IMAGING EmerAgency:
A Conversation with Gregory Ulmer

The following conversation took place over email. Along with discussing aspects of our respective biographies, we focus in on "Imaging Florida," a project that Gregory Ulmer is working on with colleagues in the Florida Research Ensemble at the University of Florida. Imaging Florida is a collaborative Internet project, including a Web site and email listserv, for the design of a new role for the arts and education in community policy formation and problem solving. The project aims to explore: the analysis of a cross-section of attractions in Florida, leading to a poetics for world wide web design; the analysis of one on-going state of affairs recognized as a public problem in Florida; the design of a Web site that creates a new understanding of a community problem reconfigured as a virtual tourist attraction; collaboration with colleagues at other institutions across the levels of schooling to test the Web site as a resource for relating education to public policy formation.


Gregory L. Ulmer: What I would like us to do is to depart a bit from the conventional interview, and get a little more into a consultancy relationship. I conceive of this relationship not as two interviewers, nor as two interviewees (you are still interviewing me, so I have more responsibility in that regard).

    Rather, we would be writing in a rhizomatic way, as I understand that term. Deleuze's example that I like best is wasp and orchid. This is the saprophytic (vs. parasitic) relation that I discussed in "The Object of Post-Criticism." Meaning that you have your track and trajectory, and I have mine, and for some reason we have met at a crossroads, our tracks have converged just now.
We start writing back and forth: my goal is to explain a current project of mine, "Imaging Florida," and your immediate goal is to help me do that, with the understanding that I don't know what it is exactly. The interview is a collaboration: we both write our way together for a certain sequence of posts. If this plan sounds OK, let me know, and I will start, assuming that you have asked me: "Tell me about your project called Imaging Florida."

Joel Weishaus: You bring up "The Object of Post-Criticism," which was my introduction to your writing. In it you quote John Cage: "art changes because science changes--changes in science give artists different understandings about how nature works." It seems to me that this relationship between art and science is truer today than when Cage expressed it, some 35 years ago. Thus, from this site (and the way the word can play), tell me about the project you call Imaging Florida.

GLU: Imaging Florida is a contribution to a virtual organization called the emerAgency, which is an experimental consulting group. In trying to show you something about this organization I hope to figure out what it is myself. Its purpose is to improve the world, or if not improve the world, then at least to exist as itself, to come into being or into conversation if not into being. Some day, in the context of problem solving, someone will say: We have tried everything and nothing works very well. It is time to consult with the emerAgency.
    One way to understand this organization is to consider its genealogy in applied grammatology (as Europeans say: the AMERICAN version). Why do I insist upon applying to practical states of affairs discipline materials that are conventionally associated with the "pure" arts and sciences? The reason must have something to do with my father. This feeling I have of needing to "pay for my space" (his motto) was inherited: a piece of North Dakota winter carried in my spirit like an inoperable bit of shrapnel from the wars of growing up.
    My father, Walt, was born in 1916. After his mother (a German immigrant) died in the great flu epidemic of 1918-1919, Walt and his sister, Bernice, lived with their aunt for six years, until "Boss" (a nickname my grandfather was known by since he was four years old) remarried. Dad was raised Lutheran, but was a Presbyterian in his adult years, serving as an elder and lay minister. He was a veteran of the Depression and World War II.
    He owned his own business--sand and gravel, and concrete products--in a small town in eastern Montana, which he also served as representative to the state legislature for ten years, and county commissioner for another six. Then he died at age 67. Walt exemplified the work ethic, self-sacrifice, public service, and a general righteousness. As much as I admired Dad's integrity, the righteousness was a bit hard to take, and I assumed for a long time that after I left home, got an education, that I had put all that Protestant Republican asceticism behind me. After all, Walt (like so many other in our anti-intellectual culture) believed that teachers were those who couldn't do anything; and that the arts were parasitical. I recognize now that my desire for an applied grammatology constitutes in part an attempt to prove to Dad that he was wrong about the arts. I know that his criteria were irrelevant to the arts; this irrelevance is just the point of contact or disjunction between what the emerAgency has to offer and ractical states of affairs.
    In short, the first principle of the new consultancy when confronting an intractable problem is: bring to bear irrelevant criteria.

JW: When it comes to the work-ethic, and self-sacrifice, you could just as well be talking about my father, who died a few years ago, in South Florida. He was an aircraft mechanic during World War II, then an automobile salesman for the balance of his working life.
    Even the artists of those days, before the 1950s, had to be practical to survive. Many worked for the WPA. The nuts and bolts of Abstract Expressionism, that most socially irrelevant of schools, were forged in public art, only to revolt against its propagandistic themes. Yet there remained the tendency toward large artworks.
    Does this tend toward what is presently perceived as an emerAgency in Florida, that the largest sector of public art is advertising--billboards and the like?

