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Miami Virtue

Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - 21:53 By: jstenner

Proposal:  Miami Virtue and the Ulmer Tapes

Small Cities Imprint, the online publication wing of the Community-University Research Alliance

The Florida Research Ensemble (FRE) is an interdisciplinary collaborative arts and research group working on the development of choragraphy, a method of inquiry which applies modernist arts practices and poststructural theory to the design and testing of image as category. We contend that image categories functions for networked digital media the way Aristotle's word categories functioned for literacy.

In the 1990s the group conducted a field experiment on the Miami River to test this methodology using the site as a prototype of a chora.  We would like to submit some fruits of this work for your consideration as an e-publication.  The submission includes:

1) "Miami Virtue,” (please see the attached Miami_Virtue.docx file) a book-length manuscript by Gregory Ulmer, placing the Miami River experiment in a theoretical and methodological frame.

2) The “Ulmer Tapes” archive, a series of video interviews recorded in June, 2001 by John Craig Freeman of Gregory Ulmer discussing the FRE choragraphy of the Miami River. The Archive can be previewed online at .

3) A portfolio of photographs by Barbara Jo' Revelle created on location at the Miami River.

The purpose of this proposal is to indicate the relevance of choragraphy in general and Miami Virtue and the Ulmer Tapes in particular for Small Cities CURA.  A primary site of relevance is the Small Cities concern with how a community achieves definition, character, place, identity, not only cartographically but also experientially. Choragraphy is an experience-based theory of place and space, addressing “borders” in conditions of sprawl affecting geography, information, and mentality.

FRE’s aliance with CURA dates back to November 2005, when Freeman was invited to participate in the "Artist Statement: Artistic Inquiry and the Role of the Artist in Academe" workshop/symposium co-organized by Will Garrett-Petts and Rachel Nash of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC, Canada. The program focused on how the "artists-as-researchers" model extends and complicates the practice of interdisciplinary research and collaborative practices. This event resulted in an ongoing creative and research relationship.


 “Chora” (meaning “region” or “space” in Greek) was appropriated as a term in philosophy by Plato in the dialog Timaeus.  Plato’s two-world metaphysics proposed that an ideal realm of pure Ideas (Being) was the source of reality, of which the material world (Becoming) was but an image.  He added a third register of interface, dubbed “Chora,” as the support wherein Being and Becoming interacted.  Chora is neither perceptible nor intelligible, but its action may be inferred from the manner in which order emerges from primordial chaos.  Plato resorted to mythology to discuss “region,” describing it as a machine that generated categories, sorting the world into elements the way threshing sorted wheat from chaff (a practice referenced also in the symbolism of the Eleusinian Mysteries that were celebrated in Plato’s day).   Aristotle, rejecting the idealist account in favor of a metaphysics of immanence, translated Chora into the principle of “potentiality” (Dunamis), paired with “actuality” (Energeia).  He added temporality, and declared that Being constituted the essence of an entity, that causes it to become what it is:  things develop in the manner of seeds into trees.  His neologism for this teleological process is “entelechy,” that organized comprehension by a final cause (that-for-the-sake-of-which).

 Chorography (with an “o”) was a term introduced in Ancient times for a particular approach to regional mapping:  it combined mimetic or pictorial representation with cartographic geometry.  Chorography was a hybrid between town portraiture and abstract cartography.   One of its important practical uses was to help ship pilots recognize and distinguish one seaport from another.  The vogue for panoramas in the nineteenth century updated the mode, and it survived in maps designed for tourists until Google Maps gave it renewed functionality today.


 “Chora” was retrieved for contemporary philosophy by Jacques Derrida, in the context of his deconstruction of Western metaphysics.  Grounded in grammatology (the history and theory of writing), Derrida’s critique of Being and Becoming as primary concepts of reality is that the category or classification system invented within literacy is not adequate for the apparatus of electracy that has developed since the industrial revolution.  Literacy modeled an appropriate invention process, which correlated the science of material space-time with language technology structures and the skill set of people who use the technology to manage life in material reality:  chronotopes join physics, language, and mind.  Thus Aristotle used his notion of topos (place) to model an information space of topic, and a logical practice by which literate people could store and retrieve information as an internalized or psychologized physics. 

 Derrida contributes to apparatus shift (the invention of electracy) by putting in question “border” “boundary” and all notions of “category,” at every level of the chronotope.  “Aporia” is his name for the experience of movement/arrest across thresholds.  His work makes accessible to thought the understanding of time-space of our world, taking into account chaos theory (catastrophe, complexity, strange attractors, and the like), dromosphere (dimension collapse described by the urbanist Paul Virilio), technics (Stiegler’s observation of technology as opening a third dimension of evolution, autonomous from the entelechy of nature and humanity), and capitalist globalization.  Chora in Derrida’s grammatology is a point of departure for inventing a new category procedure adequate to our digital, global apparatus.


