Electronic Monuments, Gregory L. Ulmer

Ulmer, an English professor at University of Florida, has penned a highly theoretical work which explores the idea of whether traditional monumentation can be translated to the online world. As he puts it, “the hypothesis of electronic monumentatlity is that commemoration is a fundamental experience joining individual and collective identity, which must be adapted in any case to the emerging apparatus of electracy.” By electracy he means digital literacy — not just an actual comprehension of the message, but a full understanding of the means of communication and organization of ideas within a medium, in this case the internet, which combines image, text, a/v, data harvesting, automation, social media, and all the other whizz-bangs of the net.

“Monumental architecture,” Ulmer claims, “maintains the public sphere which mediates the relationship between citizen and state.” Operating from the assumption that television and other social and economic forces have diminished or vanquished this public sphere, Ulmer proposes that this space has been transferred (or replicated) online and that it is therefore subject to (or composed of) that medium’s idioms. Simply put, can the rituals and practices of that formerly physical mediation be replicated in the digital realm?

I think this is an interesting idea and I would go deeper into Ulmer’s work, but I can’t, because this book is essentially unreadable — and I enjoy reading theory/philosophy. This isn’t to say I always understand grand theoretical works, but I can recognize and appreciated what someone is trying to analyze or impart. Ulmer has taken a really interesting idea and blathered and jargoned it up into incomprehensibility. Toss in an endless assortment of cutesy neologisms (the MEmorial, the EmerAgency, mythistory, deconsultancy (used ad nauseum), sensorium, mystorical, and on and on) and a disorganized, discursive arrangement and it makes for tough reading.

Can we think of the online world as a new type of civic space? If so, what would a memorial there look like? Ulmer suggests that electronic memorials are part peripheral (by which he means symbolized connections to an event/tragedy) and part testimonial (by which he means an online meditation). There is a similar dichotomy when talking about re-enactments, how they contain both the symbolic link to the past (original equipment, etc.) and the “testimonial” in the sense that these performances are participatory but individualistic and solipsistic. Can the same argument be made for attempts at online memorials? Is collective memory even possible on the internet?

Leave a Reply