GLU: The emerAgency is concerned not only with the commercialization of the public sphere, but even more with the opening of the border between the public and private spheres that is one effect of the emergence of Entertainment as the principal institutionalization of electronic technology. To explore this aspect of the emerAgency I want to think about why such a project appeals to me in the first place. A thread running through much of my work has to do with creativity. After an early interest in writing creatively I got sidetracked into studying about the creative process. Now I am trying to connect that detour back into some kind of action.
    The detour might have to do with my ambivalence toward the "world" that I felt obliged to improve. My remarks here are guided by the categories that showed up in my research into breakthrough inventors--their imaginations tended to be composite assemblages of cultural materials drawn from family experience, entertainment or popular culture materials, schooling background, and a particular community history. I am thinking of investigations by Holton or Gruber that characterize how innovators draw upon an image of wide scope--an aesthetic embodiment of their attunement with the world (what the philosophical tradition referred to as Stimmung).
    My pedagogy aims at helping students notice, map, and enhance their own image of wide scope (their own learning style--with the term style marking the aesthetic quality of the thinking). Given the heuretic principle that requires me to try out for myself whatever poetics my students are using, I have been exploring my own wide image. Perhaps I can get you to test this idea on yourself as well? You will recognize that the method of inquiry into Stimmung is what I have called mystorical. It starts with finding a memory associated with family (my memories of my father, for example, and I might have to come back to those again later). In the institution of Family we are introduced into our native language, and develop for a brief  time an oral culture.
    Very soon in our civilization the child begins to acquire an entertainment or popular culture as well, through television being present in the home. In analyzing my experience of entertainment discourse I recognize the ambivalence that I mentioned, toward having to pay for my space (as my father put it). To get an idea of what my high school experience was like, think of a synthesis of the films American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show. American Graffiti is an inventory of the mythology and urban legends of teen life. The figure I like best in that film is the "hood with a heart of gold," but that is not who I was when I was that age. There was a split between my behavior, which conformed in nearly every respect with the norms of the 1950s, and my attitude or feeling about those demands.
    The hood type identifies the alienation of my position, but The Last Picture Show gets at the emotional quality of this alienation. The one scene that best evokes the memory of my own alienation is the accident--when the mentally handicapped boy who was always sweeping the street is struck and killed by the cattle truck. This scene so hit me as a moment of recognition (in that Greek sense of anagnorisis) that I remembered it as being much longer. When I saw the film again after some time (on TV) I thought it was a bowdlerized version, since the scene is so short. It is just a brief shot, when the protagonist's glance takes in the cattle packed into the semi trailer, their frothing snouts pressed against the slatted sides of the truck, on their way to the slaughterhouse. A very existential moment (life--an abattoir).
    I investigated this feeling mystorically, using my (or my father's) identification with Gary Cooper (noted in Heuretics). I continued this inquiry in a Web site project, working with High Noon rather than Beau Geste as I had in Heuretics. The result of this inquiry, called "Noon Star," is posted on my Web site.  I won't go into it now other than to say that High Noon is about a hypocritical town--a town that does not support its sheriff in his showdown with the thugs who have come to kill him. I identified with Will Kane's (Cooper's) dilemma--the imperative to do his duty despite his disillusionment with his fellow citizens.
    The dilemma--the divide between the demands of principle and those of the community or state-- shows one of the categorical borders of the human subject; it is the border that Greek tragedy first mapped out. The relevance to the emerAgency project is this ambivalence of wanting to improve a world that might not deserve improvement.

JW: Actually, I was thinking about High Noon recently, when finishing the paratext for my recent Artist's Book, Threading the Petrified Glyph. The text reads, "Almost noon, Sunday. Tree-mottled shadows spread over the pebbled pavement, as the sun begins to heat my back." I associated this, and wrote, "Ex-Marshal, Will Kane, his new wife pleading with him for non- violence, must face four outlaws in the center of town, at high noon, as one by one, the townspeople excuse themselves from helping him. Thus, Gary Cooper plays the lone hero with no backup, in High Noon."
    So that my thoughts, first, were of his pacifist wife, and that, even though he loves her, he must face these men. But maybe this had to do more with self-respect than with duty to community.After all, these men were primarily after him. As Sherman Paul says in his essay, "Poetry and Old Age," "I think that perhaps fidelity to one's own life is the only wisdom." I would add: If this life has a wide scope.
    When you speak in terms of "wanting to improve a world," the last lines of William Bronk's poem, "At Tikal," come to mind:

to go to the far edge
apart and imagine, to wall whether in
or out. To build a kind of cage for the sake
of feeling the bars around us, to give
shape to a world.
And oh, it is always a world and not the world.

    Unlike the ancient Mayans, we have access to mountains of information, both verbal and visual, on the worlds of other cultures. We should, then, be able to envision a bigger world than our own. But can we?

