[Contents] [Index] [Home] [Morphology of Method] [Intro to Mystory] [Genealogy of Mystory] [Student Mystories] [Signature Experiment]

Heuretics Defined

While readers might associate heuretics with a varied set of connotators--eureka, heuristics, heretics, and, yes, diuretics--the word originated as a theological term, as the flip-side or repressed Other of hermeneutics. One could interpret scripture (read through a hermeneutic), or one could employ scripture as a means of invention (read it heuretically). Hermeneutics asks, What can be made of the Bible? Heuretics asks, What can be made from the Bible?

Hermeneutics was secularized early on. It provided methodologies of reading, legitimated the study of texts and, in effect, created the Renaissance humanist. Heuretics enjoyed neither prestige nor currency, and though I suspect the word popped up now and again during witch trials (in the mouths of prosecutors), its systematic use has been largely confined to the fine arts.

The term itself did not enter critical discourse until Gregory Ulmer introduced it in Teletheory (1989) and developed it in Heuretics (1994). In both of these books, Ulmer observes that vanguard artists have routinely employed texts generatively. Read Sophocles heuretically and we get Freud; read psychoanalysis in a similar manner and we get surrealism. Scholars, on the other hand, have employed vanguard art almost solely as an object of study--as something to explicate and teach.

Contemporary literary theorists have altered this orientation by reversing the direction of traditional scholarship. Instead of taking a position of knowledge (teaching art a lesson or two), they have assumed a position of ignorance (played the role of student) and applied art strategies to problems of textual production. While its philosophical legacy is difficult to ascertain (especially to a nonphilosopher such as myself), the "artistic" import of contemporary theory is obvious and indisputable. Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Serres, Ulmer, et al. have not only changed the look of scholarship, they have altered its goals: hermeneutics has become a means to heuretics.

To teachers who routinely extol creativity, this should matter. Generally, though, it has not. Most of the scholarship encouraged by English and Comparative Literature departments (on both secondary and college levels) looks like writing trying hard to be philosophy, political science, sociology, or psychology--anything but art. Additionally, while most of the texts read in contemporary literature courses are creative, their creativity is only occasionally the focus of study. Students enroll in courses confident in the knowledge that, for instance, Madame Bovary is on the reading list because it is somehow great art. They leave having discovered that it is psychology or social criticism by other means. Literacy, they learn, is the ability to demythologize.

The catch is, this practice ("normal science" in the humanities) is a good thing, and thus to seek to reverse it would be not only načve but wrongheaded--counterproductive. The aims of a liberal education, which serve democratic goals, require that teachers continue to train students in analysis and critique, equipping them to discern the grammar and syntax (the atomic structure or the DNA) of culturally prescribed myths. Students need to learn hermeneutics. They should be able to read the verbal and visual texts that structure their lives. This is literacy made pragmatic, and it is what Derrida calls "deconstruction." He says:

I think that students should read what are considered the great texts in our tradition--even if that's not enough, even if we have to change the canon, even if we have to open the field and to bring into the canonical tradition other texts from other cultures. If deconstruction is only a pretense to ignore minimal requirements or knowledge of the tradition, it could be a bad thing. (Olson 11)

But literacy also suggests that students acquire the ability to invent myths, learn how to write stories powerful enough to redirect their own lives and, if need be, the course of their culture. Students need to learn heuretics. This, too, is what Derrida calls "deconstruction." It is, he adds, "essentially affirmative," asking "the most adventurous and the most risky questions about our tradition, about our institutions, about our way of teaching, and so on" (21).

Heuretics is, therefore, presented as a workable method for reinventing literacy in the electronic or, what is frequently called, the post-literate age. It signals an attempt to integrate visual and verbal discourse. Two points, however, need emphasis. First, the free-floating associative mode of discourse that we understand as somehow electronic or televisual--exemplified, for example, in the "logic" organizing Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or James Brown's performance on the T.A.M.I. Show--is not necessarily restricted to electronic or televisual media. It has antecedents in oral and print media. Furthermore, it bears a remarkable similarity to the inference patterns employed in "poetic" thinking. Why? Because televisual and poetic texts are effects of integrating discourse and medium.

Notice that Derrida calls logocentrism any attempt to control signification by opposing discourse and medium. Hermeneutics, like philosophy, arises as the result of colonizing a medium (e.g., print) in the name of a discourse (e.g., truth); heuretics begins when one notices that this colonization is always incomplete--inadequate and unfinished. Which leads to a second and related point: Texts represent an integration of discourse and medium to the extent that they place in question the categories "discourse" and "medium." Heuretics is a methodology for facilitating this questioning.

To learn more about this methodology, meet Ulmer's CATTt and investigate these sites devoted to "mystory."