Gregory Ulmer, Electronic Monuments

Review by Sean Morey

Gregory L. Ulmer, Electronic Monuments (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

There was a moment, in the weeks following the events of September 11, 2001, when a need for renewed thinking on fundamental cultural values, on the meaning and possibility of civic participation, and on notions as basic as mourning and commemoration, on peace and war, emerged unmistakably in American consciousness. This awareness receded dramatically as the media assumed the national work of mourning, and it quickly ceded to ideological certainty in the administrative consolidation (under the name of a "war on terror") of a conservative agenda. (42)
—Christopher Fynsk, The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities [1]

[1] In the epigraph above, Christopher Fynsk highlights the failure of the humanities to deal sufficiently with the problem of 9/11. Most of the questions surrounding the disaster involved the usual sort of post-mortem fare on cable news networks. Once we knew who flew the planes, the discussion moved toward the larger networks and logistics that made 9/11 possible, as well as the questions of why. While the humanities should have helped the American citizenry to deal with the socio-cultural implications of this disaster, it did little to prevent a dominant American ideology from answering some of these questions with an enlightenment-based, scientific approach, and allowed the Bush administration to assert that the best way for the ordinary citizen to deal with the problem was to "shop-till-the-terrorists-dropped."

[2] From this perspective, the humanities failed the American people. Or, we were the problem all along, and the humanities failed to solve us. Instead of relying on the sciences to answer questions about 9/11 (including all of the social sciences), what America really needed was the humanities to help it understand its situation, from which it might engage in practical reasoning to make decisions. Fynsk makes a telling observation when he asserts that the media took on the task of mourning for the nation. As the fourth estate, the media's role is to oversee the official versions of events furnished by the government so that it can determine their validity, ascertain who benefits from such narratives, and whether or not they are in the public's best interest. However, as Fynsk surmises, the media instead became implicit in sanctioning the official version of events. Traditionally, the humanities has taken up three tasks to justify its existence. The first involves the Human-Text Interface, or more simply, literacy. Second, the humanities is expected to teach critical thinking, which is required by citizens in a democracy so they can make decisions in their best self-interest. However, the last aspect, and the one that Gregory L. Ulmer sees as most lacking in the 9/11 disaster, is that of self-knowledge. It is self-knowledge, in conjunction with aesthetic thinking, which Ulmer takes up in Electronic Monuments.

[3] Ulmer uses 9/11 as a starting point to theorize how, in an electrate age, America will mourn and reflect upon this particular disaster and disasters in general. [2] Ulmer argues that 9/11, or any disaster, provides the potential for a further rewriting of collective identity: how will America look upon its values and decide if it needs to be reinterpreted and revised: "America" is an idea, and like any idea, can be altered when necessary. But to change, an electrate society first needs to be able to understand itself, to see what it looks like. In an image-based society, literacy is ill-equipped to handle this task because it can only deal with concepts and not emotion, the level at which images work. If America still wants an informed citizenry to be able to function in a democracy, then it must have self-knowledge of its state-of-mind, or mood, in order to act in its own best interest. Electronic memorials provide an electrate practice that allow online citizens (or netizens) to do this. This new practice, made up of deconsultants called egents within a larger umbrella of the EmerAgency, composes a fifth estate to view not only the other four, but also itself at both the individual and collective level, and allows all citizens to take part in the collective process of problem solving. [3]

[4] To create a deconsulting practice, Ulmer suggests the use of electronic monuments, which he also refers to as MEmorials. In general, traditional monuments convey particular types of information. Most visibly, they convey historical or political information through architecture, symbols, or placards that provide narratives, dates, and other information useful to maintaining the identity of the nation that built them. As Ulmer points out, monuments symbolize loss for the nation, "mourning the loss of one generation of citizens after the other, back to the Founding Fathers. Monuments are to a nation what the superego is to an individual" (14). Monuments tell a nation the ideal values and forms of behaviors it expects from its citizens. The question with a 9/11 memorial is what values would such a memorial profess?

[5] Monuments also provide a matrix through which the individual and collective identities meet, making it relevant to a citizen and a nation both trying to attain self-knowledge. Ulmer writes that "commemoration is a fundamental experience joining individual and collective identity" (xxi), and that the act of mourning, in psychoanalytic terms, "refers to the process by which the person is constituted as a distinctly separate self, yet part of the larger whole of society" (13). Ulmer tries to make the act of memorializing relevant as an electrate practice, noting that the individual and collective identities will be much different than the traditional notion of "self" and "nation" that are part of the language apparatus of print literacy. Starting with a consideration of traditional memorializing, Ulmer makes use of this process as a relay for the electrate practice of MEmorializing, a process which will produce self-knowledge at both the individual and collective levels.

