Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives

SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 5 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Discourse on Method

By Adam Carter

Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. By Gregory L. Ulmer. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1994.267 pages. ISBN 0-8018-4718-4.

Heuresis (or invention) comprises, as Richard Lanham notes, "the first of the five traditional parts of rhetorical theory, concerned with the finding and elaboration of arguments" (1991: 91). In Aristotle's Rhetoric the category of heuresis included the kinds of proof available to the rhetorician, lists of valid and invalid topoi, as well as the various commonplaces the rhetorician might touch upon - loci or stereotypical themes and observations ("time flies") appropriate to a given occasion (Lanham 1991: 166-170). In a more contemporary sense heuretic is defined by the OED as "the branch of logic which treats of the art of discovery or invention." Both senses of this word, along with its more familiar cognate heuristic, are significant for the project embarked upon in Gregory Ulmer's latest book, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention.

In a continuation of a project begun in his two earlier works, Applied Grammatology and Teletheory, Heuretics seeks to explore the possibilities opened up by the "matrix crossing French postructuralist theory, avant-garde art experiments, and electronic media" (xi) for the invention of new methods of academic research and the production of new kinds of texts. "Theory," Ulmer notes, "is assimilated into the humanities in two principal ways - by critical interpretation and by artistic experiment" (3). Heuretics, then, is to be contrasted with hermeneutics.

The relevant question for heuretic reading is not the one guiding criticism (according to the theories of Freud, Marx, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and others: What might be the meaning of an existing work?) but one guiding a generative experiment: Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed? (4-5)
In a Canadian context one thinks of Northrop Frye whose theories served as the inventio for a generation of mythopoetic writers. Ulmer's book presents itself, in part, as a heuristic device for enabling such new forms of research and text production from the inventio provided by Jacques Derrida. In The Other Heading, reflecting on contemporary Europe, Derrida repeats a fundamental question posed by Paul Valery in 1939 in the wake of fascism: "What are you going to do? What are you going to do today?" (1992: 18, cited in Ulmer 84). Ulmer sees his work as a response, in 1992, to this call for invention.

Ulmer's text also presents itself as providing a method for "the contemporary paradigm" (12) of poststructuralism comparable to the method Descartes provided for an emergent scientific rationalism. He is quick, however, to qualify this project for "any attempt at a postmodernist 'method' is contradictory (an impossible possibility)" (25). In one of the most suggestive sections of work, the initial chapter contends that "all of the manifestos of the avant-garde, belong to the tradition of the discourse on method" (8), and provides an analysis of the common elements comprising such discourses. They are "representable for mnemonic reference by the acronym CATTt" (8).

C = Contrast (opposition, inversion, differentiation)
A = Analogy (figuration, displacement)
T = Theory (repetition, literalization)
T = Target (application, purpose)
t = Tale (secondary elaboration, representability) (8)
Thus Descartes' discourse on method contrasts (or opposes) scholasticism; geometry is its analogous figure; theology supplies the theoretical support; its target application is the natural sciences; and autobiography provides its narrativization or "tale" (12).

In inventing a "counter-Cartesian" (11), "Discourse against Method" (12) Ulmer proposes a very different CATTt. The new method contrasts conventional argumentative writing; Stanislavski's method acting is its analogous figure; Jacques Derrida provides the theoretical underpinnings; the production of texts in "hyper-media" is the targetted application; and the cinema remake provides its means of representation(39). Ulmer is careful to point out that there is nothing essential about this arrangement. The potential user of the method is invited to "fill in the heuristic slots with one's own choices" (39), or to accept Ulmer's CATTt "but to use one's own particulars for some or all of the materials" (39).

"Hypermedia" refers to the "convergence of video and the computer" (17). It is the technology that most interests Ulmer because "it represents an integration of most of the features of electronics... With this equipment it is possible to 'write' in multimedia, combining in one composition all of the resources of pictures, words, and sound (picto-ideo-phonographic writing)" (17). In Ulmer's view hypermedia

"literalizes" or represents the material embodiment of poststructuralist (mostly French) theories of text. Many of the most controversial notions of textualism expressed by recent French critics (for example, the death of the author or the decentering of meaning), notions that seemed bizarre in the context of the book apparatus, are simply literal qualities of hypermedia (21).
Ulmer stresses that the practices of writing in the new technology differ radically from "the conventions of the treatise that presently dominate academic work" (17-18) - conventions that arose in a print culture and that are now becoming obsolete. What is required is a new rhetoric for the texts of hypermedia ("hypertexts"): "one that does not argue but that replaces the logic governing argumentative writing with associational networks" (18). Ulrner lends this requirement a particular urgency and import by associating traditional forms of academic critique with cruelty (20), and a traditional hermeneutics of truth with torture (106). A further political dimension is appended to this project in its attempt to deconstruct the metaphor that has, since the Columbus expedition, dominated traditional academic research: the association of "scientific enlightenment with the discovery, exploration, and ultimately the colonization of the 'new world"' (23). In Ulmer's starkest assertion "the primary symptom of the closure of the invention and development of conceptual thinking is named 'Auschwitz'" (93).

