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.
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
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
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
JW: Actually, I was thinking about High Noon recently, when
paratext for my recent Artist's Book, Threading the Petrified Glyph.
reads, "Almost noon, Sunday. Tree-mottled shadows spread over the pebbled
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
helping him. Thus, Gary Cooper plays the lone hero with no backup, in High
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
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
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.
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
Was he too late? Not for himself; but maybe for others.
GLU: Although I want to improve the world, I fear that I will only make
(to continue the paraphrase of John Cage).
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
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
he did not look like "Einstein." But the link between his accomplishments
his celebrity image (the old man) is fixed in our mythology.
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.
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
wailing ocean. Was he transmitting something to us? A tradition, maybe?
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.
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.
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.
GLU: The third party in our conversation,
Joel, is no person but the symbolic order itself, represented by
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.
I did some research
on Native American shamanism, then, especially that of the Plains,
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
GLU: Imaging Florida is an experiment
with the Copernican revolution in consulting proposed by the emerAgency.
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
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.
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.
American Graffiti. Universal Pictures, 1973.
First Published: Postmodern Culture, September 1998.