Sunday, February 20, 2011

The CATTt and Fatal Strategy

The CATTt Method: In Defense of a Heuretic Pedagogy

This course was set up using the CATTt method developed by Gregory Ulmer in Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Professor Ulmer's hope was that the CATTt method combined with the theoretical background of poststructuralist thought, particularly in the realm of grammatology, could be used to actually invent a discourse for the metaphysics of a phenomenon beginning in the industrial revolution: electracy. Electracy is to literacy what literacy was to oral culture. We are working to develop a discourse for this analogous situation, which we find in the discourses of the Paris avant-garde in the early 20th century and contemporary post-structuralist theory.

However, Ulmer maintains that the CATTt method can work without extensive amounts of grammatological and theoretical background. This is because the CATTt is a contained system of texts, such that ideas are invented through their intertext. While at first this might not sound different from the condition of literature as an intertextual enterprise, Ulmer's heuretic method is meant to be "applied" (I will go into what this means in a minute) to a particular situation, event, or policy issue. Ulmer's lifelong task has been to argue that the the discipline of the humanities has something to offer policy formation that other disciplines cannot. As he has reiterated many times, however, he does not think that we can replace other disciplines or sciences, but that we can offer something different. It is not a Husserlian project to find an all encompassing system of philosophy that can ground sciences. Thus, Ulmer sees his electronic humanities project, which he calls the EmerAgency as consultants, much like the government or businesses has consultants (it reminds me of how king's had 'advisors').

The CATTt is an acronym for 5 'slots' that operate on a set of texts. The CATTt and the heuretic method does not read merely read texts for information or for meaning (hermenuetics), but looks for things that the text does that we can fill in with our own content given the operation slot the text is in. While the theory is like the brain of the CATTt, the integration of the other slots gives us a way to think outside of 'pure theory'--even though Ulmer claims that the EmerAgencies practice is its theory--to being self-conscious about how we manipulate texts. Let me elaborate on this last statement. No matter what, every interpretation is also a modification of a text. Academics have used texts and figures as contrasts, analogies, and theories for a very long time. In this sense, Ulmer's work is not "original" (and indeed, he would even say that his own texts are made up of other texts and that the very notion of originality and creation must be rethought). But one of the things that the CATTt allows one to do is to be very rigorous and self-aware about how we are manipulating texts. Thus, rather than hiding the gaps filled in by rhetorical rather than 'logical' moves, the CATTt explicitly reveals our method and operative strategies. The CATTt is an experiment and its validation is in its application and whether or not it "works" (and in that sense, it is widely, "pragmatic" though having little to do with American Pragmatism as a philosophy).


Related to the experimental dimension, we should also realize that the CATTt records a process. However, it makes no claim about the accuracy of the so called "writing process" in say, process-theory composition. It is not the process of writing that is recorded, but merely the way each of us thinks through the connections and material in the CATTt. As such, the CATTt encourages frequent writing and experimental digressions. In order to fully take advantage of this method of thinking, we have used this Blog form. I was very skeptical about blogs until I realized their power in thinking non-linearly and also function as encouragements for a progressive writing process rather than to spit out a research paper at the end of the semester. The blog, with its tags, links, image and video capacity, allows us to explore many different forms of media. Ultimately, it allows us to explore non-literate forms of thinking, connecting, and writing. If we as teachers keep saying to our students that they need to "write in pieces" there is no better way (in my current opinion) to foster this than to have them create an 'academic' blog, where the record their research process. The CATTt can help to structure that process to a certain extent because you have 5 'slots' or 'topics' that you will try and fill with ideas and connections.

Anchoring your research in an event or issue rather than a THESIS is a very liberating feeling. If we wish to have our students form complex thoughts, the idea that they should have a "thesis" before they start research hinders this ability. A thesis about an issue usually is an abstract for or against position---or a proposal for a particular policy for a scenario that, I would guess, the student does not really understand. Imagine a freshman student writing about the problems with the healthcare system before he or she even has had to deal with their own healthcare? How informed could the thesis possibly be?