 “Electracy” is the term Ulmer introduced to distinguish the apparatus of digital media from the world order of literacy.  An apparatus is not only a language technology, but also institutional formation and pratices (the Classical Greeks invented not only alphabetic writing but also School and the methods of science) and identity behaviors individual and collective (selfhood and democratic state for literacy).    The broad outline of the shift from literacy to electracy at the level of metaphysics (classification of what constitutes reality) is the replacement of essence by relations, of entelechy (teleology) by autopoiesis or self-organizing systems (not essence but emergence, not real and copy but simulation

 The question specific to Small Cities in this context is, how does an identifiable region appear as such within world-information sprawl?  Choragraphy adds functionality to geography.  Some of the examples illustrating the applicability of complexity theory to border mappings are familiar enough.  Forces of attraction-repulsion are at work on the U.S.-Mexican border, and many other regions of the world, in which there is a misalignment between geography and people.  The FRE’s current Imaging Place project is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, precisely to study this dynamic.  Some modern precedents informing choragraphy as an electrate metaphysics (a digital category system) include  (1) “Vorticism,” Pound’s notion of “vortex,” developed in The Cantos as an attempt to identify places and people in history who functioned as “strange attractors,” having the power to convert  a place into a “center,” such as happened in Renaissance Florence, or colonial America.  (2) Heidegger’s existential phenomenology introduced an alternative to literate categories, derived from poetry and the arts, and called “Stimmung,” or mood.  He used the term “Ort,” that we may take as a translation of “chora,” to name a coherence operating aesthetically, experienced by those who dwell through atmosphere.  (3) The Situationist movement in post-war France, drawing upon existentialism, introduced psychogeography as an alternative mapping technique precisely for identifying living and dead regions in cities.  They called these centers “plaque tournante,” alluding to the same whirling figure that links vortex and chora.  (4) Michel Serres mediated these aesthetic figures with topology and complexity in his allegory of “angels,” expressing again the thought of potentiality.  His various notions of parasite/noise and the third instructed are choral in nature.

 Miami Virtue and the Ulmer Tapes

 The FRE project in Miami proposed to design and test a prototype for a choral category, capable of coordinating real places, cultural collective information, digital technologies, and personal experience.  The design of the methodology was inspired in part by cognitive mapping, with its origins in architectural studies of the way individuals internalize a representation of their locational circumstances.  Another relay was the memory palaces used through the manuscript era to assist memorization for oral performance (orators used scenes of familiar settings as layouts for retrieving textual information).  A third coordinate was Jacques Lacan’s use of topological geometries to figure the intersubjective nature of the psyche.  The challenge to electracy is the condition of industrial memory, that overwhelms the capabilities of individual experience.  A common complaint is that the causal order of the world is no longer accessible to experience or perception, or even to intelligibility.  In the era of electracy wisdom lost all authority and disappeared, that is, collective authority of tradition, expressed in maxims and proverbs, was displaced by techno-science (the subatomic realm is not experienceable), and commerce filled the void with slogans and pitches. 

 The claim and proposal of choragraphy is that the aesthetic invention of modernist arts, directed by poststructural philosophy of affective intelligence and applied as the rhetoric and logic (skill set) for operating within the digital prosthesis, make it possible not just to understand, but to experience (undergo) and ultimately to act upon the real conditions determining contemporary life.  The goal is an augmented deliberation, that allows netizens to participate in public policy decision-making.  Literate science was not invented all at once, and neither will be electrate well-being.  It is important to clarify that electracy does not replace the previous apparati (oral religion, literate science) but supplement them with a new dimension.  Electracy in principle may do for well-being, individual and collective thriving, what orality did for belief, and literacy did for knowledge.  The impasse between belief and knowledge that seems to inform so many contemporary policy disputes may be renegotiated when citizen experience of the stakes of well-being become part of the negotiations. 

 Miami Virtue tested choragraphy as a method for adopting a particular region (the Miami River), including all the primary discourses organizing its lifeworld (booster advertising, entertainment narratives, news, public policy, along with individual stories of the subaltern denizens of the place), and articulating it as a category of thought.  Designed and recorded, the site functions for electracy the way a concept functioned for literacy:  as a container supporting reasoning.  A tour of a virtual Miami River renders into experience the order of measure defining the limits, the coherence, of the world at a moment of time. Chora gives a quantum measure, similar to that offered by divination systems in oral metaphysics:  a reading of an oracle determines for a querent a holistic map of the world at the moment of decision.  A tour of chora gives one to understand how the collective exterior circumstances are relative to one’s singular agency.

