Pit Schultz on Thu, 27 Nov 1997 10:30:35 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Laurence Rickels: Interview with Michel Serres and Greg Ulmer



by Laurence Rickels

Fall Quarter 1994 was my performative piece as an
administrator: I was the UCSB host with the most
visitations from stars of intelligent life. Traffic
jamming with our UCSB frequencies were Kathy Acker, who
did two weeks; Klaus Theweleit, here for one quarter; and
Gregory Ulmer and Michel Serres, who performed a changing
of the thinkers ceremony with next to no overlap on
Halloween weekend. This T:vc cyber-special feature covers
the case of near miss between Ulmer and Serres. By
splicing together the two separately conducted one-on-one
interviews, what took two is now group formatted (as in
three's a crowd). At the same time the family romance of
this in-group-of-three jump starts, in the spirit of
Internet, the constitutive possibility of each solo
interviewee making a ghost appearance on the other's
interview. Our own ongoing group psychologization or
technologization that has by now dated and turned the
timer on age-old institutions of coupling or one-to-one
transmission is at the same time the stereo topic that
both interviews shared and that now tunes in as one
running in-group commentary.

Laurence Rickels: Given the division you set up
on TV between information and advertising, and
the privilege you accord, however ironically, to
advertising, is it possible to say that, in the station
break, in the interruption of the programming, in the
word from the sponsor, that it's a transferential
connection with "the truth" that gets across? In other
words, the frontiers of advertising you address or
colonize seem to frame the influence of psychoanalysis,
even on your own thought. All advertising advertises
psychoanalysis. Have the agencies studied Freud when they
mix intra-psychic ingredients into the products we are
asked to identify and identify with or was Freud right
all along? This is already the question of haunting.

Michel Serres: We must really discuss "haunted,"
because some people say the opposite. Technicians
say the opposite, that TV is a cold medium and that radio
is a hot medium. On radio, you are close to a person's
voice, and emotions are transferred in a refined way.
It's a "fine" medium, very intimate. Someone speaks as if
whispering in your ear. Whereas TV is a medium where
there must be distance for it to reach you, because it's
an "icy" medium, and that is why there isn't this idea of
"haunting." That's what the technicians say, it's not my
own analysis, I'm just reciting what they say.

LR: Do you see the destiny of transference, too, as
following or falling for this hot and cold-war

MS: As soon as Brigitte Bardot was on TV or film, all the
young French girls bought the same skirt as Bardot.
Mimesis, which is how I prefer to address what you call
the transference, seems stronger in this mass-media
instance; but what you learned in math class or English
with a professor who was present is conducted via the
same type of mimesis. That is why I concluded my lecture
on television by saying that the real question belongs to
education. It was in that context that I used the word
"prophetic," invoking it in two ways. It has two
meanings, one is flat and the other is not. The flat
sense concerns a certain interest in education as a
long-term investment. And because it's a long-term
investment, it has a propagating effect--it prolongs;
that is the naive or flat reading of the term. The second
meaning, which comes from monotheistic religions, is that
of the prophet, who has always had the same function
whether in Judaism, Islam, etc., to intervene in the
ritual of sacrifice, to intervene in human sacrifice.
That is almost the definition of monotheism. Monotheism
in our culture is post-Abraham and Isaac. You will not
kill your son. I argued that television, in showing
murders, is sacrificial in the really polytheistic sense
of the word. It devotes itself incessantly to human
sacrifice. Prophetic in this context refers to the call
that has been put through to stop these sacrifices.

LR: And the university is where we today pull out or put
up all the stops?

