Satyr At Little Big Horn: A Review of Gregory L. Ulmer's Avatar Emergency

Review of Avatar Emergency
by Gregory L. Ulmer 2012; Parlor Press

Geoffrey V. Carter, Saginaw Valley State University

(Published: February 4, 2013 )

1. Towards Tetralogy

“We avatar (verb) online every day; we put our self into the prosthesis of the Internet…” – Avatar Emergency, xi

As with Gregory Ulmer’s three previous consultancy projects—Internet Invention (2003), Electronic Monuments (2005), and Miami Virtue (2011)—it helps to do one’s homework when it comes to his terminology. The rapid succession of terms he applies from works ranging from hypermedia studies, philosophy, literature, and avant-garde art is prodigious and, for the unprepared, perhaps a little off-putting. Fortunately, there’s often a payoff to what such research contributes to one’s own writing. “Tetralogy” is one such word as it both offered me something new to explore as well as (ultimately) an organizing principle for this review.

Ulmer uses tetralogy to describe how Avatar Emergency (2012) draws a cycle of work to a close. He writes, “Avatar Emergency (AE) completes a tetralogy of books featuring the ‘EmerAgency,’ an online virtual consultancy, intended as a collaborative framework for inventing the practices of electracy” (xiv).

Figure 1

Relying on Wikipedia, as I often do—and unapologetically encourage my students to do, when they first step into the deep waters of Ulmer’s highly allusive style—I discover that tetralogy has its origins in Greek theater. It is used in conjunction with a sequence of work that begins with three tragedies and is concluded with a satyr play, or tragicomedy. Although Ulmer’s work makes no direct reference to this form of Greek theater—or the mythological half-man, half-goat creatures who were followers of Dionysus and Pan—I want to use the image of a satyr and punctuating tragicomedy play to explicate the many hybrid strategies that Ulmer uses in Avatar Emergency. I want to suggest that if we really want to “get” Ulmer’s work, we should not only think about it critically, but engage it associatively—satyrically, even—across a tragic and comic stage.

Victor Vitanza, a long-time advocate of Ulmer’s work and whose own review helped to introduce me to Ulmer’s Heuretics (1994), suggests in his back cover blurb that AE must be undergone, not merely understood. It is advice that Vitanza himself practices in his review of Heuretics, a work that rounded out Ulmer’s first Grammatological Trilogy of books that began with Applied Grammatology (1984) and Teletheory (1989). Vitanza undergoes Heuretics by following Ulmer’s practice of using one’s signature as a starting place for invention. Vitanza, for example, explores how his name contains words like “conqueror” in “Victor” and “life” in “Vita” and "against" in "Anza." It's a sensibility that leads him to believe that "Victor is Conqueror of Death." Vitanza declares: “So I have not only a deconstructive name but also and more importantly a grammatological name. You do, too!” (“Writing” 1). Likewise Ulmer uses this signature practice to render his own initials from “Gregory L. Ulmer” as “G.L.U.e.” It is a practice that he extends from his name to an image still found on his Invent-L Listserv site, where he visually remixes an image of a bottle of “Elmer’s Glue” to “Ulmer’s Glue” by replacing the cow’s face with his own. (To be sure, a cow isn’t exactly a satyr, but the hooves of cows and goats can be used in the rendering of glue. In Ulmer’s case, the G.L.U.e of his signature lends itself to a virtual viscosity capable of connecting all sorts of disparate texts.)

Thus, to stay with this slaughterhouse imagery just a bit longer, consider how Ulmer’s recent quadrilogy, unlike his earlier efforts, which focus on the poetics and methods of grammatology, works towards a broader consultancy for teachers and students confronting tragedies at a global level. Ulmer, like Kurt Vonnegut before him, has something to tell us about our struggle to live in a world of Slaughterhouse 101. Ulmer uses the term “flash reason” to name his unstuck-in-time-Pilgrim-esque-style of associative thinking, and Ulmer uses this flash reason to look at many different “disasters.” For Ulmer, his consultancy on “disaster” extends the work of Maurice Blanchot’s Writing the Disaster and Paul Virilio’s post-industrial global network, or dromosphere. The General Accident.