This is where I think the Blog and Ulmer's CATTt comes in. In fact, before recently, I was simply happy that provided a rigorous structure that was at once closed and open. The CATTt structure and selection of policy issues leads you to discover MANY different discourses--not just humanities, but science, journalistic, legalistic. Thus, the commitment to a policy issue gives the student "accidental" (we'll come back to why this is in quotes) knowledge and strategies for dealing with an array of sources. The taboo on wikipedia is gone and the student is led through a labyrinth of texts and connections that may have never been thought before. We are not so much looking for "accurate" information, but for poetic and associational connections. Regardless of the outcome of these connections (which I will return to below), the student has had to struggle with the complexity surrounding a real issue in the world in an interdisciplinary way. Ulmer frequently turns to pop-culture narratives (what he calls in his book Internet Invention "Entertainment Discourse") for instructions either as contrasts or analogies--or 'relays' (I'll explain more about this). Thus, the Blog and CATTt method truly allow for a cliche to come true: the real value is in the process.

And this is what Ulmer is getting at when he speaks about how heuretics uses the 'middle voice.' When one undergoes the CATTt method, one does not necessarily speak to others, but speaks to the 'self'. The CATTt must be undergone rather than understood--perhaps related to Nietzsche's Zarathustra's claim that we should "go under" (as Kaufmann translates). Our blogs are addressed to ourselves and to others, but the goal is for us to learn something about ourselves.

But we must be careful here. Because it is not necessarily "ourselves" as our "self"--as if we were discovering our hidden essence. But 'ourselves' as the collective subject. Ulmer argues that policy issues and disasters explain us as collective subject--our culture's values. Thus, instead of trying to explain the event (why did this happen?) we have to look at how an event explains us as a collective subject. Drawing on the concept of alienation, Ulmer argues that we are alienated from our agency--it is "out there" in the collective world of culture. Lynn Worsham comes to a similar conclusion--claiming this is the postmodern capitalist condition: "This latest development of capitalism creates an utterly alien and alienated object world in which the subject cannot recognize the results of its own activity int he world and, as a consequence, unable to recognize the subjectivity of the other" (Worsham 1015). Whereas Worsham seems to be interested in how we can get to a point where we recognize the subjectivity of the Other, Ulmer would claim that we are tied into an alientated collective subjectivity rather than an alienation from the Other's subjectivity. The Other has been turned into 'others', but these others (including ourselves) are all alienated from what we used to know as an individual subjectivity. Now, we must look outside ourselves for our culture's collective subjectivity.

This is all to say that when we are talking to "ourselves" we are not learning about some inner subjectivity, but beginning to understand our position as part of the collective subject. Thus, we are not "empowered" as some critical pedagogies would have us do, but we do begin to be affected by the collectivity that we are inevitably tied up in. Although the product produced at the end of the day may not do much for actual policy formation (mostly because our world has not valued poetics as a legitimate form of consultancy), the student has become more politically aware without being criticized for his or her political and social views. Locating the collective subject allows us to realize that while we are a part of these values, we as individuals should not feel guilty or blameworthy if we hold some of these naive positions.In other words, by telling students that they are prey to "false consciousness" is not empowering them, but placing the teacher as an authority on culture. In this sense, Ulmer seems to agree with Worsham, Morton and Zavarzadeh's suggestion that "a focus on experience depoliticizes cultural work at a tiem when we need to depersonalize experience to analyze domination as a global strategy" (1021). I read this as the call to understand the importance of collective agency of cultural discourse rather than an individual agency and responsibility--the notion that we can produce "critical subjects," who mimic the oppositional discourse of an authoritative teacher.

Thus, Ulmer's pedagogy offers us a way for students to take an opportunity to "inform" themselves--discover what they can do and learn simply by connecting a policy issue to poetics.

