Heuretics: Gregory Ulmer’s Anti-Method Method

Heuretics[1]

= an intervention in and inversion of the writing process

  1. denaturalizes the content → form/thinking → writing relationship of expository academic writing
  2. inverts this relationship: form → content/writing → thinking

hermeneutics reading via theory (the use of theory for the interpretation of existing texts), cf. literary studies

heuretics writing via theory (the use of theory for the invention of new texts), cf. writing studies (3)

The heuretic question: “Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?” (5)

heretic (contrarian or critical) an ANTI- + heuristic (algorithmic or creative) METHOD

It embodies the move post Modernism (though foreshadowed by heavily intertextual Modernists like Eliot and paratextual ones like Olson) by which

  1. critics become creators, e.g., Derrida — and Ulmer (creators have likewise become critics, e.g., the Surrealists and the L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets), and
  2. writing becomes reading and/or rewriting (writers and readers give way to reader-writers).

For his anti-method, Ulmer begins with discourses on method (now known as manifestos), which share a common set of elements:

  1. a Contrast [the “vs”]: the new method is opposed to an old one;
  2. an Analogy [the “cf.”]: it is practised as a heuristic by analogy with an existing practice;
  3. a Theory [the “via”]: it literalises a theory;
  4. a Target [the “→”]: it is applied to an existing field; and
  5. a tale [the “as”] it is “dramatised” in a particular form or genre (8-9).[2]

“CATTts,” while rigorous, are seldom exciting. Then again, some of the avant garde’s most interesting results have been generated by tedious or mechanical methods, e.g., aleatory art and Oulipo. The excitement lies in the “tale” that dramatizes the method. As Ulmer observes, every method — from dialectics to surrealism — “must itself be represented in some form or genre” (Heuretics 9). And “CATTts” can be generated in reverse: by choosing the “tale” first and, then, imagining the process that generated them (Heuretics 10).

We might think of heuretics as involving a wilful misreading of a theory to generate new methods, an “error” that is productive of truth. Ulmer also suggests that, as he does with Descartes’ discourse on method, we can wilfully misapply, i.e., reverse, someone else’s method to generate an antimethod (13-14).

(It is a method that is both metamethod, a method for methods, and antimethod, a method that reverse another method and acknowledges that it is one method among many.)

Heuretics was designed by Ulmer as a response to the new episteme of electronic media (multi-, hyper-, social media) and hypertextuality; this generates electracy, the kind of “literacy” necessary to exploit their full communicative potential.[3]

orality → literacy → electracy[4]

For Ulmer, learning is a matter of invention rather than verification, and it is a radicalisation of writing practice, a grammatology (i.e., a methodology extrapolated from the history of writing and mnemonic practices).

N.B. Heuretics is a method in keeping with Walter Ong’s idea that elements of the codex persist in the epoch of screens; McKenzie Wark would argue that the “codework” of electronic literacy goes beyond hypertext, i.e., it’s no longer purely textual.[5]


[1] See Gregory L. Ulmer, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994).

  1. hermeneutic: concerning interpretation (fr. hermēneutikos, fr. hermēneuein “interpret”)
  2. heuretic: concerning invention or discovery (fr. heuretes “inventor”)
  3. heuristic: proceeding to a solution by trial and error or algorithmically; enabling someone to discover something for themselves (fr. heuriskein “find”)
  4. heretic: holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted (fr. hairetikos “able to choose,” fr. haireisthai “choose”)

[2] See Ulmer, “The Euretics of Alice’s Valise,” Journal of Architectural Education 45.1 (Nov. 1991): 8 (3-10).

[3] Portmanteau: “electronic” + “literacy,” from G. L. Ulmer, Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[4] G. L. Ulmer, “Electracy and Pedagogy,” online supplement to Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, 2003), 2007, http://www.english.ufl.edu/~glue/longman/pedagogy/, 14 Aug. 2008.

[5] McKenzie Wark, “From Hypertext to Codework,” Contemporary Poetics, ed. Louis Armand (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2007) 280 (279-85); available online at Hypermedia Joyce Studies.

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