digital rhetoric

the humanities' nonhuman electrate future

Earlier this week, Gregory Ulmer spoke on campus. I was happy for the opportunity to see him speak, as I hadn’t met him before and his work, especially Heuretics, has been important to my own since my first semester in my doctoral program. His talk focused on his work with the Florida Research Ensemble creating artistic interventions, which he terms Konsults, into Superfund sites. However, more broadly, Ulmer’s work continues to address the challenge of imagining electracy (n.b. for those who don’t know, electracy is to the digital world what literacy is/was to the print world). I’ve discussed Ulmer’s work many times here, so today my interest is in discussing it in terms of the Bérubé talk I saw last week.

In the Bérubé talk (see my last post), humanities’ focus emerged from dealing with the promises and challenges of modernity and Enlightenment.  Freedom, justice, equality, rationality: they all offer tremendous promise as universals and yet also seem unreachable and treacherous. So the humanities must play this role in the indeterminable pursuit of judgment. In this discourse of right/wrong it supplants religion, though obviously religion continues on, where the humanities is perhaps less willing to settle on an answer than religion often seems to be.

Ulmer offers a different perspective. To the binaries of right/wrong (religion) and true/false (science), he offers pain/pleasure (aesthetics). As he notes this third segment comes from Kant as well but is only realizable as an analog to the first two in an electrate society, with the first being the product of oral cultures and the second the product of literate ones. He makes an interesting point in relation to Superfund sites and climate change more generally where we are largely able to recognize that destroying our climate is wrong and we are able to establish the scientific truth of climate change, but we appear to need to feel it as well.

In a fairly obvious sense, pain/pleasure seems a more basic segment, and one that is available to a wide range of animals, at least. What we get in a control society (Deleuze) and perhaps more so in a feed-forward culture (Hansen) are technologies that operate on this aesthetic level to modulate subjectivity and thought in a way that the symbolic behaviors of oral and print societies did not. That is, we’ve always been able to seduce, persuade, entice, repel, frighten, hurt, and so on with words, but at least there was some opportunity for conscious engagement there.

Many of the challenges Bérubé identified with judgment have to do with the orientation of the individual to societies: e.g. how we view people with disabilities or differing sexual orientations. However, one thing we might take from Ulmer’s argument is the realization that the “self” is a product of literature culture. If we see the self as a mythology, perhaps as the way we might view an oral culture’s notion of spirit, then perhaps the challenges of judgment that arise from Enlightenment become irrelevant, much like the challenge of appeasing gods is to moderns. In some respects we still want the same ends in terms of material-lived experience–we still want a good crop–we just stop appeasing gods or pursuing justice to get it.  No doubt such notions seem absurd. Ulmer would suggest that they are because we are only beginning to grasp at them. He reminds us of Plato’s initial definition of humans as “featherless bipeds.”

In the place of the self Ulmer suggests an avatar as an “existential positioning system,” an analog to GPS. He didn’t get too far into this matter in the talk, but I am intrigued. Of course GPS is a technological, networked identification. The self is also a technological identification, a product of literacy. For Ulmer the EPS is likely image-based. I am interested in its “new aesthetic,” alien phenomenological qualities though as a kind of machine perception. While I argue that language is nonhuman, so both oral and print cultures had nonhuman foundations, electracy might so decenter the human as to allow us to feel the nonhumans in a new way. In this respect, an EPS might be a tool that shows us a very different way of inhabiting or orienting toward the world. Arguably, that’s what writing did.

In any case, trying to figure that out seems like a really interesting project for the humanities, one that would produce an outcome, even if the implications of that outcome may take decades to realize.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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