MS: For four of five years now, I have been in charge of
mapping out a report on the organization of an open
university in France. We have a very old institution of
this type which is called The Open Teaching Center, but
which is not a university. In Spain and England there are
open universities, and I believe in Germany too. There is
one in Quebec, and in India as well. An open university
implies opening the doors of the campus to all possible
networks--telephone, fax, minitel, television, cable,
e-mail, Internet--to attempt to organize a system of
teaching that would reach people who are not accessible
via traditional educational systems. I've worked a lot on
this problem, and I learned very quickly that in all
countries that I know and that I've visited in Western
Europe this subject is already being considered So, I was
supposed to study something that I've been studying for a
long time, ever since, in fact, my first book, Hermes,
which was already on the problem of communication. My
real project is to create a university open to all these
available networks. Why? In poor and rich countries,
according to the UNESCO experts, applications to
institutions of higher education go up 10% per year. It's
enormous, just as big in poor countries as in rich ones.
Also, the financial means of traditional educational
institutions--high schools, colleges, universities--in
all countries, have been stretched to the limit, at
private as well as at public institutions. We don't see
how it would be possible for even a rich country like
Germany or the US to spend even more money on teaching
and education.

So, we are facing a very strong contradiction right now,
the conflict, really, between the rise in demand and the
impossibility of financing it. The "campus" solution will
be extremely costly, too expensive. We are at a key point
in time in which either we will no longer share
knowledge--it will once again become the property of a
very small group--or we will disseminate it by other
means. We have the means to work through these
contradictions, namely, all the new channels that emerged
in the 1950s and continue to be born, but which we are
not using now. If we look prospectively at what could
happen, I think that in the next few years, a big part of
professional pedagogy will occur along these channels,
and this will represent a crisis in our profession. In
contrast to the old TV I talked about yesterday, what I
dream of is TV that is aware that it truly is a
pedagogical channel, because it took that path, and that
there is no longer any separation between TV's job and
the teaching profession. We must conquer the new media
much like the scholars of the 15th and 16th century took
over the writing channel. Each time there is a new
medium, we have something new to do. Just as Wolf Kittler
in his interview with T:vc says that we must do something
with computers.

Gregory Ulmer: Yes, literacy has been a powerful
democratic force. America was founded on people
who had encyclopedias that were so good that when they
transported them along to the new world they could use
them to build mills and other tools and machines that
they needed, even political systems and social
organizations. But what we've discovered in the American
experiment, which is an experiment in mass education, is
that finally we have come up against the limits of
literacy, that it finally cannot extend to everybody,
it's just too complex, too painful. The technology, paper
and pen, is cheap; but the education needed to use that
22 cents worth of technology costs right now around
$100,000. And you're just out of high school at that

Still with our university systems we are able to get some
fair portion of the population, some 25%, through
college. But we've reached this limit, and certainly the
rest of the world, if it's going to participate in modern
democratic revolutions, is going to have to have some
kind of educational system that does better than
book-based literacy in bringing everybody up to the same
level of education.

Computing offers the next breakthrough. Certainly the
alphabet and then everything that led up to the book
represented an extraordinary educational revolution in
world civilization. The computer now offers to support
the next step of that revolution in the invention process
of thinking, of reasoning. Concept formation as invented
through literacy allowed us to move beyond myths and
storytelling into philosophy and analysis. We're now at a
stage where we have equivalent support to move beyond the
concept--now three thousand years old--and we're ready to
develop a new dimension of reasoning that's a practice
and not something that's in the brain; it's in the
practice of the culture supported by the technology, the
computer, artificial intelligence, the design of expert

So that when we're talking about a computer environment
we're not just talking about long distance telephone
calling, we're talking about an environment that can be
made intelligent in the way that artificial agents make
things intelligent. So that I can have available to me as
a citizen through this equipment potentially all the
knowledge that experts have.

Right now one of the limits of literacy lies in the way
we've sought to overcome literacy's extreme
complications: we have developed experts specialized in
institutions, we have tax accountants, we have lawyers,
we have surgeons, we have philosophers, we have
consultants of all kinds. The promise of the computer is
that we know that expert knowledge is really much easier
to program or simulate through artificial intelligence
than common sense is. It's easier for a computer to
figure out your taxes than buy a hamburger. So we'll
leave the common sense to the citizens, and we'll make
available to them by means of their common sense, the
expert systems that are rapidly being put into computers.