Traces of disaster and tragedy play a role throughout Ulmer’s oeuvre. Ulmer traces these notions through the term “daio” (to divide), a word he uses often in AE to simultaneously link issues of tragedy to Freud’s pleasurable drives (102). Daio, too, as Ulmer explains, can be traced back to Giorgio Agamben’s work, whose exploration of Heraclitus’s ancient notion of a daimon reveals etymological roots in the words “demon” and “demos” (people) (AE 101, Potentialities 118). If all this is a little head-spinning, it’s all part of Ulmer’s etymological dance towards his conception of “duende,” a term that has resonances with Spanish and Latin American music and the soul. It’s through duende that Ulmer’s “concept avatar” learns to dwell in the moods of disaster and tragedy of cyberspace (107).

Ulmer’s linkage of all these obscure terms—from daio to daimon to dromosphere to duende—is ultimately connected to what Alenka Zupancic calls that “little bit of enjoyment that keeps persisting on the subject’s part” (AE 102, Shortest Shadow 82). This little bit of enjoyment—a symptom that Ulmer later threads through Jacques Lacan’s notion of a sinthome (146)—is one that Ulmer uses to open up his (Ulmer’s) “hole logic.” Ulmer writes, “Concept avatar as a practice should be matched with databases using hole logic as model sources. Hole needs its own Google (inventors welcome)” (173). Ulmer’s focus on w/holes (chora), in brief, seek to offer readers ways of engaging EmerAgency consulting, or that measure “beyond definition or formula, adapted to your own case, to access an experience beyond signification” (174). If all this seems a little “out there” or “beyond you,” perhaps this is all part of Ulmer’s design. From my perspective, however, it’s precisely through Ulmer’s “hole logic” that his work remains strangely open to experimental reviews (like mine) that would consider further the possible connections between a “Satyr” and an “Avatar.” Satyrs Welcome.

2. Concept Satyr, Concept Avatar

“Avatar is to electracy what ‘self’ is to literacy, or 'spirit’ to orality.” – Avatar Emergency, x

As may be clear to many, my review’s title—“Satyr at Little Big Horn”—connects Ulmer’s recent consultancy quadrilogy to his earlier grammatological trilogy. Readers of Ulmer’s Heuretics will immediately recognize, I trust, that mine is a turn on one of Ulmer’s earliest mystory experiments in Teletheory, “Derrida at Little Big Horn.” It is this earlier pedagogical paradigm that I am connecting to Ulmer’s AE preface, especially his focus on James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar (2009). Ulmer’s claim that Cameron’s movie is representative of a frontier myth or western makes the most sense when one considers how it’s a reference to his earlier mystory experiment at Little Big Horn. For it’s the tragedy of the massacre of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes and the United States 7th Cavalry Regiment near his hometown of Miles City, Montana that Ulmer maps most frequently throughout his work.

Avatar’s western-genre connection is one that is also carried forward in Heuretics, where Ulmer focuses on Gary Cooper’s 1939 movie, Beau Geste, a film about the French Foreign Legion, which also resembles the frontier myths and colonialism that is often Ulmer’s target. (Indeed, this is why Ulmer is so interested in Virilio’s dromosphere as it offers a critique of our post-industrial society that is being colonized by technology.) Ulmer uses gestus, a term he attributes to German playwright Bertolt Brecht, to explore the etymological connections between Beau Geste, physical gesture, and comic jest (Heuretics 102). Indeed, in the last paragraph of Heuretics, Ulmer basically performs the tragicomedy of a satyr play where he punningly imagines having a “custard pie” thrown in his face after having spent so much time on the tragedy of General Custard. This earlier move from “desert to dessert” not only informs what he calls his “electronic recipe”—or “logic of invention” in his subtitle— but it also contributes to the “flash reason” of Avatar Emergency (Heuretics 243).