The Quest for a Fatal Strategy

Our class's particular manifestation of Ulmer's pedagogy is using the CATTt to develop a Fatal Strategy, a term taken from Baudrillard's book Fatal Strategies. However, we did not begin with the Theory slot in our CATTt. We began instead with the "Target," which was not a traditional 'text' but a website by Paul Virilio called Unknown Quantity. The target was the hardest CATTt slot for me to understand, but basically the Target identifies what we are looking for. Virilio's 'exhibit' is called the Museum of Accidents, an art exhibit that investigates the metaphysical properties of the 'accident'. Virilio writes,

"In fact, invention is just a way of seeing, of grasping accidents as signs, as opportunities, it is high time to open up our galleries to the impromptu, to that “indirect production” of science and the techno-sciences that is the disaster, the (industrial or other) catastrophe.
If, according to Aristotle, “the accident reveals the substance,” the invention of the substance is also the invention of the “accident.” Seen this way, the shipwreck is indeed the “futuristic” invention of the ship, the air crash the invention of the supersonic plane, and the Chernobyl meltdown, the invention of the nuclear power station."

Thus, our Target was that we were looking for a discourse for the metaphysics of the accident. In our postmodern and poststructuralist framework we recognize that there is no more "substance"--that we are going to take as metaphysical the accident/disaster, which is what appears to us. As the Greek's decided that they would define reality as "substance"--what persists, so we would define reality the 'accident' which appears. And, per Virilio, we would take that "accident as a sign." A sign of what? We at first did not know--we had to continue to look at the CATTt. This was our first instruction: find an accident and take it as a metaphysical sign. 

As mentioned above, Ulmer's policy consultancy is a poetics. Thus, while consultants tend to imagine narratives and scenarios that may happen, they do not consider the importance of figures/tropes/details. If we have lost any sense of "scene" in our world, scenarios will not be the appropriate discourse for public policy (see below for Baudrillard. Indeed, this was the RAND corporation's strategy:

"RAND contemplated the likelihood of accident, sabotage, or psychotic Air Force personnel launching an unauthorized nuclear strike" (Poundstone 91). 

So for us, we need to find a figure/trope that will allow us to discover something about our accident. The possibility of this actually becoming a mode of consultancy on a national level is, of course, slim. However, by understanding our accident within the scheme of a figure or trope, we as individuals have learned much about our connection with accidents at large and helped work toward a discourse for the metaphysics of the accident. 

Furthermore, as I have pointed out above, the CATTt method leads students to the most unexpected sources, which forces them to grapple with unfamiliar media and discourse as well as the familiar academic theory we are so used to. Poundstone points out that RAND corporation's experiments, too, had 'unexpected' consequences--accidental outcomes that no one could have predicted:

"It is easy enough to cry 'golden fleece' and make almost any type of research sound silly. RAND supporters point out that many of these studies paid of with unexpected benefits," things like the space program and crucial developments in the social sciences (Poundstone 93-94). 

Throughout my project, I have thought of the consultancy (the EmerAgency) as the doppelganger of RAND. To use an analogy, we are doing for the humanities and politics what RAND did for the social sciences.

My Accident

In Heuretics, Ulmer begins with a place--his hometown in Montana. So, since there are so many accidents in the world, I figured I would start with a place. I decided that I would start with my alma mater's town--Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville has meant so much to me--the people I met there, the mountains I have grown to love, the southern food and music that are a part of my very soul. I was trying to think--what issue in Asheville could be seen as an "accident," a disaster. Immediately, I thought about some of my friends efforts to stop Mountain Top Removal. This was an issue that I cared about, though never acted upon--mostly because I've never thought of myself as an activist (nor do I now). Still, I supported the ceasing of Mountain Top Removal--mostly because I love the mountains as much as a non-native can. 