Through computing the citizen will be able to be his or
her own expert just as the Bible and the encyclopedia in
print culture allowed people to become their own priest
during the Protestant Reformation or, in the eighteenth
century, their own craftsman. This process of evolution
will continue with the computer. There'll be a prosthesis
of expertise that will be available to the citizens and
that will no longer depend on the experts. We need to
design school practices covering the same sorts of
general education practices we have now which will allow
people to use that expertise intelligently and in their
own interest. Because the potential again for abuse and
destruction is of course enormous.

LR: Among the architectural metaphors that deconstruction
has used there's the "defective cornerstone" which
refigures overriding structures, like the patriarchal one
we're given to refer to within such dominant ideologies
of the university as feminism, in terms of something
already inside thinking or grammar that thus organizes
the bottom line of its public address but also and
already disbands it, disseminates it. That's still in
line with tensions familiar to us from psychoanalysis.
Does your project presuppose a going beyond that, or a
reorganization or redistribution of post-structures?

GU: The point of departure for the design project for a
new computeracy is the existing practices of schooling,
to see how writing has evolved up to this point. What are
the practices that have been institutionalized to tap
these resources? Let's use that as a point of departure
for thinking further, for reinventing or pushing history
further. This is necessary because you're teaching people
who've been trained in literacy. The idea would be not to
have them junk all that, the power of that, but precisely
to use the analytical power of literacy to continue the
invention process, to bootstrap into a new kind of

When we look at our practices now--say, the practices of
argumentation, the practices of narrative, however
they're manifested from disciplinary work to popular
storytelling or whatever--we find that what they have in
common is that their energies are organized around a
point of dilemma. So, in argumentation one of the most
common strategies is to take arguments and essentially
tie a knot around a particular dilemma and pose the
dilemma (which is a kind of set of paradoxical
alternatives) to your opponent in the argument, a kind of
either/or. Of course if they accept this dilemma they'll
lose because they're going to look bad either way it
comes out. Narrative does a very similar thing in the
posing of the conflict; the story turns on and around a
conflict or otherwise there wouldn't be a story.
Something's gone wrong, something has been violated,
transgressed, there's an absence, something is missing.
It's this conflict that has to be resolved.

Now both in the argument and in the story the resolution
either of the dilemma or of the conflict is always
arbitrary and artificial because it's related to the
structure of the process, it's not something in the real.
And the solution is always illusory in a way; it's kind
of a trick of the system, a feature of the form. It's the
power of the form to untie the knots that it ties up. And
this would be something like the defective cornerstone.

Let's consider the materiality of the form that we're
using, the materiality of our linear, literate forms,
like argumentation in the essay or the novel. The ability
to win an argument is the ability to create a complex
form in which people can't see that it's a suppressed
premise that is the thing that allows you to persuade
them; or they can't find out what your suppressed premise
is, and are thus unable to respond adequately to what
you're saying. In the story it's the enigma, that
narrative mystery that sustains the interest, that draws
in the reader or the viewer, gets him to identify with
the story, gets him caught up with trying to understand
what's happening in the plot, not noticing meanwhile the
logic of the cause-and-effect interrogation, Why did that
happen, Why did the person go into the haunted house?
While their analytic thinking is distracted by that
enigma a kind of dreamwork myth or mist is being laid
over the distracted part and what we're given is sort of
an illusory satisfaction of our reasoning processes. We
say, "ah hah, well there's some reason for that to
happen," when in effect what was happening instead was
internalization of a kind of dream image, the image of
the myths of the culture.

