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Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy Gregory L. Ulmer


Ulmer's new book is an exciting leap in electronic composition theory. It simultaneously takes on the enormous task of bridging the gap between the rhetoric of the page and the rhetoric of the screen, while urging English departments to help "improve the world" by developing "rhetorical and composition practices for citizens to move from consumers to producers of image discourse" (6). Ulmer describes how this can be achieved through his pedagogy of "Mystory" assignments.


Each of the five parts of Internet Invention - Career Discourse, Family Discourse, Entertainment Discourse, Community Discourse, and Emblems of the Wide-Scope -- reflect the five parts of a Mystory students are asked to create as a web site. Each of these parts is broken down into chapters describing in more detail the assignments and theories behind Ulmer's pedagogy, and neatly organized into subgenres -- Studio (Workshop), Remakes (Readings from various media), Lecture (Theoretical Underpinnings), Office (Chapter Reflections), Ulmer File (Ulmer's Personal Mystory journey), and Comments (asides added into Studio and Lectures). Becoming comfortable with these headings and their functions, however, tends to add an unnecessary strain to unraveling the meanings in an already complex book. Each subgenre also uses alternative forms of address - first person in Ulmer File, second person in Studio, Office, and Comments, and third person in Lectures and Remakes - a strategy which, according to Ulmer, is based on the purpose of each subgenre.


In addition to describing the reasoning behind forms of address, Ulmer also clearly explains, in Chapter 1, that some of the terms he uses are neologisms - words that he invented - such as "mystory", "popcycle", and "electracy". While the etymology of these words is quite intriguing (e.g. Mystory "was a response to Hayden White that if history had been invented in the twentieth century rather than the nineteenth, it would be quite different, reflecting a different science and a different aesthetic: not positivism but quantum relativity; not realism but surrealism" (5) ) they lack the degree of substance necessary to immediately comprehend and internalize them for practical application. "Popcycle", for example, is introduced in a three and a half page description incorporating two Comments and one rather lengthy example. This term, and other uncommon terms, are then consistently referred to throughout the text, but their lack of internalization often caused me to feel as though I'd just entered the middle of a conversation, and wasn't quite sure what the discussion was about. A brief glossary would have been helpful in this respect.

This seemingly negative characteristic, though, also serves to emphasize the need for a new vocabulary in a new rhetorical genre, and the need for students and teachers of electracy to be open to these new terms. Either that, or we should support Ulmer in the proposition for his neologism "neopest" - "to name a person who makes up words needlessly" (24).


Despite the confusion of headings and neologisms, Ulmer tackles the complexities of the cutting edge theory and practice of electronic discourse from a detailed, innovative, and intelligent perspective. Drawing on the theories of many of the big hitters such as Derrida, Neitzsche, Foucault, Havelock, Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Barthes (to name but a few) as grounding for his pedagogy, Ulmer provides a step-by-step guide to creating a "wired community" through students' "wide-images". A wide-image is the culmination of a series of Web assignments which helps to organize each students' "know thyself' creative imagination into a pattern of text images expressed via their personal "widesites".

The ultimate goal of these assignments is the EmerAgency, a consulting agency described by Ulmer as:

An umbrella organization gathering through the power of digital linking all the enquiries of students around the world and forming them into a "fifth estate," whose purpose is to witness and testify, to give voice to a part of the public left out of community decision making, especially from policy formation. (1)


A text focused on digital discourse, text images, and a wired community, would be incomplete without a companion website. The URL for Internet Invention's companion website is: Unfortunately, however, the site at the time of this writing is still under construction. When it is finally completed, though, the publisher promises a site containing "student samples from professor Ulmer's classes, with analysis, commentary, and step-by-step instructions for the assignments." In the meantime, readers can see a sampling of "wide-images" through one of Ulmer's course sites.


Described as a hybrid "workbook -reader," Internet Invention is a dense and complex collection of ideas. It is not a book easily accessible to quick reading, nor is it suitable to dip into for fast assignment prompts. This is a work which needs to be read carefully and in sequence. In doing so, the reader will appreciate its valuable contributions for the new generation of digital writers, and will recognize the many places the text offers to give them pause.

Julie Kearney

Bowling Green State University