Posted by: glue | April 19, 2008

Critical Expressionism

My seminar, Spring 2008, used heuretics and grammatology to initiate the design and testing of a new practice of online consulting, called “critical expression.” Here is the introductory description:

–An important part of the rationale for General Education requirements in the Humanities, and especially in English, is that these disciplines inculcate the style of thinking called critical. Critical thinking is native to the literate apparatus (alphabetic writing, school, the identity experience of selfhood). As codified in textbooks, critical thinking is structured by an opposition or tension between knowledge (science) and belief (ideology, faith, politics, ethics). The paradigm of such aporias is the confrontation between Galileo and the Church, a tension expressed today as “jihad vs mcworld,” or “the lexus and the olive tree”. The hypothesis to be explored in this seminar is that the new apparatus of electracy (digital media) makes it possible to upgrade critical thinking, to add a third dimension that brings to conflicts of knowledge and power a new framing, with the potential to transform deliberative rhetoric. This third (aesthetic) dimension of reasoning has been articulated by philosophers such as Spinoza (ethics), Kant (critique of judgment), Nietzsche (genealogy of morals), Foucault (care of the self). With this larger context in mind, we will focus our inquiry theoretically by means of one of the contemporary readings of Spinoza: Gilles Deleuze’s consideration of “expression.” This theory provides a rationale for extracting from certain arts practices the features of an updated critical creative thinking.–

The purpose of this thread is to continue this inquiry beyond the immediate pedagogical goals of a seminar.



  1. This Flash project by Patrick Lemieux is a good example of the experiments created to test the possibilities of critical expressionism.

  2. Dear Dr Ulmer,

    this seminar seems extremely interesting. Would it be possible to get some materials or pointers where I can read more about it?

    Also, the link to the “seminar” is not operational anymore.


    • Sorry about the link: the syllabus is no longer online. I’ll see if I have the reading list somewhere. The seminar tested a particular CATTt generator, with Deleuze’s shorter book on Spinoza as the Theory resource (this text set the meaning of “expression” used in the course title).

  3. Dear Dr Ulmer,

    I would be most grateful for the reading list.

    What puzzles me the most about the usefulness of aesthetic reasoning is the fact that the aesthetics within the sphere of Internet seems to be completely commodified. Taste as the ID of one’s cultural environment tends to correspond perfectly to VALS, and is hence subject to the exploitation of advertisers. It seems to me that taste as a marketable distinction is the most powerful means for dictating consumption today. Also, with Bourdieou, the right taste might be the taste of the ruling class, which would maintain the social hierarchy within the electracy.

    For example, I am not sure about the force of aesthetic reasoning against the design-savy cool kids, who detest everything that does not conform to the latest trends.

    Please forgive me, if I have misunderstood something.


  4. Jeremy
    You do not misunderstand at all, and the question you raise identifies one of the challenges and risks of electracy. Electracy (as you may know) begins more or less with the industrial revolution, which is to say that the technological dimension of the apparatus — all the new recording devices that support the transformation into electracy — occur within the cultural and historical forces of the bourgeois revolution. The commodity form is a central part of this innovation. The separation of exchange value from use value, the mutation of the ontological object to the fetish “thing” (das Ding in Freud and Lacan)– these are features of electracy. There is no way to undo them or evade them (that the sizzle is more important than the steak). The importance of heuretics (and grammatology) is to note that the institutional forms and practices of the apparatus also are inventions, meaning not determined, and therefore open to further innovation. It is true that the most advanced applications of electrate metaphysics to date are in the area of advertising, but that does not mean that commerce exhausts the potentiality of aesthetic intelligence: far from it. Writing was invented in the context of the economics of agricultural empires, but had consequences beyond anything imagined or desired by those powers. The same is true today.

    My seminar has used Deleuze several times. In my other blog, Routine, the seminar worked with Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? which seeks an image of thought in philosophy robust enough to challenge commerce, especially concerning the commercial appropriation of the invention of concepts that traditionally was the responsibility of philosophy. A good way to orient yourself to this way of looking at the commodity form is to read Walter Benjamin, the essays he extracted from his unfinished Arcades project, addressing especially Baudelaire, who is recognized as the first “modernist” poet precisely because he recognized and embraced the commodity condition of the new city form. (See “The Writer of Modern Life,” which collects these essays).

  5. Dear Dr Ulmer,

    thank you for your great and instructive answer. I very much agree with your position. I have been trying to find a theorist who is trying to think of the spectacle as a tool for a while now, and I must say that your Internet Invention, which I am reading right now, was a true encounter for me. Internet has indeed completely altered the nature of our existence and it is great to see someone engage with it the way you did.

    As a friend has put it: “I feel like a lot of the guys [philosophers/theorists] I’ve spent time with come from another situation than our own… If we want to enter in a conversation with them, we have to do it through this objective historical moment, which means as human beings that grew up eating Doritos and watching genre films and listening to pop, not as people that looked at Rothko paintings and read Mallarmé… “What’s the thought of Ariel Pink? What’s the thought of the Ramones?” I haven’t seen that articulated yet and I’m very interested in that. The French had their moment– they told us about Beckett and now it’s our time to tell them about Nirvana or Robocop.” I am not from the US, but still very much sympathize with this.

    I have another question for you. What would you consider to be an electrate critique? Your aim is, if I understand correctly, to promote collective self-knowledge to which an egent can contribute through a personal testimony. Is there another electrate way of raising critical awareness? I understand that it is to be done by intimation through text-image, rather than explanation, but I wonder if you have theorized this somewhere else and in some other manner. I am talking about the critique that functions through the fiery pool reflecting in the asphalt, as Benjamin has put it. I am guessing you have elaborated on this in Electronic Monuments?

    (=Jernej, Slovenia)

  6. Jernej, thanks for this interesting and insightful comment. Good to learn that you are reading Internet Invention, which has the reputation of being too difficult or obscure. As for “critique,” you anticipate correctly that my proposals for an electrate version is developed in Electronic Monuments. In fact EM was originally supposed to be included with Internet Invention, but the book become too long. You can see in Invent how the argument is prepared for addressing a public policy issue (with the problem of “binge drinking” as a relay). Of course “critique” is a literate mode of understanding, and you are familiar with Benjamin’s dramatic declaration about the superiority of advertisements to critical reason in the modern city (“it is not what the moving red neon sign says, but its reflection in the asphalt”). Electracy as an apparatus does not continue along the same path of “reason” augmented within literacy. That path continues, and critique of that sort still has a role and an importance. Meanwhile, electracy emerges, including the invention of a full metaphysics native to digital civilization (an invention still in progress, and for a long time to come), addressing a different dimension of intelligence: the affective body. My experiments with the political and ethical registers of the public sphere via aesthetics have been carried out with the help of the Florida Research Ensemble, a creative arts inquiry group. There is a book-length account of one of our most extensive projects here.
    Thanks for your questions. Don’t hesitate to contact me by email as well

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