- Exposition in Ruins
Gregory Ulmer’s Internet Invention can be accurately described as a composition handbook for students working in an increasingly visual culture—provided that one follows Ulmer in understanding the newfound prevalence of the image not as a shift in the relative status of specific media, but rather as the ascendance of a particular set of signifying rules. These rules readily accommodate the printed word while nonetheless exploding the premises of expository discourse that the academy continues to equate with the act of written composition. Indeed, the crux of Ulmer’s important and illuminating project could be said to reside in his distinction between pedagogical instantiation and technological potentiality: since the appearance of Applied Grammatology in 1985, Ulmer has sought to delineate the growing epistemological deficiencies of our print-based educational apparatus in the face of its own digital-age contexts. Yet in doing so, he has strived to avoid the easy conflation of discursive structure with technological means—an effort that manifests itself, for instance, in Ulmer’s persistent characterization of the academic essay not as the inevitable legacy of alphabet technology, but rather as a particular form of “interface,” a specific code developed by Renaissance scholars as one means of harnessing the cognitive properties facilitated by the written sign.
In Ulmer’s view, then, it is incumbent upon researchers working within the contemporary humanities disciplines to craft the digital-age counterpart to the essay itself—a project entailing not only the development of specific technological prostheses (for example, the extension of the print-based educational apparatus into such settings as the video production studio or the networked learning environment), but also the conceptualization of altogether new forms of epistemological code, the conceptualization, that is, of a specifically digital rhetoric that would accommodate any technological medium, including paper and pen. On this matter, it is worth noting the case of the “mystory,” the calculatedly post-literate genre that Ulmer first fully adumbrated in his 1989 book, Teletheory, and that he and his students at the University of Florida initially performed in traditional (that is, un-wired) classrooms: the point of the mystory has always been to think electronically regardless of the medium in use—that is, to augment the modes of inductive and deductive reasoning with the use of conductive methodologies, the formulation of knowledge through the associative channels afforded by the function of the signifier.
For Roland Barthes, it was of course the photographic “punctum” that best displayed the infusion of putatively expository representations with individuated meaning and that demonstrated, in turn, the linking of discrete chains of knowledge through the short-circuitry inherent to the signifying field. And in developing his own trope of “conductivity,” Ulmer’s intent is to raise (or lower, as the case may be) this associative mode of knowledge-production to the level of academic method. As such, the purpose of Internet Invention is not simply to facilitate the incorporation of sound and image within the context of the expository text, but rather to cultivate a post-expository method reflective of the polyvalent conduction of meaning explored by Freud, Barthes, and Derrida and evident throughout the practices that comprise the university’s contemporary contexts. As Gerald Graff began to argue in the mid-eighties, advertising has now usurped the university as the arbiter of cultural logic; Ulmer’s contention, in turn, would be that academic writing lags behind precisely because it has yet to allow for the metonymic sliding—the repetition of sounds, images, and letters across otherwise disjointed contexts—that comprises the fundamental code of the advertising discourse as such.
In assessing Ulmer’s commitment to the issue of pedagogy, it is already enough to observe the quotidian circumstances surrounding the appearance of the book in question: handled by the educational division of Longman Publishers and featuring the kind of companion website now more or less mandatory for college writing guides, Internet Invention is indeed meant to serve as a student textbook. Even more indicative of Ulmer’s investment, though, is the site of his departure from received pedagogical practices: while Internet comprises a different kind of textbook...