Whether by necessity, tradition or desire, it is a fact of our present situation that the arts have become intimately tied to education. With TEACHING IN THE MARGINS Full Stop seeks to further explore the implications of this reality, the ways the writing happening now is influenced and influences the teaching of reading and writing. Further, at a cultural and historical moment when funding for arts non-profits is increasingly being cut and University presidents are dethroned for not moving fast enough, the question is no longer should the way artists and educators operate change, but how?
With this in mind, we sent our questionnaire to writers and curators, academics and educators, with an eye open to the interface between innovative artistic practice and progressive pedagogies, taking stock of the untapped potential of these unconventional ways of knowing, discovering how art pushing borders creates new spaces for teaching and learning at the margins.
Gregory L. Ulmer is Professor of English and Media Studies at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses in Hypermedia, E-Lit, and Heuretics. He is also the Joseph Bueys Chair in the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Ulmer’s books include Teletheory (1989), Heuretics (1994), Internet Invention (2003), Electronic Monuments (2005), and most recently Avatar Emergency (2012). He is also involved in a collaboration with the Florida Research Ensemble called EmerAgency, a virtual consultancy.
Why did you become an educator? Who or what has been the biggest influence in your approach to teaching?
My response to your questions will be round-about, “circumspect,” understanding “circumspection” as an alternative to “inspection.” Detectives are inspectors; educators may be circumspectors. I recently published a book, Avatar Emergency, that attempts to draw some lessons from my career as a teacher and scholar. Its disciplinary goal is to take advantage of current usage, the appropriation of the term “avatar” from Sanskrit and Hindu religion, to name a new experience of identity emerging online. A principle of my work in media studies is that communications technologies are just one dimension of a three-part matrix of invention, including not only equipment, but also institution and its practices, and identity formation (individual and collective). The invention of literacy in Classical Greece included not only alphabetic writing, but also school (Plato’s Academy) and self (including the democratic state). The actual behaviors and attitudes of “avatar” in online practice so far conform rather to “brand” or branding, so my work shows how the tradition of “avatar” in its larger historical meaning offers some guidance for moving beyond current practices to new behaviors beyond a literate self.
The first example of “avatar,” or relay as I prefer to call historical instances, is recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, one part of the Mahabharata telling of a civil war. The warrior Arjuna, leader of one side, when all the forces are gathered and prepared to engage, has misgivings and questions his role, seeing many family members and friends among the opposing troops. At that moment his charioteer, Krishna, Arjuna’s best friend, reveals himself as god, or as avatar of Vishnu, the one who descends at a time of crisis, when the world is in a state far-from-equilibrium. “Avatar” means “descent,” referring to incarnation, and every tradition has some version of it, including the Christian one, obviously. In the Gita Krishna imparts Hindu wisdom to Arjuna, explaining to him how the world is, according to that tradition. Dharma, after all, is “duty,” which in practice means that Arjuna must become the warrior that he already is. He has no choice but to fight. “Death” in any case is an illusion. The Western tradition is somewhat different, if you recall Athena warning Achilles not to go with Agamenon to Troy, since his destiny was that he would die there. Odysseus tracked Achilles to the countryside where the hero was hiding out, disguised as a woman, and shamed him into doing his duty.
I read Dharma Bums (published 1958, the year I started high school) as a young man; Kerouac and the Beats expressed a certain ideal for my generation, and continue to represent something “American.” Kerouac’s beatitude is the opposite of the Gita, or gives it an existential turn. The Beats rejected the hegemonic ethos of middle class life, ironically turning to the East as an alternative, to become seekers of another way. The alternative attitude they represent may be syncretic also, but continues a stance initiated in nineteenth-century bohemian Paris. To experience avatar has something to do with the demands of duty, understood now not as something ultimate and sacred, but as ethos, imposed by culture, habitus, tradition. I am reviewing my own decision in an historical context, framing it with knowledge retrospectively. The French and American revolutions replaced the aristocracy with the bourgeoisie as hegemon. Historians point out that the bohemian counter-culture was born more or less simultaneously with middle-class propriety, so bankers and bohemians constitute a unit (often banker parents and beat children). Our current paragon, Steve Jobs, incarnated this co-dependency nicely, demonstrating in his career what some historians characterize as the cunning of history: Jobs evolved from Dylanesque drop-out to creator of the most successful corporation in history.