 Choragraphy, as a practice of electracy, is generalizable and portable to any region, just as literate categories cover any and all particulars.  In short, chora offers a perspective on the principle and ambition of “small cities,” fostering greater access to the registers of such entities that elude perception and exceed conception.  Chora clarifies the principle that small cities are not only places but also potentialities, events, ecologies.


M I A M I V I R T U E : Choragraphy of the Virtual City


Gregory Ulmer, Barbara Revelle, John Craig Freeman, William Tilson




        Introduces the members of the Florida Research Ensemble (FRE) and describes the genesis of the Miami project


        Explains the concept of an online consulting agency as the frame within which to develop courses or research concerned with the internet. Paul Virilio's concerns about the general accident focus the challenge posed to this consultancy.  This framing has proven to be an effective way to organize courses involving the internet in such diverse disciplines as Architecture, Computers and Writing, Cultural Studies, Fine Arts, Media Studies.


        This section focuses on the method used to map the Miami River zone.  All three sections of the book are organized as an unpacking of the image category held together by the mood of the photograph entitled "Crossroads."

        1.1     Occasion

        The picture was taken by the creative photographer Barbara Jo Revelle, acting on behalf of the FRE, during her fieldwork stay at the Miami River Inn.  The contributions of each of the FRE members is outlined (Freeman, Revelle, Tilson, Ulmer).

        1. 2    Place

        The site is documented as it is represented in the discourses of history, tourism, policy formation, and Revelle's journals.

        1. 3    Situation

        The choral method of the mapping is described, relative to psychogeography, placing the situationist drift in the context of a tradition joining contemporary theoretical mapping (Deleuze and Guattari) with the ancient practice of "theoria."

        1. 4    Encounter

        An important precedent for choral mapping is the poetic encounter, practiced by modernist writers from Baudelaire to Joyce.  The method is that of the epiphany, the flash of revelation illuminating the sentiment of being triggered by a meeting with an abject "other" or "object."  The connection between the poets and photography is Roland Barthes's notion of the photographic third meaning (punctum).

        1. 5    Memory

        Choral mapping is further related to the history of topology, specifically the invention of topology by Euler in solving the puzzle of the seven bridges of Koenigsberg.  Lacan adapted topology to theorize the collective extimacy of the human subject (interpenetration of inside outside in the structure of all borders and frontiers).  In a sense Lacan put Koenigsberg inside his model of the Unconscious.  MV extends this connection between place and psyche into the internet:  a tour of the Miami chora (Miautre) constitutes reasoning.


        "Myami" refers to the city of Miami as it is constructed in the spectacle of media discourses.

        2. 1    Allegory

        The photographic image provides a groove or coherence as the site of convergence of a set of different extant narratives already operating to make sense of the heterogeneous chaos of the river zone.  These multiple narratives, each guided by default values that determine their outcomes, are sorted into the four levels of allegory, updated to contemporary secular conditions in the "mystory."  The allegory as a whole constitutes a "cognitive map" (Jameson) connecting individual experience with collective forces operating in the zone.

        2. 2    Mystory 1:  Family

        Revelle's memories of her childhood adventures in the forbidden neighborhood of "Skeeversville" provide the "moral" (personal) dimension of the allegory.  The purpose of the mystory is to construct a "dialectical image" (Walter Benjamin), juxtaposing the consultant's past with the present of the historical situation on the river.  Image categories are "singularities" rather than universals.

        2. 3    Mystory 2:  Entertainment

        The immediate representative of this discourse directing the image of Miami (Myami) is the TV series MIAMI VICE, still shown in syndication around the world, updated now by CSI:  MIAMI.  The genealogy of this neo-noir narrative is developed connecting it to the myth of the Frontier through the genre of the Western.  The Frontier myth through its scenario of the showdown is drawn upon equally by screenwriters and policy makers.

        2. 4    Mystory 3:  History

        While there are many policy stories circulating in the zone, the one featured in this consultation concerns Operation Safety Net, the Caribbean Code of shipping standards enforced by the United States Coast Guard (whose terms were outlined in 1.2).  The effects of this policy on the people involved is documented in several interviews with Haitian traders and Coast Guard officers.

        2. 5    Mystory 4:  Theory.

