Electronic Hybridity

Ellen Strenski
University of California at Irvine

"Logically, the electronic apparatus does not come 'after' print but 'between' print and oral 'literacy'"
(Gregory L. Ulmer, Heuretics xi).

The result of this electronic exchange is post-print text. Given the well known work of McLuhan, Ong, and Ulmer, among others, the observation that e-mail is a hybrid medium surely need not now be labored. In Ulmer's formulation, electronic writing is "between" print and talk. It is a successor to print only in the superficial sense that it is a chronological development in history. Its essential logical and structural characteristics are hybrid. Obviously e-mail is print; it is writing. But it is also speech. IRC is called "chat" for good reason. Students, for instance, when questioned, routinely refer to keyboarding e-mail as "talk." When they "write" personal correspondence, they buy and send commercial greeting cards. Epistolary art as it may be, e-mail is also something else. This "something else" is richly suggestive. It evokes notions of powerful anomalies, hybrid entities and experiences that, beginning with the abominations of Leviticus, examined by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, have always evinced both fear and awe. So, too, e-mail evinces "despair" and "jubilation," technophobia and addiction.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Ellen's Stuff:
Hybridity & Liminal Subject Formation | Epistolary Art | Electronic Gift Exchange
Electronic Hybridity | Online Liminal Subjectivity | Conclusion | Works Cited

That the electronic medium is hybrid is obvious. The hybrid qualities of the resulting electronic text, however, are not so apparent and are worth examining more closely. Clearly, e-mail format is novel: part-memo, part post-it, part-letter, part-answering machine transcript. But e-messages are hybrid in an even more radical way. Particularly deserving of attention are two special features: the distinctive logic governing the organization of these messages, and the special collaborative quality of the interactive exchange that renders these texts meaningful. The work of Gregory L. Ulmer is especially illuminating in this regard.

According to Ulmer, if "Narrative is the native form of oral culture, [and] exposition is the native form of alphabetic literacy (in the sense that scientific writing is the privileged discourse of the print apparatus)," then "collage pattern is the native form of electronics" ("Grammatology" 163). Ulmer claims that this new electronic form of collaborative collage has its own, correspondingly distinctive, "conductive (dream-work) logic" ("Grammatology" 161). Ulmer is referring specifically to hypertext, another kind of electronic communication. But his comments apply equally well to a typical extended e-mail conversation, for instance, a thread on a listserv. The result is a multi-vocal, fragmented text in process, starting with an original message sent, responded to, snipped, requoted, all the while accumulating associative exegesis from other writers along with modifications and increasing left columns of arrows to indicate copying and recopying.

Note Ulmer's emphasis on "conductive (dream-work) logic." In e-mail as in dreams, the organizing principle is association rather than demonstration, metonymy rather than metaphor. The result is writers' access to a more comprehensive and compelling emotional range than that usually monitored by the public self, eros rather than logos, to borrow Lewis Hyde's distinction. In other words, the very medium facilitates this emotional experience and its textual record. In an early Rand study, Shapiro and Anderson referred benignly to the characters emerging on the computer screen as "fireflies" (v). With more collective experience since then of online savagery as well as of intense pleasure--if not addiction, Philip Wohlstetter can refer recently to CMC as "Ecriture from the Black Lagoon" (xi). Monsters as well as fireflies emerge up out of our screens and up out of our unconscious; dreams can be nightmares, too.

Such, indeed, is openly acknowledged by e-mailers. When asked for his permission to quote a posting off a listserv, for instance, a colleague observed that the medium "allows us to say things off the cuff and unreflectively. While these things are valuable and interesting, kind of like Freudian slips, they don't necessarily reflect our intellectual and political positions" (Wilkins). This juxtaposition is instructive--electronic eruptions of the Id into the public sphere. No wonder e-mailers want to prolong this gratifying excitement, an observation that again accounts for the prolixity and emotional disclosure distinctive of electronic discourse.

This "conductive (dream-work) logic" of association is characteristic not only of the electronic apparatus, but in some sense is also a distinctive organizing principle of epistolary art. In Extravagant Narratives. Closure and Dynamics in the Epistolary Form, Elizabeth J. MacArthur (25) borrows from Jakobsen and Lacan the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor creates textual stability and meaning; metonymy generates mobility and desire. An open, "predominantly metonymical form" distinguishes epistolarity as it does e-mail. The resulting text is once again seen as intimate and prolix.

If e-mail tends to be logically organized by writers' emotional associations, it is also read and responded to similarly in the collage-like accretions identified by Ulmer. The result can be an incendiary folie a deux or however many more. It can also be an intense communion between hybrid, liminal subjects.

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