How does this review of our paradoxical or agonistic ethos apply in my own case? I grew up in a small town in eastern Montana. The institutions of any community are designed to interpellate individuals, to shape them into “native” citizens. America turns out “Americans”; China produces “Chinese.” But it is complex. The institutions are not all on the same page (Family, Entertainment, School, have primary responsibility). By the time I left high school on my way to college I was alienated in general, and specifically repelled by middle class existence, despite or because of succeeding in its terms. Later I understood that “alienation” is a corollary of life in Western post-industrial society. The alienation is due to a contradiction in the interpellation: Entertainment through popular culture promotes the aristocratic ideal of the hero (Arjuna), but the economic order offers commerce as the way of life, in various guises. Given recent statistics showing the rapid decline in English majors and the rise of business majors to nearly a quarter of all graduates, this alienation apparently is no longer so prevalent.
The one institution that in retrospect most influenced me was the Carnegie Public Library, ironically funded by the philanthropy of a robber baron. The library represented for me a haven from both ideals (hero and commerce). The film I identified with was High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane. It is the story of a hero betrayed by his merchant community. Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wister, Frederic Remington consciously recognized the contradiction and were somewhat successful in creating a new American mythology, the hybrid ideal of the cowboy manager. It didn’t work for me; something was still missing from our ethos. In college I recognized the university as the closest embodiment of a heterotopia, a third way, and decided to pursue an academic career (without really understanding what that meant). Regardless, today I am as bourgeois as the next person.
How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed?
A PhD is a license to learn. My degree is in Comparative Literature, and I was hired at the University of Florida to teach Humanities (Western tradition from Greeks to the present). Teaching the Sister Arts got me interested in cinema. After teaching film for a few years, along with courses in composition, I had a McLuhan moment (having read Gutenberg Galaxy as an undergraduate) when I realized that English Departments were missing their calling. We continue to reproduce Aristotle (which is fine for literacy), when what our civilization needed was the equivalent of literacy for what is now called new media. Mediated images were becoming a predominant site of cultural life, and our citizens needed not just to consume media, but become “literate” in media. This was in the 1970s, and I had in mind the series of recording and communications inventions that are part of the industrial revolution, up to and including television. The Japanese poet Basho supplied a motto for this project: not to follow in the footsteps of the masters, but to seek what they sought. My role in a Research I University should not be only to reproduce what we already know, but to create or invent what contemporary society required. This attitude to knowledge creation is conventional for research institutions: it is the justification for their existence.
There already existed movements promoting “media literacy,” but I soon realized that this phrase is misleading, to the extent that it attempted (understandably) to appropriate media to the lifeworld of literacy. Literacy, however, is an “aparatus” (as I mentioned before), and it is troubling to contemplate a media apparatus transforming not only the equipment of communications, but also the institutions of learning, and even of identity (individual and collective) — as happened before in the historical shift from orality to literacy. A representation of what is at stake in such shifts may be found in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There it was the Pyrrhic victory of the Catholic Church against Science. What is the equivalent today? The event has not happened yet, but it will be a showdown between the hegemonic institutions of Religion and Science, coexisting uneasily in the modern state, on one side, and the emerging powers of Entertainment Corporations on the other. So far this is fertile ground mostly for science fiction (Snow Crash or Neuromancer).