[6] Most popular monuments involve some sort of travel. That is, they are part of a larger tourism system of which they serve as an attracting feature to gather spectators. An electronic monument would attract Internet tourists as a means of gathering them around community problems and disasters. Part of the travel itself involves theorizing about the particular problem, and Ulmer explains that the first theorists, such as Solon, did much of their theory on-the-go—they used travel as a means to observe the world and draw theories from it. A touring of the Internet provides a means by which netizens can observe their world and try to find solutions to whatever problem the electronic monument memorializes. In addition, tourism also helps to invent new behaviors. Ulmer notes that sea bathing became a new behavior and served as a lure to draw tourists to seaside states for commercial interests. Monuments such as Mount Rushmore were built not specifically to commemorate, but to draw tourists to the state of South Dakota. A tourism of electronic monuments would drop the capitalist aspects, Ulmer suggests, but still look toward cultivating new behaviors appropriate to electracy.

[7] Traditional monuments also recognize the sacrifices made for the society's dominant values. For example, Ulmer writes that most war monuments recognize the sacrifice that soldiers have made so that the nation can be free. This value of freedom is easily recognized in this context, and the memorial helps tell the official narrative of the nation. However, America experiences many other sacrifices which support this same value, but are not memorialized, and so go unnoticed. Ulmer calls these values formless, making them abject. Such abject values manifest in everyday behaviors and result in abject sacrifices. Ulmer uses the example of the traffic accident to illustrate this point. Driving an automobile performs the value of "freedom": "To drive wherever I want, whenever I want, for whatever purpose, in whatever manner I choose, so help me God" (49). However, when the inevitable traffic accident occurs, the collective body of America doesn't look upon it as a sacrifice, but instead tries to analyze it using a scientific approach and develop new policies that might reduce the number of accidents. Ulmer says that to approach the problem this way misses an important aspect of the problem—the values that permit driving in the first place. Traffic accidents are a necessary condition of the freedom to drive automobiles, and if we want to learn about ourselves as a nation, we should acknowledge such sacrifices made by all those who die in the act of driving. A MEmorial for these drivers would "not advocate or condemn the social commitment to the automobile, but only makes it recognizable as a specific kind of value, belief, commitment, with the purpose of helping the public understand itself in its collective identity" (50).

[8] The underlying problem that an electronic memorial would help solve involves the role of the netizen in the democratic sphere. Ulmer derives this problem from several sources, but most notably a combination of Paul Virilio's concept of the general accident, and the condition of the "society of the spectacle." Virilio's reading of the society of the spectacle contains a pessimistic belief that such a society is unable to support the critical thinking that a democracy requires of its citizen. According to Ulmer, disaster information is delivered by our media in such a way that it is unreceivable at the level of belief—we know that the information is fact of some sort, but we don't internalize the information at the level of belief, it doesn't affect us. While we acknowledge that others are suffering, we experience "compassion fatigue" and don't take any action to help. In addition to this, every technological invention comes with its accident-in-tow. As Ulmer writes, "when you invent the car, you invent the car crash." Thus, the question becomes, what is the accident that accompanies the Internet? Since it is ubiquitous (or has the potential to be) it can facilitate a general accident—an accident that occurs everywhere at once and affects all people.

[9] However, Ulmer is more optimistic than Virilio (but acknowledges the possibility of his claims), and believes that education can invent practices that allow a participatory democracy to function in the spectacle. To combat compassion fatigue, a MEmorial relies on a performative method to overcome it, and Ulmer outlines various assignments throughout the book so that the reader can perform her own MEmorial. Ulmer himself details his performance of a few possible MEmorials within the text. One of the first steps begins with viewing the spectacle, the general information sphere, but then bringing it back to the individual level. MEmorials are not just about the public, but as the name suggests, they are also about "me." The MEmorial provides an extimate relation to the viewer, to help make her aware of her particular situation. As an overarching example, and also an example of how a performative memorializing might work, Ulmer provides the news story of Bradley McGee, a two-year-old who was a victim of child abuse when his father "repeatedly rammed [his] head into the toilet like a plunger, angered that the toddler had soiled his pants" (118).