"Chorography" is the particular name for the method Ulmer generates (39). Since Ulmer himself asserts that "one of the features of the method, chorography, is that it does not lend itself to direct communication, at least not yet" (45), a summary outline of its features is difficult. Numerous statements on what chorography is like, what it is not like, what it performs, how it functions, and what it seeks to achieve, are scattered throughout the book in an attempt to work toward an understanding of the method through contrast, inference and analogy. The word, Ulmer notes, is close to choreography (a meaningful "accident") and refers to an already existing concept from the discipline of geography. This establishes

a valuable resonance for a rhetoric of invention concerned with the history of "place" in relation to memory. Within geography "chorological analysis" produces a sense of place "that is similar to the sense of time that comes from the study of history," trying to capture a more subjective dimension of spatiality in specific rather than in generic terms (Sack 1980: 87, cited in Ulmer: 39).
A sense of chora both as a place of nongeneralizable specificity in opposition to abstract Newtonian space, and as form giving "area in which genesis takes place" (Peters 1967: 197, Ulmer 48), as opposed to a passive "container," is fundamental to Ulmer's method.

The strategy of chorography for deconstructing the frontier metaphor of research is to consider this "place" and its "genre" in rhetorical terms - as a topos. The project is then to replace topos itself (not just one particular setting but place as such) with chora wherever the former is found in the trivium. In order to foreground the foundational function of location in thought, choral writing organizes any manner of information by means of the writer's specific position in the time and space of a culture. (33)

Most directly Ulmer derives the name chorography from Derrida's "Chora," a reading of Plato's Timaeus. The reading was occasioned by an invitation from the architect Peter Eisenman to collaborate on developing a plan for a contribution to the Parc de la Villette in Paris, "announced as a 'park for the twenty-first century' . . . intended to promote a spirit of creativity in its visitors" (49). This architectural invention serves, for Ulmer, "as a guide to the invention of a logic, or a rhetoric" (49).

Chora is the name Plato gives to a third kind of nature between being and becoming, identified as "space" or the "respectable" (63). In many respects analagous to differance, Derrida's interest in the term derives from its very resistance to interpretation and representation. "Since Chora," Derrida writes,

is irreducible to the two positions, the sensible and the intelligible, which have dominated the entire tradition of Western thought, it is irreducible to all the values to which we are accustomed - values of origin, anthropomorphism, and so on.... (Derrida in Kipnis (forthcoming), cited in Ulmer 65)
Thus in accepting the challenge to give architectural form to Chora, Eisenman had to give form to that which is unrepresentable. Analogously, Ulmer's task is to think through "a different kind of writing (without representation)" (66) and to devise "a 'discourse of method' for that which . . . is the other of method" (66).

Like an orator in the process of preparing a speech by referring to the inventio of classical rhetoric, Ulmer requires an occasion to create a text from the inventio provided by Jacques Derrida (47). Ulmer begins with the analogy that "chorography is like commemorating the Columbus quincentenary" (47). In commemorating such an event how does one navigate the vast storehouse of information belonging to the postcolumbus legacy? As contained, for example in Robert Abel's multimedia production for IBM: Columbus: Encounter, Discovery and Beyond (a multicultural experience). How does one's commemoration deal with the political contestation surrounding such an anniversary? The uncertainty is an appeal for an invention. A fundamental principle of chorography in responding to this appeal is "do not choose between the different meanings of key terms, but compose using all the meanings (write the paradigm)" (48).

The celebrations being prepared in 1989 in Ulmer's home town of Miles City, Montana, to mark the state's hundredth anniversary, provide him with an occasion to test the inventio. Ulmer finds particularly fortuitous the coincidence of this anniversary with the bicentennial of the French revolution and the American constitution. (In the attempt to mimic the associational network of the computer Ulmer's method places great emphasis upon the productive value of coincidence). The intersection of these anniversaries (these narratives) allows Ulmer's invention to address such questions as the foundational role of one's own locality in the production of discourse, the invention of nationhood, and Ulmer's own selfconfessed "franco-philia." Much of Heuretics, then, attempts to chart the process of the author's invention of a text to be included in his hometown celebrations of the state centenary.