These Proustian “flashes”—part of the canonical literary mix of Ulmer’s “electronic recipe” as it extends from the example of “the little Madeleine” from Marcel Proust’s Time Regained—are relayed to Ulmer though Cameron’s popular film when Ulmer finds himself making some of his most personal discoveries to date. The now famous floating, 3-D Pandorian seed sequence in Avatar, for example, carries Ulmer away to an orchard in Alcantara Spain in 1966, where, in the midst of a morning spent watching petals fall from an olive tree, some of his own “prudent” professional aspirations took shape. “The orchard provided the vehicle of Moment, but it took some time for the tenor to reveal itself as prudence” (112). In this sense, what a Satyr might also allude to is Ulmer’s own deep connection to place and nature, especially as the olive tree is a basic symbol of Greece, and lends itself to other Greek inspired myths such as Blanchot’s focus on the Orpheus myth, which Ulmer inspects at length in AE. “Blanchot focused on Orpheus’s descent (avatar) into Hades, which he was able to enter through the power of his art” (115). Ulmer’s (re)entry into “the Orchard event” is his means of travel and way of “exploit[ing] the ‘aura’ (Emerson’s luster) of an existing work, to appropriate its resonance and turn it to one’s purposes” (119).

But why does Ulmer read so much into the petals that made a “complete carpet of blooms” from an olive tree? (111) Why does Ulmer engage in all these twists and turns in these mythological and philosophical labyrinths? Again, Ulmer is drawn to Virilio’s General Accident. Ulmer explains that “the speed of our digital world has created a dimensional pollution, compressing everything into ‘now’ (ironically, separated from ‘here')” (xiv). The “here” that Ulmer is trying to (re)connect to—as it stretches from Alcantara to Miles City to numerous other destinations he puts into the service of his consultancy—may initially seem to pass by in a blur to a first-time reader. But remember that there is also something of Bill Viola’s cinematic slow motion in Ulmer’s work; it has taken, after all, nearly thirty years for him to map. (It’s a mapping--or “blooming”--which also passes through Ulmer’s careful reading of Harold Bloom and how Bloom's notion of how an “anxiety of influence” plays a role in the slow speed of literary canons.) Through it all, in the satyr-like compressions that Ulmer engages, he counteracts the compressions of Virilio’s pollution (and Bloom’s “anxiety”) and turns, instead, to what Ulmer dubs “mindbodies"--a conceptual avatar that is capable of “engaging mappings among orifices, brain, culture, and technics” (xv).

To tune into Ulmer’s pan flute in another way, consider how his conceptual avatar seeks to offer an “an alternative to both dystopian and utopian versions of [the] challenge of speed” (xv). While he advocates “thinking at the speed of light,” Ulmer’s half-man, half-goat moves are often reeled in enough to give a sense of what he is talking about in a single image (xv). Take Ulmer’s reference to Titian’s 1565 painting, Allegory of Time, as an example. It features three faces of old age atop images of a wolf, lion, and dog, which are said to symbolize Prudence. All this is a weaving together various man-becoming-animal combinations. And all this is a major feature in Ulmer's earlier work.

For it’s this satyric man-animal combination, that is also evident in Ulmer’s earliest book, Applied Grammatology. It's there, in the frontispiece, that Ulmer features a scene from Joseph Beuys’s performance, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” This man/animal combination echoes, in many ways, AE’s emphasis on Titian’s painting. These hybrids, too, complement Ulmer’s ruminations on what has brought him to become the Joseph Bueys Chair at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Indeed, it’s in Switzerland as much as Gainesville, Florida, where he works and endeavors to “explain pictures” used in his books that Ulmer wanders and wonders over his wide-image of a olive tree (Madrid), White-Crowned Pigeon (Key West), Gelato (Firenze) and Sand Castle (Ponte Verdra Beach). These satyr-like wanderings are connected as much to the prairies of Montana as they are to the steep highlands of the Swiss Alps.

3. Satyr at (Little) Lake Silvaplana

“We have not yet begun to avatar, although there futuristic scenarios and scholarly histories, looking forward and back in time, archiving the possibilities and precedents” – Avatar Emergency, ix

To be sure, all of Ulmer’s picto-geographic coordinates are much too numerous to catalogue here. Nevertheless, for me, they all culminate in something strange, especially when considered in light of his earlier books where it may appear that Ulmer is somehow being evasive in talking about himself. Or, at least it may seem so in an English classroom, where students often arrive with an expectation that anything “personal” should be guided by a sustained narrative, not by fragmented, largely French-inspired, grammatological theory.