[10] Traditional consulting, according to Ulmer, involves using literate logic to try and solve problems. For instance, given an individual case of child abuse, the state agencies that oversee child protection may attempt to analyze the case and make laws that will prevent this kind of abuse from happening to other children. But this kind of approach can only work if we allow the state to take complete control of child-rearing so that no possibility exists for parents to mistreat their children. Otherwise, as we continually witness through the media, child abuse will persist. However, the value of freedom overrides total surveillance as a possibility, and the state is unable to see this as a necessary aporia: "Conventional consultants try to isolate the aberration as exception, unaware of the logic of bare life. They are unable to conceive of American as we-who-abuse-children" (157). If we continue to look at problems using literate logic, a blind spot will necessarily persist in our self-knowledge, especially at the level of values. Ulmer writes that we value freedom, and so behave accordingly, and don't realize that child abuse is a necessary sacrifice for the part of that freedom that we understand as a parent's right to have and raise children: "The point is that until the abuse is acknowledged as the symptom of a value (until it is given the collective recognition as such) there is no hope of altering the behavior. The goal of cumulative MEmorials is collective self-knowledge" (140).

I am thinking not about Bradley McGee but with him. What makes writing the disaster reproducible as a practice for egents is the simplicity of the means. I make an allegory, a figure of thought. I juxtapose some documents from two domains (my life, public problem), and the human sensorium does the rest. If a correspondence exists, the feeling occurs as an event. (147)

[11] How exactly is a MEmorial performed? The egent becomes attuned to the information sphere until she notices a sting, theorized as Roland Barthes' "punctum." When the egent notices this feeling produced by an image, news story, or other medium, the egent explores that feeling in order to produce an image category that can capture the mood. In this active exploration, the egent is not looking to solve the problem, but to understand her relationship to the problem, and how that problem manifests inside of her. Ulmer states that the slogan of the EmerAgency is "Problems B Us," which is to say that these problems are internalized in us. Examining the outside situation can help us understand our own situation, and provide necessary self-knowledge from which to participate more intelligently in public policy.

[12] The MEmorial attempts to reveal the blind spot through a connection based on mood. MEmorials expose the personal and collective ATH, that is, the blindness or foolishness that causes us to behave in a certain way according to certain values. [4] As the example of child abuse shows, our society displays "dumbness" about freedom at the level of child rearing. Cumulative MEmorials would help to map this blindness. Because the image stings at the level of emotion, the gathering device that helps to eliminate compassion fatigue is not the literate concept but mood: "The MEmorial does not define (analyze) the disaster but discovers its mood. This is the contribution of the EmerAgency in collaboration with expertise. Through attunement the disaster matters to me" (154).

[13] Once this feeling is mapped, the egent can plan the physical construct of the monument. Because they demonstrate an abject value, MEmorials should be peripheral monuments to official memorials that portray the professed values of the society, thereby establishing a connection between the official sacrifices and the abject sacrifices overlooked through their juxtaposition. Ulmer suggests that the MEmorial for Bradley McGee be attached to the Space Mirror, which is the Astronaut Memorial at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Ulmer describes the MEmorial:

The peripheral or add-on feature, associating the death of Bradley McGee with that of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Christa McAuliffe, and other heroes, consists of an electronic panel substituted for just one of the ninety-three granite panels of the memorial ... The panel is activated only during an eclipse of the sun, and flashes (one name each second) as many names of children who died from abuse as may fit into the duration of the eclipse while the heroes' names are invisible. (175)

The MEmorial affects public policy by bringing into relation these two values, one explicit and one abject. It allows the egent who constructs it to notice the "conditions sustaining the abuse by the promise of divination: the problem explains the consultant" (175). On the collective level, it reveals the price we pay for childrearing. However, the individual level produces a more specific result. The MEmorial allows for composition written in the middle voice. It does not address an external audience, an I-S/He communication, but an I-I communication: "The MEmorial is self-addressed, first of all, in the middle voice; the action is reflexive, extended through a networked environment to become a group subject" (171). What was Ulmer's testimony? How did he, to himself, bear witness to the sacrifice of Bradley McGee and other abused children?: "I benefit from the circumstances that make possible the murder of Bradley McGee. I am a parent; a father of two sons. My right to have children and raise them in my own way was paid for by Bradley McGee (and all the others)" (174-175).

