Ulmer, Heuretics and the fetishization of the 1%


Does the emphasis on invention get at the proper object of digital humanities? Does it simply expand the notion of the text while retaining the structural centrality of the text? Does this make any kind of sense? I’m trying to think through how Ulmer’s work has (or hasn’t) kept up with the expanding field and formats of digital media.


“If last century’s transport revolution already brought about a mutation in urban territory throughout the continent, the current revolution in (interactive) transmission is in turn provoking a commutation in the urban environment whereby the image prevails over the thing it is an image of; what was once a city becoming little by little a paradoxical agglomeration, relationships of immediate proximity giving way to remote interrelationships. The paradoxes of acceleration are indeed numerous and disconcerting, in particular, the foremost among them: getting closer to the ‘distant’ takes you away proportionally from the ‘near’ (and dear)- the friend, the relative, the neighbour- thus making strangers, if not actual enemies, of all who are close at hand, whether they be family, workmates or neighbourhood acquaintances. This inversion of social practices, already evident in the development of communication equipment (ports, stations, airports), is further reinforced, radicalized, by the new telecommunications equipment (teleports).”

-Paul Virilio, Open Sky (19-20)

The passage reads as if responding to the proliferation of smart phones and social media, as if a critique of instagram’d events and the alienated self(ie), a contemporary logic expertly expressed by the Facebook Home commercial series, albeit with a notably different moral valence:

However, the passage comes from a book published in 1997 by an author who shirks the use of many technologies.

“I don’t have a car or a TV anymore… I don’t have a computer and I don’t have a cell phone. I have a perfectly normal house phone, water, gas, and electricity. Sometimes I listen to the radio.”

The experience of the web 16 years ago lacks many of the structures of interaction of the contemporary experience and the continued applicability of concepts like ‘remote interrelationships’ and ‘inversion of social practices’ attests to the prescience of the analysis. Apart from the discussion of Data Gloves and the mention of Cybersurfers, the text lacks the patina of age common to many scholarly engagements with the social import of technology.

“A refreshing antidote to the ‘global village’ mantra of net gurus, Virilio writes in the subversive tradition of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.”—Publishers Weekly

Following McLuhan, Paul Virilio ascribes a strong determining (though not necessarily determinist) role to technology, shaping perception, politics, and sociality. However, where McLuhan identifies a utopian potential in his imagining of a Global Village, Virilio offers a decidedly dystopian prognosis.

“Doomed to inertia, the interactive being transfers his natural capacities for movement and displacement to probes and scanners which instantaneously inform him about a remote reality, to the detriment of his own faculties of apprehension of the real, after the example of the para- or quadriplegic who can guide by remote control- teleguide- his environment, his abode, which is a model of that home automation, of those ‘Smart Houses’ that respond to our every whim. Having been first mobile, then motorized, man will thus become motile, deliberately limiting his body’s area of influence to a few gestures, a few impulses, like channel-surfing.” (16-17)

The transition from mobile to motorized to motile follows another chain of correspondence: from nomadism to urbanization to…? The third term remains unnamed but Virilio traces yet another series, getting at the meaning or significance of the third term: from journey, to destination, to non-space. With each quality mapping onto the corresponding terms, the nomad exists in relationship to the journey, the urbanite exists in relationship to the destination, and this third term exists in relation to the non-space of telecommunications. To get at the idea of non-space, Virilio uses the example of a teleconference and asks where does the meeting take place? In the office in NYC that initiated the call? In the office that answered? In the wires, tubes, and ether that connect the two? Neither one nor the other, he insists that the meeting takes place in a kind of non-space, inclusive but not reducible to the spatial parts. Virilio connects the move towards non-space with a devaluation of the destination and the journey, a break down of real time, real space, and real sociality. A variation on his dystopic vision of the future can be found Pixar’s Wall E.

Telecommunication technologies may enable new ways of connecting with people, but what are the end results of those connections? Like the inhabitants of the Buy N’ Large spaceship only able to attend to issues of immediacy- what do I want right now?– Virilio sees the trajectory of technology as ending the very possibility of trajectories, making it impossible, or at least difficult, to ask questions like how did I get here? Where do I go from here?
This form of present shock suggests not only a new relationship to space but also a new relationship to time.

“These days, the screen of real-time televised broadcasts is no longer a monchromatic filter like the one familiar to photographers which lets through a single colour only of the spectrum, but a mono-chronic filter which allows a glimpse only of the present. An intensive present, spawned by the limit-speed of electromagnetic waves and no longer registered in chronological time- past-present-future – but in chronoscopic time: underexposed-exposed-overexposed.” (28)

The idea of chronscopic time offers a different way of analyzing the flood of digital information. Take the medium twitter- it is (sort of) possible to analyze tweets under a chronological paradigm- each tweet has a relational time stamp depending upon the time of access- two minutes ago, an hour ago, two days ago- but the precision of the time stamp lessens the further removed the tweet is from the present. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine the value of a strictly chronological project- so much of the social meaning of twitter takes place in algorithmically mediated connections rather than individual tweets. Tarleton Gillespie’s analysis of the twitter trending algorithm (of 2011) shows a different paradigm at play- the chronoscopic paradigm of exposure, overexposure, and underexposure. Algorithms shape the experience of the presence, outsourcing the act of judgement from the human to the machine, and determining twitter trends, facebook feeds, and media recommendations. Which is not to ignore the role of design- algorithims do not emerge of their own volition but instead are shaped by the decisions of individuals, although the scale of those decisions can vary widely with the use of machine learning technologies. But is this exactly this question of design that Virilio’s framework of chronoscopic time elides- instead of looking to the different ways media, technology, and algorithms shape the perception and experience of the present, Virilio reduces the significance of technological development to ever-acceleration resulting in the motile (hu)man. Although he sharply criticizes the logic of progress, Virilio leaves the structure of progress in place while offering a different valence of the term.

“With the cold war over and capitalism ascendant, Fukuyama argued, the end of that History, with a capital H, was more clearly in sight. Whatever the ultimate fate of this thesis—the controversy it sparked was both trenchant and varied—my point is that
media, somewhat like Fukuyama’s “mankind,” tend unthinkingly to be regarded as heading a certain “coherent and directional” way along an inevitable path, a History, toward a specific and not-so-distant end.”

-Lisa Gitelman Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (3)

Media as Historical Subject


As someone interested in media history, I wanted to focus on the historical methodology Lisa Gitelman presents in the introduction of Always Already New. I do think the objections/questions I raise are primarily limited to the theorization of her method and do not necessarily apply to chapters that follow the introduction- or at least I have not done the work to the make that application here. However, I do think Gitelman presents her method as a corrective to extant approaches to media history and so I wanted to consider what could be lost if this approach were universalized within media histories.