But it’s here—finally?—in AE more, perhaps, than his earlier efforts, where Ulmer almost seems the most candid in revealing elements from his personal past, that his connection with EGS and the Alps puts this work into the curious constellation of another half-man, half-mountain goat—Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who infamously hiked the Swiss Alps, wrote what some people consider to be his most revealing book Ecce Homo for his final effort. It’s a book that may strike some as a confession, or perhaps a full-scale exercise in self-aggrandizement (it contains, after all, chapters titled “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am Destiny”). But what Ulmer does with Nietzsche in Avatar Emergency, while very much in the spirit of Nietzsche’s work, strikes me as something more modest, though perhaps some would argue that Nietzsche’s last book was actually his most modest of all.

Because it’s Nietzsche’s spirit—and his language that is “6000 feet beyond man and time”—that Ulmer follows through AE and on into his latest intellectual adventures at the EGS. There’s something about Saas-Fee’s vantage point and crisp mountain air, which seems to not only re-activate Ulmer’s fondness for Nietzsche’s final book, but to see it from the standpoint of where he (Ulmer) now stands, straddling teaching between Florida and Switzerland. As much as Nietzsche stands on the shore of Switzerland’s Lake Silvaplana, and formulated the idea of the Eternal Return, Ulmer’s AE seems to stand on a shoreline too. Ulmer writes, “Nietzsche got it, and we need a practice of getting it” (7). And yet, it’s also true that Ulmer’s work has found its own way to avoid calling for actual pilgrimages and too slavishly adopting all of Nietzsche’s doctrines: “Our tactic is always to take the hint, to look around at our own landscapes, rather than make pilgrimages to Nietzsche’s territory” (7).

Thus, while Ulmer’s final book of his tetralogy has an alpha-omega quality to it, especially as it begins with Ecce Homo’s instrumental role in his early days, it also pushes into a text he is capable of writing-alongside in his twilight years. What Ulmer says about Nietzsche’s work applies equally well to AE: “Ecce Homo is a consultation, a book of advice, to be shelved with other self-help works” (5). But Avatar Emergency offers an altogether different type of consultancy and self-help than Ecce Homo.

For while it is true that Ulmer’s own admission that he “wanted to be a sage, not hero”—an admission that comes quite close to Nietzsche’s “Why I Am So Wise”—Ulmer makes clear in AE the impossibility of becoming one. Ulmer pointedly says that “there is no place for this role in our ethos” (113). Instead, if there’s any sagacity in Ulmer’s final book it’s in his consultancy. It’s in his invitation to invent—to invent and to self-help-alongside-others—and it’s an invitation that Ulmer has been making on behalf of electracy for decades now, but, perhaps, it has never put it so poignantly until now:

Let this be the theme of our consultancy, this session between us, with regard to becoming what you are, and my imparting what I learned about it, as a kind of exit interview, a debriefing, now that I am bygone. You may be curious as well about this intersection and the convergence between thought and life, knowledge and experience, and how elders impart to youth useless counsel. Event includes the undergoing and the understanding. (4)

So it is, with Ulmer’s understanding, that in undergoing his work, we should be less concerned with him as a “sage” or a “prophet” (or using his works to prophet/profit oneself!) Instead, perhaps we might consider his final work in light of the simple modesty of his desire to be—and I struggle for a description here—A Family Man. If Nietzsche writes in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, that it’s not enough to be an “idyllic shepherd of modern man,” but rather “a satyr,” who Nietzsche argues is “man’s true prototype” because, according to Nietzsche, “a satyr” is a “prophet of wisdom,” perhaps we can see that the analogy that I’ve drawn with this creature doesn’t exactly fit Ulmer or his work (Basic 61). Alas, a comparison with Nietzsche’s Lake Satyr-plana isn’t ultimately my take away from Ulmer’s Avatar Emergency after all.

4. Plop! Yūgen.

“Something is happening to us and through us that goes by the name ‘avatar.’" – Avatar Emergency, Opening Sentence to Preface.