The insight into the nature of apparatus was a source of optimism for me, since it shows that an apparatus is an assemblage, with multiple sources of invention. Given the nature of our society, we notice primarily the technological inventions, and assume a kind of technological determinism of a benign sort. We believe that practices of the equipment will take care of themselves, or that existing institutions will adapt and adopt. We fail to realize the lessons of history: that entirely new institutions, practices, and behaviors will and are emerging, that will not eliminate but will supplement and challenge the lifeworld of literate civilization. What has guided my teaching, beginning in the 1980s, was the understanding from apparatus history that there is a role in the invention of the rhetoric, logic, poetics of media for Arts and Letters disciplines, and of the invention of behaviors associated with the experiences of online milieux, of social media, multiplayer gaming and the like. The coming civilization is not determined, but is invented, created, signed and dated, in every respect, open to the future, dystopian or utopian, it is up to us.
I introduced a term for the digital apparatus, to call attention to the multidisciplinary nature of the invention process: electracy. The term mimics “literacy” in its formation and usage (people are electrate or anelectrate for example, just as they are literate or illiterate). The term combines “electricity” and “trace.” “Electricity” refers to the power running our equipment, which we sometimes take for granted; “trace” is a keyword in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, that pushes the theory of signification beyond the linguistic sign into a post-medium effect whose nature we do not yet fully understand. For better or worse, the Liberal Arts disciplines as they developed historically are interpretive, and not oriented to invention. In fact, undergraduate courses in most disciplines concentrate almost exclusively on the present state of knowledge and its verification, while neglecting the story of discovery, of how the knowledge was created. There is a consensus in media theory today accepting if not McLuhan’s particular version of events, at least his declaration that we are in a post-literate culture. The theorists agree on the need for new logics, new modes of thought and action native to our global communications society. What is missing is any practical account of how to invent these new practices.
The first need therefore was to introduce a pedagogy and poetics of invention. To address concerns about the difficulty or impossibility of teaching invention to undergraduates, I proposed a pedagogy for media authoring called “mystory” (designed and tested in Teletheory, 1989). In a book entitled Heuretics (1994), I proposed a poetics for inventing media practices, using a term for the “logic of invention” that is in the O.E.D. but classified as “obsolete,” paired with “hermeneutics,” the logic of interpretation. I used the poetics to generate a practice called “choragraphy,” generalized from a collaboration on an architectural design by the philosopher Jacques Derrida with the architect Peter Eisenman (documented in Chora L Works, 1997). Most of my seminars now apply these forms and practices to media studies. Meanwhile, colleagues continue to call for invention, in superbly argued books, artifacts of literacy, with few suggestions for how the university might bootstrap itself into an electrate institution. My fear is less that we may end up playing Church Fathers to some Entertainment Galileo than that we (the Arts and Letters disciplines) will fail to seize the opportunity to play a leadership role in the electrate future of learning.
Sir Ken Robinson makes the claim that the current American education system constructs the boundaries of learning in a way that makes true creativity impossible. In your experience, what is the relationship between arts and the education system or the academy? Symbiotic? Parasitic? Ambivalent? From your perspective, how does the American education system constrain the potential for innovative creative modes of thinking, creating, and writing?
The arts have a narrowly defined place in the academy, within the analytical literate structure dividing learning into isolated silos, the divisions of knowledge with their various subdisciplines. This organization was necessary within the apparatus of literacy, as the only way to manage information overload with the conventions of conceptual thinking (books and libraries). Everyone agrees in principle that literacy is no longer adequate to the scale of information production and management. Much attention is being given to semantic web ontologies, hoping that text-mining databases will read our books for us. There is little if any attention being given to the electrate practices necessary to develop the skill-set students will need to collaborate with these intelligent environments. One of the biggest constraints is also the most recalcitrant because it is just the worldview within which we address the apparatus shift, similar to the difficulty a religious worldview had in knowing what to do with science. Given the one-dimensional utilitarian values of our cowboy manager culture, every problem looks like a job for engineers.