I soon found out that Mountain Top Removal was not a mere matter of aesthetics or sentimental environmentalism (no disrespect) but that there was a particular "accident" that came with the surface mining of coal: coal slurry. Coal slurry is the mix of coal waste and chemicals that come from cleaning the coal. The coal mined from the surface cannot be sold if it is not "cleaned." The problem is that this coal slurry is deposited into valleys--valleys that are sometimes near towns--valleys and pits that sometimes cannot hold all the slurry. Indeed, through cursory research, I discovered that two 'accidents' involving coal slurry had occurred. One of which, though not in the Blue Ridge Mountains, poured more than 10x the amount of coal slurry as the Exxon Valdez spill poured oil into the streams of in the mountains. It destroyed homes and poisoned the water. The company ended up paying for this and said they would take precautions against this occurring again, but they claimed that they never would have suspected it--it was "an act of god." See, the problem with our everyday understanding of accident as something "inessential" or something that happens out of the blue with no explanation, is to deny that accident and substance are intimately and metaphysically connected. The accident reveals the substance, says Aristotle. Thus, I focused on this accident, this waste, this coal slurry as a metaphysical sign. 

Further reflections on the Target and My Accident can be found here, here, and here

The theme of "waste" is an important one in today's world. If we want to understand the need for sustainability, we need to look no further than our garbage, as Slavoj Zizek controversially points out in his segment in the examined life: 

Also, waste as explicitly a metaphysical substance has been explored at great length in Don Dellilo's masterpiece Underworld
"Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. we had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics" (Delillo 287).

 Furthermore, within the same conversation in Underworld, Dellilo seems to point to our Theory and Analogy portion of the CATTt, Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies and pataphysics:

"There's a word in Italian. Dietrologia. It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event [. . .] The science of dark forces. evidently they feel this science is legitimate enough to require a name"

"People who need this science, I would make an effort to tell them we have real sciences, hard sciences, we don't need your imaginary ones" (280).

Pataphysics is an "imaginary science" that we will eventually explore as our Analogy to the CATTt. For now, we might look into the instruction from Baudrillard on Fatal Strategy and see how I ended up constructing my final instruction, which is my guide toward "part II" of my the assignment, something I am currently developing.

Baudrillard: Fatal Strategies

Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies is at once an exhilarating and frustrating book. There is no index, no bibliography, not little citation. Fatal Strategies is what Ulmer would call "poetic philosophy."

But as Ulmer always reminded us, we are not looking to become Baudrillardians (although i have gained much respect fro Baudrillard through this reading an look forward to exploring him in more depth). Instead, we take a particular instructions from him.

 Rather than try recount everything that I went through with Baudrillard, I will list the instructions we got from him and then direct you to relevant blog posts

Baudrillard has given us these instructions:

  •  Treat your accident as an absolute commodity (from Baudelaire)  form that seduces you
  • Find the location of the 'sacred' in the world without scene--the obscene
  • Find a small, absurd 'fatal' detail in your accident that shows why your accident was 'sent to you'
  • Take the side of the 'gift economy'

Further reflections on Baudrillard can be found here and here.

Contrast: Game Theory (William Poundstone' s Prisoner's Dilemma)

Our contrast is 'game theory,' developed by John Von Neumann. Game theories assumptions are rational and based on fear and competition. Game theory was a model that informed cold war policy. While we got many things from exploring the contrast of game theory, we got a very small, but very significant instruction:

  • Use a pop culture narrative to create a strategy, as John Nash used the film Rebel without a Cause to create the concept of "chicken."
Outside of this, we found many explicit contrasts to Baudrillard's Theory that Ulmer summarized nicely in a table on his blog Routine:

Thus, we can see that we are working in a completely different realm.

Further reflections on contrast/game theory can be found here and here.

Final Instruction for Part II

Part II will consist of developing an "exhibit" similar to Virilio of accidents using the intriguing presentation software known as Prezi. Our most important instruction from Baudrillard was to find a "fatal detail" that tied everything together and to show why we were "sent" this accident. Mine was the material consistency of a particular picture of coal slurry that reminded me of the rock, 'obsidian'.

My final instruction and elaboration of my 'fatal detail' can be found here.

At this point, I'm not sure how obsidian helps me--I'm not sure how it will help me form a "figure," that is for my accident that will hopefully allow us to learn something from it. But I am excited to embark on that quest.

No comments:

Post a Comment