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The Widesite

There are several key points in Ulmer’s first chapter that we need to discuss. To begin with, he introduces the underlying premise of the “widesite:” the theory that all people have a set of “wide images” that thematize their creative energies. The widesite is an experiment in using the data bank of the Internet as a resource in uncovering your wide images. Second, the chapter introduces the first main assignment of our class, “Career Discourse,” in which you will track down images associated with a key moment in your chosen career’s history. You can see from my web site that I selected May 1968 (you’ll have to check it out to see why). Using the term “popcycle” (24-27), Ulmer explains how ideology functions and its relation to the reasoning behind the particular assignments in the widesite. As we shall see, the wide image evokes a “punctum” or memory sting that is personal. However, these images come to organize our encounters with cultural institutions. Here we are working backwords. We begin with images that we draw out of our cultural/institutional experiences and try to reform the wide image. Following this, Ulmer departs on a philosophical discussion that I wish to focus on in class. As I have already mentioned, he begins by discussing Aristotle and the challenge Classical Greek philosophers encountered in the invention of alphabetic writing. As Ulmer explains, their response, in part, was the invention of a new institution: the school. More importantly, Ulmer notes that written texts allow for the creation of “concepts:” idealized essences extracted from the flow of oral stories. Written texts allow for close reading, textual analysis, in a way that can never take place in a conversation. Along with the idea of a concept comes the notion of a “thing.” This may seem too obvious, but it is such a core philosophical concept that it is easily overlooked. The basic idea is this: take any “thing” and you will note that it has some attributes that you consider intrinsic to its “thingness” and some that are extrinsic. For example, you might say that a car has an engine and wheels as intrinsic attributes. That it is blue or parked in your driveway or upside down would all be extrinsic attributes, not necessary elements of the thing being a car. You might think of the intrinsic qualities of a thing as being its definition. This is where Ulmer goes into his discussion of the definition of the term “culture.” He explains how culture derived from its use in agricultural to take on its specific contemporary meanings. You see this is how ideology and language work together. You are surrounded by all of this human activity, including your own activity. What name do you give to this activity? Culture. By naming it so, you articulate this activity within a deeply embedded metaphor that associates social acts with agriculture. Now, in the term extensions we are asked to think of a different craft and define this human activity (culture) in those terms. Ulmer continues with an important example of how this works by comparing the concept of terming writing composition “text” with thinking of it as “felt.” The idea behind text is that, like a textile, a text is an organization of space via intersecting, interweaving, lines. In conventional scientific knowledge we organize things onto a grid in terms of their definition or intrinsic attributes. Things with similar attributes are categorized together (animal, vegetable, mineral, etc.). University departments are a good example of this. E.g. we have a school of arts and sciences, a department the specializes in English, and then a faculty member who specializes in Chaucer. There is a global theory of organization that articulates where everything goes. Felt, on the other hand, clings together through a process that is local rather than global. The process of fulling creates links between particles but does not result in an overall organization of the material in the way lines of thread weaving back and forth do. What would it mean to think of writing in these terms? What is suggested here is that we would get something very different. And so, Ulmer sets us the task of “anti-definition,” which you will complete for next class. But looking at Bataille’s examples, we can see that qualities we would typically term “extrinsic” are identified as crucial. The metaphor, poetic, evocative qualities of a thing become key to understanding what it may be.

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