Ulmer's proposal, in brief, "is to perform a living tableau (a still life) from Beau Geste in the Miles City follies" (97) show "commemorating the Columbus quincentenary" (79). It is in a sense heretical to reverse Ulmer's heuretical procedure and place this proposal first, followed by an explanation of what he means by it, for it is the process of discovering the proposal that is the key - the process of learning to think and write "choralogically." Beginning from the premise that he wishes to enact chorography by creating a Columbus quincentenary commemoration using the theories of Derrida, Ulmer details the process whereby he discovers each aspect of the proposal, always searching associationally for grafting points that will tie each particular in with his wider paradigm.

Ulmer's location "Miles City," is in certain respects an "anywhere" (51), yet it is also chora, Ulmer's non-generalizable location, a place of genesis for the unique configuration of discourses that have shaped the premises governing his own thinking and writing. The location also evokes the Western frontier and the narratives of discovery, exploration, progress and manifest destiny for which the frontier has been crucial to America in its self definition as a nation. Ulmer even finds in the French fascination with the American West a significant point of exchange for his own francophilia.

Ulmer hits upon the idea of performing in a follies show from the premise that he will take Derrida and Eisenman's architectural collaboration as a guide for his method of invention. In the Parc de la Villette project the general architect Bernard Tschumi invited each contributor to design a series of what he called follies:

a series of red steel cubic cages that may be submitted to any possible "deviation" of design through a process of permutation and combination of a restricted set of parts . . . Tschumi stressed the deliberately hybrid significance of his term, mixing allusions to a seventeenth-century "extravagant house of entertainment" (as in the Folies-Bergère or the Ziegfield Follies) and to "contemporary psychoanalytic discoveries" (Tschumi 1987: 5, cited in Ulmer 50).
In Ulmer's writing of the paradigm the architectural premise of a "house of entertainment" becomes the Western saloon which regularly presented travelling burlesque shows "featuring many acts with follies in their titles" (51). Since electronic thinking disrupts conceptual reason, the connotation-of madness in "folly" is fortuitous.

The living tableau was one of the forms of travelling theatrical entertainment popular in the saloons. "The tableau form in fact originated in lower-class venues as an excuse for viewing undraped women and was adapted in middle-class setting to shift interest from the erotic to other, more ennobling emotions" (57). Ulmer's (rather oblique) explanation for choosing the form is that it deals in cultural stereotypes and that electronic writing (like, one assumes, the commonplaces of rhetorical invention) entails learning to write with such stereotypes. As in Althusser's assertion that there is no position outside of ideology (of which stereotypes are a material embodiment), one cannot write outside of stereotypes. One can, however, attempt to employ them in inventive new configurations that put their older meanings under erasure.

Ulmer discusses in great detail his selection, as the text for his living tableau, of "the scene of the beautiful death" (113) from the 1939 film re-make of Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper. We may here only outline several of the associational networks he sees the text opening up amongst his various premises. For Ulmer Beau Geste (and specifically the 1939 remake) establishes a link between Derrida's identity vis a vis Europe and Ulmer's identity vis a vis America (84). The story centres around the French Foreign Legion and is set in the Algerian desert (hence the link to Derrida), yet the 1939 film version was shot on the old American frontier "in Arizona, near Yuma" (hence the link to Ulmer). The film, furthermore, belongs to a genre that used the formula of European empires "to convey the secret history of America's own experience of imperialism in fulfilling its Manifest Destiny on the frontier" (86). The film also signalled a crucial shift in American foreign policy away from domestic concerns toward a large scale involvement in European and world affairs. Ulmer seizes upon the scene of the beautiful death of the hero - in a "Viking's funeral" Beau Geste is cremated when the sole survivor sets fire to the fort the soldiers died defending - for its mythological role in nation building. "Nations are invented out of the memorial or mourning conducted by their citizens" (112). A repetition of the text in 1992, then, will comment on questions of imperialism, national identity and the frontier metaphor governing academic research.

The cinema remake is an appropriate "tale", or form for configuring Ulmer's method in that as "a popular, formulaic work (it) is precisely what makes the (electronic) environment 'legible'" (220). Furthermore, "construct(ing) his premises in the style of a film diegesis means that (he) is working with the logic of the Hollywood "dream factory" (99), a world where the impossible happens. Such a logic is an appropriate one, Ulmer feels, given that his method contrasts conceptual reason with a logic derived from psychoanalysis.

To learn to act the part Ulmer delves into method acting.