[14] This I-I autocommunication happens at the individual level, as it did for Ulmer, but also at the collective level. Even though a 9/11 memorial has already been sanctioned by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, America as an idea must still figure out who and what it

[15] is – it must self-communicate; when the official memorial is complete, MEmorializing will not be finished. To return to the question of the humanities' role in the process, then, it must step in and help determine what the memorializing will look like. As Ulmer argues, the literate apparatus cannot analyze the problem and develop a solution because it cannot address the values that allowed the sacrifice of 9/11 to occur. Ultimately, MEmorials can become linked together at the level of a group subject, and the American ATH can be known. This opens memorializing to a democratic process. Thus, what we must create for disasters like 9/11 is an electronic monument, or many electronic monuments, ones in which all citizens can participate.

[16] But beyond 9/11, one of the salient aspects of the MEmorial is that it has both a broad and specific appeal. It must be done by a specific individual responding to a specific situation, a specific affect produced by a sore spot in the community, but the range of what that sore spot might be is open to all problems, be they environmental, biological, economic, educational, etc. Thus, the MEmorial can serve as a general practice for an electrate citizenry, just as the definition, within a literate apparatus, can be used to find the essence of any "thing." While literacy is still important to our educational system, helping us to understand what can be done, the aesthetic skills necessary for electracy, such as art, are important to help us understand what we should do: "In an electrate consultancy, art is as important as math and science" (161). We must not only develop critical thinking, but also aesthetic thinking.

[17] Taking in a syncretic view, it should be noted that the 2006 Time Magazine person of the year – the year Electronic Monuments was published – was "YOU," or the many users who generate content on the Internet. We are already gathering into collectives to address problems at the level of the image via the digital Internet, but our practices mainly derive from the entertainment industries. What Ulmer gives us is a specific method for not just putting ourselves into the Internet, but also seeing what an electrate culture, made ubiquitous by the Internet, puts into us. The Latin root for monument comes from monere, which can be translated as "to remind." Monuments remind us, commemorate, serve as places of memory, so that events, persons, and those values that society wants us to emulate may be embedded/embodied into the nation. However, it also can be translated as "to warn." An electronic monument gets more at this latter definition, helping to warn both individuals and the collective society that its professed values might not be in its best interest, and that there is always an abject sacrifice that must be met in order to sustain them. The question that a MEmorial will have to answer, as Ulmer frames it, is "[i]n the Internet prosthesis is it possible for the group subject to awaken, to kill its own dumbness in a revelation of its freedom, that is, its power to choose a course of action other than the one dictated by material nature or ideological habit?" (149). Electronic Monuments, as a book and a practice, provides a starting point for killing the dumbness in US.


[1] Fynsk, Christopher. The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[2] Ulmer sees electracy as a new language apparatus that emerges out of literacy, and says in his book Internet Invention (New York: Longman, 2003) that electracy "is to digital media what literacy is to print." While literacy has nearly 2,500 years of use and various practices that go along with it, such as the definition, concept, proof, etc., electracy is new and still needs scholars to develop practice for how an electrate society is to use and think with new media.

[3] Ulmer develops many terms within Electronic Monuments: 1) Netizens: electrate citizens, or simply citizens engaged via the Internet; 2) EmerAgency: "a distributed, virtual, online consulting agency" that "serves as an umbrella term for collaboration among colleagues, students, and public schools. The EmerAgency in principle coordinates the collaboration among teachers, volunteers, and partner organizations, across the levels of schooling, to add an Internet dimension to a curriculum that would give public schools a new voice as a 'fifth estate' in our society" (xiii); 3) Egent: an emeragent, or someone who consults under the umbrella of the EmerAgency. Egents are "self-declared consultants without portfolio" (xiii); 4) Deconsulting: short for "deconstructive consulting," deconsulting supplements traditional consulting, and is "simultaneously an immanent critique of conventional consulting and an experiment in an alternative mode that adapts arts and letters knowledge to a practice supportive of a virtual civic sphere" (xxxi).

[4] Ulmer develops ATH from its Greek roots "which means 'blindness' or 'foolishness' in an individual, and 'calamity' and 'disaster' in a collectivity" (xxiv). The Greek example Ulmer gives to demonstrate ATH is that of Plato's Euthyphro. In this text, Socrates uses the definition (a new device of literacy) to show that Euthyphro's reasons for wanting to prosecute his father for murder involved a contradiction based on the definitions of piety and impiety. These terms turned out to be different in different contexts. "Euthyphro was not happy about the proof that he did not seem to know what he was doing or why, no more than did most other Athenians, who voted one fine day to martyr this first literate subject" (xxvi).