digital rhetoric

Ulmer's Heuretics Today

As I am reading Ulmer's Heuretics for my graduate course, I am reminded of an old, painful, if somewhat cynical warning against teaching books that you love. Essentially, it is unlikely that your students will share the same feeling… so just be careful not to take the matter personally. And Heuretics is one of those books for me. I first read it in my first semester as a doctoral student, and I felt as if that book had been written for me. I was coming into "theory" from writing poetry with an avid interest specifically for what Ulmer describes at the outset of the texta heuretic rather than hermeneutic approach to theory. Furthermore his specific goal of creating an electronic academic writing and transforming pedagogy and schooling in turn obviously inspired me to follow the path to where I am now.

While there is no doubt that in some technological ways Heuretics is dated. It might go out of its way to explain things that would have been alien 15 years ago but are obvious now. But I look at that text, along with a couple others that arrived in the early 90s (e.g., Bolter's Writing Space, Landow's Hypertext, Faigley's Fragments of Rationality) and I still see challenges that we have yet to face. Certainly we have yet to address the potential of electronic space as chora.

Thinking about the ipad in terms of Ulmer, one might begin by recognizing it in relation to chora. By now, it is perhaps cliche to conceive of the chora as the screen, but the expansion of the touchscreen with devices like the ipad gives us a new way of interacting with screen as choral interface. Yes the touchscreen has been around for some time, but the ipad at least promises to expand significantly its cultural operation. In particular I am interested in the ipad as a haptic, gestural space.

Ulmer writes,

it is difficult to "grasp" chora, even if it is to be thought in haptic terms. But this difficulty is to be expected of a method designed as an alterative to conceptual thinking. The aspect of this complication of the "gesture of knowing" important for chorography is that differences among nationalities, genders, ages, and so on are a matter of "writing." The writer using chorography as a rhetoric of invention will store and retrieve information from premises or places formulated not as abstract containers, as in the tradition of topos, but by means ofGeschlecht. Chora, in other words, as a figure of spacing, is another name for what has concerned Derrida in nearly every text he has ever written: differance. (73)

Of course I don't wish to go so far as to suggest that the ipad is some revolutionary device. Maybe it will turn out that way, but I not here to push the hype any higher (as if it could go higher). And on a hardware level it might not operate that differently from other devices. In other words this is a limited claim/thought experiment. With that caveat in place, how might the new gestural relationship opened (though maybe not fully realized) by the ipad create opportunities for rethinking our relations with the screen and the cloudy databases behind it?

As Derrida writes, cited in Ulmer, "If there is a thought of the hand, or a hand of thought, as Heidegger gives us to think, it is not of the order of conceptual grasping. Rather this thought of the hand belongs to the essence of the gift, of a giving that would give, if this is possible, without taking hold of anything." There might be something to theorize in the touching implied in the touchscreen. Touching always implies distance and exteriority. In touching the screen, in what way might we say that we touch the data? Is that the site of Geschlecht, of differentiation? Where the chora winnows out some data? What kind of App Store download would facilitate such interactions?

I'm not sure where this goes, but I suppose I have this sense that the rise of a haptic, gestural interface might offer us a way into chorography.

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