GLU: We are experiencing an information explosion, certainly. There are books about everything, and if you live long enough you will discover that someone has written a book about your life. Not a biography, of course, but a book more in the style of "Know Your 3-Year-Old"--a generic report that nonetheless is uncannily close on most points. That I have come across so many books that document what I thought, felt, and said should not surprise me, since the theory I work with says that the greater part of thought takes place outside the individual, in the network of institutional behaviors and processes that organize society (the symbolic order). Identification (productive of the experience of being a self) at a deep level amounts to the taking up of a position already prepared in advance, but with the illusion that one has chosen to be a certain way (such is the effect of ideology). Anyway, while thinking about the genealogy of my ambivalent desire to improve the world, I happened upon some books that were about the two books that most influenced me while I was in high school. Reading these studies cast some light on the generic character of my experience. I have mentioned already two of the institutions of the popcycle Family and Entertainment that interpellate the individual into an order. The third such institution is School, which interpellates us into literacy.     The first book that had a really major impact on my thinking was The Ugly American. I read it as part of my preparations for a debate club speech competition.
    I now understand more my response to this book after reading John Hellmann's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. It turns out that Ugly is one of the biggest sellers of that era (over 4 million copies sold), and that it anticipates and even shapes the policy vision of Kennedy's New Frontier. Ugly was published in 1958, the year I started high school. The context for me was eastern Montana, a place that does not believe that the old frontier is done with. Jordan, where the militia were put under siege recently, is just north of Miles City, my home town. In my day it was the John Birch Society that was active in those parts. The Cold War was quite real to me and Lederer and Burdick helped me crystallize my feelings into an understanding.
    As I recall, the speech I gave imitated their jeremiad style, except that I called for saving Latin America from communism, whereas they were concerned with Asia. This influence lasted through my freshman year in college. I had planned to major in political science and economics with a minor in Spanish, to prepare me for my "mission." Then I took an economics course.One of the strongest moments of recognition for me in reading Hellmann's account of my era was his description of the young American type, the American hero, the ideal (as opposed to the ugly Americans who had fallen away from this ideal). The modern version of the type (Hellmann explains) is actually captured in its essence in Graham Greene's The Quiet American as one determined to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a world. This hero is earnest and involved, but also ignorant and silly. In the mythology traced by Hellmann, the hero (whether in the more jaundiced version seen from the outside, or the true frontier hero on his errand into the wilderness) is contrasted with the ugly American who has fallen under the spell of European decadence and corruption, preferring the city over the wilderness, personal pleasure over self-sacrifice.
    The moment of recognition--what made the recognition something like the anagnorisis of tragedy-- was not just this belief on the part of the hero in the mission or destiny of America to improve the world, but also its antithesis--the French! What I had forgotten was that while I identified with the hero, my behavior actually imitated that of the ugly American. A Frenchman is cast as the embodiment of everything the American hero despises (in conflict with my own Francophilia). This place of the French in American mythology pinpoints my ambivalence, made concrete in the fact that the only other book to have an impact on me in high school comparable to The Ugly American was The Fall, by Camus. It still amazes me that I read The Fall back then. In my high school we did not have literature in our English classes until senior year, and then only for honors or college bound seniors. The teacher had a long list of books from which we were to choose one for an outside report. I did not read much at that time and did not recognize many of the names on the list, so I picked Camus at random. It was a revelation to me, my first encounter with anything that could be described as philosophical. The closest I had come to anything like the experience was the first time I read a work of science fiction (in middle school).
    Again, I now have some perspective on that event, not only from the retrospect of having read a lot of existentialism specifically, but from a book edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony, that includes Felman's discussion of The Fall in the context of Camus's other work and his falling out with Sartre over the question of the concentration-camp universe. I wonder if my report I wrote for Mr. Boe's class is preserved in the boxes of my stuff still in my mother's garage in Miles City.
    I would love to see what I made of Camus in 1961-62. In terms of my genealogy, taking my cue from Felman's reading, it had something to do with this portrayal of a missed encounter, a failure to act, to save the woman from suicide, and the reflection on the possibility of getting a second chance to complete this unfinished experience. Felman cites the concluding paragraphs:

'O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that
I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!'
A second time, eh, what a risky suggestion! But let's not worry.
It's too late now. It will always be too late.
Fortunately. (147)

    This opposition between Leatherstocking and Jean-Baptiste traces the outline of my ambivalence; I live this aporia: I am stuck. Perhaps I am more of a skeptic than I realized--deferring action until I am sure what the consequences of my act will be. Lederer and Burdick's jeremiad called for a generation of engineer saints. That character is too close to my father's (who had a degree in civil engineering). In any case, what actually happened after college is that rather than going to Latin America to save it from the communists, I went to graduate school in Comparative Literature, seduced it would seem by European decadence, since my choice of fields was motivated in part by the desire to avoid reading American literature. To the extent that I recalled my desire to improve the world, the practical life-world, it was to be by means of the humanities.

    Unfortunately, I had no idea how this project might be accomplished. Now, at last, I am proposing the emerAgency as the vehicle for action--a hybrid, a syncretism of the opposite poles of my aporia.

JW: There is an information explosion, as you say; but whose information is it? To be in-formed, to shape oneself inwardly, is a particular and dangerous undertaking, feeding a homunculus, a "new man," or "new woman." What excitement! Until one, by degrees, forces open reality's cover.

We've been tracking someone to a hill. It is dark, and the
top of the hill (actually a mound) is obscured. I sense that
it is a place of forbidden power. My partner (we are
detectives) wants to continue, but I caution him that we
will die up there.
Suddenly there is a ditch which three of us are digging.
We find a yellow-tinted plastic windshield, which seems
Then one of us discovers a round manhole cover. Beneath it
is a deep chamber, into which two of us descend, while my
dream-ego stays behind.
However, there are fleeting images and intonations that I
actually went both to the top of the hill and to the bottom
of the hole.