        The "anagogical" register of the allegory is represented by the discipline expertise of the FRE.  This discourse is shown to have its own default moods -- the ascetic tradition of the sages and their mood of "ataraxy" -- and predetermined typology for the denizens of the zone.  The Haitian traders in this case embody the archetype of the "chiffonier" or rag-picker, one of the chief modern heroes identified by Baudelaire and monumentalized by Walter Benjamin.


        This section describes the working features of the Miami chora, named "Miautre" to distinguish it as potential or virtual city from the actual city and the spectacle city.  The name is a macaronic pun generated from treating "miami" as a creolized "my friend," so that "miautre" is "my other."  This name alludes to Derrida's study on "the politics of friendship.”

        3. 1    Reading

        The allegory (mystory) of Myami produced a pattern, a repetition across the four discourses, that is the point of coherence holding the diverse narratives together in a holistic mood.  This unifying item is a mattress, featured prominently in "Crossroads," used mattresses being one of the primary cargoes transported to Haiti by the traders (chiffoniers). This repeating object is the punctum trigger of the group epiphany, a dialectical image showing the transference between the consultant's childhood situation and the policy scene.  The impoundment of the Haitian boats by the Coast Guard evokes Revelle's feeling about her own life situation.  The mattress is a "sublime object," an "objectity" or "quasi-object," constructed in a field of desire, which is to say that it escapes entirely the empirical methods of conventional consulting. Electrate categories expose a dimension of reality causing the intractability of problems conceived strictly in utilitarian terms.

        3. 2    Invention

        With this mood established, the logical operators of the practice are elaborated.  The chora renders perceptible and intelligible the invisible cultural forces shaping the propensity or trajectory of events in the zone.  Each of the key features of the image scene is connected to its history, showing where, when, and by whom it was invented.  The iconography of Myami is unified within the Frontier myth, including the cowboy, the femme fatale (Salome), the hard-boiled detective, and film noir.  The genealogy of each of these figures is traced, with all of them representing cultural adaptations to conditions of the industrial city. The point for the EmerAgency is to democratize this process of the invention of the icons and scenarios guiding the public sphere in politics, ethics, and entertainment.  The immediate point is to connect the Caribbean Safety Code policy to its motivating value in the Frontier myth in which the "other" (such as the Creoles) is necessarily excluded.

        3. 3    Jazz

        The Frontier myth was invented and maintained by the hegemonic interests of American society (beginning with the WASP elite in the era of Teddy Roosevelt) in response to a fear of "the crowd," the dangerous classes of the industrial city.  The consultancy proposes a revision of the Frontier myth by foregrounding a voice already present in it, representing the crowd -- the jazz ensemble.  Jazz was invented in the same period as the other icons included in the Frontier scenario, representing an experience (emancipation) as important to American exceptionalism as "the strenuous life" inculcated through "westering." The creole traders in the river zone represent this Afro-Caribbean heritage, including a direct connection between Haiti and New Orleans, with the association of jazz and the blues with Vodou rituals.  The jazz jam session is proposed as an alternative to the showdown as a scenario for public policy formation.  The forensic state of mind of empirical consulting (problem-solution) is supplemented by the blues mood of the EmerAgency (aporia-impossibility).

        3. 4    Vortex

        The question of how to design the interface for Miautre as a category written in digital media is addressed.  The consultation process was designed from the beginning as a syncretism between Western and non-Western epistemologies.  Before touring the river zone Revelle posed a "burning question," following the conventions of divination.  This question concerned a personal difficulty (her relationship with her partner), thus transforming the unfamiliar circumstances of the river into a "situation" that matters to the consultant.  The focus on the Caribbean Code policy emerged from Revelle's fieldwork, considered as an attunement of the zone, following Heidegger's theory of mood or Stimmung as an intersubjective or collective orientation within a situation.  The tradition of the search for a universal language, specifically Pound's Vorticism as a syncretic invention based on Chinese wisdom and the ideogram, is developed as a guide to the design of an image category (chora).  Miautre is configured as one situation in a larger process, modeled on the trigrams at the core of the Chinese Book of Changes, the I CHING.

        3. 5    Choramancy

        The future task of the EmerAgency is to coordinate collaborations with the educational community in the national project to compose a contemporary "oracle" projecting a global (glocal) American wisdom. Miautre is translated into the terms of a hexagram, establishing a form that is transportable to other policy zones in other cities transnationally.  Divination is proposed as an interface capable of supporting cross-cultural interaction, given its ubiquity across nearly every civilization and society, including New Age self-help divination in first-world societies.  In the tradition of the I CHING which accumulated philosophical commentaries in its long history, Miautre as a situation is identifed as an instance of "aporia" or impossible dilemma theorized by Jacques Derrida.



Project Initiation:
2003-06-01 00:00:00
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