Within our current practices we can get down to this
fundamental organization of our forms around a dilemma
that's really an enigma, really a dream structure, then
we can accept and see through that and say, "well, that's
the point of departure now for redesigning our thinking."
The problem of the dilemma (and the enigma) for literacy
has been that propaganda experts were extremely efficient
at exploiting these so-called defects or defective
cornerstones of the materiality of our literacy. Can we
design formal practices of computeracy in such a way that
it would be possible, in a week let's say, in the
simplest sort of way, at the first-grade level, to expose
the formal features of dilemma and enigma, so even a
school child could see through the tricks of storytellers
and propagandists and arguers who are all in effect
exploiting the weaknesses of the formal system? How do we
do that?

That's where the design comes in. In one stroke, with the
invention of outlining, the privilege of intellectual men
trained in the church schools collapsed, withdrew into
hermetic practices and had a life there, but no function
any longer in the mainstream of educational practices in
the modern world. Compared to the extensive training
practices and extraordinary amount of time required for
the development of their memory powers in the service of
winning debates, outlining and indexing proved a much
better way to organize information. We're at a moment
like that when the promise of computing is the
development of a logical system that's so much simpler
than argumentation that it will do to the complexities of
argument on which we have depended in literacy what say
outlining and indexing did to the complex mnemonic
systems of the church school in the middle ages. The
computer promises to overcome what has turned out to be
the limits of the page.

LR: I can't help but wonder why you decided to refer to
your electronic project as the "case of Florida."

GU: I meant for it to resonate specifically with your
book The Case of California to call attention to the
shift that is taking place along the axes of cultural
life in America. The first century of our intellectual
history is organized along a north-south axis, from
Massachusetts to Virginia. The figure often associated
with that axis is Edgar Allan Poe. The second century of
our intellectual history is organized along an east-west
axis from New York to California. The associated figure
is Woody Allen. The case of Florida hypothesizes that the
third century of American culture will have been
organized along a third axis--between Florida and Latin
America--that tips off balance the other two axes without
replacing them, an off-balance that alters fundamentally
the character of our culture. A possible figure or
figurehead for the new configuration I'm working out, one
that makes the jump from your case to mine, could be old
Walt Disney himself, considering that the transition from
California to Florida has already been conducted in the
transit between Disneyland and Disneyworld.

LR: Indeed Disney exercised his political influence most
explicitly in Latin America, which is also where the next
greatest critical reception of his magic rose up
(following the German one).

GU: I'm counting on your new work on "Nazi
Psychoanalysis" to help me out with the "axis" pun. But
seriously, I am considering the Florida-Latin America
link along the lines of the California-Germany link that
you established. This topography is conceptual after all.
And within this conceptual space you were the first to
enter; it's the psychoanalytic theory of mourning that is
most helpful in hypothesizing the nature of century
three. The Case of California suggests that while
literate subjects are organized as selves (characterized
in terms of superego formation), televisual subjects are
not. The appeals to character and values and
responsibility of the sort associated with the current
Republican shift away from liberal humanism to
communitarianism have failed to take this new
subjectivation into account.

As most people know by now, the Internet was designed as
a decentered communications network, such that it would
continue to function in the event of a nuclear strike.
This pre-ruined or pre-smashed system is irresistibly
evocative for postmodern theories. For me the resonance
comes with the psychoanalytic account of the way the
unconscious continues to communicate with the conscious
mind, despite the smashing successes of repression:
dreamwork as a kind of packet switching. The importance
of this homology or generalized analogy between Internet
technology and the discourse of the unconscious is the
way it supports the post-structural theory of computing.
Not least among the reasons why poststructuralism seems
so relevant to computing is that the former allows us to
recognize that the latter is a prosthesis of human
mentality all right: precisely the prosthesis of the
unconscious. The fact is that literacy--all the practices
of alphabetic writing mounted in the institutions of
science--has been quite adequate as a prosthesis of
conscious cognition. The electronic practices emerging
now promise to supply a similar support to augment and
direct unconscious reasoning. The premise of the case of
Florida is that the practices that would allow education
to tap into this interface between electronic
technologies and the unconscious remain to be invented.

LR: You mean at the same time that "Florida" is no place,
a construct.