In the state of Florida, the governor (Rick Scott) has joined the chorus of calls for an emphasis in education on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. The state has a program of “Bright Futures” merit-based scholarships (funded by lottery profits), and Governor Scott has suggested that these be awarded only to STEM majors (the present policy does not specify any required major). This point of view is as popular in certain circles as it is benighted. The theory of electracy shows that the “metaphysics” of the new apparatus was invented in the cabarets of bohemian Paris in the nineteenth century, in Montmartre and environs, origin of modernism and vanguard revolutions across the arts. Montmartre cabarets are to electracy what the academies in Athens were to literacy. The shorthand version of this point is just to say that there is a correlation of aesthetic design, creative logics (lateral thinking and the like) with hypermedia technology and cut-and-paste software. The apparatus transforms concerns about the ontology of art, sparked by avant-garde experiments (“but is it art?”) into art as ontology as such. Art is not just for “artists” anymore, but is the basis for thought, learning, inquiry, a new mode of inference specific to new media usage across the disciplines and everyday life. Education has yet to act upon this vision, remaining at the primitive stage McLuhan noted, in which content of the new medium is the old medium. Certainly computers are omnipresent in our classrooms, but confined to the “horseless carriage” impasse of “media literacy.” Coursera is a great idea, but it is not yet electrate, instead using the Internet as a broadcast or delivery vehicle for the old wine.
How might this situation be remedied? The depth of the problem, of the blindness of our ethos, may be seen in the fact that Governor Scott seems unaware that the actual economy of Florida has much less to do with STEM disciplines than it does with what I call the H’MMM disciplines. Florida’s economy has everything to do with Entertainment, Disney of course, but tourism and related leisure industries in general. The H’MMM disciplines include Movies, Music, Media. We could appropriate the classic slogan for Campbell’s soup to promote these disciplines: “Mmm mmm good!” modified into the interjection “H’mmm,” by addition of the Humanities, suggesting some perplexity or thoughtfulness about the nature of the popular arts. By most accounts the last area of true American dominance in the global economy is associated with Hollywood, and entertainment products in general. The blindness of the ethos is apparent here as well, beginning with the problem of piracy. There is a serious trade imbalance with China, in part due to piracy, the difficulty of enforcing copyright and the ease with which H’MMM products may be stolen. Imagine what would happen if Walmart refused to pay Chinese factories for the warehouses full of manufactured goods that it imports. Yet Americans show a similar attitude. They are willing to stand in line to pay $500 for an iPad (a STEM device), but they expect the H’MMM content to be free. I am using the term “blindness,” alluding to a feature central to Greek tragedy, Até, translated as “blindness” for an individual, and “calamity” for a community.
Even if the society suddenly recognized the bizarre mismatch between attitude and events, the arts and letters disciplines would not benefit, since we are in no way organized relative to the H’MMM economy. Or rather, many of our graduates work in the H’MMM economy, but their education is not directly designed to educate them for that work. There are many “training” programs of course, not to mention several prestigious universities with vocational tracks for Entertainment production, but I have in mind education, not vocational training.I should add that my research has helped me understand the crisis of our epoch as just the sort of imbalance that triggers descent (visits from avatar). Avatar as function is the couple Arjuna/Krishna. In secular terms, Krishna plays sage to Arjuna’s hero. Where is the sage in our civilization? This role has been usurped by pundits, consultants, experts, all reproducing our commercial ethos. There are many ways to be sage, just as there are many ways to be hero. Part of my present project is to explore ways to augment this missing role and function of sage (or even mystic), to be included in the interpellative mix.
Is it possible to teach creativity within these constraints? Is it possible to teach creativity at all?