No, instead I suggest that we might look on Ulmer’s Eternal Return in AE as being invested less in Nietzsche’s distant shoreline of Lake Silvaplana and more to the shoreline of the swimming pool in his own backyard. To be sure, Ulmer uses his pool to make all sorts of connections including Thoreau’s Walden; to his close friend and colleague at UF, Robert Ray, whose book on Andy Hardy and the avant-garde shares a distant connection to the designer of Ulmer’s pool, Ester Williams, who used to star as a Mermaid in his Hardy’s pictures; and to the simple story of a frog who jumps into small pools from Ulmer’s youth. Yes, it’s a Frog, not a Satyr or Mermaid that characterizes, for me, my favorite part of Ulmer’s (somewhat) Post-Nietzschean AE. “The effect is achieved by the perfect balance of the humor … the emphasis on plainness and familiarity (the 'plop' of the frog in the water), juxtaposed with the sense of loneliness and desolation. The poetic mood evoked is in his delicate equilibrium” (184). Ulmer also refers to this moment by the Japanese word yūgen (a word, incidentally, that he suggests shares something of equivalency with duende) (192).

For it’s the character of a frog that Ulmer notes that as preschooler, his father’s voice came to inhabit when reading one of his favorite books by Thorton W. Burgess’s Mother West Wind (182). And it’s to this frog that he “especially liked […] when [his] father read these lines in his bullfrog voice” that Ulmer—in the best sense of being post-Oedipal—returns: “Grandfather Frog was old, very old, indeed, and very, very wise. He wore a green coat and his voice was very deep. When Grandfather Frog spoke, everybody listened very respectfully” (182).

Yes, it’s the image of a frog—not a half-man, half-goat—that brings the simplicity of Ulmer’s Basho-like style (Ulmer’s Japanese, poetic relay) into full focus—and by “style” I mean that simple “plop” of Basho’s well-known frog haiku, not the many convolutions that may initially seem to be the only way to evaluate Ulmer’s writing over the years. Yes, to be sure, style is rhetorically never exactly simple; we can cleverly draw from style the word stylus, and even put stylus alongside the word syrinx, which Wikipedia tells me is a hollowed out reed that Pan used to fashion his pipes. Yes, too, there is—in both the tip of the stylus and syrinx as the latter term gives us the word syringe—what Ulmer might call a conductive association with “the prick” or “the sting” of Roland Barthes’s infamous punctum (a theoretical concept, incidentally, that first-time readers of Ulmer often feel they “get,” even when many of the other twists and terms leave them out to sea.) But what I’m trying to suggest—in this small “plop” of a book review—is that we might simply listen to Ulmer, as he “plops” in the pool pH to alchemically check the acid-alkaline balance of his pool before coming inside. “On the porch, hosing off sandy feet, I see my family through the sliding glass doors (along with my own reflection)” (261). It’s moments like these, in Ulmer at the edge of a pool or coming in from the beach, that I believe will strike a note with many of his students and future readers.

Pool maintenance teaches responsibility: to be not the child who plays in the water, but the one who balances the chemicals and enforces rules for safety. Here is another relay for concept avatar: parent with swimming pool. In the large frame of society, the pool is a mortification. Children, mortgage, the entire farm—where did they come from? Decision + time. The pool in its materiality shows me something, makes me confront something—my own class position, the patriarchal mood of my values—that otherwise readily slip out of sight and mind. It is measure as such. The critical power of the project depends upon this anchor or grounding of theories and emotions in the maker’s own material existence, which then may be included in the act of reading and writing. (196)

For there is enough in the plop of Ulmer’s pH tube—enough in the plop of a frog in his backyard pool—that suggests that wherever Ulmer chooses to dip his feet next, now in the twilight of his post-Silvaplana travels that his readers will appreciate undergoing all the personal and intellectual rewards that come with confronting the challenges of Virilio’s General Emergency. As the quote above, I hope suggests, such appreciation isn’t about taking one’s own pool for granted. It’s about “anchoring or grounding,” but also distributing the ratios of one’s psychogeography. Ulmer, more than anyone in recent times, has captured the tragicomedy of this personal, popular, historical, and theoretical landscape , and here in his latest book, he gives us further insight into ways of dealing with both our fortunes (Avatars) and misfortunes (Emergency). Yūgen.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writing of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Avatar Emergency. Clemson, SC: Parlor Press, 2012.

---. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Batimore: John Hopkins UP, 1994.

Vitanza, Victor. “Writing the Paradigm.” Rev. of Heuretics: The Logic of Invention by Greg Ulmer 1996. 1 August, 2012.

Zupancic, Alenka. The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2003.