GU: That's a problem, that each utopia is a dystopia.
Theory tells me that wherever we encounter topos we add
the other notion of place that Derrida rescued from
Plato, namely chora. So it's uchora and/or dyschora. But
we don't know what that would be yet. But yes, every
place is potentially such a node. This is the promise of
the electronic. You don't have to be in a particular
central place to be in a creative place. Our equipment
shows us that memory spread through many small but linked
computers is much more powerful and much more like human
thinking than what huge central processors attain or
retain by in effect limiting the memory of a system to a
line rather than opening it across a network.

LR: But this chora is not just the place in which you
find yourself when you type into the computer but it's
inside the computer at the same time, it's part of the

GU: The "case" is a test to see what happens when we
redesign at every level the relationship between the
particular and the general. We can all get on line and be
in MOO space, in virtual space together while locally
grounded in some other way. How do we internalize that?
>From orality to literacy to computeracy we internalize
our equipment only to put it out again into the
organization of our social space. There's a
correspondence between our logical relations and our
international relations.

MS: We were taught, my generation as well as yours, to
restrict problems to the most local definition possible.
We were forbidden to think universally. Universality was
banned, and for good reasons. Universal laws always
seemed imperialist to us, and it's our generation that
created this suspicion, and rightly so. As soon as there
is a universal law we would think or analyze that it was
an inflated local law, and therefore that it was unique,
and in need of criticism. I adhered all my life to this
type of analysis, except on one point. The reason being
that I am originally a mathematician, and I never stopped
studying mathematics while working on my books, since a
large part of my books were also based on mathematical
models and demonstrations. I also held on to analyses of
mathematical cases, because this is a universality that
is acceptable, and in a way is not imperialist. In the
fifth century BC an inevitable universality was born:
whether we're Sri Lankan, New Zealander, German, or
French, we are mathematicians.

And this is a universality that sticks its tongue out at
supporters of the "local." And I've always lived within
this tension, because my work forced me to look at local
spaces, but I always had in my head the notion of
universality that I was at the same time fighting.
Therefore I feel that at the close of this century we
must ask ourselves if these local, singular,
multi-cultural studies, etc., if it won't some day open
up for us a new way in which to conceive the universal.
That is the question I ask myself. I have not abandoned
the old philosophical idea that we need to conquer
everything. When I talk about geometrical education, I
mean that no matter what culture I address, I will always
teach them math. No matter what. And there is something
there that reunifies.

Today the world is coded. In the fifth century BC, all we
had in our heads was the notion of universals. And today
... even Newton's universal laws are contested, because
there is chaos, etc.; but geometry still stands. We risk
an ancient universality today, given that television is
an educational channel that is culturally unique, and
this is very serious. There are very powerful people who
have already bought all the networks in question, and if
one day there is a world university, it will belong to
them. Imagine a world university owned by Philip Morris
or some other company: can you imagine? It would teach
its own truth, teach everyone to obey its laws, never
before has such a danger hung over our heads. This is
worse than any ancient conceptions of universality. And
the only thing to fight back with, would be other types
of universality. The big debates today are universal in

GU: I do think that there's a considerable risk here. And
this has to be thought through very carefully. And that's
why I say the Florida project is still an adventure. My
optimism is partly and simply a decision to take a
certain kind of attitude towards the situation we're in,
which is to say that as an educator I believe in the
values of American democratic education. But what we're
saying is mythic too; that if we don't participate in the
design of these practices as educators we will have
surrendered even these newest media to the designs the
entertainment industry, the military and other kinds of
institutions already have on them: all these institutions
are very busily designing the practices for these new
technologies. Educators have a responsibility to engage
in this process. And the optimism is not so much an
optimism of the outcome as that of a willingness to take
on the project. There's nothing that says that it will
come out badly or that it will come out for the best. We
know from the history of formal change that the forms of
the practices we're talking about will support any kind
of ideology.

