Writing in Extimacy: A Review of Greg Ulmer’s Internet Invention
It’s hard to understand exactly why there are so few experimental writing pedagogies in the university. Perhaps it has something to do with Deleuze and Guattari’s intense description of thought: it snarls, squeals, stammers, cries, kicks, and babbles. “If thought searches,” they write, “it is less in the manner of someone who possesses a method than that of a dog that seems to be making uncoordinated leaps” (55). Thought as such is difficult, chaotic, and disorientingfar from the comforting language of a university mission statement. Maybe this is why our writing texts are so often safe reformulations of method. No snarls, no squeals, no stammers, no uncoordinated leaps to confront. Another new writing textbook arrives in the mail, and we don’t even bother to browse past the table of contents. We already know that there is no new thought here.
Yet Gregory Ulmer’s latest textbook, Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy, begins precisely with the kind of thought that Deleuze and Guattari describe. As the title suggests, Ulmer does not ground his work in traditional literacy, but rather in the developing apparatus of electracy. Readers familiar with Ulmer’s earlier works, most notably Teletheory, will recognize this line of reasoning. As Ulmer writes in the preface to Teletheory, “We need a new genre that will give us better access to the thought that video has already given us to think, if not to represent in alphabetic writing” (xii). His goal is not to explain or critique video (here we might substitute the broader term digital media for video) but to think with it. Ulmer suggests that we now possess an electronic reasoning that is different from linear alphabetic logic. The new media change our ways of thinking.
Internet Invention is thus built on the premise that there is a correspondencea homologybetween digital hyperlinked media, the lateral reasoning of creative thinking, and what Ulmer calls the "'dreamwork' of entertainment narrative" (6). Unlike many other digital writing texts, Ulmer is less interested in critiquing new media than asking how new media enhance and extend personal and social creativity. Furthermore, Ulmer suggests that electronic reasoning actually reorients our notions of community and togetherness. Not only does electracy inform a new epistemology, but “electrate peoples who experience thought as virtual image will organize collectively in some new way that has not come fully into view” (8). As such, Internet Invention offers an experimental pedagogy that asks students/users to help invent the future of (public) writing. This is a writing text that has no fixed direction; its pedagogy is ceaselessly re/assembled by users.
Consequently, the book’s goal is to help users learn the logic of extimacya simultaneous space of exteriority and intimacy that influences the way individuals relate to their culture. Writing extimately means learning how to bring a singular kind of personal, electronic reasoning to bear on public problem solving. Internet Invention is a pedagogical singularity, never fully common (public) or proper (private). Users are asked to invent (a) rhetorical agency within our post-representational, post-critical moment.
The work of Internet Invention, then, is necessarily complex. In the book’s introduction, Ulmer carefully and thoroughly introduces many of these difficult premises. Here he explains that academic reasoning, grounded in alphabetic literacy, serves the following disciplinary needs (in order):
These needs continue in electracy, but they are differently articulated. In fact, says Ulmer, the order becomes inverted, making self-knowledge the most important “need” in this new pedagogy. “[T]he first communication of an electrate person is reflexive, self-directive,” writes Ulmer (5). Internet Invention takes an old line for a new ride: Know thyself. Yet the personal writing here is never isolated or merely intimate. As Ulmer repeatedly reminds users/readers, “The relationship with problems in the home and in the stories consumed as entertainment, not to mention the role of problems and solutions in the historical evolution of one’s community, informs the imagination used in applied reasoning in one’s work” (126). In the age of digital media, the neat boundaries between the personal and the social are lost in an/other kind of being-together.
Accordingly, Internet Invention asks users to create personal inventions of image-apparatuses for dealing with the world. In fact, the main (perhaps the only) assignment of the book is to design a “widesite,” or a website for discovering a signature style of creation. The first five parts of the book help students design the widesite through a method Ulmer calls a “mystory.” This processfirst developed in Ulmer’s previous workasks users to document their relations to four institutions: career, family, entertainment, and community history. Internet Invention is divided according to these topics. Part I is “Career Discourse,” Part II is “Family Discourse,” Part III is “Entertainment Discourse,” and Part IV is “Community Discourse.”