    The book that surged my interest in things literary was Homer's Odyssey, which I read on my own, after being introduced to it in a high school class. The king went off to war, and in his arrogance offends the very god on whom he was most dependent to return safely home! However, it is because of this that he has his adventure. When he finally returned home his son has become a young man, and his young wife is decades older. Was he too late? Not for himself; but maybe for others.
    From this admittedly self-centered point of view, one from which we all begin, and end, our odyssey, how do we improve the world "by means of the humanities"? Or do the humanities embrace a larger agon than defined by our institutions?

GLU: Although I want to improve the world, I fear that I will only make things worse (to continue the paraphrase of John Cage).
    Odysseus at least had a name for the forces at work in his life (the gods). Psychoanalysis supplies a different set of terms (the unconscious, the drive, desire). My experience is of an imperative: I do not know how, why, or in what way I might accomplish something with my life, but this ignorance never seemed very important. Instead there was this feeling of wanting or needing to say something, anything, it did not matter what.
    Was it perhaps not an initiative on my part but an emulation? The earliest memory of wanting to imitate an incomprehensible outpouring of voice was when my father read me bedtime stories.
    The ability to look at a book and produce fascinating stories seemed like magic, a great power. Before I could read I pretended to be able to read. This trick fooled a few of my friends' mothers, who marveled at my precociousness and asked me to read to their children (why? to model this behavior?). The first time this happened (as I remember it; we are talking about preschool years) I had a moment of panic, then the realization once I opened the book that the pictures were all I needed.
    Between the pictures as prompts and my memory of hearing the story, I was able to reproduce the basic plot line for my equally illiterate and captive audience.
    The moment of emulation occurred early in high school when I got the idea that the ability to speak a foreign language was supremely desirable. From where did this idea come? In Miles City, Montana, I doubt if I ever encountered a role model for this kind of behavior. Some of the beet farmers in the area did import migrant workers from Mexico during harvest season, but I do not recall associating them with the people I intended to save from communism.

    The next example to which I transferred this desire to fill the air with mysterious speech was in college when I changed my major to creative writing after hearing a reading by a real poet  (Richard Hugo). In graduate school the equivalent event was reading theory: I wanted to be a theorist. In every case the pattern is similar: first I encounter the exemplar--the production of utterance that is amazingly beyond my own ability to produce and from a source whose nature is a mystery. The desire never settled with any particular content, mode, form, but always with the utterance of a sort not necessarily understood but whose significance was acknowledged.

    When I think how much work and energy I have put into theory (the utterance I settled on) I have to wonder; it is as if a person who loved to cut ribbons went around building monumental hospitals, civic centers and the like just to be able to be at the opening ceremony. The psychoanalytic theory of the part-object is one version of an explanation (the voice as a part-object, naming that which cannot be assimilated into a subject's narcissistic illusion of completeness). Language in this sense is the cause of my desire. Theory aside, the feeling of disproportion could relate to the belated realization that what I was after was not knowledge but (ahem) wisdom. Not the utterance after all but the wisdom of which I took the utterance as an index was the fetish. Not the stream of words itself nor the content and effect but the reserve that was their source, the reservoir, the fountain, the understanding that caused this flow that was what I desired.

    It so happens that while my mind was engaged on its fool's errand my body was taking care of matters on its own! "Better to be lucky than good," my wrestling coach used to say (to me, at least). What happened was that some years ago I started to resemble a certain stereotype of the wise old man. My hair started turning silver and falling out in my early thirties, and I have had a beard since 1965. 1965 was the turning point when my body started going its own way. Until then I had fit the stereotype of the All-American boy (in the WASP "typage"). I spent that academic year in Spain, and when I returned home in August of 1966 my own mother did not recognize me, literally.
    When I got off the bus (cross country from New York) I walked up to my mother who was waiting for me and she pushed past me looking for her son. "Ma! It's me!" I had become a bohemian. Or rather, I looked like what I thought bohemians looked like (as best a person from Montana could tell). Still, I have had some trouble with my look. A few years ago I was to be met at an airport baggage carousel by a person responsible for driving me to a workshop on the mystory. It was for an Art College. I stood there for quite some time and then finally paged the party meeting Ulmer. A woman came up to the desk quite flustered. She had overlooked me since she was expecting an artist. Not long after that I was doing a weekend conference sponsored by a city arts project and they had put me up in housing normally reserved for artists in residence. No artist was in town at the time. I tried to get the gallery to notarize a statement confirming that Ulmer had been housed in artists' quarters, to anchor this aspect of my identity. The principle was similar to Duchamp's urinal-- its sheer presence in the gallery made it art.

    I place my hopes now in this accident of nature and culture that has cast me in a role in which this look may be functional. Method actors are expert in creating or finding physical gestures or expressions that then generate the emotion they need for the part. Perhaps looking wise might lead to wisdom, if not for me, then for those who are taken in by this illusion. We all know that when Einstein did his great work he did not look like "Einstein." But the link between his accomplishments and his celebrity image (the old man) is fixed in our mythology.
    Lacanian analysis, however, warns against this kind of transference--allowing the subject who is supposed to know to stand in as a model, as a prop, for the ego of the patient. I will say more later (perhaps) about how I try to play across the type casting (even if education and therapy are different projects). For now, to complete the thought about this split between my mistaking knowledge for wisdom intellectually, and my body going for its stereotype of the wise look, I should say that I have shifted from hoping to utter anything important myself, to wanting to help students accomplish something creative in their lives. Not my creativity but the creativity of my students has become the mode of action for improving the world (or to beg the question).