Part of my optimism is related to the multi-sensory
nature of the equipment, to the way it supports, brings
together, makes sense out of quite different areas of
knowledge. If you compare what we know about the
equipment with all the books I've read about creative
thinking, you'll see that both descriptions, how the new
equipment and how creativity work, are virtually the
same. Creative thinking and the latest equipment are on
the same wavelength in a functional and conceptual way.
We need to exploit that fit, that possibility. And we
must apply our efforts to the schools. They're like the
roads of Rome, already there, already spread out
throughout society, we already believe in and support
them as a society, and we've already been putting the
equipment in there not knowing really why, just wanting
it there somehow. This equipment is precisely the thing
that will turn our children into creative thinkers, a
goal the school system never supported before, never
wanted, and never tried to teach. We've always only
taught the verification of the other's creativity. But
it's still a mystery how it gets invented.

A second part of my optimism comes down to the way our
worst and best policies, for example capitalism, remain
absolutely adaptable. Capitalism really doesn't care;
it'll sell little red Mao books if those are hot. It
doesn't care what it sells as long as it sells something.

LR: But would capitalism rather sell "nothing" than not

GU: Capitalism, I think, can learn, which is a
fundamental reflection on the intelligence of the human
species. Let's figure out how to teach capitalism
something. Some of the most promising practices for
accessing the creative thinking inside the equipment
comes from other cultures. Some of the models that we
need are lying around already available but not yet
plugged in; they are the models brought to our culture by
the black diaspora, such as various African spiritual
modes of divining. Then we have our own pattern-making
intelligence; we call it mathematics or we call it
poetry. With the computer we can map any two systems one
onto the other. It doesn't matter what the systems are, a
kind of explanatory effect results from taking say one
completely unknown system and another completely unknown
system and simply mapping one onto the other. Suddenly
human beings understand something. So the sound spectrum
is like the light spectrum. We don't really understand
either one but now we have a way of coordinating them so
that bright colors and sharp sounds seem to go together.
Those kinds of coordinating patterns, the extraordinary
richness of them, is available in all kinds of
non-Western practices. The motivation for learning about
non-Western cultures has become quite different than it
had been. Whereas before in the colonial literate history
of the West there was only the complete incompatibility
of other civilizations, the cultural practices of the
non-Western world now begin to make a great deal of
sense--to compute--in our newest techno contexts.

To complete this point about the homology linking the
pre-smashed design of the Internet with the concept of
repressed communication, my recent book Heuretics: The
Logic of Invention describes a heuristic generator that
may be applied to this question. The idea is that the
system of most intellectual inventions may be understood
in terms of a heuristic generator mnemonically identified
by the acronym "CATTt." The letters stand for
Contrast-Analogy-Theory-Target-tale. As an attempt to
invent a practice for an electronic culture, the case of
Florida is being generated out of a Contrast with the
literate apparatus; the Theory comes from
poststructuralism; the Target is the Internet; I won't go
into the whole business of the "tale" just now. The point
I want to make in our context is that the Analogy in our
generator (the extant practice that serves as a
figurative model for designing our new discourse) derives
from the process of pidgin linguistics.

It is rather a double metaphor, to say that what is
happening in contemporary music, the formations of
hybrids out of the contact of different cultural
traditions, is a relay for a process that may be applied
to other dimensions of culture as well. This question
needs much more contextualizing than I can provide here,
and I apologize for the crudeness of these remarks. But
the validity of this line of thinking--confirming that
the device of appropriation at the heart of postmodernism
is something more profound than a stylistic
fashion--comes from the homology I have been elaborating
here. What is the most smashed discourse we have at the
historical level, the social level, to complete the
pattern offered by the Internet and the unconscious,
technology and psychology? It is the music of the African
Diaspora. The process by which Africans integrated their
cultural practices with the materials of whatever place
they found themselves offers a frame for understanding
how literacy becomes electronic.

[republished on nettime with friendly permission by t:vc
thanks to Peter Krapp for the link]

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