from the University of Florida, where he’s a professor of English and Media Studies and participates in a number of critical, aesthetic, and institutional projects concerning electracy, a term he coined to target the transformation of agency and the public sphere by television, hypertext, new media, and digital communicative technologies.

The explication of electracy and generation of inventive methods for electrate netizens are the central concerns of his two most recent projects— his 2005 Electronic Monuments and 2003 Internet Invention. He offers an anecdote early in Internet Invention I find particularly relevant to our own kairotic moment (as scholars and teachers in the humanities living during the political, economic, and social challenges in Wisconisn, Michigan, Ohio, and likely coming to a Florida near you).

In the opening to Internet Invention, Ulmer relates telling his pragmatic father (proud possessor of a degree in Civil Engineering) of his decision to change his major from Economics and Political Science to English. The decision was not well received. For his father, “real work added value to the world by taking something and making it useful to society,” something to which the poet had no claim. This personal scene provides a sense of the purpose that unites all of Professor Ulmer’s work—the line between art and instrumentalism, between exploring our values and creating objects we value. This search continues to inspire scholars and teachers in rhetoric and composition; Ulmer’s post-pedagogy and electracy influence recent projects by Thomas Rickert, Sarah Arroyo, Byron Hawk, Jeff Rice, Bradley Dilger and others. [Learning and discovery only begin when we stop teaching, when we allow students to write and stop telling them what’s right.]

Ulmer’s electrate methods explore the relation between the personal and the public: exemplified by the two genres central to his electrate EmerAgency: the MYstory and the MEmorial. His methods are reflective of feminist research methods elaborated by Sullivan and Porter; they work in hopes of a new discipline of H/human(ities) that, instead of aiming at the work of self-fashioning, invites a playful self-exploration (what I might call, channeling Levinas—self-de/Facing).

Aristotle’s theory of argument (the topoi) is built around the idea that we inhabit common “places” of argument. And, of course, one thing that 20th century theory, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology highlights is that, peeling back the layers of our psycho-social onion, we are arguments “all the way down” (or, as professor Ulmer puts this, that “Problems B Us”). Ulmer’s work in Internet Invention stresses this–the four components of the Mystory [career, home, entertainment, school] interrogate four different personal-cultural domains (to stick with the geographical discourse). Ulmer’s mapping of the subject points to the places common to our childhood, our school, our entertainment, our neighborhoods. The question his work poses is: where else might I have gone? Where else might I go? Where else might I will-have-been?

The value of such a “geographic” approach is that it allows introspection without the immediacy of critique. There is no default command to criticize in Ulmer, and those with more traditional expectations of cultural studies often object to the work on these grounds. Here I would agree with Thomas Rickert, who emphasizes that the questions brought to Ulmer’s work by those in Cultural Studies “demonstrates the extent to which Ulmer has achieved a real advance” (Acts 116).

His methods can be disorienting at times, involving complex networks of anagrams, acronyms, puns and neologisms. But disequilibrium is the goal—only by transgressing commonplace expecations (rhetoric’s insistence upon the Aristotelian topoi) that we can move to inhabiting new (dis)positions (vital possibilities of the Timaean chora). Get off the beaten path. Rhetoric makes spaces, for welcome, confrontation, creation, relation. Ulmer argues in Applied Grammatology, how Derridean deconstruction aims “to submit ‘reality’ to the extremes of human imagination” (27). Such a re-imagination “might have” Ulmer qualifies, “the power to guide transformation of the lived, social world” (Of Grammatology 27).

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