JW: The year after you grew your beard, I sprouted mine. Since then I have only been without it once, when the American union boss in the Port of Yokohama wouldn't let me ship out unless I was clean-shaven. Especially because they couldn't readily grow facial hair, my Japanese friends took this as an incestuous twist on the Ugly American syndrome: Americans playing power games with each other. One's beard then--the country trying to save face in Vietnam--to the union boss, was synonymous with flying the Jolly Roger.
    Three years before, after leaving my last job in advertising--I had been a Junior Executive on Madison Avenue while still a teenager--I enrolled in UC Berkeley's Department of Oriental Languages. But I didn't stay long, as more and more of my time went to being Literary Editor of the school's newspaper, which was in the fray of the Free Speech Movement and Anti-War protests. There I found the ire of rejected writers more threatening than facing police batons!

    To be a poet was all I wanted. I remember the model that was prevalent at that time and location. Many of the poets whom Donald Allen anthologized in his classic, The New American Poetry, were, like the early rock bands, on the streets, in the coffee houses, bars, pool halls. It was the spirit of being a poet--living out of, and trusting in, one's creativity, living without a net--that captured me. For example, in 1972, with the wind picking up, three of us briskly walked Bolinas's fog-shrouded beach, Robert Creeley striding between Joanne Kyger and me, mumbling what was mostly inaudible. Yet I distinctly heard "Olson," several times, over the wailing ocean. Was he transmitting something to us? A tradition, maybe?
    A few years later I ran into Bob, and he said to me, "Remember that day on the beach?" As if something had happened! In a country grown to respect not its artists but its entertainers (a threshold, I suggest, that needs to be re-marked), I often ask myself whether I made a terrible mistake. Have I wasted my life for the fetish of enthusiasm, a corban impossible to create? But of course it's always been already too late. As Merleau-Ponty said, "We live the life we must live in order to do the work we must do."
    That you no longer hope to utter anything important seems to me to be not only after the fact, but in order to teach on the level you propose, heuretics, as you know, must be your fulcrum. What, then, is the nature of the creative actions, the eurekas you hope your students will accomplish with their lives?

GLU: Perhaps the lesson of our experience is the obvious point that to become something one must first desire it, and that this desire must be directly a part of education. My pedagogy is an attempt to model my eureka experience as a relay the students may use to get to their own similar experience. Eureka has to be learned, the same as anything else. I recognize in myself then at least two desires: to improve the world; to say something (something important or beautiful--or both). Presumably the two are not incompatible: I would say in a beautiful way how to improve the world! To accomplish this goal (but how much of this account is really a narrative--told in the past tense, with benefit of hindsight?) I entered the academy.

    Thirty years have passed since I started graduate school (1967-1997), enough to make me wonder about the nature of time or my inability to experience it as such. It has something of the feel of The Fugitive, but with none of the drama: a "wrong  man" story. In this story I am on the lam, hiding out, in disguise, except that I am not being pursued. If there is a list somewhere of the ten least wanted criminals, I am on it. The part of The Fugitive with which I identify has little to do actually with the criminal part of the story--the chase business--and everything to do with the doctor's power to do good anonymously. Perhaps it is an image of a certain kind of alienation, this chain of random, anonymous acts by which the protagonist helps strangers with their problems and then moves on?      The popularity of the series indicates that this desire is widely felt, and the people responsible for the cinema version missed the point of the series.
    I have been underground (or at least ignoring the call to public service), grading papers, for thirty years, and also learning how to say something. I did not learn what to say, but how to say it, how to invent or create or discover a way to improve the world. I do not know how to improve the world myself, but I have a way to come up with a proposal to do so, which is why I say that my interest has shifted from my own utterance to that of my students. The problems associated with this discovery are, first, how to teach someone to use the creative method, and second, the nature of what is created (there is no guarantee of the outcome). About the teaching, I learned that I cannot simply tell students what the method is: they have to discover it for themselves. Not from scratch, of course, but I have to create an environment, a situation, in which the students have a Eureka experience.

The relation between me and my students is that of a donor to a hero in a folk tale. The teacher is not a mentor but a donor (to use the term from formalist and structuralist narrative theory back to Vladimir Propp). Perhaps in person I am still too much of a mentor for the students' own good, but on-line a teacher needs to be a donor. A mentor is part of the ordinary world, but the donor is the helper figure the heroes meet in some way-station once they have entered the special world of the adventure. In this way-station (most often some kind of bar in American movies) the heroes learn the rules of the special world, and they encounter the donor who puts them to a series of  tests to measure their worthiness for the coming confrontation with the villain, the obstacle, the force that resists their desires. The donor figure comes in many guises and its attitude may range from friendly through reluctance to hostility. If the heroes pass the tests they receive from the donor a magic device that later will be used to overcome the obstacles and acquire the elixir, the object of the quest. The art of teaching is in this process of giving the students the magic tool (the method of invention).