In each part of the book, Ulmer provides “lectures,” or short readings and discussions from theorists who have somehow imagined the extimate space of thinking, writing, and being-together. Readings include entries from Barthes, Derrida, Bataille, Genet, Blanchot, and Agamben. The various writing exercises offer ways of testing these individual theories through personal application. The writing exercises are also small steps toward building the ongoing “widesite” project. For example, following two entries on “epiphany” from Genet and Blanchot, users engage in a writing-imaging exercise: “Put into epiphany form a scene or memory from personal experience” (63). Each exercise is followed by an explanation of how the process relates to the logic of extimacy. As Ulmer explains in the epiphany exercise:
As students document their personal relations to these institutions through images and text, they are thus becoming another kind of rhetorical agentan egentthrough explorations of these relations. Once students become rhetorical egents, they are ready to take the call of public issues. Something calls out to them, stings them emotionally. (Ulmer takes the issue of binge drinking as his paradigmatic example.) But answering the call is not a matter of engaging rhetorical stases. Instead, the egent performs a “testimony” to the many bodies and desires involved. The egent thus treats public issues not as problems but as aporia: an irremediable dilemma created from the intersection of official and unofficial value systems. Rather than arguing for a solution (or cause or definition) of binge drinking, therefore, students/users create a testimony. The issue-oriented writing exercises are testimonial heuristics:
While Internet Invention is a policy-oriented textbook, therefore, it is clearly not a thesis-driven rhetoric. It does not ask students to take positions, but only to invent continuously. Internet Invention is perhaps the only rhetoric/writing textbook to truly put faith in the creative potential of thought and language. For this very reason, however, it is also extremely difficult. Ulmer’s text is experimental, which means it has not been sanitized for your protection. Users will necessarily find Internet Invention’s language dis/re/orienting, for electracy itself is a reorientation of literacy. Instructors who are unfamiliar with Ulmer’s previous work may not have the patience necessary to walk through such a difficult book. Though I hope Internet Invention is indeed “the first of a new generation of writing texts,” as Michael Salvo’s blurb says on the back cover, I fear that its squeals, stammers, and uncoordinated leaps will scare away many instructors.
Another potential problem I see with Internet Invention is that the book must be read in a linear sequence. Though each part may be read as a stand-alone chapter, the theories build upon each other from section to section. Skipping chapters decontextualizes the exercises and writing assignments that refer to discussions in earlier chapters. While reading the book as a whole is not an issue for upper-division courses, this feature makes it an improbable first-year writing textbook for most instructors. At the same time, general education instructorsespecially graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts with heavy loadsmay not have the time, resources, or background knowledge to translate such difficult ideas. This is not to say that Internet Invention cannot be successfully used in a first-year writing course. Ulmer regularly uses this pedagogy in his own first-year composition and general education courses. Nevertheless, Internet Invention will require a great deal of comprehension and demonstration from the instructor.
Even for upper division writing courses, the theory itself may need
to be constantly contextualized and translated for students/users. As
labor intensive as this work may seem, the results are likely to be
very rewarding. Not only does Internet Invention place value on creativity
and invention, but it also encourages users to connect worlds that are
commonly seen as disconnected. Ulmer wants students to understand how
each area of our life affects the others. This is an answer to the old
(and legitimate) student question: How will I ever use this class’s
knowledge in the real world? For this very reason, Internet Invention
is also well suited for a Master's level composition theory course.
Here the textbook can be augmented with supplemental readings, including
Ulmer’s previous works. Even if Internet Invention is not written
for graduate-level courses, it still operates as an active demonstration
of an alternative writing pedagogy.
In spite of its potential difficulties and challenges, however, this book is important. Instructors must wrestle with the theory here, for writing is moving in this directionwith or without us. If we are willing to suspend our disbelief and commit to the difficult task of thinking differently, Internet Invention promises to be a rewarding textbook for the coming composition.
Ulmer, Greg. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003.
- - - . Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video. New York: Routledge, 1990.