Applied Grammatology by Gregory Ulmer (partial review)

Posted: February 2, 2008 in Pedagogy, Review
Tags: , , ,

I can’t really say that I just finished reading this book; I’d feel guilty making such a claim. What I did was read the parts of it that seemed interesting to me at the time. I will very likely come back to this book in the future, as parts of it looked potentially interesting but not relevant to my current research.

That said, let me talk about what I did read.

First off, reading this book brought back a number of memories. I remembered, first, when I was still an undergraduate, taking a course on Linguistic Philosophy. We read a number of theorists, including Lacan, Wittgenstein, Saussure, and finally Derrida. It was my first introduction to Derrida, and that introduction was Of Grammatology. It remains to this day the most difficult book I’ve ever read (including Kant’s Prolegommena, Discourse on Pure Reason, etc), and was so difficult to understand that I wanted to track Derrida down and yell at him. (which I could have done; he presented something at Princeton right around the time I was reading his book. It would have been just a few hours in the car to be able to throw his book at him). What was most amazing about Derrida was that everything ELSE of his that I’ve read has been eminently clear and accessible.

Next came memories of On Grammatology itself. I remembered enough that I am now more convinced than before that I need to read it again. Surely five years has changed my ability to understand it at least a little.

But I’m off topic. Ulmer’s book, straight from the Preface, grabbed on to my attention as well as it grabbed on to my memory. When I read the line “Grammatology as composition (writing) is not confined to books and articles, but is addressed more comprehensively to the needs of multichanneled performance–in the classroom and in video and film as well” (xii), I immediately saw how this book could apply to my interests in New Media. Ulmer was right there already talking about new media. And he didn’t stop there. Once the book gets good and started, Ulmer writes that “Grammatology [. . .] is first of all a new mode of writing whose practice could bring the language and literature disiplines into a more responsive relationship with the era of communications technology in which we are living” (4).

The internet. He’s talking about the internet. At this point I looked back to the publication date. 1985. Okay, maybe he’s not talking about the internet per se. But this argument still stands. He’s suggesting that the discipline of English studies need to get itself into a better relationship with new technologies as they develop. I don’t know if new media studies has a central tenet, but if it doesn’t, that might be one worth adopting.

Ulmer soon moves on to a deep reading of Derrida and of grammatology, suggesting that there is more to Derrida’s work than just deconstructionism (though that in itself is still very useful). He at one point mentions, almost in passing, that “the evolution of writing is not necessarily dependent on the evolution of speech” (7) as part of an argument that Writing is not secondary to speech (one of the few things I remember understanding from On Grammatology). This bit, along with the rest of the argument in this section of the book, made me think about ways that writing is someones better than speech. There are some things that make sense in writing but not when spoken out loud. Derrida’s Differance came to mind, and not for the last time.

As Ulmer continued this line of argument about the primacy of writing, I began thinking of things like homonyms. Writing two, to, and too leaves no ambiguity to their meaning. Saying those words out loud can be confusing. If I talk about “Their running track,” out loud (using speech), it will be unclear whether I am talking about the running track that belongs to them or saying that they are running track. But in writing, it’s eminently clear. If I meant the latter idea, I would have written “They’re running track.” To me, this at least suggests that writing has some advantages over speech (even if it is true that speech has advantages over writing). In fact, it seems Ulmer is trying to argue that the linear model of one being ‘better’ or more ‘pure’ than the other is and should be discarded.

Shortly thereafter, Ulmer begins speaking of the book, reminding me of an earlier conversation I had. Ulmer writes that “The book is perhaps the most charged, cathected object in Western civilization, representing, according to Frued’s analysis of his own dream of the botanical monograph, the Mother” (13). The conversation in question involved a discussion about the fate of the book. Would the computer screen eventually take the place of the physical book? At the time, I was prone to say that it would, that as technology advanced, and the e-book phenomena continued, printed books would become rarer–I’ll talk about my theories in another post, perhaps. My partner in this discussion disagreed, citing how important the book was in our society and saying that it would never go away. It might change, but never disappear. People will read again.

His point seems to be what Ulmer is getting at. While communications technology is advancing, and “the new media are bringing about a radical cultural transformation whose imperatives may no longer be ignored by intellectuals” (13), there will probably always be books. Books weren’t always in the same form they are now (they were once scrolls-like the Torah- and once hand bound and illuminated), and likely will not always be in the same form they are now, but they will always exist.

What follows is a long and involved investigation into Derrida’s theories, most of which made me itch to reread On Grammatology, to see if I saw what Ulmer sees. Eventually, though, Ulmer turns to Post(e)-Pedagogy, where I found my interest drawn. Ulmer brings up an important point that my Linguistic Philosophy professor at least alluded to: “while Derrida’s texts appear to be among the most difficult and esoteric works of our time, they nonetheless call for a program or practice that can only be described as a popularization of knowledge” (160). Derrida’s proposed pedagogy is one that breaks the distance between teacher and student, making knowledge the goal rather than some kind of Foucault-inspired disciplinary battle. Speaking of Foucault, and Ulmer does, provides the idea that we are already moving towards a new educational model (167).

What, though, is that model?  According to Ulmer, it “must attempt to do away with the undesirable pedagogical effect of discipleship precisely because it generates disciplines and authorities” (173). What does that mean? It means a pedagogy of cooperation, breaking down the barrier between teacher and student, one that focuses on enframing knowledge rather than disseminating it; teaching people to think rather than making them memorize facts. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, or laying my own pedagogical ideals down where they don’t belong, but this is what I get from Ulmer writing that “Grammatology is committed to a pedagogy [. . .] that will collapse discipline into invention” (188).

Following this presentation of his pedagogy, Ulmer applies it to three sources as an example. I did not read these examples, save the first bit of the section on Lacan. I had already gleaned much from the book, and I think I have all that I need from it just now. When I begin to discuss iteration and new media, I now have at least one philosopher to turn to, so I have reason to believe that there will be benefit to rereading Wittgenstein and Saussure.

Overall, this book seemed like one that should be used more in philosophy classes than in English studies. But even suggesting that reminds me of something that a candidate I had lunch with mentioned to me the other day. Some people, he told me, think that Literature is the cornerstone of English, the be and end all. Rhetoric may have disappeared for nearly 150 years, but before that, it had been around for more than two thousand. Dismissing rhetoric would hurt English Studies as much as it hurt philosophy, and as much as it would hurt philosophy to dismiss logic.

I need to stop now… the urge to digress is growing too strong.

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