JW: Ah. The Grail is not Knowledge (Gnosis), but holds the elixir of Invention. Its value lies not in its battered integument, in its emptiness. When you're in the Maverick Bar, and some stranger hands you an empty glass and says, "Blood of Christ," you've met a donor. It's the difference between invention and re-invention, which is downing the hemlock twice.

    Based on Fritjof Capra's book, The Turning Point, the screenplay also written by him, Mindwalk, is a dialogue between a reclusive physicist, an expatriate poet, and an ambitious politician, as they stroll around a medieval castle. The physicist reveals the universe as it indeterminately plays on the subatomic level, a fetching view of the interconnectivity of all things. A world wide web is, after all, nature's oldest trope.
    The politician accepts this holism as fact, but he interrogates the physicist as to how these insights can pragmatically better the lives of his constituents. While the poet--his ex-speechwriter--is cynical, especially when it comes to political "solutions," even as he is eloquent in his oneiric abstractions.
    Two reclusive dreamers from, according to Plato, contending fields of endeavor, who have moved to relative anonymity; and a third protagonist, struggling to wed the chaos behind reality to the civics of his calling. A cause for EmerAgency?

GLU: The third party in our conversation, Joel, is no person but the symbolic order itself, represented by the institutional discourse within which our dialogue takes place. One goal of the emerAgency is to address this collective dimension, or to use the prosthesis of digital technologies to help us grasp this new location of thinking as our civilization moves into a new apparatus (the social machine of electracy). Most of my study of the oral apparatus has been concerned with Native American culture in general, and the shamanism of the Plains tribes in particular--a figure such as Black Elk for example. Literate people experience thought as located in our heads. The Ancient Greeks experienced thought in the chest or stomach. For Black Elk, serious thinking was associated with the wind, the four winds that gave voice to the spirit of the Grandfathers. In electracy the location of thought is moving again, in relation to a new subjectivation, a new experience of identity, so that thought now is happening outside our bodies once again, or in the relation of our bodies to the infrastructure. We have to invent a practice for the interactive, collaborative, collective capabilities of the Internet. I ought to open a parenthesis here about Black Elk, to bring you up to date on a line of inquiry that I opened in "Derrida at the Little Bighorn." Producing that mystory showed me that my superego (my personal Mount Rushmore, the authority figures who interpellated me or with whom I identified) consisted of Walt Ulmer, Gary Cooper, George Armstrong Custer, and Jacques Derrida. The mystory further produced an operator that could be used to loosen the binds of duty imposed by this composite authority.
    The operator was the term ficelle, the personal message that appeared (using the paranoid critical method) on the battlefield map marking the site of the Last Stand with the letters naming the five companies that fell with Custer (F, I, C, E, and L). Ficelle among other things was a term Henry James used to name secondary characters whose function was to further the form of a novel. I interpreted the message as: look to the ficelles of your mystory (characters assigned a supporting role in the narrative of my superego). The ficelle of Custer, for example, is Chief Gall (in my mystory). The thread (another meaning of ficelle) Gall led eventually to Black Elk, whom I now think of as being from my home town, since he reported in his life story that he camped near the mouth of the Tongue River (the site of Miles City).

    I did some research on Native American shamanism, then, especially that of the Plains, the Lakota--a line of research doubly motivated by the importance of shamanism in Applied Grammatology (in Beuys and Lacan). A feature that recurred in various accounts by individual healers was how early they were first called or contacted by the Spirits--often as early as age four or five. Wallace Black Elk, a 20th-century figure who was called at this early age, was thankful that he never attended school, since he had observed that formal schooling cut off his people from access to these spirit voices. Now the importance of this information for me is that it finally provides an interpretation for an odd event in my experience. A running joke in my family is my memory of what I now understand as a contact with the Spirits described by the two Black Elks (and many others). The summer of my fourth year, when we were still living in North Dakota.
    I was in the backyard of our house, which was on the outskirts of town at that time, and two creatures appeared to me that I recognized as Shmoos. Shmoos, you know, the cartoon characters drawn by Al Capp. We stared at each other for some time: they just stood there, smiling happily, beaming, as Shmoos do. Finally I ran inside to tell my mother, insisted that she come outside to see. Nothing was there, of course.

    My theoretically informed self knows that this event must be a screen memory. The relevance in our context is the surprise I got when I found out more about Shmoos (since I had no recollection of their role in the comic strip). According to one history, "Shmoos are the world's most amiable creatures, supplying all man's needs: They lay bottled grade-A milk and packaged fresh eggs; when broiled, they taste like sirloin steak and, when fried, like chicken. As in a fertility myth gone berserk, the Shmoos reproduced so prodigiously they threatened to wreck the economy." As one character smothered in Shmoos complains: "It's the worst tragedy that ever hit hoomanity!! Bein' overwhelmed by pure unadulterated goodness!!" I started school that fall and never received a visit from the Shmoos again. How should I take this unexpected completion of one of my oldest and oddest memories?
    Is it a warning about the dire consequences of my desire to improve the world? In any case, the first project of the emerAgency, undertaken this year in my graduate seminar, was to develop a prototype for an electronic practice. The relay we used to guide the design was Greek tragedy. Tragedy is a transitional invention, part ritual and part writing (part oral and part literate) that helped the Greeks reimagine themselves as citizens of Athens rather than as members of separate tribes. Theater as a space focused the collective attention in a new way, and demonstrated the interconnection between individual folly and collective disaster--the two kinds of blindness (ATH, or ate). This relay (using a feature of the transition from orality to literacy to imagine what is happening in our own transition from literacy to electracy) suggests that our practice similarly could use the internet to focus collective attention on our contemporary version of ATH. What is our own understanding of the link between individual and collective blindness? How do we account for the persistence of error in our lifeworld even after centuries of adopting scientific method as the dominant mode of collective reason? In this context we might see that Hamlet acts in a scientific manner by refusing to act until he knew for sure what was the case (rather than just accepting the spirit world at face value, without questioning its claims).

