What Does Ulmer Want? Image, Haiku, and what it all has to do with Electracy, Connecting, and W~R~I~T~I~N~G

Why Ulmer? Why Internet Invention? Why now?

As to the first question, “Why Ulmer?” the answer is pretty simplistic: I find Ulmer’s unique breed of pedagogy to be exciting, insightful, bold, challenging – and fantastically quirky and intelligent. Scholars who dare to be as avant-garde, original, and elusive as Ulmer are what motivate learning – the risking, the mastering, and, given time, the enhancing of our studies, pedagogies, lives- at least this is how I see it.

My answer to the second question, “Why Internet Invention?” can be traced back to my Contemporary Rhetorics course at USF, in which – in the spirit of postmodernist pedagogy – we were “allowed” to select our own reading assignments (this occurred during the second half of the course, in which we focused on the present legacy of contemporary rhetorics; our “Postmodern Freedom Rock” section). As to “Why now?”, I’ve decided that because Ulmer will be visiting USF in a few months (March 25) and because I want to be able to use this opportunity to engage with him about the nuances of his theory and pedagogy (i.e. it’d be nice to be able to say something smart) I thought that it would be wise to revisit Internet Invention as a means of re-immersing myself in the pedagogy that so excited me not too many months ago.

So, what does Ulmer want?

One of the first and most general distinctions between Ulmer’s revolutionary (?) pedagogy and that of the traditional institution is the distinction between connecting versus cultivating. Whereas the traditional institution seeks to cultivate, Ulmer’s pedagogy – Ulmer’s “electracy” seeks to connect. To connect, for Ulmer, essentially means that a student must disconnect him/herself from the inherent obsession (for cultivation; the breeding of “good” and “obedient” students who seek an absolute, defined truth/answer/”right”) of education: i.e.,  Ulmer would ask us, “Why does everything you learn have to immediately show its utility?” (quote adapted from a 2010 lecture by Dr. Marc Santos).


Why connect? Because connecting achieves the “subject-ification” of things (versus the objectification of things, like words, students, realities). In connecting via the electracy – specifically, with images (analogous to haiku … more of that in a moment) “electracy extends poetic and art imaging into a general practice of language, used by all citizens for quotidian, personal, and specialized thought and expression” (Ulmer 47). What about haiku? What does haiku have to do with images (in this case, photographs of things) and the way in which photographs of things can enable us to think about how to elicit moods and alternate meanings? Why do this?

Ulmer explains that haiku – like the photograph – is undevelopable. He writes, “A trick of vocabulary: we say ‘to develop a photograph’; but what the chemical action develops is undevelopable, an essence (of a wound), what cannot be transformed but only repeated under the instances of insistence (of the insistent gaze). This brings the Photograph (certain photographs) close to the haiku … because the haiku is undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion. In both cases we might (we must) speak of an intense immobility …” (Ulmer 45).

So how is it that the image and the haiku extend … into a general practice of language … specialized thought and expression”? These electrate equivalents are so diminished – so brief – so fleeting – so simple – that they open up … in a way that intensely complicates, in fact completely eludes, meaning. (Ulmer explains that “punctum” – that which stings or pricks one emotionally – (Ulmer 44) is what is to be felt, what is to cause disturbance – that which is disequilibriating – what is extended and added to “a new dimension supporting a new order of thought and expression” (Ulmer 47). Latour calls this “lengthening the list”. Ulmer calls “electracy” and “extension” and “connecting” with electrate identities in which we learn first about ourselves and then about how we can be re-purposed, reinvented – better connected – free to invent the future of W~R~I~T~I~N~G – and of ourselves.