The value of the Method as analogy for chorography concerns the way it requires the actors to merge their personal culture with that of the play, whose themes and scenes are translated in rehearsal. using the technique of Affective memory, into the actors' own experiences. cultural backgrounds and memories. (116)
It is not the finished product of method acting (its famous "reality effect" accounting for its commercial success) that interests Ulmer but rather what Derrida might describe as the "outwork":
play and different from it, in which an autobiography and a work of art are brought into a fragmented correspondence. A chorographer reads disciplinary texts the way a Method actor reads a (screen) play. (118)
Ulmer recognizes (even invites) the element of absurdity in the claim that his tableau might communicate to his hometown audience "in one scene a music hall in frontier Miles City, Gary Cooper's acting, Derrida's theory of justice, offered in commemoration of 'The Discovery of America,' as it was called in 1939" (242). In the brief concluding description of the performance the high-minded professor takes a custard pie in the face as a clown from the amateur burlesque troops yells to the audience: "There ya go, General Custard! Just a desert from your friend Sioux!" (243). Ulmer deems the "jest" perfectly appropriate, a "switch(ing) of the tableau from desert to dessert, to keep the show moving" (242). The deflationary gesture is analogous to the active role of the reader of the hypertext and indicates the priority in chorography of the process of discovery over the finished product.

Heuretics, situating itself as it does within a supposedly emergent paradigm that defies argumentative writing, critique, conceptual reason and dialectic - in short many of the conventional attributes of the academic treatise - would seem to have a ready response for the criticisms one might wish to level against it. Many criticisms could be judged atavistic, as simply missing the point by being too immersed in older patterns of thinking. If, for example, one has difficulties with the apparent frivolousness of a text than can alternate from a hasty reference to Auschwitz as the entelechy of conceptual reason, to ceaselessly delighting in its own kitsch as when naming one aspect of the new method "the popcycle," then clearly one is taking things too seriously. Such a response could be grouped in with one of the "obstacle(s) to electronic cognition . . . the attitude, widespread among cultural critics that the vast majority of commercial TV is irredeemable junk" (212). Anyone voicing such a criticism must need, as is widely said these days, to "get with the program."

Similarly, a rigorous critique of Ulmer's patchy theorizations (Ulmer would undoubtedly embrace the characterization, connoting as it does the "pattern recognition" of electronic thinking) could be said to simply rehearse the violence of the older mode of reasoning. As Ulmer suggests, in psychoanalytic terms such aggression can always be seen as a tacit admission of the subversive power of the new paradigm. One might, for example, wish to critique Ulmer's work for its contradictions - another mainstay of a supposedly defunct rationality. Take the strong and unexamined formalism in Ulmer's contention that the five basic components comprising the CATTt (contrast, analogy, theory, target, tale) underlie such diverse texts as Plato's Phaedrus ("the prototype for all subsequent 'well-made' discourses on method"), Descartes Discourse on Method, Marx's Communist Manifesto, Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism," and Ulmer's own chorography. The schema is in fact persuasive, even helpful, yet given Ulmer's tirelessly self-confessed "francophilic" poststructuralism one wonders whether it is not a contradiction in approaches to posit such an underlying matrix governing texts produced in a period spanning over two millennia. One can little imagine such exemplary poststructuralists as Derrida and Foucault, who rigorously debated in their now famous exchange, the import of a few select adjectives from Descartes "First Meditation," agreeing upon the basic CATTt of the Discourse on Method, or even agreeing that it shares such a rhetorical structure. (Is the contrast really scholasticism or the much more subversive form of non-reason represented by madness itself? Can we really say the natural sciences are the target of the discourse, some putative outside-the-text? Such might the debate run).

But it will apparently do little to point out contradictions in Ulmer's position. The critique of contradiction, Ulmer notes, is akin to racism: "the feeling of discomfort affecting one who sees a logical contradiction as intolerable is similar to a feeling that it is intolerable (for example) to mix races at a hotel" (223). But at the same time, one would like to retort, a passive acceptance of contradiction - for example, the real contradictions in such ideological constructs as "the folk" - akin to totalitarianism.

In attempting, then, a more immanent critique of Ulmer's text, what strikes one as problematic is the subsumption of computer technologies, varieties of poststructuralist theories, postmodernist culture, and a longer tradition of avant-garde artistic experiment into "the contemporary paradigm" (12, emphasis added). Is this not the very "tyranny of identity," as Adorno might have put it (see Jay 1984: 70), for which conceptual reason has been held accountable? The conflation of poststructuralist discourses into a postmodernist epoch defuses many of the former's most disruptive historicist insights. Ulmer tacitly admits this when he writes that "the most controversial notions of textualism expressed by recent French critics (for example, the death of the author or the decentering of meaning), notions that seemed bizarre in the context of the book apparatus are simply literal qualities of hypermedia" (21). Were they, then, less true in the book apparatus? Were French theorists, already thinking electronically, simply imposing anachronistic views on earlier works? (Such a position would certainly be complicit with a certain conservative viewpoint). Or is one forced to think in terms of a subversive logic whereby a technological arche-writing is always already in place disrupting the careful oppositions between orality, print, and hypertext in which Ulmer's project has a considerable investment? Such notions are, indeed, less controversial and bizarre in Ulmer's schema because they have been normalized within a conventional historical narrative of the succession of epochs.