Part of the problem is to understand what creativity is, how it works, its relationship with other faculties or capacities. Perhaps when we talk about creativity are we really talking about learning as such? Literate education up to the age of print consisted of mnemonic training for oratory plus topical systems for generating compositions. Pre-modern educators admitted that ingenium (wit shall we say) was necessary to make the productions intelligent, but there was no way to teach it. There is much confusion about “genius,” since we forgot the history of this term, which is a Latin translation of the Greek “daimon,” that Goethe translated into German as “Grenze” or “limit.” Plato’s ambition was to find an equivalent in literacy for the relationship Socrates had with his daimon (an oral experience). Approaches that try to isolate a set of generative devices or logics of creativity continue the topical pedagogies. Synectics is typical, in isolating strategies for industrial design, for example, to improve product performance (a better filter for a cigarette), without questioning the frame of the product (the risks of smoking). This limitation extends to consulting as a whole, which is a problem since consulting is a major source of inter-institutional pedagogy at a collective level. The counter-productive pattern is found also in child-rearing, with parents seeking advantages for their children in all manner of formal training, when most studies suggest that the most powerful stimulant to mental development is just play. The shift in apparatus is relevant here as well, noted in the new behaviors associated with children and ubiquitous computing, social media, games. Pediatricians warn about the effect on brain physiology of too much screen time on infants younger than two. You may know the book Proust and the Squid, which argues that literacy also altered the human brain. The general apparatus argument is that our species became human through playing with tools. Will it turn out that electracy requires dispersed attention (ADD)?
In any case, my teaching explores the correspondences among hypermedia equipment, experimental art poetics, creative logics, and identity formation. The theory shows the need for the invention of image metaphysics, the equivalent of word metaphysics in literacy. My pedagogy attempts a one-semester passage from literacy to electracy, using students’ literate skills within the procedures of heuretics to design and test a practice of image learning. This method informs Internet Invention, my textbook for upper-division undergraduate courses in media composition. The point of departure is the phenomenon of the “image of wide scope,” discovered by Gerald Holton and others, at work in the careers of the most productive people across all the divisions of knowledge. The image of wide scope (wide image) is a pattern of four or five basic images that guide imagination in any situation. Einstein is the prototype (appropriately, given his iconic status in our time). The wide image is a manifestation of a person’s basic temperament, disposition, which is to say one’s “genius” properly understood. Disposition is a potential, an inherent orientation, an inner state of feeling (compare Damasio’s neuroscience account of the emergence of self as experience), that functions as attractor to hold in memory certain experiences that become schemas. Holton’s insight is that we have focused on two of three phases of human productivity — discovery and verification (with most schooling devoted to the latter).
The insight is that there is a third dimension, equally important — presuppositions — which are registered in the wide image. Presuppositions answer one of the mysteries of creativity, explaining why one person (Einstein for example) makes the breakthrough discovery, and another person, equally prepared in every way within the terms of the discipline problem (Poincaré) does not. Here is the key: the resources for the breakthrough do not come from the discipline, but from the unique imagination of the singular individual. The maker dispositionally already wants (wishes) things to be or work a certain way, and when confronted with impasses, falls back upon the wide image pattern to reconfigure problems. In this context Aristotle’s entelechy could be a description of imagination (things becoming what they already potentially are in imagination). The difference is that in electracy the actualization is never inevitable (acorns becoming oaks) as it was for Aristotle. The imagination is ontological (actuality is emergent out of the creative process). Holton’s observation solved the problem of how to teach invention (students are not prepared to attempt acts of original discovery in the specialized disciplines, and so are confined to studying verification of the present state of knowledge already invented). Students already have an image of wide scope, fully formed by the time they enter high school, if only latently apprehended. Would a schooling that made students aware of this intuitive matrix and taught them how to harness its schemas lead to a more creativogenic society? This is a project for the H’MMM disciplines.
The project in my undergraduate course on Hypermedia is to use the mystory genre to design a version of one’s own wide image. The project supports creative learning at several levels. The conventional content level is to understand the creative process, how different it is from analytical critical thinking, involving rather sensory (aesthetic) experience, emotion, figurative and expressive forms, the making of narratives and metaphors and the like. It is troubling to find how little experience many liberal arts students have with these basic features of what I consider a Humanities skill-set. They have interpreted works of literature or film at a sophisticated level, but rarely if ever composed a story or a trope or made an image or photograph in the service of learning. This is a calamity for electracy, whose operational interface is becoming fundamentally aesthetic. The second level of creativity in the mystory pedagogy is the experience of inventing “on the fly” the very form you are using to compose the required design. The expected assignment in English Departments is a research paper, which students already know how to do and with which they feel comfortable. Imagine if they had to invent the argumentative form in order to write the paper! They don’t have to invent mystory itself, of course, but they have never used it before, and it unsettles many students, especially those concerned about grades (and who isn’t?). The point is that most students have no practical experience in creative problem solving, at least not in the context of graded assignments. The most resistant ones to this pedagogy are honors students, unfortunately, many of whom are pre-med majors and therefore especially averse to risk-taking that may jeopardize the GPA.
What, for you, constitutes a piece of writing as experimental or innovative? What, if anything, does this sort of experimental practice have to contribute to the classroom?
Perhaps we could use the distinction for writing (arts and letters) that Thomas Kuhn used to classify science as either ordinary or revolutionary. Artists working in conventional forms work creatively within the established rules. The work is successful to the degree that formal devices are included in the production of signification. Experimental works go a step further by creating new sets of rules or conventions. These paradigm shifts occur from time to time throughout history, often providing the emblematic terms by which to differentiate one epoch from another. I mentioned that bohemian Paris (the invention of “pure art” in nineteenth-century cabarets) is the Athens of electracy. From the point of view of the apparatus, those inventions are the materials for image logic, and that is the real import, whatever their lasting value for the institution of art proper may be. Attempts to assess the aesthetic merit of Duchamp’s readymades miss the point. The readymade has a future similar to that of dialectic. The first accounts of dialectic seem childish now, but over two and a half millennia the method invented in Athens produced the Hadron Collider.
Lev Manovich in his Language of New Media noted that the avant-garde won the battle of taste at the level of software (everything now is cut and paste) but has yet to be integrated into the broader culture. The argument of electracy is that, if schools are to retain a controlling interest in the future of society, they should commit to the teaching of electracy, in ways native to new media. Perhaps this is like expecting the church to teach science. One of the motivating insights from my early career was being surprised that the Humanities studies its great inventors, but does not incorporate the inventions into our practices of learning, composition, research. What if science treated Einstein the way we treat James Joyce? Why do we not realize that the macaronic puns of Finnegans Wake are as relevant to general education reasoning and writing as Einstein’s quantum is to physics?
What role do you see new technologies and non-academic spaces playing in transforming the way we learn in everyday life?
The Internet is the site of an emerging institution that promises to be the base of the new apparatus, becoming for electracy what school as institution is for literacy or church for orality. History shows that the first thing a civilization does with its new apparatus is to transpose its existing archive into the new medium. The Greeks wrote down their epics. The Christians printed their Bible. But then the real revolution took off, in unforeseeable ways with transformative consequences. The same thing is happening today. At last count there were a billion people signed up for facebook. What are they doing there? For now it is like a crowd milling around outside the Bastille. Occupy is a preliminary example of what is to come. Participants aren’t sure what they want, but social media put them in the public square. Social media are the public sphere today, and will be host for the next political invention. The trends are clear, both historically and in the present: the present educational establishment will lose control of accreditation; learning will disperse through entertainment; certification through portfolio demonstrations will replace degrees. Meanwhile, corporations will separate entirely from nations and become a counterforce to both church and state, just as first the state and then science separated from religion (in the West). At the same time, identity experience itself is mutating, adding (it seems) “brand” and perhaps “avatar” (collective singularity) to the established identities of spirit and self.
Education could and should take some responsibility for these trends. There is no necessary connection between aesthetic practices and commercial capitalism. They are linked by an accident of history, just as was the invention of linear perspective with church propaganda (proselytizing). The new metaphysics involves augmentation of embodied feeling in the apparatus, currently manipulated by commodity form. Arts practices are the equivalent for independent feeling, for judging personal well-being, of what critical thinking is for literate reasoning. It is amusing or terrifying (depending on your perspective) that Governor Perry of Texas (briefly a candidate for President of the United States, and much admired by Governor Scott of Florida) wants to remove requirements for teaching critical thinking in the public schools of his state. That is not electracy but orality, a regression not progression, to a pre-scientific era. Electracy is not against religion and science, but a supplement and complement. The state of cooperation or confrontation among the apparati remains to be worked out by us, and the coming generations.