Concerning “connections,” the break-down can be articulated as the difference between utility and resistance – or, even more simply, the difference between what you know and how you think. Whereas the culture of school, the culture of the traditional institution, is concerned with what you know (a standard methodology of “learning”) Ulmer’s pedagogy – electracy – resists the pressure to conform by proposing a new approach to learning, one which focuses on ME and how I can reevaluate ways of thinking, and apply that thinking to broader cultural situations and ideas. To make Ulmer’s point more clear, I’d suggest that what Ulmer ultimately wants is for education to speak to the broader experiences we face in life. Ulmer’s concern with how you think (versus what you know) means that my responsibility to participate in the solving of public and community problems begins with ME; it begins with understanding the “why” and “what” of my stories (the discourses of my career, family, entertainment, community) as they always have – and will always continue to – invent and re-invent my self. Essentially, electracy is concerned with making a self-portrait – a pleasurable experience – a practice “… as old as the humanities itself: the unexamined life is not worth living” (Ulmer 8)


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

2 responses to “What Does Ulmer Want? Image, Haiku, and what it all has to do with Electracy, Connecting, and W~R~I~T~I~N~G

  • Dan Richards

    You – and Ulmer, of course – are right to point out that oftentimes “utility” is placed on “the other end of the spectrum,” this case opposing connection, or resistance. Utilitarian philosophies, admittedly, can be repulsive at times, but I think this is because we – and I think Ulmer – might need a bit more expansive definition of utility. Ulmer might not want his classroom to resemble a garden, cultivating knowledge in students until they blossom until Truth flowers, but he does want informed citizens for the betterment of communities (I hesitate to say “society” here). His educational agenda formulates students as “tools for change.” The question Santos posed was “Why does everything we learn have to show its immediate utility?” The utility is not immediate, but it is there. There enough to not place utility on the opposite side of the spectrum. I read in Ulmer a sort of implicit utilitarianism, a sort of “Let’s make them awesome, radically different people now for a better world tomorrow.” This is what Ulmer wants. This is what I want. This is what Dewey wanted.


  • Gary Hink

    Hi Karen,
    hopefully you’ve found clarifications and new elucidations by now from GLU’s talk this week (of which maybe you could post a recap?).
    Incidentally, I’m presenting on electracy and pedagogy next week at CEA in St. Pete, discussing my teaching with Internet Invention and heuretics.
    So although perhaps late/redundant, some clarification of your points from my understanding, FYI:
    First, to say electracy is concerned with making a self-portrait
    is to conflate two essential aspects, important to distinguish:
    in Apparatus Theory, Electracy is the emergent paradigm distinct from Orality and Literacy; this manifests in three ways, 1) technology/media; 2) institution(s); 3) subjectivity.
    The Mystory and Emblem (WideImage) are two ways the “egent” works in electracy, in forms native to the apparatus rather than erroneously applying the practices of literacy. These forms are the “intellectual self-portrait” that you mention; they are less “ends” in themselves than “means” for self-aware work: the approach thus enabled proceeds with writers’ intellectual-affective attunement (“mood of thought”).
    The latter is the crucial difference from education in literacy and image in the consumer logic of spectacle (as well as the belief and judgment of orality) — however, this all remains too abstract until applied toward a “Target” object of study in electrate work.
    In past semesters, I’ve conducted experiments in which the goal was for students to re-invent or update a concept from their Disciplinary Knowledge/Discourse (e.g. school major or career field) in electracy, following the creation of their emblem and mystory.
    This term, the class is not composing a mystory, but we’re still using the emblem/figure in order to create a MEmorial (as assemblage testimony), undertaking Ulmer’s Electronic Monuments book and “EmerAgency” consulting.
    From both cases, the point to emphasize is the reflexive and affective creation of “academic” work in electracy, the praxis (“applied theory”) enabled by Ulmer’s method and perspective.
    As you note, the intervention into “how you think” and the sense of responsibility versus detachment (e.g. impersonal “clinical” disciplinary discourse) potentially produces the radically different orientation for work with digital media — alternative to the hegemony of spectacle (image) and Reason (science/literacy).
    Finally, you can probably see the problem with saying
    I’d suggest that what Ulmer ultimately wants is for education to speak to the broader experiences we face in life.
    Right now, working in electracy in the institution of school (“cathedral of reason” as I tell my students) is analogous to practicing empirical-rational method (science) in church — as Ulmer has identified through his study of the invention of writing (“Grammatology”) and has theorized through Apparatus Theory.
    The digital-social network emerging as dominant today suggests the potential for collective subject reflexivity and action — premised upon changing conditions for possibility at levels of techno-media, institution, and subjectivity (e.g. if everyone has mediated identity practices, whether a blog or social-network account or generally an “avatar” — Ulmer’s latest major project underway.)
    Hope this helps — especially for continuing your interest in writing/praxis and electracy!

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