Sunday, March 20, 2005

CCCC, Day One: Monumentally Interesting Presentation

Greg Ulmer, whom I've never heard of before this (am I ignorant? Very well, then, I am ignorant. I am large, I am hella ignorant.), gave a presentation called "Writing Multimodalities within Literacy and 'Electracy': A Converstion with Gregory Ulmer." Several acolytes spoke, too, and posed a question to Ulmer. He's been around awhile--he got a Ph.D. in comparative literature with Robert Scholes at Brown in 1972. His books include Electronic Monuments (forthcoming from U of Minn. Press this year); Internet Invention: from Literacy to Electracy (2003, Longman); Heuretics: the Logic of Invention (1993, Johns Hopkins); Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (Routledge, 1989; 2nd ed., 2004); and Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. For a look at the kinds of things he does--including visually-rich genres he's come up with--check out this website: (if you click on the picture of the man behind the words "Florida Research Ensemble," you'll reach material about Ulmer himself).

His talk will be podcast, I believe, at this web address:

First of all, this was a very interesting, engaging, and exciting presentation. Second of all, from trying to summarize it to others even immediately afterward, I realized that I can only give a very marginal account of the presentation as a whole. So I encourage anyone who's interested in visual rhetoric to look at the presentation directly.

A couple of what were, to me at least, big ideas:

The Greeks, when they invented written language--a phonetic alphabet--invented a technology/tools (alphabet, writing); an institution, the school; and new forms of identity emerged from this fusion of technology and institution, which is to say that the Greeks moved from being a tribal, primarily oral culture, to a city-based, citizen-oriented, written culture. Ulmer notes that "ever feature of this apparatus was invented," and that we need to do the same for the visual language that surrounds us. As heirs of Aristotle, we need to take up and examine, and to a large extent, create, the apparatus--we need "to seek what they (the Greeks) sought."

He calls fluency in the visual "electracy,"--"it may not be a great word, but it's my word," he said--and says it's not just about the media, which is at this point the only apparatus we have. It's not just the digital equipment. An electrate citizenry will have a rhetoric, a logic, and a poetics to work with visual language. (For the Derrideans: you can see in the word "electracy" both the idea of electricity and Derrida's "trace.")

He thinks we need to resuscitate the idea of heuretics--the idea of using theory to invent (opposed to hermeneutics, use of theory to interpret). You can see an implicit critique here of forms of writing that merely ask students to interpret visual language; he envisions students of the rhetoric for an image technology as being able to invent and compose in that language.

Ulmer feels optimistic about the sound-image-color-motion saturation of our culture, and here's why: he feels like this maps very well to the features of the creative mind (as opposed to the hierarchical, linear, analytic organization of the left brain, which is most of what school is). He says that electracy, from the point of view of literacy, looks like a nightmare, like destruction; he argues that it will be not the destruction of literacy but its transformation.

Listen, there was a ton more, even though I realize I'm sounding like I've joined a cult. But I am going to get a book and read it, and I am going to try to find out more. However, I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid, at least not today.


  1. Very interesting. What it immediately reminds me of is Walter Ong's book "Orality and Literacy." I was really into orality/literacy stuff at Western where I was a TA for an educational linguist. The thesis that writing is a technology that structures our cognition is interesting because we hardly bother to think about writing as an invention anymore. Ong goes on to make the argument that print culture had a similar transforming effect on the way we think.

    I still remember the first day of my rhetoric course with Susan Miller. I mentioned Ong and she sort of freaked out, labeling all the orality and literacy stuff essentially racist. Her argument, in short, was that orality literacy studies (particularly the work of the anthropologist Jack Goody) was used to essentialize the differences between oral cultures (read Africa, read primitive) and so-called civilized cultures.

    I think my response was something like, "That's stupid." The rest of the class watched as Susan and I argued for the rest of the class paper about whether or not orality/literacy studies was or was not racist. Good fun.

    I checked out the link and I'll watch the presentation. Looks interesting.

    One possible problem I have, though I still have to think about it. I recall Kathleen Yancey making a similar argument at the TYCA conference. Her gist: there's a sea change in literacy out there and English department ignore it to their peril. I do think that English departments need to attend to the way writing is actually produced and recieved in the world--by our students. But don't they already have a great deal of visual literacy? I asked Yancey this and suggested that what students need isn't visual literacy by textual literacy.

    Still, I found Yancey's presentation compelling, and I am not prepared to say that the visual and textual are mutually exclusive.

  2. I so wish I had been there to see you say "that's stupid" to Susan M. I was well into a rather snide sentence, and censored myself just there.

    One point one of the acolytes made was that of course, writing was subsumed under the sign of orality, right? So to some extent hasn't writing sort of tried to subsume the visual under its sign as well? See "visual literacy."

    I still think composing visually, or with attention to the visual, is another practice altogether than reading the visual, which everyone can do now, in their sleep, on drugs, upside down, while frying French fries. And I would say that people don't necessarily have that [literacy][for lack of a better word], and I would say also that the folks who have less access to the digital technology have least access to some of the tools.

  3. I like your last argument. Certainly there's a difference between being a passive consumer of the visual and a critical consumer/producer of visual rhetoric.

    I also think we need to do a better job talking about the effective coordination of the visual and textual. Lynn is teaching Persopolis, a recent graphic novel about Iran, in her creative writing class this semester. I think I might use a graphic novel in my literature course (perhaps American lit) next year.

    I think some regard the graphic novel as sub literary--but it seems to me to be a vital emerging form that, a literary form that might actually appeal to students.



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