    There are several different schools of thought, no doubt, about why we find it impossible to avoid error and folly in our individual and collective experience. Until recently science remained committed to a belief in progress (perhaps this belief is still the official one), but such a view is difficult to sustain at this point in the late twentieth century. Religion holds on to its view that this world is an illusion, one way or another. The epistemology of critique, which is at least within the division of knowledge relevant to the emerAgency, seems to be somewhere in between these extremes, with its ideological account of illusion. The ideological explanation for folly and calamity (ATH) was at first that people did not know what they were doing. When the enlightenment method of criticism--exposing the scene of power behind the appearance of belief failed to heal the blindness, the reason given was cynicism--they knew what they were doing was an error, but they did it anyway. The theoretical position adopted by the emerAgency, finally, is that of poststructuralism, especially in its French version.
    Psychoanalysis is relevant in the context of our relay, in any case, since it is an updating of Greek tragedy (thinking of Freud's retelling of Oedipus). The unconscious is a literate concept of ATH. One of the most interesting notions within French psychoanalysis for our purposes is Lacan's concept of the extime--a neologism combining external and intimate, that is just what we need to name this relocation of thought into a multibodied infrastructure. Lacan used the figure of the moebius strip, among a variety of other topological shapes, to evoke the simultaneously inside-outside quality of experience.

    The point of departure for the emerAgency practice is this theoretical account of the extimatic nature of experience. Again we are dealing with a literate remake of an ancient notion of correspondence between the macrocosm and microcosm: as above, so below. As you might expect, the modern correspondence is based on difference as a relationship rather than similarity, if that makes any sense. What is inside and what is outside, the border between the inside and the outside at the individual and collective levels across the categories of identity (me and not-me, self and other) is disjunctive, non-similar but systematically so (the legacy of literacy that reduced identity to the border of my physical body, to individualism). In any case, working as we are with the humanities, with the specialized discipline of arts and letters, the emerAgency recognizes in the cosmology of the extime the most basic quality of language understood in aesthetic terms. If a law, principle, or axiom could be generalized from a composite of statements made by artists about creativity, it might come down to a saying such as the outside is inside.

    Wallace Stevens shows us a blackbird thirteen ways but the effect has little to do with birds and everything to do with what it feels like to be human. Such is the grounding insight of the emerAgency project for a new consultancy, in this match between the structure of a lyric figure and a theory of reality as extimatic.

JW: Can this also be enunciated as "ex-time"? The brain, remember, stripped of its processes, has no self-awareness. No inside; no outside. No-Mind, as Buddhists say. Weird that it should have evolved this way! And fortunate, as it feeds us the meaty conundrum on which humans have been dining, like vultures on road kill, for at least 100,000 years.
    Steven Mithen (in The Prehistory of the Mind) points out how Supernatural Beings who announce themselves to humanity always have two things in common. They are different enough from us to be able to violate natural laws, while delineating themselves enough for us to be able to grasp their presence, even while sustaining a distal immutability. In other words, they can fall into time, into our perception, into the circumstances of tragedy (the rituals of, and the epics about), without their essence deserting the timeless realm from which they generate.
    As you say, there is this dichotomy, one that is always already everywhere. Yet the border between inside and outside is not merely disjunctive, but eruptive. It is always moving, assessing, theoretically repositioning itself. It is always--as Deleuze, who leaped out, points out--becoming-us. Mindful of this dynamic, and dropping, for a moment, into electracy's current lingo, can you launch a specific avatar that emerAgency may encounter with reference to your imaging of Florida?

GLU: Imaging Florida is an experiment with the Copernican revolution in consulting proposed by the emerAgency. Conventional consulting, based on the positivist preconceptions about utility, addresses a middle dimension of problems: things are going wrong, how can we fix them. The history of these fixes is not impressive, with each new solution producing further problems, as if entropy itself were the "problem" consulting was trying to fix. A shorthand version of this view would point out that the Holocaust, after all, was a solution (the final solution). The point of evoking this context is not to discredit rational problem-solving as such, but to call attention to a feature of it that is never absent from the process, no matter in how benign a form. The Copernican revolution in consulting is to step back from this direct approach to problem-solving in public policy formation (for example, "throwing money" at a problem).
    The new consultancy attempted in Imaging Florida proposes that instead of the idea that the consultants' knowledge explains the problem, it is the case that the problem explains the consultant: a reversal of the hierarchy, similar to the shift of point of view from the geocentric to the heliocentric theory of the solar system. The phenomena look the same from either perspective, but the understanding of the situation is radically different between the two positions.
    Here is the point of intervention for arts and letters. The entire modernist project in poetry, for example, beginning at least with Baudelaire, has worked with the premise that the outer material world may serve as a metaphor or figure for the internal or spiritual experience of a person. The tradition of correspondences is a principal part of the Western tradition in general, of course, all the way back to the Pythagorean music of the spheres. I could cite Walt Whitman here, but Rilke's "Spanish Trilogy" comes to mind as just one example:

From me and every candle flickering
in the dimness of the many houses, Lord:
to make one Thing; from strangers, for I know
no one here, Lord, and from me, from me,
to make one Thing; from sleepers in these houses,
from old men left alone at the asylum
who cough in bed, importantly, from children
drunk with sleep upon the breasts of strangers,
from so much that is uncertain and from me,
from me alone and from what I do not know,
to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing
which, earthly and cosmic, like a meteor
gathers within its heaviness no more than
the sum of flight: and weighs nothing but arrival
                                                                    (ll. 7-24)

    Consultants who have not made one Thing out of themselves and the life situation they are attempting to understand will never know what they are doing (are blind, suffer ATH). This lyrical practice does not replace the empirical but supplements it, to produce a hybrid (the emplyrical). The new consultants ask what disaster might reveal about us individually and collectively. What tragedy brings into intelligibility or at least into representation is that folly in individuals, mistakes, errors, magnified collectively, produce historical disaster. The timing of the remake of the Titanic disaster is significant for us, carrying as it does a lesson similar to that of the tower of Babel. Commentators point to the Titanic as exemplary for what it reveals about the limitations of human efforts to master nature and life itself. The theory guiding the emerAgency is that the problems addressed by conventional consulting are only one dimension of what in fact is a three dimensional phenomenon. Every problem coexists with a potential disaster (the limit of human power that marks the borders of the Real) and with the trauma that founds human identity. This way of characterizing identity formation as traumatic signals the psychoanalytic theory we are using (an explanation of which is beyond the scope of our conversation; the psychoanalytic metaphor for it is "castration" anxiety).

    The upshot of this understanding of the tripartite character of   problems is the recognition in our method that we ourselves are part of the problem, and our blindness (ATH) about the true nature of this participation accounts for why we are unable to make good on the Enlightenment goal of putting an end to error. Our method is to study problems with the same analytical care of  conventional consultants, but with the motive of seeking in this information possible correspondences for the feeling we have about the world to find out our disposition, our attunement, to bring into understanding the state of mind, individual and collectively, that is complicit with the forces that resist us.
    We do not expect utilitarian consultants to take this reversal of the explanatory direction very seriously; it is aimed at education, the public schools, as a practice that might be able to bring institutionalized learning into the process of making public policy. One important reason why collectively we allow ourselves to cooperate so much with the forces of entropy is because the people responsible for it work anonymously. If the emplyrical study of disaster were a feature of the standard curriculum, a great many people in positions of authority would come under a new kind of scrutiny, not after the fact (what did you do in the war, Daddy?) but during the process.
    At the heart of the pedagogy is a certain view of human motivation: a young person might be more interested in investigating the superfund cleanup in her community if she recognized the lyrical principle that the details about the dangers to the environment provided a complex expression of her own sense of being. I hesitate to call the kind of writing or production such a student might undertake "poetry" or "art," but there is no doubt that these aesthetic practices must be combined with the empirical ones before we are able to grasp holistically the true condition of our problematic world.

    A number of faculty and students at the University of Florida are now at work on Imaging Florida for the emerAgency. "Florida" here just means "wherever you are; in your own locale," which is what Florida is for us. The Florida Research Ensemble is designing a prototype for a Web site that may be used by anyone as a point of departure for developing their own version of the new consultancy. The slogan we are field-testing is Problems B Us. We would like to hear from anyone interested in testing the effects of this point of view.


Works Cited

American Graffiti. Universal Pictures, 1973.
Allen, Donald Merriam. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. New York: Grove Press, Inc.; London: Evergreen Books Ltd., 1960.
Beau Geste. Paramount Pictures, 1939.
Bronk, William. "At Tikal." Light and Dark. New Rochelle, NY: Elizabeth Press, 1975.
Camus, Albert. The Fall. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.
Capra, Fritjof. The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
---. Mindwalk. Paramount Pictures, 1990.
Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.
The Fugitive. Warner Bros., 1993.
Greene, Grahame. The Quiet American. New York: Viking Press, 1956.
Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
High Noon. United Artists, 1952.
The Last Picture Show. Columbia Pictures, 1971.
Mithen, Steven. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
Paul, Sherman. "Poetry and Old Age." Hewing to Experience. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. "Spanish Trilogy." Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and trans., Stephen Mitchell. New York: Random House, 1982.
Ulmer, Gregory. "Derrida at the Little Bighorn." Teletheory. New York: Routledge, 1989.
---. Heuretics. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
---. "The Object of Post-Criticism." The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed., Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA.: Bay Press, 1983])
Weishaus, Joel. Threading the Petrified Glyph. Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, University of New Mexico.

First Published: Postmodern Culture, September 1998.