In terms that more strongly invoke Marshall McLuhan than Derrida (and indeed if one were to think in Harold Bloom's terms of Ulmer's "anxiety of influence" the now less fashionable Canadian prophet of the electronic future certainly emerges as the suppressed father of Heuretics) Ulmer applies to electronic writing a series of valorizing epithets. Hypertexts emphasize process over product (38); they are characterized by randomness and chance in opposition to the violently fixed hierarchies of logical writing (36); they are governed more by a logic of touch than of vision (72); they entail "a different relationship to language and discourse from the one operating in literacy; it is that neither of writer nor reader but of 'active receiver'" (38); they operate by intuition as opposed to analysis (140). The primary difficulty that Ulmer's representation of electronic writing presents derive from its very familiarity, its lack of inventiveness. These are precisely the valorizing attributes that have been applied to certain forms of literature at least since the advent of modernism at the beginning of this century. In many instances (such as the emphasis on process, fragmentariness, freedom, and intuition) they could be shown to derive from Romanticism.

The concerns Heuretics addresses are timely and important. Many engaged in teaching the plain prose style and the well made essay to younger students will have been struck on occasion by the widening gap between these writing technologies and the students' patterns of thought, and by how poorly suited these forms can sometimes be for the articulation of their best insights. And the students' situation perhaps only writes large the limitations of these forms on the thinking of those who have more fully assimilated them. To avoid a completely reactionary standpoint that reifies certain historical modes of writing as natural transparent "containers" of thought, and then proceeds to bemoan the decline in education whereby students fail to grasp this natural form, the call to invention must be heeded and Ulmer's work is to be commended for (to fall back on the exploration metaphor) proceeding along this difficult path. In advanced undergraduate and graduate courses the invention of more experimental academic texts along some version of Ulmer's CATTt might well prove salutary.

One is also sympathetic with Ulmer's resistance to the appropriation of deconstruction into a rather narrowly codified practice of literary interpretation that in critiquing everything leaves everything unchanged. Much the same might be said of the variety of critical approaches that in our currently pluralistic ethos are promoted as equally valid provided they are all eloquently expressed in the plain prose essay form. What Heuretics challenges one to consider is how these approaches might reinvent the form in which they are expressed at the level of both the individual text and the institution.

It is more difficult, however, to endorse Ulmer's abandonment of the values of critique and, concomitantly, his rather glib McLuhanesque assumption that electronic writing will be politically progressive. In this respect Ulmer's attempt to close the gap between his form and his content, to "use the method that (he is) inventing while (he is) inventing it" (17), is perhaps indicative of the frightening ideological closure such an age might represent: the identity of concept and phenomenon being, as Adorno contended, "the primal form of ideology" (1973: 148). Searching for a metaphor that might replace the lexicon of exploration that, with its imperialistic connotations, has dominated scientific research since Columbus, Ulmer seizes, toward the end of his work, upon the term "negotiate." "The interface metaphor for cyberspace in chorography is not 'navigate' but 'negotiate"' (239). As is perfectly appropriate, the language of capitalism in its heroic expansionary phase has simply been replaced by the language of the boardroom corporate merger. But the question remains (to echo Lenin rather than Paul Valery): what is to be done?


Adorno, Theodor (1973) Negative Dialectics, London: NLB.

Derrida, Jacques (1992) The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jay, Martin (1984) Adorno. Cambridge Mass: Harvard.

Kipnis, Jeffrey (forthcoming) Choral Work. London: Architectural Association.

Lanham, Richard A (1991) A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peters, F.E. (1967) Greek Philosophical Terms: An Historical Lexicon. New York: New York University Press.

Sack, Robert David (1980) Conception of Space in Social Thought: A Geographic Perspective. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tschumi, Bernard (1987) Cinegramme folie: Le Parc de la Villette. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ulmer, Gregory L. (1994) Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

----, (1985) Applied Grammatology: Post (c) - Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Adam Carter is currently completing his doctoral dissertation in English at McMaster University His thesis is concerned with the genealogy of the critical discourse on irony, and the relations between this discourse and ideology.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives