Introduction: Experimenting with Flash Reason, the H’MMM Disciplines,
and Affect in Scattered Media Ecologies
Sergio C. Figueiredo & S. Andrew Stowe
Sergio C. Figueiredo is an Associate Professor of Media and Rhetoric in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University. Sergio is the translator of Inventing Comics: A New Translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Essays on Graphic Storytelling, Media Rhetorics, and Aesthetic Practice.
S. Andrew Stowe is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the Writing and Multimedia Center at Anderson University (SC). He teaches classes related to rhetoric and writing with an emphasis toward digital media. These include first-year English composition and communication courses, as well as advanced courses in creative nonfiction, business writing, and writing center pedagogy. Stowe was the recipient of the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU) Excellence in Teaching Award recipient for Anderson University in 2018. He recently co-authored a chapter for Parlor Press’s Exquisite Corpse: Art-Based Writing Practices in the Academy. Some of his other publications include work in the Journal of Western Communication and an interview in the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory. He has presented papers at conferences such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Computers and Writing, and the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies conference.
When planning this issue, we began with a desire: to recapture the feeling and mood of childhood-like play; reading and satirizing social, cultural, and political life during our formative years; a time before life had an opportunity to demoralize our inventive impulses. Let’s be honest: a good deal of the content shared on social media platforms (in the U.S. and elsewhere in the global net-work) reflects oppositional logics — e.g., Twitter threads full of arguments and bots trolling every position imaginable; comment-sections on Facebook and discussion boards that polarize us on policy decisions and stoke vitriolic sentiments among (national and global) citizens. On these networks, we encounter no shortage of outrage (cf. Jeff Rice, “Digital Outragicity”) and animosity. It’s a sorrowful state of affairs.
In modeling this issue on MAD magazine, with a focus on the playful and satirical, we seek to balance the scales and contribute a more joyful wisdom (phronesis; prudence) in a time when despair dominates our cultural mood. That is, our playful approach to this issue has been more of an ontological exercise than an epistemological one. As Miguel Sicart describes it, playfulness is an attitude whose function is to re-ambiguate the world by making it “less formalized, less explained, open to interpretation and wonder and manipulation. To be playful is to add ambiguity to the world and play with that ambiguity” (Play Matters 28).
Much of the despair we feel is rooted in a sense of certainty, a sense of that we have a grip on the moral fabric of a society, culture, institution, or state-of-mind. When that certainty is disrupted (by trolls and others malicious crackers who seek to re-do the order of things), we are left with little in the way of ready-made responses beyond outrage. Such situations disrupt our well-being, or at least our sense of well-being. Play offers us a detour from our certainty in order to have us see anew those characteristics we once felt so sure about. Again, Sicart explains: “Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say. Play frees us from moral conventions but makes them still present, so we are aware of their weight, presence, and importance. … We need play precisely because we need occasional freedom and distance from our conventional understanding of the moral fabric of society. Play is important because we need to see values and practice them and challenge them so they become more than mindless habits” (Play Matters 5). Habits are expedient and efficient; play is not (at least not always). Play disrupts expediency and efficiency (at least it can). It one of the overarching practices of contemporary hacker-bards (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck x).
In contrast to a habitual response, play is timely, making it as good as any starting place to test the potential of Gregory Ulmer’s proposal for developing and cultivating the practice of flash reason. Like play, flash reason is kairotic, and formulates a response in now-time (Virilio; Ulmer) — in contrast to the general time (social, cultural, political, etc.) of the certainty of conventional reasoning (pure and practical judgment) — with a ever-evolving sense of prudence grounded in experience. We might say that conventional reasoning (i.e., Literacy) and certainty exist in ‘general time’, for instance, when we refer to “American values” as some sort of unmoving and unalterable value-system. However, while conventional reasoning is remarkably effective in responding to indefinite questions (Cicero; Quintilian), it is on shaky ground when it comes making an appropriate decision when faced with a definite question in a particular moment.
The capacity to make an appropriate decision in a particular moment is a common topic in the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition, one that often implies an ability to exercise affective and inventive judgment. In the Kantian and Humean traditions, this kind of judgment is often discussed in terms of “taste,” a term implying subjectivity and universality, evaluated on the basis of pleasure and displeasure/pain (or, joy and sorrow in Ulmer’s Apparatus Chart; see Figure 1). “Taste” in electracy is not the kind of sentimentalism critically levelled at Kant and Hume; rather, electrate taste derives from the Entertainment industries, with its post-critical focus on the performative and experimental arts. In this context, the joy/sadness axis of judgment maps easily onto a dramaturgical framework of adapting stories into actable forms (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburg Dramaturgy; 1767-69), reading social dynamics along the continuum of the Comic and the Tragic. For those who might prefer a more rhetorical framework, we might say that electracy’s practice of Entertainment might be an actionable form of Kenneth Burke’s analytical theory of dramatism, acts and performances designed to help human actors purge themselves and their societies of guilt (cf. Permanence and Change, “Introduction”). Functionally, the ethic of this performance is the substance of the human barnyard.
If we see traditional critique and conventional reasoning sliding more closely to the Tragic extreme of judgment, in the sense of reading everything and anything that violates or disrupts our established values as a tragedy evoking an attitude of despair, post-critical judgment and flash reason slides in the opposite direction, toward the Comic, performing critical provocations that deviate from those conventions in creative and inventive ways. It’s no coincidence that much of Ulmer’s work, as well as much post-critical work more generally, tends to be grounded in the associational logics of the pun (linguistic and aesthetic), language games, and aesthetic juxtaposition. Practices that work to destabilize the stabilizing momentum that reiterate conflicts, methods developed in self-styled netplay (cf. Cynthia Haynes, The Homesick Phone Book 141, 148-49). Ulmer gestures toward this form of reasoning as early as 2003, in Internet Invention, explaining that one of the results of “working through the cultural encyclopedia using conventional research procedures to construct [a] path of associations [mapping] a ‘flash’ path an insight might take” (253) that allows us to “identify the value sources that control the whole problem-solution process” and the “nature of contemporary values” (257). Two years later, in Electronic Monuments, Ulmer introduces the neologism, “reasoneon,” writing that the experience of image reasoning is that of …
… a neon sign, a metonym for the city as such, evoking the mood an urban setting with its nightlife and street atmosphere. The electric energy powering the sign joins the actual and virtual cities and evokes the evolving technology whose present manifestation is the Internet. … It is not that the neon effect replaces critical reason for the EmerAgency, but that reason and neon merge in a hybrid modality: neither reasoning nor neon, but reasoneon. … the neon sign forms an emblem that anticipates the consulting practice that remains to be invented: the egent “conducts” an inquiry into the unending disaster. … What Clarity is to literate truth, aura is to electrate truth. … the very pathetic sentimental emotional ‘fallacies’ of propaganda against which critical reason constructed and entire logical defense become in electracy a point of departure for a new mode of reason (the categorical image). … The formula is: news + art = testimonial. … Aura is a sign of recognition. … Using aesthetic means, basic devices of literary language and art design, the egent generalizes the event into an image of what the world is like, how things stand with the witness. … While it is true that the spectacle is aesthetic, it is a particular exploitation of the aesthetic within the institutions of entertainment and capitalism (58-65).
Our attempt in this issue has not been to participate in this kind of exploitation of the aesthetic, something we see as more tragic than comedic, more a practice of control and discipline than play, more in the realm of consumption than production. Rather, our interest in editing this collection is the potential for exploring how flash reason might help us invent new, electrate practices that cultivate “that virtue without which all other virtues are useless,” prudence, or phronesis (Ulmer, “Flash Reason” 2). Like play, prudence is a form of wisdom marked by “a capacity to make an appropriate decision in an instant of time by taking the measure of a particular situation in its temporal context,” a capacity that has fallen out of favor as it has become “reduced to caricatures (‘expediency’)” (“Flash Reason” 2). Our post-critical motivation, rather, acknowledges “that the path to the invention of general electracy (a fully electrate society) passes through an updating” of prudence (“Flash Reason” 2), in our capacity to invent a form of deliberative rhetoric that takes place in an instant of recognition about a given aporia. If the election of a reality television caricature to one of the highest offices in the world teaches us anything, it is that the critical iteration of prudence, in the literate apparatus, is ill-equipped to effectively confront the challenges of an electrate society.
The H'mmm Disciplines
When we released the call for this issue, we did not know what to expect when proposals and submissions started rolling in. We knew that we wanted to avoid building an issue through traditional forms of rhetorical scholarship, analyses of the practices and methods of disinformation and distraction pervading our media habits. We also knew that we wanted to avoid anything that leaned more toward an ethic of expediency (on a continuum of expediency and care). Instead, we knew that we wanted scholarly experiments that supplemented the epistemological with the ontological. We knew that we wanted no less than a collection that could provoke readers, listeners, viewers, and other media producers to consider how their work might offer an interjection of applied creativity (cf. Ulmer, "H'MMM Disciplines (Beyond steAm) Electrate Pedagogy") in the ongoing invention of a healthy public sphere.
While projects were not submitted according to formal categories, once we had reviewed submissions and made our decisions, we realized each one fit within the categories of what Ulmer has started referring to as the H’MMM disciplines: Humanities + Music, Movies, Media. Pedagogically, the H’MMM disciplines mark a shift in the position of the Arts and Humanities tradition as we continue to see our overarching institutional apparatus shift from literacy to electracy. As Ulmer puts it, the future of the “H’MMM in the university … depends on what we bring to the table, native to our own disciplines and skills. Electracy is fundamentally aesthetic in its mode of intelligence, emotional and affective at the core, grounded in sensory experience. This ‘aesthetic’ dimension has the affinity with digital imaging databases that ‘reason’ has with alphabetic writing, and it has little to do with ‘critical thinking.’ … We do not need more books, no matter how intelligent, explaining ‘affect’ as a concept or theory. We need a theopraxesis of living well (the avatar function)” (“Theopraxesis and the Future of H’MMM in the University: An Interview with Gregory L. Ulmer” 68).
In updating phronesis for electracy, the H’MMM disciplines are at the forefront, or the vanguard. Positioning the Humanities as a critical apparatus that checks and balances the STEM disciplines (STEAM) is not all we have to bring to the table. Through music, movies, and media, we have an opportunity to position the Arts and Humanities as the avant-garde of a university education. Through these aesthetic forms, the work collected here marks a step toward organizing our disciplines for the H’MMM economy by demonstrating the potential of flash reason to help us recognize “the bizarre mismatch between attitude and events” and to develop methods and strategies for circulating that recognition through the entertainment industries within which many of our students work (“Teaching in the Margins: Gregory L. Ulmer”). By exploring the potentialities of flash reason we move further down the path toward developing a general electracy, a common drive characteristic of any avant-garde whose aim is to “achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action” through the popular arts (Henri de Saint Simon and Olinde Rodrigues, “L’Artiste, Le Savant, et L’Industriel”; qtd. in Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity 103).
The contributions in this issue reflect one such cultural mood and attitude, encapsulated in the complex meaning and history of the Korean term Han (or, Haan), particular to our temporal context. With no direct English language translation, Han is often translated as a kind of deep sorrow but with some essential hope (D. Bannon, “Unique Korean Cultural Concepts in Interpersonal Communication”). It is often used with an experienced sense of injustice and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of the injured and oppressed to resolve a situation. Each of the pieces in this collection begin with this mood, only to push against these feelings of oppression, powerlessness, and injustice through acts of joyful catharsis, what Koreans refer to as han-puli, the practice of untying oneself from tragedy with amusement and laughter — the comic spirit that Koreans call shinparam (Daniel Tudor, Korea: The Impossible Country 124).
That we did not plan, request, or invite contributions that spoke to this mood/attitude only suggests one of the basic functions of flash reason: to recognize the attitudes at the core of differends (cf. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend), cases of conflict in which a rule or criterion for resolution can not be agreed upon by the parties in conflict. There are no solutions to the aporia raised in these experiments, no ideological critiques, and no attempts to resolve unresolvable conflicts in their current states. We wanted no such things. But we wanted what we got. And we got more than we gave. While articles were not submitted according to categories, we are informally organizing them along the lines of Ulmer’s H’MMM heuristic; humanities plus (+) music, movies, media: all are present!
Eric Detweiler’s “The Weirdness of Rhetoric, The Rhetoric of Weirdness” opens this collection, ever in and ever out of order. Performative and practical, Detweiler’s work brings a podcast, and critical theory to help us consider ethics, irony, sophistry, and rhetoric from Helen to issues surrounding the 2016 election.
Next, Mari Ramler’s “Beyoncé Writes Skin: The Hermeneutic of Susceptibility and The Gendered, Raced Body in Her Flawless Formation.” Ramler’s scholarship helps us to critically examine the ways that we think about depictions of identity, and actions and inactions towards those identities.
Rounding this section out, Benjamin Lauren and Bill Hart-Davidson present a funky description that gets us off beat and into a groove. As rhetoricians, some of us want to stay on the beat, but others of us want to groove. After reading this, we want to know whether you stay on time, or slip into the groove.
“Get Ready With Me” by Rachel McCabe is an experiment that bends the Get Ready with Me genre, most commonly found on YouTube, following people through their morning routines, some of which are sponsored by various corporate brands.
Brian Gaines’s “Edutainment Tonight: The Nightly News as Mixtape” continues to dive into the connections between entertainment and education by considering ways that creativity and mobile computing allow for work in in-between (liminal) spaces, just like middle ground entertainment TV...not quite prime time...not quite late night...Gaines’s work is like this, something else.
By providing a further ontological grounding for flash reason as a means of furthering electracy, Justin Hodgson’s "A Post-Production Turn: New Media, New Practice, New Ontology” develops a theoretical basis that strengthens theory surrounding the electrate apparatus.
Marc Santos’s “‘The Train is Life’: Flash Reason and the Notorious Monster Train in Final Fantasy XIV” provides an optimistic note about the value that community and care add.
Nathan Riggs presents a webpage that will provide you with (exactly) “1,944 Facts That Explain Why You Can’t Escape the Vast Prison of Language (#625 Will Blow. Your. Mind.).” If scholarship were ice-cream, Rigg’s article would be a really interesting flavor. Building on principles of rhetoric, mimesis, and (chunks of) flash reason, Riggs provides a critical theory and a performative web experience.
Lauren Woolbright challenges us to consider the way that the world looks from diverse perspectives, by discussing the video game Prey and connecting it to OOO. Check out her article, “OOO, it’s Prey!, or How did they know I always wanted to be a coffee cup?”
Joshua Wood’s “The Dark Arts: A Post-Truth Progymnasmata” provides a theoretical grounding and a “manual” for instruction called, “A Post-Truth Progymnasmata,” which functions as a satire of how the progymnasmata might function in a post-truth society.
In “The Post-Meta-Progymnasmata,” Jimmy Butts provides a progymnasmata about the progymnasmata. This will help you as you think about thinking about thinking and write about writing about writing.
Barry Mauer’s graphic artwork, “Pulse a Testimonial,” is anything but comic. Functioning as a sort of memorial, this work provides a critical inquiry into the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016.
Two scholars, Megan McIntyre and Andrew Pilsch, independently answered a question: “What does Flash Reason look like?” The answers are thoughtful, poetic, and provide an interesting take on flash reason.
Finally, from a curatorial perspective, Scott Sundvall and Sergio Figueiredo’s “Ulmerian Bingo Card” provides a bit of levity by categorizing some of the common tropes associated with electracy. As an inventive heuristic, this card challenges you to seek five across, down, and/or diagonal to explore whether you seek what the Master has sought.
In concluding this special edition, Greg Ulmer and Darren Tofts provide, “Siri: Iris? Vincent Van Gogh and Travis Bickle: Assisted,” which introduces a form of theory-hobby through a filmic treatment. We trust that this will be added to the heuretic rolodex of electrate praxis.
A Final Note
As the guest editors of Textshop Experiments no. 5, we want to thank K. A. Wisniewski and Felix Burgos for giving us an opportunity to put together a collection of experiments exploring a deeply-needed reprieve from the tragic attitudes pervasive in our scattered media ecologies. We would also like to thank all of the author-contributors for their generosity in sharing their ideas and for being co-egents in this electrate world of ours – all of ours.